We were in the last days of our trip to Turkey and Greece in the European summer of 2013 before heading home. We had flown into Athens and were happily set up in Hotel Plaka. but we had one last day-trip on our itinerary. It was a bus tour that took us out past the Corinthian Canal, down to Mycenae and on to Nafplio (Naphlion) on the Gulf of Argolis. Given that two weeks earlier we had been to Pergamon and its associated Asclepion, it was a satisfying holiday cycle that we then found ourselves in the ‘mother house’ of this ancient healing centre, Epidaurus.
There was a sanctuary to the God Apollo, the God of Medicine, situated on the site of Epidaurus in the 6th century BCE. The centre became famous as the most celebrated healing centre in the Mediterranean world and its fame meant that by the 4th and 3rd centuries CE, wealth followed fame and a large building programme meant that the facility could welcome large numbers of visitors looking for healing; a sleeping hall at the time could hold around 160 people. Just as we found at Pergamon, these visitors spent their nights in the hope that the God Asclepius would visit them in their dreams (note relief sculpture below of one such visit by the God!) with well interpreted suggestions for their future healing. But the good work of a healing centre has never protected it from the destructive side of humanity and so with the arrival of the Romans and the destruction of Corinth, Epidaurus was not immune. The great Roman Vandal Sulla looted the sanctuary in 74BCE and by 67BCE, pirates had plundered the wealthy site. Epidaurus had a reasonable period of regrowth under the good Emperors of the second century CE but in 395CE, the Goths had arrived to wreak their usual havoc. By the 5th century CE, its status as a healing centre under Christian tutelage, Epidaurus faded from history.
Given that our visit to the site of Epidaurus was a time poor bus visit, our allocated time was spent investigating the amazing theatre that is still in use today. Its acoustics are so good that if you stand on the circle in the centre of the theatre, your normal voice tones are clear to a spectator way up in the top row of the seats. We were also able to visit the small museum on site but so many of the most important pieces from the ruins of Epidaurus are now in the Archaeological Museum of Athens. (Put it on you bucket list!!!) We had 30 minutes to stroll around the rest of the site by ourselves but without a large map and without a lot of background information, the site of Epidaurus becomes another Greek ruin. A day bus tour of the Peloponnese is a great idea if you are looking for an introduction to famous places but it cannot replace a slow walk around such sites with a good guide who can bring the details of such a site alive.
The layout of the site of Epidaurus shows that it generally contained the same type of buildings that were present at Pergamon. The theatre, built at the end of the 4th century BCE is at a distance from the main centre of the Asclepion. We know it was still in good shape in the second century as we have the writings of a traveller of the time, Pausanias (110-180CE), who wrote a description of Epidaurus and the theatre. He informs us of the architect of the theatre, Polykleitos, who also built the complex Tholos structure that stood in the courtyard in front of the Temple of Asclepios. The theatre was excavated in 1881. The local administrators of the sanctuary kept very careful accounts, recorded in stone on the site so we know that the theatre wasn’t the most expensive building in Epidaurus; that was the Tholos. The theatre apparently cost 10 ‘talents’, around about the equivalent of 60000 British Pounds.
The closest to the theatre and the largest building on the site is the Katagogion or the accommodation quarters for visitors staying at the Asclepion. However, it is the Temple of Asclepius, whilst not the largest building that stood in Epidaurus, it is the most significant. Built in the early 4th century BCE, this is the temple that held the large statue of the God Asclepius. It is lucky for us that Pausanius also described the cult statue of the God. “The image of Asklepios is, in size, half as big as Zeus Olympios at Athens, and is made of ivory and gold. An inscription tells us that the artist was Thrasymedes, a Parian, son of Arignotos. The god is sitting on a seat grasping a staff; the other hand he is holding above the head of the serpent…” The image on the right is taken from a poster in the museum at Epidaurus which attempts to suggest what the statue of Asclepios originally looked like. “Two relief sculptures which were found…in the area around the temple…Both reliefs depict a male figure who sits on a throne…Based on the stance and characteristics of the two figures, this prototype is probably none other than the chryselephantine cult statue of Asklepios, work of the Parian sculptor Thrasymedes.”
More evidence of what the Temple of Asclepios looked like as well as the God’s statue inside came in the late 19th century with the work of a French architect visiting and spending time at Epidaurus. Alfonse DeFrasse (1860-1939) spent some years working in Epidaurus and published an important work on the subject of the Temple of Asclepios. Below are two major drawings from this work. The first image below is DeFrasse’s idea of what the façade of the Temple looked. The second image below is his depiction of the interior of the temple including the altar as well as the ivory and gold statue of the cult figure of Asclepius. DeFrasse worked for many years at the Ecole des Baeux-Arts in Paris and that institution apparently still has his plans for the restoration of the Temple of Asclepius.
Travelling the ancient sites of Greece and Turkey is a way of coming to an understanding of the development of civilization, particularly that of good governance. The other aspect of this story is the amazing cultural beauty of the buildings left behind by different cities and towns which today we find in ruins, usually as a result of two millennia of war and other forms of social disruption and contagion. Such trips are tinged with sadness when we realise, for example, that only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world are left for us to visit and admire the genius of our human forebears. This is particularly the case when visiting Epidaurus where only the Great Theatre is left for the 21st century to marvel at. The rest of Epidaurus is scattered stones that are difficult to imaginatively reassemble in order to appreciate what once presided over this beautiful valley. However, there is much to admire in the work of archaeologists and architects that can find and restore the jigsaw puzzles of Epidaurus’s past so we can catch a small glimpse of the great achievements of ancient writers, architects and artists like Pausanius, Polykleitos and Thrasymedes. So it is with gratitude we can look upon, for example the statue of Nike below, that 2000 years ago stood near one of the roof corners of the Temple of Asclepios. (Archaeological Museum of Athens). Similarly we can look upon the recreation of the ‘acroterion’ that once stood on the roof of the same temple. If you look closely, you can see how the artist has used the existing pieces gathered from the ruins of the temple and imaginatively filled in the gaps of this beautiful piece of design that has, at one level, survived the ravages of almost two and a half thousand years.