First Sacred War

First Sacred War
Date595–585 BC
LocationMainland Greece
Result Destruction of Kirrha and liberation of Delphi.
Amphictyonic League of Delphi,
Commanders and leaders
Cleisthenes of Sicyon

The First Sacred War or Cirraean war,[1] was fought between the Amphictyonic League of Delphi and the city of Kirrha. In the beginning of the 6th century B.C. the attempt of the Pylaeo-Delphic Amphictyony, controlled by the Thessalians, to take hold of the Sacred Land (or Kirrhaean Plain) of Apollo ended up in this war. Its end was marked by the organization of the first Pythian Games. The conflict arose due to Kirrha's frequent robbery and mistreatment of pilgrims going to Delphi and their encroachments upon Delphic land. The war resulted in the defeat and destruction of Kirrha. The war is notable for the use of chemical warfare at the Siege of Kirrha, in the form of hellebore being used to poison the city's water supply.

Siege of Kirrha

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. The Athenians participated as well with a contingent led by Alcmaeon. On the Thessalian side, the leaders were Eurylohos and Hippias.What transpired after this is a matter of debate. The earliest, and therefore probably most reliable, account is that of the medical writer Thessalos. He wrote, in the 5th century BC, 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 considered 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.[2]

Later historians told different stories. According to Frontinus, who wrote in the 1st century AD, after discovering the pipe, the Amphictionic League 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 2nd century, 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 Eurylochus, 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.[2]

The last major historian to advance a new story of the siege was Pausanias, who was active in the 2nd century. 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.[2]

Outcome of the War

The First Sacred War ended with the victory of the allies of the Amphictyony. Kirrha was destroyed and its lands were dedicated to Apollo, Leto and Artemis and it was forbidden to cultivate them or let animals graze on them. Its inhabitants fled to mountain Kirphe. Cleisthenes was generously rewarded with one third of the booty. In order to celebrate the end of the fighting the first Pythian Games were organized with Cleisthenes playing a major part in them. However, modern scholarship is very sceptical on the exact events and on the long duration of the war.



  1. An Epitome of the Civil and Literary Chronology of Greece. By Henry Fynes Clinton. Pg 92
  2. 1 2 3 Mayor, Andrienne. Greek fire, poison arrows, and scorpion bombs: Biological and chemical warfare in the ancient world. The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., 2003. ISBN 1-58567-348-X. pages 100101
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