Located on a remote mountainside in the Peloponnese, the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae is an exceptionally large, well-preserved and mysterious Classical temple. It is unique in many ways, not least in its daring combination of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian elements. Its single Corinthian capital is the oldest known in the world.
History of the Temple of Apollo Epicurius
The magnificent ancient temple visible today was not the first to stand on this rugged mountain site. Excavations have shown that the foundations of the Temple of Apollo reused blocks from at least one Archaic predecessor. Artifacts from the 7th, 6th, and 5th centuries have been discovered, including some terracotta decoration. Votive offerings of many periods have also been uncovered, dating all the way back to Geometric times.
The present Temple of Apollo Epicurius was built sometime between 450 and 400 BC, around the time of the Parthenon in Athens. Its style seems to indicate a date prior to the Parthenon, perhaps designed 450-440 BC with a completion date around 425 BC.1 (Other sources date it to shortly after the Parthenon.2) The ancient writer Pausanius attributed the design to Iktinos, architect of the Parthenon, but so far this has not been independently confirmed.
The temple's isolated location and unusual dedication (epikourios means "helper" or "protector") have kept scholars occupied for over 200 years. One explanation is that the villagers of nearby Figalos prayed to Apollo for protection from a plague and built the temple in gratitude for his assistance. Another theory is that Apollo was considered the protector of the Arcadians, especially mercenaries, who funded the temple.
Whatever the reason for its construction, the Temple of Apollo Epicurius was no modest, back-woods shrine. It is built on a grand scale with great precision and architectural creativity. Its combination of Doric and Ionic orders in a single structure was quite daring, and its Corinthian capital is the oldest known example in the ancient world.
The temple at Bassae remained well-preserved over the centuries, thanks primarily to its isolation. All but forgotten, it was too far up in the mountains for looting of materials to be practical anyway. The ancient ruin was not rediscovered until 1765, when the French architect Joachim Bocher stumbled on it by accident.
In 1811-12, British and German antiquarians poked around the ruins a bit and brought the metope sculptures back to their own countries. The cella friezes were bought by the British Government for £19,000 and placed in the British Museum, where they remain today.
The Greek Archaeological Society restored the temple from 1902 to 1906, re-erecting some fallen columns and restoring the cella walls. Another renovation was carried out in the 1960s, during which some fragments of the frieze were excavated.
A "temporary" protective tent was erected over the temple in 1987 that still remains in place today. It keeps out the extremes of the mountain weather, but obscures much of the architectural beauty of this celebrated Classical temple.
What to See at the Temple of Apollo Epicurius
The Temple of Apollo the Helper stands on a rocky outcropping of Mt. Kotilion (Palaiavlachitsa) at an altitude of 3,710 feet (1131m). The many ravines (Βασσαι) surrounding the terrace give the site its general name. Locals refer to the temple as stous stylous ("the columns") or the Naos (after the innermost part of the temple). It is accessible by road and located 14.5km from the town of Andritsaina.
Made primarily of local gray limestone, the temple has a naturally cold appearance that reflects its windswept surroundings. In an unusual combination of materials, Doliana marble was used for the Ionic and Corinthian capitals of the limestone temple, as well as for the sculptured friezes. The cella friezes now in the British Museum depict battles between the Greeks and the Amazons and the Lapiths and Centaurs.
Standing on a platform of three steps, the Temple of Apollo Epicurius is oriented exactly north, departing from the usual eastern orientation. The peristyle (outer colonnade) consists of 15 Doric columns on the long sides and 6 Doric columns on the ends. The architrave has survived mostly intact, but the pediment and roof have long since disappeared. The sculptures of the pediment may have been taken to Rome in ancient times.1
While the exterior of the temple adheres strictly to the Doric order, the interior reveals an unusual combination of Classical orders: the inner shrine (naos) is enclosed within 10 Ionic columns embedded in low walls and a solitary Corinthian column stands at the southern end next to the adyton. The capital atop this column was the oldest known Corinthian capital in existence; sadly, it was accidentally shattered during excavations.
Among the many mysteries of this unique temple was whether it originally contained a cult statue. No base for an image has been found and some suggest that the unusual Corinthian column in the altar area was an aniconic representation of Apollo. However, Pausanius recorded that there was a bronze Apollo statue at Bassae, which was moved to the agora of Megalopolis in 369 BC and replaced by an acrolithic statue (wood with marble head and limbs). Part of a foot from a colossal marble statue of Apollo was discovered in the rear room of the temple, but it dates from the Hellenistic era, c.150-100 BC.
Quick Facts on the Temple of Apollo Epicurius
|Names:||Temple of Apollo Epicurius · Temple of Bassae|
|Categories:||temples; ruins; World Heritage Sites|
|Styles:||Doric order; Ionic style|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||37.430117° N, 21.898799° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Temple of Apollo Epicurius|
- Blue Guide Greece: The Mainland, 7th ed. (W.W. Norton, 2006), 279-82.
- Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae: Advisory Body Evaluation - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Greece: Bassae Sculptures (Room 16) - British Museum
- Temple of Apollo Epicurius - World Heritage Site
- Photos of the Temple of Apollo Epicurius - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Temple of Apollo Epicurius, Bassae
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Temple of Apollo Epicurius. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.