Temple of Asclepius, Epidaurus

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The Temple of Asclepius was a sanctuary in Epidaurus dedicated to Asclepius. It was the main holy site of Asclepius. The sanctuary at Epidaurus was the rival of such major cult sites as the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia and Apollo at Delphi. The temple was built in the early 4th-century BC. If still in use by the 4th-century, the temple would have been closed during the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire, when the Christian Emperors issued edicts prohibiting non-Christian worship.

Myth and history[edit]

Pausanias described the myth around the foundation of the temple, as well as its religious significance to the worship of Asclepius in the 2nd century:

Before you reach Epidauros itself [in Argos] you will come to the sanctuary of Asklepios ... That the land is especially sacred to Asklepios is due to the following reason. The Epidaurians say that Phlegyas came to the Peloponnesos . . . accompanied by his daughter [Koronis mother of Asklepios], who all along had kept hidden from her father that she was with child by Apollon. In the country of the Epidaurians she bore a son [Asklepios], and exposed him on the mountain called Titthion (Nipple) at the present day, but then named Myrtion... There is other evidence that the god was born in Epidauros; for I find that the most famous sanctuaries of Asklepios had their origin from Epidauros. In the first place, the Athenians, who say they gave a share of their mystic rites to Asklepios, call this day of the festival Epidauria, and they allege that their worship of Asklepios dates from then. Again, when Arkhias, son of Aristaikhmos, was healed in Epidauria after spraining himself after hunting about Pindasos, he brought the cult to Pergamon [in Asia Minor]. From the one at Pergamos has been built in our own day the sanctuary of Asklepios by the sea at Smyrna. Further, at Balagrai of the Kyreneans there is an Asklepios called Iatros (Healer), who like the others came from Epidauros. From the one at Kyrene was founded the sanctuary of Asklepios at Lebene, in Krete. There is this difference between the Kyreneans and the Epidaurians, that whereas the former sacrifice goats, it is against the custom of the Epidaurians to do so. That Asklepios was considered a god from the first, and did not receive the title only in the course of time. I infer from several signs, including the evidence of Homer, who makes Agamemnon say about Makhaon:--‘Talthybios, with all speed go summon me hither Makhaon, mortal son of Asklepios.’ As who should say, ‘human son of a god.’[1]


The temple was Doric, six columns by eleven, measuring ca. 80 feet in length. An inscription excavated near the temple (Inscriptiones Graecae IV, 2nd ed., no. 102) gives a public record of the temple's construction. The inscription names Theodotus as architect. The project took nearly five years to complete. The temple had pedimental sculpture, front and back, and figural acroteria. These, the work of master sculptors of the period, occupy a prominent room in the National Archaeological Museum at Athens.

The gold and ivory cult statue of the god is described by Pausanias, who described the sanctuary in the 2nd century:

The sacred grove of Asklepios 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 this same rule. 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; there is also a figure of a dog lying by his side. On the seat are wrought in relief the exploits of Argive heroes..."[2] [...] "When I asked at Epidauros why they pour neither water nor olive oil on the image of Asklepios [to keep the ivory in good condition], the attendants at the sanctuary informed me that both the image of the god and the throne were built over a cistern.[3]

The sanctuary is preserved in foundations only. Fragments of the upper structure, recovered in excavation, are in the archaeological museum at the site.

The Temple of Asclepius itself was, however not alone on the site. Pausanias recorded several smaller buildings within the holy area and grove of the temple complex, such as a theatre, a temple of Artemis, an image of Epione, a sanctuary of Aphrodite and Themis, "a race-course... and a fountain worth seeing for its roof and general splendour."[4]

Recently added at the time of Pausanias' visit (2nd century), was several donations by a Roman senator Antoninos, counted as being: "a bath of Asklepios and a sanctuary of the gods called Bountiful. He made also a temple to Hygeia, Asklepios, and Apollon, the last two surnamed Aigyptios (Egyptian). He moreover restored the portico that was named the Portico of Kotys, which, as the brick of which it was made had been unburnt, had fallen into utter ruin after it had lost its roof. As the Epidaurians about the sanctuary were in great distress, because their women had no shelter in which to be delivered and the sick breathed their last in the open, he provided a dwelling, so that these grievances also were redressed. Here, at last, was a place in which without sin a human being could die and a woman be delivered..."[5]


The temple had major religious importance in the cult of Asclepius. It was a site for holy pilgrimage from the entire ancient world, and influenced the worship of Asclepius in many other sanctuaries dedicated to him. Pausanias described how serpents were considered sacred to the god on the site: "The serpents, including a peculiar kind of a yellowish colour, are considered sacred to Asklepios, and are tame with men."[6]

Pausanias described the worship and the site's importance as a pilgrimage in the 2nd century:

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) . . . 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 Asklepios, 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 Hippolytos dedicated twenty horses to the god. The Arikians tell a tale that agrees with the inscription on this slab, that when Hippolytos was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asklepios raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he want to the Arikians in Italy...[7]

There were many legends, stories and miracles said to have taken place in the temple during the centuries of pilgrimage to it. Cicero alluded the merciful nature of Ascleius when he recounted how Dionysius of Syracusa allegedly committed sacrilege at the sanctuary without divine punishment: "He gave orders for the removal of the golden beard of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, saying it was not fitting for the son to wear a beard when his father [Apollo] appeared in all his temples beardless... Nor did Aesculapius cause him to waste away and perish of some painful and lingering disease."[8]

In the 3rd century, Aelian describes a legendary miracle taking place in the sanctuary:

A woman suffered from an intestinal worm, and the cleverest doctors despaired of curing her. Accordingly, she went to Epidauros and prayed to the god [Asklepios] that she might be rid of the complaint that was lodged in her. The god was not at hand. The attendants of the temple however made her lie down in the place where the god was in the habit of healing his petitioners. And the woman lay quiet as she was bid; and the ministers of the god addressed themselves to her cure: they severed her head from the neck, and on of them inserted his hand and drew out the worm, which was a monstrous creature. But to adjust the head and to restore it to its former setting, this they always failed to do. Well, the god arrived and was enraged with the ministers for undertaking a task beyond their skill, and himself with the irresistible power of a god restored the head to the body and raised the stranger up again. For my part, O King Asklepios, of all gods the kindliest to man, I do not set Wormwood [as a cure for intestinal worms] against your skill (heaven forbid I should be so insensate!), but in considering Wormwood I was reminded of your beneficent action and of your astounding powers of healing. And there is no need to doubt that this herb also is a gift from you.[9]

The temple could not have been in function to a later date than the 4th or 5th century, when all pagan shrines were closed during the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire.

See also[edit]


  • Helmut Berve, Gottfried Gruben and Max Hirmer. Greek Temples, Theatres, and Shrines. New York 1963.
  • Alison Burford, Greek Temple Builders at Epidauros: A Social and Economic Study of Building in the Asklepian Sanctuary During the Fourth and Early Third Centuries B.C. Liverpool 1969.
  • William Bell Dinsmoor. The Architecture of Ancient Greece. 3rd ed. rev. London 1950.
  • Arnold W. Lawrence. Greek Architecture. 4th ed. rev. with additions by R.A. Tomlinson. (Pelican History of Art) New Haven 1996.
  • Bronwen L. Wickkiser. Asklepios, Medicine, and the Politics of Healing in Fifth-Century Greece: Between Craft and Cult. Baltimore 2008.


  1. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 26. 1 - 28. 1 (trans. Jones)
  2. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 26. 1 - 28. 1 (trans. Jones)
  3. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 11. 11
  4. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 26. 1 - 28. 1 (trans. Jones)
  5. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 26. 1 - 28. 1 (trans. Jones)
  6. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 26. 1 - 28. 1 (trans. Jones)
  7. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 26. 1 - 28. 1 (trans. Jones)
  8. ^ Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3. 34 (trans. Rackham)
  9. ^ Aelian, On Animals 9. 33 (trans. Scholfield)

Coordinates: 37°35′55″N 23°04′28″E / 37.5986°N 23.0744°E / 37.5986; 23.0744