Battle of Kirrha - The First Sacred War

In ancient Greece, Kirrha[1] was a heavily fortified city which controlled access to Delphi from the Corinthian Gulf. Kirrha took advantage of its location to rob and mistreat pilgrims to the Delphic Oracle, via a tax on pilgrams, it also stole land from Delphi itself, land considered sacred to Apollo. This behavior prompted many of the other Greek city-states to form the Amphictionic League, a military alliance dedicated to protecting Delphi, c600 BC. The league consulted the oracle for advice on dealing with Kirrha, and the reply was a call for total war. The members of the league vowed to completely destroy Kirrha and ravage the surrounding areas. To this they added a curse in the name of Apollo: that the soil should bring forth no crops, that the children of the women and livestock should be deformed, and that the entire ethnic group that inhabited the city should be eradicated.


The war was a long drawn out one that seems to have lasted about 10 years. The leader of the attack was the Tyrant Cleisthenes of Sicyon, who used his powerful navy to blockade the city's port before using an allied Amphictionic army to besiege Kirrha. What transpired after this is a matter of debate. The earliest, and therefore probably most reliable, account is that of the medical writer Thessalos, who in the fifth century BC wrote that the attackers discovered a secret water pipe leading into the city after it was broken by a horse's hoof. An asclepiad named Nebros advised the allies to poison the water with hellebore. The hellebore soon rendered the defenders so weak with diarrhea that they were unable to continue resisting the assault. Kirrha was captured and the entire population was slaughtered. Nebros was an ancestor of Hippocrates, so this story has caused many to wonder whether it might not have been guilt over his ancestor's use of poison that drove Hippocrates to establish the Hippocratic Oath.

Later historians told different stories. According to Frontinus, who wrote in the first century AD, after discovering the pipe, the Amphictionic cut it, leading to great thirst within the city. After a while, they restored the pipe, allowing water to flow into the city. The desperate Kirrhans immediately began drinking the water, unaware that Kleisthenes had poisoned it with hellebore. According to Polyaenus, a writer of the second century AD, after the pipe was discovered, the attackers added the hellebore to the spring from which the water came, without ever actually depriving the Kirrhans of water. Polyaenus also gave credit for the strategy not to Kleisthenes but to General Eurylochos, who he claimed advised his allies to gather a large amount of hellebore from Anticyra, where it was abundant. The stories of Frontinus and Polyaenus both have the same result as Thessalos's tale: the defeat of Kirrha.

The last major historian to advance a new story of the siege was Pausanias, who was active in the second century AD. In his version of events Solon of Athens diverted the course of the River Pleistos so that it didn't run through Kirrha. Solon had hoped to thus defeat the Kirrhans by thirst, but the enemy was able to get enough water from their wells and rainwater collection. Solon then added a great quantity of hellebore to the water of the Pleistos and let it flow into Kirrha. The poisoning then allowed the allies to destroy the city.

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In ancient tradition Kirrha and Krisa were equated. Sources for the First Sacred War include Aeschines 3.107–113, Plutarch Solon 11, Pausanias 10.37.4–8; all quoted in Davies 1994 use the form Kirrha; Pausanias says that Krisa was an older name of the city.




Note#1: "Its [Kirrha, Phokis] notable sights include a temple of Apollon, Artemis and Leto, with very large images of Attic workmanship." - Pausanias, Guide to Greece 10.37.8


It was during this year that Thales from Miletus predicted the eclipes of the sun, which would have been on the 28th of May 585 B.C.

Also, during this year was the Battle of Halys. The battle stopped because of the eclipes, as both combatants saw the omen to mean for the battle to stop.

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