Epidaurus is a historical city on the eastern part of the Argolida Prefecture. It is built at the foot of Mounts Arachnaio, Coryphaio and Tithio, where mythology has it that Asclepius was born, and where his worship first began in the 6th century B.C. Its strategic position, but most of all its Asclepieion, contributed to the city’s unprecedented growth. Its inhabitants were mostly in the shipping profession. The first settlement dates back to the prehistoric times and it is 12 km from the village of Palaia (Old) Epidaurus. Administratively, it belongs to the Municipality of Epidaurus.
It took its name from its third ruler, Epidaurus, son of Argos and Evandi. According to Homer, Epidaurus participated in the Trojan War having the two sons of Asclepius, Podalirius and Machaonas, as leaders. The city of Epidaurus was also involved in the Medic Wars and was an ally of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.
Its fame grew all over Greece thanks to its Asclepieion, the greatest one in the ancient world. The sanctuary of Asclepius is 15 km from the city. At the very same location Apollo was also worshiped, and a temple was built in his honour a little above the Ancient Theatre. However, from the late 5th – early 4th century B.C. onward, Asclepius became the unquestionable master of the city.
The legend about the birth of Asclepius in Epidaurus came to us from Hesiod. Before Hesiod the common belief was that Asclepius was the son of Apollo and Coronis, the princess of Thessaly. Hermes took Asclepius from his mother’s womb while he was still a fetus because she was about to be burnt to death. Hesiod presented Asclepius as born in Epidaurus, as a result of the mating of Apollo with Arsinoe, daughter of the king of the Messenians. The latter version of Asclepius’ birth gained panhellenic recognition thanks to the fame of the sanctuary.
At the beginning, Asclepius was worshiped as a hero, not as a god. There are many heroic elements in his worship, as is evident from the older ruins, where we can see the labyrinth, a subterranean edifice. To reach the centre of the labyrinth, you have to go through all its corridors. The labyrinth was used for the sacrifices to the gods. However, from the way it was constructed we conclude that these sacrifices were secret, just as the ones dedicated to the dead. This means that Asclepius was considered a mortal, not a god. The sacred serpent always accompanies his worship. Over the years, his worship becomes a religion and Epidaurus is filled with grand monuments from the beginning of the 4th century. The most remarkable one is the majestic temple which shelters the chryselephantine (golden and ivory) statue of the God Asclepius.
The Asclepieion of Epidaurus became the most popular of all the other asclepieia in Greece, because many people were cured from serious, even incurable diseases after their visit there. People came to the Asclepieion from all over Greece and the Mediterranean begging to be cured. It was very big with guest rooms, a gymnasium (gym), a stadium and the Theatre, renowned for its acoustics and used for people’s entertainment.
It seems that the exquisite natural environment, where the sanctuary was built, played a vital role to the treatment of the sick. The peace and quiet of the surrounding nature, the neat lines of the mountains, the rich vegetation, the plenty water springs, were really significant, especially for those who suffered from mental illnesses.
Excavations and edifices
P. Kavvadias conducted the excavations in Epidaurus from 1881 till his death. Subsequently, the excavations were taken over by the Archaeological Society. The progress of the works was much assisted by the disinterested offer of the inhabitants of Lygourio, who not only worked for free at the excavations site, but also ceded their fields next to the archaeological site gratis. The first edifice the visitor lays eyes on when he reaches the sanctuary is the Propylaea. Their construction dates back in the Mycenaean era; they consisted of two galleries with 6 columns each. The columns of the one were of Ionian style and the other Corinthian. The second edifice is the temple of Asclepius; its construction lasted 5 whole years. It’s of Doric style and used to shelter the statue of the god, work of the sculptor from Paros Thrasymedes. Behind the temple is the greatest edifice of the sanctuary, Tholos. Other edifices are the Abaton, the house of the priests, the temples of Artemis, the temple of Apollo and the Theatre.
A few words about the Theatre
In 340 B.C. the Argeian architect Polycleitus the Younger built the Theatre of Epidaurus inside a ravine according to Pausanias. Compared to all other ancient theatres, the Theatre of Epidaurus is considered the greatest and best preserved. It has a capacity of 13.000 seats and its main purpose was to entertain the patients.
It’s divided into two parts. The upper one, with 21 rows of seats, was for the people, and the lower one, with 34 rows of seats, was for the clergy and the noblemen.
Its amazing acoustics and the perfect condition it was found have made it famous worldwide, thus helping the Festival of Epidaurus to become an institution. Great artists have performed here leaving their indelible mark in this theatre.