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Ancient Greek mythology, religion and art
Asklepios (Ἀσκληπιός; Latin, Aesculapius), the Greek god of healing and son of Apollo.
The mythical relationship between Asklepios and Apollo may have been associated with the latter's epiphet Paean (there are various Greek spellings, including Παιήων, Paion, healer, helper) and his function as the physician of the Olympian gods. Although Paean is thought by some scholars to have originally been a separate god, the name became associated with Apollo and later an epithet of Asklepios. In his epigram On a statue of Asklepios
, the 3rd century BC Syracusan poet Theocritus refers to his doctor friend Nikias of Miletus as a "son of Paean". 
Doctors (Θεραπευταί, Therapeutai) were also referred to as "Sons of Asklepios". The renowned physician Hippocrates of Kos (Ἱπποκράτης, circa 460-370 BC) practised at the asclepieion on the island of Thasos at the end of the 5th century BC, and in the 2nd century AD Galen of Pergamon (Γαληνός, Galenos, circa 129-217 AD) began his distinguished career at the Pergamon Asclepieion
. Nicomachos, the father of the philosopher Aristotle
, was the personal physician of King Amyntas III of Macedonia, grandfather of Alexander the Great.
A sanctuary of Asklepios, known as an asclepieion (also asclepeion or asclepion; Greek, Ἀσκληπιεῖον, Asklepieion; Latin, aesculapium), usually included a temple and a healing centre. Many also had theatres and areas for the worship of associated deities such as his daughter Hygieia
(Ὑγιεία) and his son Telesphoros (Τελεσφόρος).
The largest, most famous and probably oldest asclepieion was at Epidauros (Ἐπίδαυρος, pronounce Epidavros in modern Greek) in the Argolid, northeastern Peloponnese, Greece (see photo below
). The Asklepios cult appears to have spread around the Greek world from here from around the 5th century BC. Asclepieions were founded all around Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, Anatolia (East Greece, Asia Minor) and the Greek cities of Italy, including: Athens
, Amphipolis, Thasos, Kos, Pergamon
and Akragas (Agrigento, Sicily).
The cult of Asklepios had a mysterious and mystical association with snakes (as did those of other Greek deities such as Athena
), many of which were kept at the sanctuaries. Therapy at the healing centres included the interpretation of dreams.
You can see the types of medical instruments used in antiquity in the photos below
The spread of the cult of Asklepion and the establishment of such healing centres around the Greek world from the late Classical period had important practical aspects. The presence of an asclepieion in an ancient city was the equivalent of a modern hospital for its citizens. It was also a source of prestige as well as considerable income, particularly in the case of Epidauros and Pergamon, to which rich people came from far afield to be cured, and in return paid, or donated as a religious offering, large sums of money and other gifts.
Several locations since time immemorial had been thought of as especially beneficial for the treatment of diseases, due to particular local properties, such as their waters, and the traditional associations they had acquired with deities, nymphs and other supernatural beings. With the scientific advancements of medical theories in Classical and Hellenistic times, particularly at Alexandria in Egypt, the practice of medicine began to be systematized and standardized to a certain extent, and one could speak of a medical industry.
The profession of medicine at these centres was a male preserve, and it seems no accident that other healing deities, such as the health goddess Hygieia, came to be seen as subservient (sons and daughters) to Asklepios, who became the exemplary and primary divine master and patron of the healing arts. The new medical science of Hippocrates and the cult of Asklepios in many places replaced the more ancient local ways.
In Greek and Roman art, Asklepios was usually represented at a mature man with uncombed beard and long hair, parted at the centre, a bare upper torso and right shoulder, with a himation (cloak) hanging from his left shoulder, wrapped around the waist and covering the lower torso and legs. Several surviving statues and fragments are similar to depictions of Zeus and Poseidon, making identification difficult in cases where the gods' other attributes (such as Zeus' thunderbolt or Poseidon's trident) have not been found. Asklepios usually leans on a staff or crutch, around which a snake is entwined. In some instances he stands next the omphalos, a symbol of his father Apollo at Delphi.
Several ancient statues and heads of various types discovered since the Renaissance have been identified as depictions of Asklepios, although many of these identifications are uncertain. In a number of cases the so-called Asklepios statues now in museums are the result of restorations, often from parts of different ancient statues and with modern additions.
A remark by the 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias
indicates that even in antiquity there was much confusion about the identification of statues:
"At Panopeus there is by the roadside a small building of unburnt brick, in which is an image of Pentelic marble, said by some to be Asclepius, by others Prometheus. The latter produce evidence of their contention. At the ravine there lie two stones, each of which is big enough to fill a cart. They have the color of clay, not earthy clay, but such as would be found in a ravine or sandy torrent, and they smell very like the skin of a man. They say that these are remains of the clay out of which the whole race of mankind was fashioned by Prometheus."
Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 10, chapter 4, section 4
|References to Asklepios|
on My Favourite Planet
|The Asclepieion archaeological site, Pergamon.
With photos and articles about Asklepios,
Hygeia, Telesphoros and Galen of Pergamon:
Pergamon gallery 1, page 35
Detail of a statue of Asklepios from the
Sanctuary of Asklepios, Epidavros, Greece.
Marble head of Asklepios.
Late 4th century BC. From Ano Apostoloi,
Kilkis (ancient Morrylos), Macedonia, Greece.
The head may be from the cult statue of the
god at the sanctuary of Asklepios in Morrylos.
Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum.
Bronze figurine of Asklepios.
Around 200-160 BC. Said to have
been found on a Greek island.
Inv. No. GR 1873.8-20.41 (Bronze 851).
The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros from the theatre.
|The Sanctuary of Asklepios covers a large area in a broad valley, around 13 km inland from the ancient port city of Epidauros (today, the seaside village Palaia Epidavros) in the Argolid, northeastern Peloponnese. Hardly one stone stands on another from the ancient buildings, apart from the large theatre, designed by Polykleitos the Younger and built around 330-320 BC, one of the best preserved ancient Greek theatres and famous for its perfect acoustics. Its 34 rows of seating were extended to 55 during the Roman period, giving it a seating capacity of around 15,000. Ancient Greek drama is still performed here in the summer as part of the annual Athens and Epidaurus Festival.
The important and atmospheric archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has its own small museum, including inscriptions and architectural fragments, although many of the best artefacts (e.g. the statue of Asklepios and a statuette of Asklepios as young man, below) are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, where most are not even on display.
Marble statue of Asklepios of the "Guistini type",
named after a torso of the god now in the
Capitoline Museums, Rome.
Late 2nd century AD reworking of an
early 4th century BC Greek original
attributed to Alkamenes. 
National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
Inv. No. 6360. Farnese Collection.
Statue of Asklepios from the
Sanctuary of Asklepios at
Epidauros, Peloponnese, Greece.
Pentelic marble. Circa 160 AD.
The statue belongs to the "Este type"
copies of a 4th century BC original.
National Archaeological Museum,
Athens. Inv. No. 263.
Restored marble statue of Asklepios.
From Rome. 2nd century AD. 
Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Inv. No. Sk 71.
Marble statue of Asklepios.
2nd century AD Roman copy of a Hellenistic Greek original. The right arm and snake-entwined staff are modern additions.
There were several places in Rome
dedicated to the cult of Asklepios,
including the Esquiline Hill and the
Tiber Island (see below).
Palazzo Altemps, National Museum of Rome.
Inv. No. 8645.
Boncampagni Ludovisi Collection.
|Marble statue of Asklepios of the "Guistini-Neugebauer type", with the omphalos at his feet.
Roman period copy of an early 4th century BC Greek original. Found in December 1803
in the area of the so-called "Nymphaeum of Venus", Achradina, Sicily.
Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum, Syracuse, Sicily. Inv. No. 696.
Part of a colossal statue of Asklepios of the "Mouynchia type".
Luna marble (northern Italy). 1st - 2nd century AD, Roman period copy of a
2nd century BC Hellenistic original. From the Isthmus area of Ortygia, Syracuse, Sicily.
Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum, Syracuse, Sicily. Inv. No. 737.
|The statue was found among other antiquities during the excavation of the Spanish Walls of Ortygia in 1560, and was kept until 1810 in the Castel Maniaca. Since the identity of the statue was unknown (Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes and Timoleon were suggested), it was named "Don Marmoreo". The Spanish inscription on the chest commemorates the dedication of the castle to Sant Iago (Saint James), and of the four angular towers to the patron saints of the city (Peter, Catherine, Philip and Lucia), as well as the granting of permission to fire cannon salvos during Sant Iago's festival.
Height 150 cm.
A plaster cast is on display in the Castel Maniaca, Ortygia, Syracuse.
Marble head of Asklepios from a small statue.
Circa 200-160 BC. Found on the Dodecanese
island of Kos, one of the most important
asclepieion healing centres and the birthplace
of the most famous ancient Greek physician
Hippocrates (Ἱπποκράτης, circa 460-370 BC).
Inv. No. GR 1868.6-20.3 (Sculpture 1519).
Marble head of a statue of Asklepios.
From Rome, around 400 BC.
Height 29.8cm, width 22 cm, depth 20 cm.
Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
Inv. No. Sk 1832.
Purchased on the art market in 1829
by the Vereinigung der Freunde
der antiken Kunst as a gift to the
Antiquities Collection in Berlin.
Small marble head of Asklepios from Crete.
Pentelic marble. 2nd century AD.
Barracco Museum, Rome. Inv. No. MB 162.
Small marble head of Asklepios.
From the Yortanli Dam salvage
excavation, Allianoi, near Pergamon.
Bergama Archaeological Museum.
Marble head of Asklepios from Melos,
Greece, around 325-300 BC.
Found with two votive inscriptions
dedicated to Asklepios and Hygieia
and a votive relief of a leg.
British Museum. Blacas Collection.
GR 1867.5-8.115 (Sculpture 550).
|Marble statue of Asklepios and his son Telesphoros.
The detail on the right shows a close-up of the diminuitive daemon.
Excavated in 1906-1907 at the Faustina Baths, Miletus (Balat, Aydin, Turkey).
Height 213 cm; height of Telesphoros 81 cm.
The statue depicts the lofty god Asklepios carrying his symbol of a staff
(sometimes shown as a crutch), around which a snake is entwined.
A relatively tiny Telesphoros is shown leaning against his father's
protective garment, looking up to him, and clutching implements which
are probably medical instruments. The implication of this image seems
to be that Telesphoros was his father's little helper.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. 1995.
Cat. Mendel (Volume I, 1912) 124.
Inscribed votive relief dedicated to Asklepios
and his daughter Hygieia.
Unknown provenance. 4th century BC.
The first letters of the name Asklepios, ΑΣΚΛΗΠ
(ASKLEP) are inscribed above the figures.
Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum.
Coin from Pergamon showing Asklepios
and Artemis of Ephesus, 253-268 AD.
Bode Museum, Berlin.
Marble relief showing the healing god Asklepios and his daughter Hygieia,
goddess of health. In some myths Hygieia is the wife of Asklepios.
Classical, last quarter of the 5th century BC. From Therme, Macedonia, Greece.
Therme was the ancient name of Thessalonike (Thessaloniki) before it was
renamed by Cassander, king of Macedonia, in 316/315 BC.
See History of Stageira and Olympiada - Part 6.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. 109 T. Cat. Mendel 51.
Marble relief showing Athena and probably Asklepios on a stele
with part of an Athenian honorary decree granting the title of
proxenos (consul) and benefactor to a citizen of Croton, south Italy.
From the Acropolis, Athens. Around 330 BC.
Acropolis Museum, Athens. Inv. No. NAM 2985.
(Previously in the National Archaeological Museum)
Marble votive relief in the form of a naiskos (small temple), showing the Asklepios and Hygieia.
From Attica, Greece, 330-320 BC.
To the right is a family of worshippers, the dedicators of the relief.
The head of a coiled snake appears from beneath the god's throne.
Altes Museum, Berlin. Inv. No. Sk 685.
Acquired in 1827 from the Ingenheim Collection.
Inscribed marble stele with a votive dedication to Apollo and Asklepios.
From Kalamoto (ancient Kalindoia), Thessaloniki prefecture, Macedonia,
Greece. 334/333 - 304/303 BC.
Dedicated by the priest Agathanor,
son of Agathon. 39 verses have
survived, mentioning the names
of all the priests from 334/333 BC
onwards in chronological order.
Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum.
Part of a marble block with an inscription referring to
the sanctuary of Asklepios at Veria, Macedonia, Greece.
Second half of the 3rd century BC.
Veria Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. L 702.
Marble statue group of the children of Asklepios:
Machaon, Hygieia, Aigle, Panakeia, Akeso and Podaleirios.
From the Great Baths, Dion, Macedonia. 2nd century AD.
Dion Archaeological Museum.
Marble head of a female member
of the family of Asklepios.
From a marble basin for holy water
in the Great Baths, Dion, Macedonia.
2nd century AD.
Dion Archaeological Museum.
Marble statue of Hygieia
from Dion, Macedonia.
1st century AD.
Dion Archaeological Museum.
Terracotta votive relief of a family with children (left) standing before Asklepios (centre),
his sons and Hygieia (far right). 400-301 BC. Height 40 cm, width 58 cm.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Inv. No. AN1984.111.
Ancient medical instuments found at the Asclepieion in Allianoi, near Pergamon.
From the Yortanli Dam salvage excavation, Allianoi.
Bergama Archaeological Museum.
Marble gravestone or votive relief for a heroized doctor. Around 50 BC - 50 AD.
Near the doctor's head is an open box or cabinet with surgical instuments
(see close-up below).
Altes Museum, Berlin. Inv. No. Sk 804.
Acquired in 1841 from the Grimani Collection, Venice.
The surgical instuments in the frieze of the heroized doctor above.
A bronze votive plaque with a snake, from the Pergamon Asclepieion. 2nd - 3rd century BC.
Antikensammlung SMB, Berlin. Inv. No. AvP VII, 31394.
Detail of the Roman travertine facade in the form of a ship at the northeast end of the
Tiber Island, Rome. To the left is a relief of a figure, perhaps Asklepius, with a rod entwined
by a snake (see photo below). To the right is a high relief of the head of a bull or ox.
|The Romans probably first learned about the cult of Asklepios (Latin, Aesculapius) from contact with the Greek cities of Magna Graecia (southern Italy).
According to legend, during a plague in Rome an embassy was sent to the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epdauros around 293-291 BC. The representatives returned to Rome with a sacred snake which escaped from its basket and was discovered on the Insula Tiberina (Tiber Island; Italian, Isola Tiberina). It was decided to found a sanctuary of Asklepios there, and a temple was dedicated in 289 BC. The island has been associated with healing ever since, and the Hospital of the Fatebenefratelli, founded in 1548, still stands there today.
Other places in Rome dedicated to the cult of Asklepios included a sanctuary on the Esquiline Hill.
The remains of the relief on the travertine facade on the Tiber Island, Rome.
Inscribed base, probably for a bronze statue, with a dedication to Asklepios
("AESCOLAPIO"), found in the River Tiber, near the Tiber Island, Rome.
Late 3rd century - early 2nd century BC.
The base is one of many votive offerings for Asklepios recovered from
the Tiber, including a large number of ceramic anatomical ex-votos.
Baths of Diocletian, National Museum of Rome.
Drawing of a relief of Asklepios from Pola, Istria, by James "Athenian" Stuart (1713–1788).
|"It is of good sculpture, and is placed in the wall of the city near the port: it has the fortune still to be held in veneration by the inhabitants of Pola, who mistake him for St. John the Baptist. The part of his sceptre, round which a serpent is twisted, the usual symbol of this divinity, is mistaken by the good people for the reed and the label, with which St John the Baptist is usually figured; they never pass it without bowing and crossing themselves before it."
James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The Antiquities of Athens, measured and delineated,
Volume IV, Arch of the Sergii at Pola, chapter III, page 17. J. Taylor, London, 1816. At archive.org.
For further information about Stuart and Revett see Athens Acropolis gallery page 12.
The Neoclassical Temple of Aesculapius in the Giardino del Lago of the Villa Borghese, Rome.
|The temple was commissioned by Marcantonio Borghese, designed by Antonio Asprucci (1723-1808) and built 1784-1790 on an artificial island in the renovated Lake Garden. The original plan had been to build merely a facade to frame a colossal statue of Asklepios found in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Ten other restored ancient statues of gods and muses, including Apollo, Artemis, Hygieia, Victoria (Nike) and Mercury (Hermes), were placed on the pediment and attic. Following thefts in the 1980s, the surviving seven statues were removed in 1989, restored, placed in storage, and replaced by modern copies. The Greek inscription on the entablature states "Asklepioi Soteri" (To Asklepios Saviour).
||Notes, references and links
1. On a statue of Asklepios by Theocritus
The epigram concerns a cedar wood statue of Asklepios by the sculptor Aetion, commissioned by the doctor Nikias of Miletus. See Aetion for further details.
2. "Guistini type" Asklepios statue in Naples
A description of the "Guistini type" statue of Asklepios in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Inv. No. 6360:
"The god, clad in a himation, lays his right arm (a restoration) on his club, round which a snake is curled. At his left side is a low Omphalos, this being his attribute as Apollo's son. A picture of perfect health, he stands calmly in an attitude that recalls the school of Phidias.
Alkamenes is generally named as the inventor of this type. In 420 B.C. he made a statue of Aesculapius for Mantineia and perhaps a replica of it for Athens where the cult of the god had been introduced from Epidaurus."
G. De Petra (and others, as editors), Illustrated guide to the National Museum in Naples : sanctioned by the Ministry of education. page 27. Richter & Co., Naples, 1897 (?). At archive.org.
The attribution of the statue type to Alkamenes is due to a mention by Pausanias (Description of Greece, Book 8, chapter 9, section 1) of a statue of Asklepios at Mantineia.
3. Asklepios statue in Berlin
Height 124.5 cm, without plinth 117.5 cm. Height of head 19 cm.
The smaller than lifesize statue statue, 124.5 cm high, was one of three statues of Asklepios brought to Berlin from Italy in the 18th-19th centuries. This was one acquired by Bianconi in 1766 from the Natali Collection in Rome. It arrived in Potsdam in 1767, where it stood in the Marble Gallery of the Neue Palais from around 1769. On 26 March 1830 it was moved to the Rotunda of the Königliche Museum (Royal Museum, today known as the Altes Museum) in Berlin.
It had been extensively restored in the workshop of Cavaceppi in Rome, with many parts added, including the head which is from another ancient statue, perhaps of Zeus. The head is thought to be a Roman copy of a Hellenistic orginal. The body of Parian marble (from the island of Paros), is thought to be a 2nd century AD Antonine copy of a 4th century BC Greek original.
See: Alexander Conze, Beschreibung der antiken Skulpturen mit Ausschluss der pergamenischen Fundstücke, page 36. General- verwaltung, Königliche Museen zu Berlin. Verlag von W. Spemann, Berlin, 1891. At Heidelberg University Digital Library.
|Photos on this page were taken during
visits to the following museums:
Berlin, Altes Museum
Berlin, Bode Museum
Berlin, Pergamon Museum
Athens, Acropolis Museum
Athens, National Archaeological Museum
Dion Archaeological Museum, Macedonia
Epidauros Archaeological Museum and site
Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum, Macedonia
Veria Archaeological Museum, Macedonia
Naples, National Archaeological Museum
Rome, Barracco Museum
Rome, National Museum of Rome, Baths of Diocletian
Rome, National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Altemps
Italy - Sicily
Syracuse, Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum
Bergama Archaeological Museum
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
London, British Museum
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum
Many thanks to the staff of these museums.
Plaster cast of a marble statuette of
Asklepios in his youth, from the
Sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas, Epidauros.
Epidauros Archaeological Museum.
The original is in the
National Archaeological Museum,
Athens. Inv. No. NAMA 1809.
|Photos and articles © David John|
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