Epidaurus was a small city (polis) in ancient Greece on the Argolid Peninsula in the Peloponnese. A sanctuary to Asklepios, the god of medicine and healing, developed as the official cult of the city-state and became an important sacred centre of healing. The prosperity brought by the Asklepieion enabled Epidaurus to construct some of the purest masterpieces of Greek architecture, including the huge theatre that delighted Pausanias for its symmetry and beauty. The site is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Coordinates: 37°35’44.9″N 23°04’46.7″E
Long before the cult of Asklepios was established, the area around Epidaurus was the site of ceremonial healing practices, later associated with the worship of the deity Apollo Maleatas. The sanctuary was located on a low hill on Mount Kynortion, above the later Asklepieion. Asklepios, whom the Epidaurians claimed to be from their city (although the cult began in Thessaly), took precedence from the 6th century BC when the sanctuary was developed into the most important therapeutic centre of the ancient world where ill people went in the hope of being cured. Inscribed slabs recorded that the sick undertook ritual sleep in the sanctuary, during which the god appeared to them in dreams.
Asklepios, son of Apollo (god of healing, truth, and prophecy) and the mortal princess Koronis, learned medicine and the art of healing from the centaur Chiron. Credited with possessing great healing powers, Asklepios brought prosperity to the sanctuary and peaked in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC when the Epidaurians launched a lavish building programme. The new facilities included healing cults and rituals, a library, temples to Artemis and Asklepios, baths, a stadium, a hospital and a theatre. The sporting and artistic buildings were used in the Asklepieia festival, founded around 400 BC and held every four years to celebrate theatre, sport and music.
The Epidaurian cult was exported throughout the ancient world so that more than 200 new Asklepieia were built, the most notable being in Athens, Kos, Pergamon, and Rome, all under the patronage of the sanctuary in Epidauros.
Hadrian visited Epidaurus during his first trip to Greece in AD 124. His visit had a definite effect on the sanctuary as the emperor enforced new regulations concerning the appointment of religious ministers and the recurrence of the Asklepieia. Most Epidaurian coins minted after Hadrian’s visit had Asklepieia as part of the reverse legend. Hadrian’s visit is attested in at least three inscriptions (IG IV²,1 606, IG IV²,1 607, AE 1974, 611) in which he is called “saviour and benefactor”. The city erected a statue of him in AD 124, and a new era in the local calendar began this year (IG IV²,1 384).
The sanctuary enjoyed a new flowering in the mid-2nd century AD when Sextus Iulius Maior Antoninus Phytodorus, an aristocrat from Nysa in Asia Minor, funded a rebuilding programme. New gods were also introduced into the sanctuary: Ammon, Sarapis, and Isis, as evidenced by the discoveries of dedicatory inscriptions. In AD 395, the Goths under Alaric raided the sanctuary. Emperor Theodosius II definitively ended the sanctuary’s rites in AD 426. However, even after Christianity’s introduction and the oracles silencing, Epidaurus was still known as late as the mid-5th century as a Christian healing centre. A five-aisled early Christian basilica was built at the end of the 4th century AD, making it one of the earliest churches known in Greece.
Excavations at the ancient site began in 1881 under the auspices of the Greek Archaeological Society and continue to the present day. Today, the magnificent theatre, renowned for its exceptional acoustics, is still used for performances in an annual traditional theatre festival.