We landed in the Morea (..) about two hours from Epidaurus, (..) intending to visit the grove of Aesculapius and his temple, which was five miles from that city. (..) The grove of Aesculapius was inclosed by mountains, within
which all the sacrifices as well of the Epidaurians as of strangers
were consumed. (..) He was a great physician, and his
temple was always crowded with sick persons. (..) To the medicinal knowlege and experience of the priests, may be
attributed both the recovery of the sick and the reputation of
Aesculapius. The renown and worship of this god began in
Epidauria, and continued for many centuries. Since he failed,
some saints have succeeded to the business.
Richard Chandler - An account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of dilettanti - 1775
In a small valley in the Peloponnesus, the shrine of Asklepios, the god of medicine, (..) with its temples and hospital buildings devoted to its healing gods, provides valuable insight into the healing cults of Greek and Roman times.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus which in 1988 was added to the World Heritage List.
National Archaeological Museum of Athens: (left/centre) statues of Asklepios/Aesculapius/Asclepius as a god (with the entwined serpent) and as a philosopher (see other statues of the god in Rome); (right) statue of a Nereid on horseback rising from the sea (ca 380 BC) from the Temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus
The statue of Aesculapius was half as big as that of Jupiter
Olympius at Athens. It was made of ivory and gold, and, as the inscription proved, by Thrasymedes son of Arignotus of
Paros. He was represented sitting, holding his staff, with
one hand on the head of a serpent, and a dog lying by
him. Two Argive heroes, Bellerophon combating with the
monster Chimaera and Perseus severing the head of Medusa,
were carved on the throne. Chandler
The description of the statue was based on the account written by Pausanias, a Greek traveller and geographer who visited Epidaurus in the IInd century AD.
Epidaurus, an ancient city-state on the Aegean Sea near, but not part of Argolis, acquired great fame because of its Asklepion (or Asclepeion), a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine. The sanctuary was located several miles inland in a sacred grove, which the inhabitants of Epidaurus claimed was the god's birthplace. Asclepius, son of Apollo and Coronis, was taught the art of healing by his father and by Cheiron, a centaur who was the teacher and tutor of other gods (e.g. Dionysus) and of many heroes (e.g. Achilles, Perseus, Theseus, Jason). In a page on the Asklepion of Kos you can learn about the dramatic circumstances of Asclepius' birth.
Tholos (IVth century BC by Polykleitos the Younger)
Beyond the temple was
the dormitory of the suppliants and near it, a circular edifice
called the Tholus, built by Polycletus, of white marble, worth
seeing. (..) The grove besides other temples, was adorned with a portico, and a fountain remarkable for its roof and decorations. (..) The remains are heaps of stones, pieces of
brick wall, and scattered fragments of marble; besides some
churches or rather piles of rubbish, being destitute
of doors, roofs, or any kind of ornament. Chandler
The financial resources for the site are derived by state budget as well as funds from European Union. The conservation and enhancement project involves interventions on important monuments of the site. UNESCO
The heart of the sanctuary was a circular building (tholos) surrounded by columns and with five inside round walls which formed a sort of maze; the exact purpose of the maze is uncertain, but it was probably associated with ceremonies involving the patients; in the Asklepion of Pergamum which was built later archaeologists have identified a circular corridor with niches where the patients slept.
The tholos housed snakes which had been tamed and were the symbol of the god, probably because snakes shed their skin and this was seen as a symbol of rejuvenation. When the Romans came in touch with the Greek world they sent envoys to the sanctuary asking for a statue of Asclepius and for one of the sacred snakes; they then built a temple to the god on Isola Tiberina.
National Archaeological Museum of Athens: (above) statues portraying an Amazonomachy (a legendary battle between Greeks and Amazons) from the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus; (below) cornice of the tholos
The bath of Aesculapius was one of the benefactions of Antoninus Pius, while a Roman Senator; as was also a house for the
reception of pregnant women and dying persons, who before
were removed out of the inclosure, to be delivered or to expire
in the open air. Chandler
Similar to Delos, births and deaths were not allowed to occur inside the sacred grove; a small temple dedicated to the god was built at almost the same time as the tholos; archaeologists have found parts of the elaborate decoration of the two buildings.
Enkoimeterion or Abaton
Andromache of Epirus (came to the Sanctuary) for the sake of offspring. She slept in the Abaton and she had a dream. It seemed to her that a handsome boy lifted up her dress, and after that the god touched her belly with his hand. After the dream a child was born from Andromache and her husband Arybbas.
Translation of an inscription found at the Asklepion of Epidaurus - IVth century BC.
The abaton mentioned in the inscription was most likely a long building near the temple and the tholos; abaton is a Greek word meaning not accessible which indicated the part of a temple which was reserved for the priests; a synonym of abaton is adyton which at Delphi indicated the crypt where oracles were issued. At Epidaurus patients were induced to sleep and dream (enkoimesis) in the underground hall of the abaton. Today it is thought that sleep was caused by soporific drugs which allowed the undertaking of surgery.
Museum of Epidaurus: (left) statue of a Roman emperor; (right) copy of a gilded Roman ex-voto by a Cutius from Gaul; in the Latin inscription (Cutius has auris Gallus tibi voverat olim Phoebigena, et posuit sanus ab auriculis) he thanked Asclepius (referred to as son of Phoebus/Apollo) for having restored his hearing
Many tablets described the cures
performed by the deity, yet he had not escaped contumely and
robbery. Dionysius deprived him of his golden beard, affirming it was very unseemly in him to appear in that manner when
his father Apollo was always seen with his face smooth. Sylla
amassed the pretious offerings belonging to him and to Apollo
and Jupiter at Delphi and Olympia, to pay his army before
Athens. The marks in the walls testified that a great number
had been plucked down. A few fragments of white marble
exquisitely carved occur in the heap of the temple. (..) We found only a couple
of votive inscriptions, and two pedestals of statues, one of which
represented a Roman and was erected by the city of the Epidaurians. Chandler
The Roman conquest of Greece did not impact on the fame of Epidaurus; wealthy patients came from all parts of the Empire and their votive offerings were placed on the walls of the sanctuary as evidence of the healing powers of Asclepius and of his priests.
Views of the area of the Odeon (Roman period); the reconstructed columns belonged to a Temple to Hygiea, the goddess of Health
In addition to the skills of its surgeons and of its dream interpreters, the Asklepion of Epidaurus could rely on several mineral springs which were effective in curing several diseases. So the sanctuary did not have the aggravating atmosphere of a hospital, but the light-hearted aspect of a XIXth century spa with even an odeon for the afternoon concert in case of rain.
Katagogeion (modern name indicating a dormitory)
A hostel very similar to the Leonidaion of Olympia housed the wealthiest patients; their rooms were located around four identical courtyards; the building is thought to have had two storeys. Most likely the Asklepion had its Season which coincided with the spring and summer months during which patients could live in tents or other forms of temporary accommodation.
Stadium (see that at Olympia)
The Stadium was near the temple. It was of earth, as
most in Greece were. At the upper end are seats of stone, but
these were continued along the sides only a few yards. A
vaulted passage leading underneath into the area, now choked
up, was a private way by which the Agonothets or presidents
with the priests and persons of distinction entered. Chandler
Games were held at the Asklepion every four years; they took place after the end of the more important Isthmian Games which were held at Corinth. They were known for the poetry contests in the theatre, rather than for the races in the stadium.
In the mountain-side on the right-hand are the marble seats of the Theatre, overgrown with bushes. We
regretted that the Proscenium or front was vanished, as this
fabric also was the work of Polycletus and much admired. (..) We found a short inscription. with the recreations of the Theatre and of the Stadium. (..) The whole
neighbourhood has for ages plundered the grove. The inhabitants remembered the removal of a marble chair from the
Theatre, and of statues and inscriptions, which, among other
materials, were used in repairing the fortifications of Nauplia,
now called Napoli, or in building a new Mosque at Argos. Chandler
Pausanias reports that the sanctuary and all the ancillary buildings were in good condition when he visited them: The Epidaurians have a theatre within the sanctuary, in my opinion very well worth seeing. For while the Roman theatres are far superior to those anywhere else in their splendour, and the Arcadian theatre at Megalopolis is unequalled for size, what architect could seriously rival Polykleitos in symmetry and beauty? For it was Polykleitos who built both this theatre and the circular building.
Pausanias - Description of Greece - Translated by W. H. S. Jones.
Theatre: side view from the top of the first section of seats (the second, upper section of seats was not part of the original theatre)
"We are extremely fond of good dinners, music, and dancing; we also like frequent changes of linen, warm baths, and good beds, so now, please, some of you who are the best dancers set about dancing, that our guest on his return home may be able to tell his friends how much we surpass all other nations as sailors, runners, dancers, minstrels. Demodocus has left his lyre at my house, so run someone or other of you and fetch it for him."
On this a servant hurried off to bring the lyre from the king's house, and the nine men who had been chosen as stewards stood forward. It was their business to manage everything connected with the sports, so they made the ground smooth and marked a wide space for the dancers. Presently the servant came back with Demodocus's lyre, and he took his place in the midst of them, whereon the best young dancers in the town began to foot and trip it so nimbly that Ulysses was delighted with the merry twinkling of their feet. (..) Then Alcinous told Laodamas and Halius to dance alone, for there was no one to compete with them. So they took a red ball which Polybus had made for them, and one of them bent himself backwards and threw it up towards the clouds, while the other jumped from off the ground and caught it with ease before it came down again. When they had done throwing the ball straight up into the air they began to dance, and at the same time kept on throwing it backwards and forwards to one another, while all the young men in the ring applauded and made a great stamping with their feet.
The Odyssey - Book VIII - translation by Samuel Butler.
This description of how King Alcinous entertained Ulysses is perhaps the oldest literary record of a theatrical performance; it tells us that dance preceded the development of tragedy and comedy; orchestra, the circular space around which theatres were built, derives from orkheisthai, a Greek verb meaning to dance. The first Greek tragedies were set in an open space and probably the actors played in the orchestra; in a second phase the texts included references to houses and temples and this led to building a raised stage with a background scene having some doors. Eventually the space of the orchestra was reduced to move forward the stage. The theatre of Epidaurus is one of the few which retain a full circular orchestra. You may wish to see the imposing wall behind the stage of the Roman theatre of Bosra in Syria.
Theatre: view from the stage
One of the Dialogues of Plato deals with the origin of good poetry (human, based on skill and knowledge, or divine, based on inspiration) and it provides an indication of the fame of the Epidaurus poetry contests:
Welcome, Ion. Where have you come from now, to pay us this visit? From your home in Ephesus?
No, no, Socrates; from Epidaurus and the festival there of Asclepius.
Do you mean to say that the Epidaurians honour the god with a contest of rhapsodes (1) also?
Certainly, and of music (2) in general.
Why then, you were competing in some contest, were you? And how went your competition?
We carried off the first prize, Socrates.
Translation by W.R.M. Lamb. - (1) Reciters of epic poems. (2) Music included poetry.
The image in the background of this page shows a silver coin found at Epidaurus and portraying Asclepius seated on a throne.
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Oracle of Delphi
The Shrine of Mysteries at Eleusis
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The Asklepion of Kos
The Shrine of Dodoni
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The Oracle of Didyma
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delos
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The Oracle of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek
The sanctuaries of Dion
The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina