A UNESCO World Heritage site
A few miles from the Argolic Gulf, travelling inland across the hills east of Nafplio, we find the archaeological site of Epidaurus. Truly a must-see, as it is here we encounter the twofold attractions of the Theatre of Epidaurus and the Sanctuary of Asklepios, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, offering one of the best preserved sites in Greece.
Dating from the 4th century B.C., the Theatre of Epidaurus is the best surviving theatre from ancient Greece. Renowned for its flawless acoustics and well-preserved condition, the Theatre is still a prestigious venue for performances by Greek and international actors. Apparently, if a small object is dropped on the centre of the stage area, you can hear the sound from any seat in the Theatre – and visitors are welcome to try this out!
While spectacular enough in itself, the Theatre was only one part of the vast complex that made up the Sanctuary of Asklepios (Asclepius) – a healing centre that attracted patients from all over the Classical world. Verdant with natural herbs and freshwater springs, the sheer tranquillity made it an ideal location. Interestingly, as well as its claims to be the birthplace of Asklepios, the Sanctuary is regarded as the birthplace of medicine, where medical practice evolved from dependence on mere faith in divine intervention into a science based on accumulated knowledge from the analyses of patients and experience of healers.
Since this was the location where the healing cult of Asklepios may have begun, let’s take a brief look at the legends surrounding him. Regarding his controversial parentage, the common theme was that he was the son of Apollo and a mortal princess. Although his mother was portrayed by the Greek poet Hesiod as Arsinoe, daughter of a Messinian king, this may have been a tale written to please the Messinians. Other poets and historians favoured the view that Princess Koronis of Thessaly, granddaughter of the King of Epidaurus, gave birth to Asklepios while accompanying her father Phlegyas, a high-ranking soldier, on his travels to the Peloponnese.
Dramatic accounts of the birth of Asklepios vary, too. While some say his mother died in labour, others suggest Koronis was killed by Apollo in a fit of rage when he was informed by the raven (or crow) which he had sent to watch over her that she had another lover. Another theory is that she was killed by Artemis, Apollo’s twin, as a punishment for Koronis’s infidelity to her brother. Some say that Asklepios was rescued by Apollo, who cut out the baby out of his mother’s womb as she lay on her funeral pyre. Others wrote that his rescuer was the god Hermes. All quite confusing and open to interpretation! Whichever god it was, the method used was the reason behind the name Asklepios, which meant ‘to cut open.’
The boy was reportedly brought up by the centaur – half-man, half-horse – Kheiron (Chiron), who was also credited with raising the young Jason and Achilles. Kheiron taught him to become a great healer, and Asklepios grew so skilled in the craft that he learnt to restore the dead to life. According to myth, one of the main ‘tools’ he employed was the blood from the head of the Medusa, which had the power to bring the dead back to life … or to kill. This was gifted to him by the goddess Athena. Unfortunately, Zeus decided that such power to restore life was a crime against the natural order.: throwing a fatal thunderbolt He put end to Asklepios.
After his death, Asklepios took his place the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus (the Serpent Holder). Some say his mother Koronis became the constellation Corvus, the crow (korônê in Greek). At first, Asklepios appears to have been worshipped as a mortal because sacrifices to him took place in a secret underground labyrinth, as though in honour of the dead. Later he came to be regarded as a god, with some speculation that either he, or his father Apollo, was actually Homer’s Paion, the physician of the gods.
As the cult of Asklepios was always identified with a serpent, Asklepios was commonly depicted as a kindly, bearded man holding a snake-entwined staff. In our times, we can still recognise this image of the Rod of Asklepios as a symbol representing medical services.
Although predominantly associated with the healing cult of Asklepios which developed around the sixth century B.C. the sanctuary has its roots in prehistoric times, as was the case with many other Classical sites. At Kynortion, the hill to the northeast of the theatre, the earliest known settlement here dated back to the Early and Middle Bronze Age (2800-1800 B.C.). On top these earlier remains, in the sixteenth century B.C. the Mycenaeans built a sanctuary dedicated to a healing goddess. Notably larger than other Mycenaean sanctuaries, this thrived for centuries throughout the Mycenaean era.
Around 800 B.C., a new sanctuary was constructed in place of the Mycenaean building. This was dedicated to Apollo, the multi-faceted god whose abilities included healing, worshipped here as Apollo Maleatas. Over the next two hundred years, this sanctuary became so popular that it could no longer keep up with the demands, so the Sanctuary of Asklepios was founded on the plain nearby at the mythical birthplace of Asklepios. These sanctuaries were later given the collective name of Sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas and Asklepios. This healing cult of Asklepios was also practiced in other Thessaly (Trikka) and on the island of Kos, and around two hundred smaller sanctuaries were established around Greece and the Mediterranean.
For patients at the sanctuary, their therapy began with a thorough wash in the waters from the Sacred Well. Then they were put into a hypnotic state known as enkoimesis, which the priests (who served as healers) used to diagnose the patients’ symptoms and devise possible cures.
The sanctuaries flourished and, due to the secluded location, became even more popular as a refuge from the constant wars and invasion attempts in the Peloponnese. Their wealth came from the donations, including animals for sacrifice, or votives brought for the gods in return for the services of the priests. These takings funded the building of more lavish facilities around the sanctuaries during the Classical period including the Temple of Asklepios with its huge statue of the god inlaid with ivory and gold. It was in this period that the Theatre of Epidaurus was built. In the 2nd Century A.D., the traveller Pausanias attributed the Theatre and some of the other buildings, such as the Tholos, to the architect Polykleitos the younger.
Subjected to raids by pirates in the first century B.C., the Roman consul Antonine paid for the restorations to the Asklepion and added new buildings. Following this, Pausanias visited the region and wrote detailed descriptions from his observations. The sanctuary was attacked by Goths in 267 A.D., then later refurbished again in Roman style. It survived as a place of worship until major earthquakes struck the area in 522 and 551 A.D.
‘The sacred grove of Asclepius is surrounded on all sides by boundary marks. No death or birth takes place within the enclosure the same custom prevails also in the island of Delos. All the offerings, whether the offerer be one of the Epidaurians themselves or a stranger, are entirely consumed within the bounds. At Titane too, I know, there is the same rule.
The image of Asclepius is, in size, half as big as the Olympian Zeus at Athens, and is made of ivory and gold. An inscription tells us that the artist was Thrasymedes, a Parian, son of Arignotus. The god is sitting on a seat grasping a staff; the other hand he is holding above the head of the serpent; there is also a figure of a dog lying by his side. On the seat are wrought in relief the exploits of Argive heroes, that of Bellerophontes against the Chimaera, and Perseus, who has cut off the head of Medusa. Over against the temple is the place where the suppliants of the god sleep.
Near has been built a circular building of white marble, called Tholos (Round House), which is worth seeing. In it is a picture by Pausias representing Love, who has cast aside his bow and arrows, and is carrying instead of them a lyre that he has taken up. Here there is also another work of Pausias, Drunkenness drinking out of a crystal cup. You can see even in the painting a crystal cup and a woman’s face through it. Within the enclosure stood slabs; in my time six remained, but of old there were more. On them are inscribed the names of both the men and the women who have been healed by Asclepius, the disease also from which each suffered, and the means of cure. The dialect is Doric.
Apart from the others is an old slab, which declares that Hippolytus dedicated twenty horses to the god. The Aricians tell a tale that agrees with the inscription on this slab, that when Hippolytus was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asclepius raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father rejecting his prayers, he went to the Aricians in Italy. There he became king and devoted a precinct to Artemis, where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters.
The Epidaurians have a theatre within the sanctuary, in my opinion very well worth seeing. For while the Roman theaters are far superior to those anywhere else in their splendor, and the Arcadian theater at Megalopolis is unequalled for size, what architect could seriously rival Polycleitus in symmetry and beauty? For it was Polycleitus who built both this theatre and the circular building. Within the grove are a temple of Artemis, an image of Epione, a sanctuary of Aphrodite and Themis, a race-course consisting, like most Greek race-courses, of a bank of earth, and a fountain worth seeing for its roof and general splendour.’
[Pausanias 2.27.1 – 2.27.5]
Archaeologists began exploring the Asklepios of Epidaurus in the early nineteenth century, though the Theatre went pretty much unnoticed as it was covered with earth until it was excavated in 1881-1883 by Kavvadias. Since then, excavations along with restoration works have continued to the present day.
The Theatre of Epidaurus itself is a work of art, built in two stages. The first was the lower tier, comprising 34 rows with a total of 8,000 seats. Then the upper tier with an additional 21 rows was built in the second century B.C so that the theatre could accommodate an audience of up to 14,000. Up to the third century A.D., the theatre hosted drama performances in honour of Asklepios. It was also a venue for music and drama competitions during the Asklepian Games, which took place every four years. Following restoration work, performances resumed at the theatre in 1954.
To the delight of theatre-goers, the theatre’s remarkable acoustics ensure that all sounds from the stage can be heard just as well by all 14,000 members of the audience. This fact has also intrigued scientists. In 2007 through experiments conducted, two scientists of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Nico F. Declerq and Cindy Dekeyser, concluded that this is a result of the amphitheatre layout plus the corrugated surface of the limestone seats, which amplify sounds from the stage whilst cutting out incidental sounds from other parts of the theatre.
The Site Today
As we enter the archaeological site, we will see the remains of the entrance to the sanctuary which was built by Mycenaeans. It had two galleries of six columns in Doric and Corinthian styles. Next are the foundations of the Doric temple of Asklepios, where we can picture the magnitude of the missing statue of the god (now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens). Behind this lay the Tholos or dome, which was the most famous building in the sanctuary. Next to the Asklepion is the stadium which hosted competitions in honour of Apollo and Asklepios to thank the gods for their healing services.
Of course, the Theatre has to be a priority. All year round, this magnificent structure tempts curious visitors to test its acoustics in the light of day. In summer, we have a choice of attending an evening performance to experience the full ambiance of the ancient setting.
Close to the Theatre is the Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus, which contains finds from the site and reconstructions of some of the temples and other buildings. Among the finds are medical instruments which shed some light on the methods employed by the ancient healers. Geology enthusiasts will also be pleased to note the display of fossils found during excavations, with ammonites estimated to be over 240 million years old.
As mentioned already, the Sanctuary of Asklepios was a vast complex – the largest of its kind. In fact, it was estimated to have up to seventy buildings. Of these, we can still see the remains of up to twenty-four, so be prepared for a lengthy tour!