The Tholos

The Tholos of Delphi  
© Ephorate of Antiquities of Phocis, Ministry of Culture and Sports

The Tholos was the most impressive building within the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia. It is a circular building, made by the architect Theodore in 380-370 B.C. It had 20 Doric columns on the circular colonnade and 10 or 13 Corinthian semi-columns in the interior of the cella. Its metopes were richly decorated with sculpture in relief. Its function remains unidentified.

The Tholos, the impressive circular building which stands out within the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, between the 4th- century temple of Athena and the treasury of the Massaliots, is one of the most photographed and highlighted monuments of Delphi because of its shape and its visibility from the road. Its use remains undefined. Pausanias does not mention it specifically, which makes one wonder why. The monument was built in 380-370 B.C. Vitruvius mentions that the architect who designed it was Theodore the Phocaean (from Phocaea in Asia Minor), who actually wrote a book on this particular work of his.
The foundations are of poros stone and the euthynteria is made of local limestone from St. Elias. It is a fully circular building, supported by a crepis with three levels. Each level consists of 40 slabs of exactly the same size. The crepis has a diameter of 13.5 meters, whereas the diameter of the interior of the cella is 8.41 meters. The external colonnade had twenty particularly tall and slim Doric columns, 5.93 meters high, an architrave with triglyphs and metopes and a sima with floral decoration and gutters in the form of lion-heads, one over each triglyph. The Doric columns of the circular colonnade were crowned by a frieze with forty metopes with depictions of Amazonomachy and Centauromachy in deep relief. Τhe figures look rather like free-standing statues.
The sense of movement, the plasticity of the forms and the emphasized details, particularly of the drapery, bring these statues closer to the Attic tradition. The figures on the akroteria, depicting personified victories, remind of similar figures from the Asklepieion in Epidaurus.
The pteron was unusually narrow, probably in order to emphasize the circular shape of the building. Its ceiling was arranged in rhomboid panels. The cella was also circular and its entrance was situated on the southern side. Its walls, made of Pentelic marble, were decorated on the outer surface with floral motifs on their lower part and were crowned by a Doric frieze with triglyphs and metopes, possibly depicting heroic deeds of Hercules and Theseus.
According to a recent reconstruction, the colonnade on the inside of the cella was two-storeyed, with Corinthian semi-columns on the lower part and Ionian ones on the upper part. Inside the cella there was a circular bench made of bluish marble, bearing ten or thirteen semi-columns of the Corinthian order. The floor was made of white marble in the centre and dark limestone from Eleusis towards the circumference. The roof was made of marble in square panels, formed by intercrossing bows, whereas on the outside it was probably conical or eight-sided, decorated with nine or six acroteria in the form of women with an intense, almost dancing, movement, as well as with clay tiles. However, other theories have been expressed regarding the roof, some of which suggest that it bore a revetment of marble slabs.
Various scholars link the building to a cult of Artemis. Others identify it with a temple dedicated by the citizens of Thurioi to Voreas (north wind), which dispersed their enemies, the Syracusans, in a naval battle fought between the two forces in 379 B.C. More recent theories identify it with an arsenal (the existence of which is attested epigraphically), where armours and other ex-votos to Athena were kept, or even with a place where hymns were performed. The Tholos comprised almost all styles of Classical architectural design, whereas it offered a sense of polychromy due to the combination of materials, particularly of natural stones.
The building was destroyed by a fire in the 1st century B.C. and was partly restored in 1938.

Text - Translation: Dr. Aphrodite Kamara, Historian