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Temple of Apollo Epicurius, Vassae

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios (Epicurius) is located on an imposing mountainside at Bassae in the Peloponnese, accessible by road and located 14.5km from the picturesque mountain village of Andritsaina.

The site is given its general name, Bassae, from the many ravines that surround it on the steep mountain slopes. Locals refer to the temple as stous stylous (‘the columns’) or the Naos (after the innermost part of the temple).

Now covered by what appears to the untrained eye to be a massive circus tent, this unique architectural design was the first great monument to be recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1986. Despite this and the fact that it is so well preserved, this magnificent monument is usually missed out by many tours of ancient Greece.

Mythology

The temple of Apollo Epikourios was decorated with 23 slabs, 11 of which depict Greeks fighting with centaurs (Centauromachy) while the other 12 show Greeks in battle with Amazons (Amazonomachy).

The Centauromachy slabs represent various scenes of the battle between the Lapiths of Thessaly and the centaurs, which were half-human and half-horse. As the story goes, the people of Thessaly were celebrating the wedding of their king Peirithous to Hippodamia. The centaurs, who had been invited, began to drink too much and tried to carry off the bride resulting in a raging battle. Finally to the day was saved by none other than King Peirithous’ friend Theseus, who valiantly drove the centaurs off.

The Amazonomachy was the mythical battle between the Greeks and the formidable female warrior tribe, the Amazons. To be more specific, the slabs depict two epic battles, the Trojan and the Heraclean.

In the former, Penthesilea, an Amazon queen accidentally kills her dear friend Hippolyta on a deer hunt. Consumed by guilt she wishes to die as a warrior and an Amazon so she joins the Trojan War, fighting for the Trojans. Arriving with twelve companions, Penthesilea promises to kill Achilles. However, with one blow Achilles pierces her breastplate, then proceeds to impale both her and her horse.

In the latter, another Amazon queen, Hippolyta, is given a magical girdle by her father. Heracles is given the task of retrieving the girdle as the ninth labour.

Most versions of the myth show that Hippolyta gives the girdle to Heracles as she is so impressed by him. The goddess Hera, however, spreads rumours among the Amazons that Heracles has abducted their queen causing the Amazons to attack.

Archaeology

The ancient temple visible today was not the first to be erected on this rugged mountain site. Excavations have shown that the foundations of the Temple of Apollo used blocks from at least one of its Archaic predecessor. Artifacts from the 7th, 6th, and 5th centuries BC have been unearthed, including some terracotta decorations. Votive offerings of many periods have also been uncovered, dating back to Geometric times.

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios standing today was built sometime between 450 and 400 BC, around the time of the Parthenon in Athens. The design has been attributed, by the ancient writer Pausanias to Iktinos, architect of the Parthenon, but this has yet to be confirmed.

The temple’s remote location and unusual dedication (epikourios meaning “helper” or “protector”) have kept archeologists puzzled for over 200 years.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 41. 7 – 9:

“Phigaleia is surrounded by mountains, on the left by the mountain called Kotilios … The distance from the city to Mount Kotilios is about forty stades. On the mountain is a place called Bassai, and the temple of Apollon Epikourios (the Helper), which, including the roof, is of stone. Of the temples in the Peloponnesos, this might be placed first after the one at Tegea for the beauty of its stone and for its symmetry. Apollon received his name from the help he gave in time of plague, just as the Athenians gave him the name of Alexikakos (Averter of Evil) for turning the plague away from them. It was at the time of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians that he also saved the Phigaleians, and at no other time; the evidence is that of the two surnames of Apollon, which have practically the same meaning, and also the fact that Iktinos, the architect of the temple at Phigaleia, was a contemporary of Perikles, and built for the Athenians what is called the Parthenon. My narrative has already said that the tile image of Apollon is in the market-place of Megalopolis.”

However romantic it may seem that Apollo miraculously protected the Phigaleians from plague, there is a counter theory as to the interpretation of ‘helper;’ since there was no indication of the plague which affected Athens having spread so far south, some historians believe that Apollo ‘helped’ the Phigaleians in a military sense, by bringing the support of the neighbouring Oresthasians, the mercenaries who funded the temple and helped win back control of Phigaleia from the Lacedaemonians (ancient Spartans) around 660 BC. The predominance of military artefacts and the depictions of battle scenes on the friezes at the site could well back up this theory, plus the fact that the original temple existed from the 7th century BC.

The temple at Bassae remained well-preserved over the centuries, mainly due to its isolation. The ancient ruin was not rediscovered until 1765, when the French architect Joachim Bocher came across it by accident.

In 1811-12, British and German antiquarians investigated the ruins and brought the metope sculptures back to their own countries. The cella friezes were bought by the British Government for £19,000 and placed in the British Museum, where they remain today.

The Greek Archaeological Society restored the temple from 1902 to 1906, re-erecting some fallen columns and restoring the cella walls. Another renovation was carried out in the 1960s, during which some fragments of the frieze were excavated. A protective tent was erected over the temple, which still remains today hiding much of this architectural beauty.

Among the many mysteries of this unique temple was whether it originally contained a cult statue. No base for an image has been found and some suggest that the unusual Corinthian column in the altar area was an an iconic representation of Apollo. However, Pausanias recorded that there was a bronze Apollo statue at Bassae, which was moved to the agora of Megalopolis in 369 BC and replaced by an acrolithic statue (wood with marble head and limbs). Part of a foot from a colossal marble statue of Apollo was discovered in the rear room of the temple, but it dates from the Hellenistic era, c.150-100 BC.

The Site Today

Approaching from the winding road across the mountains from Andritsaina, we can but wonder at how this journey was accomplished in ancient times. The views across the surrounding Arcadian mountains are inimitable.

Whatever the reason for its construction, the Temple of Apollo Epikourios was not a modest shrine. It is built on a grand scale with great precision and architectural ingenuity in a rough and forbidding environment. Its combination of Doric and Ionic style in a single structure was quite bold, and its capitol, recorded in the drawings of the first modern travellers, is the earliest known example in the ancient world.

Entering the protective tent that surrounds the temple, one can find unusual combinations of materials, from Doric marble used for the Corinthian capitols and the sculptured Ionic friezes to local limestone on the main structure and columns. Unfortunately, most of the Ionic cella frieze, which depict battles between the Greeks and the Amazons and the Lapiths and Centaurs, is now in the British Museum.

What is unusual about the Temple of Apollo Epikourios is that it is oriented north to south and not from the common northeast-southwestwest orientation, while the door on the east side of the temple faces the rising sun. The outer colonnade consists of 15 Doric columns on the long sides and 6 Doric columns on the ends. The architrave has survived mostly intact, but the pediment and roof have long since disappeared.

Inside the temple you can see the inner shrine (naos) which is surrounded by 10 Ionic columns and a solitary Corinthian column stands at the southern end. An aura of sanctity and majesty pervades the atmosphere. The silence of the mountain is only broken by the subtle tones of background music which greet the traveller.

On the tranquil site outside the ‘tent,’ amidst wild flowers and aromatic herbs, we can wander around the remains of the surrounding sanctuary to Apollo, strewn with countless finds from the site.

 

Admission: Full: €6, Reduced: €3

Opening hours:
1 June – 31 Oct open sunrise to sunset
1 Nov – 31 May Mon-Sun, 08:30-15:00

Telephone: +302626022275, +30 26240 22.529

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