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The site of the Sanctuary of Asklepios on the South Slope of the Acropolis, below the Parthenon.
|The South Slope of the Acropolis
|Over the centuries several buildings were added to the south slope below the Acropolis, including the Asclepieion, the Theatre of Dionysos, the Odeion of Herodes Atticus and the Stoa of Eumenes, a colonnade which connected the two theatres. Several other temples, sanctuaries and other monuments, such as the choragic monuments of Thrasyllos and Nikias, were also built here.
Immediately below the Parthenon was the Sanctuary of Asklepios, the Greek god of healing and son of Apollo. Sanctuaries to the god were also centres of healing. The cult of Asklepios was brought to Athens from its largest centre at Epidauros in the Peloponnese around 420 BC, during a period in which the cult and a renewed interest in medicine were spreading all around the Hellenic world.
The reconstructed columns and part of the entablature of the Doric stoa
(abaton) in the sanctuary of Asklepios and Hygieia (Ιερό του Ασκληπιού
και της Υγιείας), below the walls of the south side of the Acropolis, and
directly beneath the Parthenon.
|The Athenian Asklepieion, the sanctuary of Asklepios and his daughter Hygieia, is located to the west of the Theatre of Dionysos, on the South Slope of the Acropolis, between the Peripatos circuit path around the foot of the Acropolis (see below) and the rock itself. The sacred healing centre was founded in 420/419 BC by Telemachos (Τηλέμαχος), an Athenian citizen from the deme of Acharnai, who brought the cult of Asklepios from Epidauros .
It contained a small Ionic temple, an altar, a bothros (pit for sacrifices) and two halls: the abaton (or enkoimeterion, dormitory), a two-storey Doric stoa used as an incubation hall in which visitors slept and were cured by the god who appeared in their dreams; and the katagogion, an Ionic stoa which provided accommodation for the priests and visitors. The cleft in the rock behind the sanctuary contained a sacred spring. As well as the Asklepieia festival in held honour of the god, the Epidauria festival commemorated his arrival in Athens from Eipdauros.
Pausanias briefly mentioned the sanctuary when describing the way from the theatre to the Acropolis:
"The sanctuary of Asclepius is worth seeing both for its paintings and for the statues of the god and his children. In it there is a spring, by which they say that Poseidon's son Halirrhothius deflowered Alcippe the daughter of Ares, who killed the ravisher and was the first to be put on his trial for the shedding of blood."
Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 1, chapter 21, section 4.
the sanctuary of Athena Hygieia on the Acropolis
Asklepios in the MFP People section
the Asclepieion at Pergamon
The sanctuary of Asklepios and Hygieia in 2013 during the long period of restoration.
|The cleft in the rock behind the sanctuary (right) contained a sacred spring (see the plan of the Acropolis on gallery page 2).
As with other monuments of the Acropolis, over the centuries the buildings, sculptures and other objects of the sanctuary were destroyed, looted or recycled. Stone was used in other buildings and fortifications (see for example the Beulé Gate and the Temple of Athena Nike).
The sanctuary is thought to have been destroyed during Herulian invasion in 267 AD (see gallery page 6), and rebuilt in the 4th century, perhaps during the reign of Emperor Julian II (Julian the Apostate, 361-363 AD). Julian's rearguard attempt to revive paganism proved futile, and in 391 AD Emperor Theodosius I (reigned 379-395 AD) prohibited pagan worship, and the sanctuary ceased operating.
However, the ancient association of the site with healing appears to have continued into the Medieval period. In the late 5th or early 6th century AD a church in the form of a large three-aisled basilica was built in the sanctuary, using stone from the temple, altar and stoas. It was dedicated to the Agioi Anargyroi (Άγιοι Ανάργυροι, literally Holy Unmercenaries), a name applied to a number of Christian healer saints who took no payment for their medical services. A small shrine dedicated to the Zoodochos Pigi (Ζωοδόχος Πηγή, Living Source or Life-giving Spring, an epiphet of the Theotokos, Mother of God, the Virgin Mary) was built in the cave of the sacred spring. Its water was considered holy and believed to have healing properties. Worship at the shrine continues today, particularly on the feast day of Zoodochos Pigi on Easter Friday. 
It is thought that the basilica was destroyed by the 11th or 12th century, and along with the other monuments along the South Slope, its remains became covered by soil and later constructions, particularly the fortifications built by the Franks and Ottoman Turks.
The scant ruins of the Asklepieion were first excavated in 1876 , during extensive excavations of the South Slope of the Acropolis by the Archaeological Society of Athens 1876-1879, when the Stoa of Eumenes was also unearthed. Since then, the sanctuary has been further excavated and investigated several times. Archaeologists have been continually finding fragments from the sanctuary at various locations around the Acropolis, and it has taken many years to sort, identify, and match them to particular monuments. Many of the bits and pieces have been gathered here, and in recent years restorers have been painstakingly reassembling elements of the sanctuary to give visitors a better impression of its layout and appearance in antiquity.
|A sketch of the south side of the Acropolis in cross-section, showing the position of the sanctuary of Asklepios and Hygieia directly beneath the Parthenon, which was built on a massive foundation of blocks, perhaps constructed for the Pre-Parthenon temple in the late 5th century BC (see gallery page 13). The sketch also shows the deep earth fill over the ancient "Pelasgian wall" in order to level the ground between the Parthenon and the south wall of the Acropolis built during the time of Pericles.
Source: Paul Carus, The Acropolis, article in The Open Court, Volume 17 (No. 4.), April 1903, No. 563, page 197. London, 1903.
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Plan of the area around the sanctuary of Asklepios
according to archaeologists in the late 19th century.
Source: Adolf Boetticher, Die Akropolis von Athen: nach den Berichten
der Alten und den neusten Erforschungen, Fig. 119, page 267.
Julius Springer, Berlin, 1888. At Heidelberg University Digital Library.
Fragments of a marble stele inscribed on both sides with
lists of dedications from the sanctuary of Asklepios.
276/275 - 232/231 BC.
Epigraphical Museum, Athens. Inv. No. EM 5309 +.
Inscription IG II(2) 1534.
These are two of three surviving inscriptions with inventories of dedications
(inscriptions IG II(2) 1532-1537, 1539). It is thought that many more stood
at the sanctuary. The most frequently mentioned dedicatory anatomical
motifs are of eyes, which has led to speculation (so far unproved) that this
Asklepieion may have specialized in the treatment of eye diseases.
A marble stele inscribed with an inventory of
dedications in the sanctuary of Asklepios.
341/340 - 338/337 BC.
Epigraphical Museum, Athens. Inv. No. EM 8249.
Inscription IG II(2) 1533.
A section of the Peripatos (right), the circuit path around the foot of the Acropolis, ascends
westwards, above and behind the eastern end of the retaining wall of the Stoa of Eumenes (left).
On the right is part of the enormous retaining wall on the west side of the Theatre of Dionysos.
|Much of the 1050 metre long ancient pathway now has modern paving, making it easier for visitors to walk right around the foot of the Acropolis. The Peripatos can be accessed either from:
the main entrance to the Acropolis (gallery page 1), at the west side. Once through the turnstiles, turn left and follow the path towards the north slope of the Acropolis (gallery pages 4 and 5). The path continues past the ancient sanctuaries along the north side, then turns right along the east side, and back to the south side, near the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllos, above the Theatre of Dionysos. It then continues past the sanctuaries along the foot of the north slope, including the sanctuary of Asklepios, behind and above the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, then up to the Acropolis itself. From here there is a gateway to the Acropolis and tickets are checked by staff.
The Theatre of Dionysos, on the east side of the Acropolis, is a separate archaeological site, for which an extra ticket is needed. A single day ticket for all the local sites saves money. From above the theatre, you can walk around the Peripatos in the same way as described above.
The unpaved section of the Peripatos (right) which runs
above the retaining wall of the Stoa of Eumenes (left).
Two identical terracotta Nikes (or Nikai) found on the South Slope of the Acropolis.
Originally they had wings and are depicted flying or landing, possibly on a building
on which they may have served as akroteria (roof ornaments).
Roman period, 1st - 3rd century AD.
Acropolis Museum, Athens. Inv. Nos. Acr. 6476 and Acr. 6476a.
|Notes, references and links
1. The foundation of the Asklepieion by Telemachos
Telemachos is mentioned as the founder of the Asklepieion on the "Telemachos Monument", a 2.85 metre tall inscribed T-shaped stele of Pentelic marble, dated to around 400 BC, which is thought to have originally stood in the sanctuary. It consisted of a pillar with inscriptions on both sides, topped by a slightly wider rectangular block with relief panels on all four sides. On top of these was attached a pinax (plaque), much wider than the pillar, with reliefs on both sides.
Although it has been destroyed, its original appearance was reconstructed in the 1960s by the archaeologist Luigi Beschi (1930-2015), based on studies of the 14 fragments now in various museums, some of which are from ancient copies of the the original:
National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Inv. Nos. 2477, 2490, 2491 and one uninventoried;
Epigraphical Museum, Athens, Inv. Nos. EM 8821-8825;
British Museum, Inv. No. 1920,0616.1, and a fragment of a copy, Inv. No. 1971,0125.1;
Museo Civico, Padova, Inv. No. 14;
Museo Maffeiano, Verona, Inv. No. 28615;
A reconstruction of the monument is usually displayed in the sanctuary, but was removed prior to the recent restoration work at the site.
Not a single complete word remains of the inscription on Face B, but just enough of the long inscription on Face A has survived to read part of a chronicle of the arrival of Asklepios in Athens and the events of the sanctuary's foundation. It was established by a private citizen, Telemachos (Τηλέμαχος) from the deme of Acharnai (Ἀχαρναί), west of Athens, who brought a statue of Asklepios by sea from Epidauros in the Peloponnese, via Zea harbour in the port of Piraeus (where there was also a sanctuary of Asklepios Mounychios and Hygieia).
The arrival of the statue coincided (or was planned to coincide?) with the celebration of the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries, the festival in honour of Demeter and Persephone, and it was first kept at the City Eleusinion, the sanctuary of the goddesses on the north slope of the Acropolis, while the temenos (τέμενος, sacred precinct) of the Asklepieion was being prepared. It is thought that the first buildings were of wood, perhaps on the east side of the terrace on which the sanctuary stands. The exact relationship between the state-controlled Eleusinian cult and that of Asklepios in Athens at this time is not clear, although the inscription states that the Kerykes, a family of hereditary Eleusinian priests, attempted to prevent the establishment of the Asklepieion and the acquisition of the land plot on the south slope.
The inscription lists the stages of progress in the sanctuary's establishment, mentioning the name of the current archon during the year of each phase. Since these names are known from other documents, it has been possible to date the events. The earliest surviving name is that of Astyphilos of Kydantidai (Ἀστυφίλο Κυδαντίδο), who was archon in 420/419 BC, and the last is Kallias of Skambonidai (Καλλίας Σκαμβωνίδης), archon in 412/411 BC. It is not known who dedicated the monument.
Several scholars have studied the inscription fragments, but the key editions are those by Luigi Beschi and Kevin Clinton. For an English translation of the inscription, with references and links to the versions of the text in Greek, see:
SEG 47.232 at Attic Inscriptions Online.
At the top of the monument stood a rectangular pinax with reliefs on both sides (an amphiglyphon), which appears to have depicted Asklepios, Hygieia and Telemachos on one side, and on the other the gateway of the Asklepieion as well the prow of a ship and the crests of two waves, perhaps representing the sea journey of Asklepios from Epidauros. Relief fragments also show participants in rituals relating to the cult, the architecture of the sanctuary and animals (a dog, a horse, a stork).
Two main reasons have been proposed for the introduction of the Asklepios cult in Athens at this particular period. The first is that it was a consequence of the plague that devastated Athens in three outbreaks between 430 and 426 BC, killing many citizens, including Pericles. A plague was also given as the traditional reason for the establishment of the first Asklepieion in Rome around 293-291 BC, when a Roman delegation brought a sacred snake from Epidauros to the city.
According to the second theory the Athenians' motives for introducing Asklepios from Epidauros were political, connected with their imperial aspirations, and part of a strategy to win the good will of the Epidaurians and other Peloponnesian states (Argos, Achaea and Elis) during the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). In 421 BC, during the tenth year of the war and around a year before the foundation of the Athenian Asklepieion, Athens, Sparta and their respective allies signed the Peace of Nikias, and this temporary peace allowed the Athenians to attempt to establish closer ties with Epidauros.
Nothing is known of Telemachos or his motives for bringing Asklepios to Athens. It appears that he established the Asklepieion at his own expense, suggesting that he was a wealthy indivdual fulfilling a personal ambition on his own initiative. Was he a priest of Asklepios, a doctor or a grateful former patient at Epidauros? Or was he perhaps acting unofficially in the political and military interests of the Athenian state?
The protection of the god and the medical services provided by the sanctuary would certainly have been seen as beneficial to Athenian citizens traumatized by war and plague, and the consequent ties with Epidauros perceived as a strategic achievement, so that spiritual, personal, social and political considerations coincided.
The account of a statue (or copy of a statue) of a god being brought to Athens as part of the introduction of a cult to the city is similar to the tradition of a cult statue of Dionysus being brought from Eleutherai (see Theatre of Dionysos). A number of other cults were introduced to Athens in the 5th century BC, including those of Adonis, Adrasteia, Artemis Aristoboule, Bendis, Meter, Pan (see gallery page 4), Pheme and Sabazius.
Beschi first published the results of his study of the Telemachos Monument in 1967:
Luigi Beschi, Il monomento di Telemachos, fondatore dell' Asklepieion atenoese, in Annuario della Scuola Archeologica di Atene e delle Missioni Italiane in Oriente (ASAtene) 45-46 (Nos. 29/30, 1967/1968), pages 381-436.
For wide-ranging discussion of the foundation of the Athens Asklepieion, including its religious, social and political contexts, and extensive bibliographies, see:
Bronwen Lara Wickkiser, The appeal of Asklepios and the politics of healing in the Greco-Roman world. PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2003.
Roy van Wijk, Asklepios' arrival at Athens: A perspective on the Athenian introduction of the Epidaurian Asklepios cult (420/419 B.C.E.) in the context of the Peace of Nikias and the interstate relations in Classical Greece. Masters thesis, Utrecht University, 2013.
A recent study has attempted to answer some of the questions posed by generations of archaeologists and historians concerning the original Asklepieion founded by Telemachos, including its exact location and size, and what subsequently happened to the first temple and altar. See:
Michaelis Lefantzis and Jesper Tae Jensen, The Athenian Asklepieion on the South Slope of the Akropolis: early development, ca. 420-360 B.C.. In: Jesper Tae Jensen, George Hinge, Peter Schultz, Bronwen Wickkiser (editors), Aspects of Ancient Greek cult: context - ritual - iconography, pages 91-124. Aarhus University Press, Netherlands, 2009. At academia.edu.
2. The Zoodochos Pigi
Evy Johanne Håland, The Life-giving Spring: water in Greek Religion, Ancient and modern, a comparison. In: Proteus, Volume 26, Spring 2009, Number 1, pages 45-54. Available as a PDF at the website of Shippensburg University, Pennsylvania.
3. The first excavations of the Asklepieion
A brief list of the first reports of the excavations is given in:
Gordon Allen and L. D. Caskey, The East Stoa in the Asclepieum at Athens. In: American Journal of Archaeology, Volume 15, No. 1 (January - March 1911), pages 32-43. Archaeological Institute of America. At jstor.org.
Allen and Caskey, who studied the East Stoa of the Asklepieion for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 1905-1906, disagreed with a number of conclusions reached by the Greek archaologist Friderikos Versakis concerning the sanctuary. See the Friderikos Versakis page in the MFP People section.
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