The History of Epidaurus

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The History of Epidaurus

Epidaurus was a small city in Ancient Greece on the eastern coast of the Argolid Peninsular at the Saronic Gulf, Aegean Sea. As the mythical birthplace of the important Greek and Roman god Apollo’s son, Asclepius, the city has a rich history of divine worship. The sanctuary of Asclepius especially was an important sacred healing center attracting pilgrims from across the ancient Mediterranean world. The remains of grand monuments and structures at the archaeological site, world heritage listed by UNESCO, attest to its important history. This article provides an overview of this history to assist you on your trip to Greece and tour of Epidaurus.

landscape of Old Epidaurus town Argolis Greece – landscape from above

Early Worship of Healing Gods

The history of the city of Epidaurus is strongly associated with the worshiping of divine healing. Worshipers sought healing by magical meanings, purifying themselves with the healthy water of abundant springs and making sacrificial offers to the gods.

Earlier cult worship of Mycenae deities from around 1200BCE continued into the classical period. From the 8th century BCE onward members of the cult honoured Apollo, the Greek god of healing at the Temple of Apollo Maleatas in front of Mount Kynortion. And from the 6th century BCE they also honoured Apollo’s son, Asklepios, god of medicine, in the adjacent valley.

Statue of Greek god of health and healing: Aesculapius from public building facade in Palermo (chalk copy of unknown original piece).

According to traditional Greek mythology Asklepios was born on the nearby Mount Titthion and had learnt great healing powers from Apollo, which he used at his devoted sanctuary or Asklepion of Epidaurus. The Asklepion was the most famous center of the Classical world, the birthplace of medicinal arts, first of a plethora of other Asklepieia built throughout Greece. Pilgrims visited from all over the Mediterranean seeking healing for their ailments by either spiritual means or medicines administered by the resident priests.

Treatments for the faithful included purification with water, the offerings of sacrifices to the god in return for miracle healing, and a range of well-organised natural medical procedures implemented by the physician priests to treat a variety of diseases. Patients could make further use of a temple, natural spring baths, gym, and dormitories as they rested at the sanctuary to help recover from their disease before going back to their place of origin.

Ruins of the Greek temple of Asklepion, Epidaurus, Greece.

The Popular Period of the Asklepion

Dedications from the worshipers brought prosperity to the sanctuary. The wealth was used to build an impressive complex of buildings and to sponsor major art projects with the site reaching its zenith of importance in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. A walk through the archaeological remains reveal an ambitious period of building that included two enormous main entrance gates, monument temples to Asklepius and Artemis, statues, a sacred fountain, the Thymele (a beautiful round marble building with 26 outer Doric columns and a mysterious underground labyrinth), the Enkoimeterion (dormitory), Ancient Stadium of Epidaurus, and the 6000 seat theater of Epidaurus.

The sporting and artistic buildings were used in the Asklepieia festival, founded in the 5th century BCE and held every four years to celebrate theater, sport, and music in honour of Asclepius. During the festival the stadium would host various sporting games, while music, singing, and drama competitions would take place at the theater.

Ancient Stadium of Epidauros, UNESCO world heritage in Greece

An additional 55 tiers of seats were added to the theater in the 2nd century CE extending the capacity up to 14,000 and making it one of largest Greek theaters in antiquity. The theater is considered to be the most perfect ancient Greek theater with regard to aesthetics and acoustics which allows unamplified voices from the scene to be heard by all spectators to the last row. The theater still hosts live performances of ancient dramas during summer festivals.

The ancient theater of Epidaurus (or “Epidavros”), Argolida prefecture, Peloponnese, Greece.

Roman Times & Decline

The sanctuary continued as a famous healing site during the Roman times until it was gradually destroyed and abandoned due to wars, attacks and natural disasters. The sanctuary was first sacked in the 1st century BCE by Mithridates in his war against Rome, but it was subsequently rebuilt and its old popularity regained during the period of Imperial Rome that followed. In the 2nd century CE further additions were made to the site under the auspices of the Roman senator Antonius including a temple of Hygieia, a large bath building and a small odeum. And the sanctuary continued in the later years of the empire after the introduction of Christianity with it being transformed into a Christian healing center until the 5th century CE.

The site was mostly destroyed though in 395 CE by the Goths and was to then only continue under the East Roman Empire until 426 CE when Emperor Theodosius II definitively closed the site along with all other pagan sanctuaries. Further damages were inflicted with two major earthquakes in 522 and 551 CE leading to the definitive abandonment of the site.

Articles on Greece published by Odyssey Traveller.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Greece.

 

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