Delos’s ancient fame arose because Leto gave birth to the divine twins Artemis and Apollo here, although the island’s fine, sheltered harbour and central position in the Aegean did nothing to hamper development from around 2500 BC. When the Ionians colonized the island about 1000 BC it was already a cult centre, and by the seventh century BC it had also become a major commercial and religious port. Unfortunately Delos attracted the attention of Athens, which sought dominion over this prestigious island; the wealth of the Delian Confederacy, founded after the Persian Wars to protect the Aegean cities, was harnessed to Athenian ends, and for a while Athens controlled the Sanctuary of Apollo. Athenian attempts to “purify” the island began with a decree (426 BC) that no one could die or give birth on Delos – the sick and the pregnant were shipped to the neighbouring island of Rínia – and culminated in the simple expedient of banishing the native population.

Delos recovered in Roman times and reached its peak of prosperity in the third and second centuries BC, after being declared a free port by its Roman overlords; by the start of the first century BC, its population was around 25,000. In the end, though, its undefended wealth brought ruin: first Mithridates, of Pontus (88 BC), then the pirate Athenodorus (69 BC) plundered the treasures, and the island never recovered since.

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