Peloponnesian Eyrie – The Temple of Apollo Epikourios

Once it a while, I come across a site that strikes me as so magnificent and mysterious that I wonder why I didn’t know about it before, why it’s not spoken of by everyone with an inclination to ancient history.

If you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll know that I love to travel and have done so quite a bit in Greece. A few years ago, I was touring some of the major sites with friends and family – Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia etc. The biggies.

After Olympia, we drove back into the mountains of the Peloponnese. It was hot and bright, and the cicadas were whirring louder than I had ever heard before. As I was navigating a particularly treacherous series of mountain switchbacks, my father-in-law said that we should go south to Bassae.

Temple of Bassae in 1966 (McGill University archive)

“Bassae?” I said. “What’s there?”

“Some ruins,” he answered. “There is a temple of Apollo Epikourios.”

“Apollo Epi-what?” I half-answered, too focussed on the road to pronounce this new, strange word.

Admittedly my first thought was of Apicius and food – no matter that the Roman gourmet was about a six hundred or so years off. I was also starving at that moment!

So we turned south, into the teeth of even larger mountains.

Apollo Epikourios means ‘Apollo the Succourer’ or ‘Apollo the Helper’.

Plan of Bassae temple (Wikimedia Commons)

The epithet refers to Apollo’s role as a god of healing.

In the mid-seventh century B.C., Spartan warriors and plague came to the people of Phigaleia who were living in these high mountains. Many offerings in the form of weapons were found on site indicating that originally, in this place, Apollo was worshipped as a martial god. However, after escaping Spartan aggression and the plague of later years, Apollo became a ‘succourer’ or helper to the Phigalians.

In gratitude, the Phigalians commissioned the architect Ictinus to build the temple at Bassae.

This was no small thing. In Classical Greece, Ictinus was an A-list architect – he was one of the architects of the Parthenon and the great Temple of Mysteries at Eleusis.


In the second century A.D. Pausanias visited Bassae and the temple there:

Phigalia is surrounded by mountains, on the left by Mount Cotilius, while on the right it is sheltered by Mount Elaius. Mount Cotilius is distant about forty furlongs from the city: on it is a place called Bassae, and the temple of Apollo the Succourer, built of stone, roof and all. Of all the temples in the Peloponnese, next to the one at Tegea, this may be placed first for the beauty of the stone and the symmetry of its proportions. Apollo got the name of Succourer for the succour he gave in time of plague, just as at Athens he received the surname of Averter of Evil for delivering Athens also from the plague. It was at the time of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians that he delivered the Phigalians also, and at no other time: This is proved by his two surnames, which mean much the same thing, as well by the fact that Ictinus, the architect of the temple at Phigalia, was a contemporary of Pericles, and built for the Athenians the Parthenon, as it is called.” (Pausanias)

When most tourists visit the Peloponnese today, they focus on sites like Mycenae, Epidaurus, ancient Corinth, and of course, Olympia. Why wouldn’t folks head for these places? They are magnificent sites that are all worth visiting – more than once.

However, if you are more adventurous and enjoy heading off the beaten path, the Peloponnese holds some hidden treasures that are not always prominently featured in guidebooks or on tour itineraries.

Bassae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of those special, unsung places. Academics know about it but few tourists make it there. In fact, due to its remote location, it lay mostly forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Our car whined up the steep mountain, higher and higher, the sunlight blinding. I felt like Icarus for a moment, driving up and up.

We finally levelled out and our eyes were met by a giant, white…tent.

The ‘tent’ covering the temple at Bassae

“This is weird,” I remembered saying. I had no idea what lay beneath the white, sail barge structure.

We paid our minimal entry fee to the lady in the wooden site booth; she sat smoking and sipping an hours-old café frappé.

The mountain top was rocky and desolate, patched with hardy olive trees and shrubs. We made our way up the rocky path to the tent and stepped beneath the awning.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Doric columns in front of temple wall

Up there, at what felt like the top of the world, was a magnificent stone temple, one of the most complete temples I had ever seen. The stone was cracked in many places, pounded by the elements for centuries in its eyrie.

But it was intact, columns and walls, foundations. A few stray rays of sunlight made their way into the shaded sanctum to illuminate the cella. We were the only visitors on site, and the main sense that invaded my person was pure awe.

Steps leading up to temple platform

Bassae’s Temple of Apollo is a particularly important specimen, and not just because of the architect. It contained the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital which was displayed in the middle of the naos which was lined with Ionic columns. However, on the outside of the temple, the strength and support of the structure is provided by strong Doric columns, fifteen on each long side and six on the ends.

One of the things that make this temple unique is the incorporation of all three of the classical orders of columns. Also, the interior of the cella was ornamented with a series of beautifully detailed friezes of the Amazonomachy (Battle of the Amazons) and the Battle Centaurs and Lapiths.

Fanciful reconstruction of Bassae interior by Charles Cockerell (Wikimedia Commons)

You can see the Bassae Friezes at the British Museum where they are on display, far from their home at the top of that lonely mountain.

I think I was in such awed shock the first time that I didn’t quite realize what I was looking at.

Some places do that to you. The power of the place and setting can quite overwhelm the academic eye.

Amazonomachy – Bassae Frieze

After wandering around the temple for a time, we went back outside into the sun to look at the surrounding countryside. These were some of the highest mountains in the Peloponnese and they stretched out in all directions. It is a quiet, contemplative atmosphere.

Sunlight filtering into the cella of the temple

Outside the cicadas were louder than ever, but it is a sound I have come to associate with peace. The air was hot but dry and tinged with wild thyme that must once have been laid upon Apollo’s altar by the Phigalians.

We stood in the sun and looked to Mount Kotilon where the map indicated that there was a Temple to Aphrodite and another to Artemis Orthasia, the ‘Protector of Small Children’.

These mountains are a place for gods.

I hope, one day, to return to Bassae. I want to circle the Temple of Apollo Epikourios and to remember the Phigalians who thanked him for his aid by building him this magnificent sanctuary in the sky.

* A useful source on the temple of Apollo Epikourios is:

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey Through Time and Space published by the Greek Ministry of Culture Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai


Ancient Everyday – Time for a Bath

Baths of Diocletian (by unknown artist)

Showering, bathing and generally keeping clean is something that we take for granted today. For most people, washing is part of the daily routine.

If you look at the Middle Ages, this was not the case. In fact, medieval people were pretty filthy. This isn’t surprising as bathing was considered a sin by many.

This wasn’t the case for ancient Romans, thank the gods.

As we do today, the Romans bathed and washed regularly, and as with going to the toilet, bathing was yet another very social activity for Romans.

Throughout the Roman Empire, public and private baths were common, owing something to the situating of bath houses over hot springs, and their ingenious use of aqueducts which brought water into the cities over great distances.

Baths and bathing complexes, of course, varied widely in size and the level of sophistication, whether the small pools and tubs of private balneae, or the massive imperial complexes called thermae. Whatever the size, there were some common attributes to most public baths across the Empire.

The Apodyterium

Ruins of an ancient apodyterium

Ruins of an ancient apodyterium

This was a sort of changing room where visitors to the baths would undress and leave their clothes in niches in the walls, not unlike today. Slaves were in attendance to give out towels and take care of your items. However, not unlike today, theft was common in the apodyterium, so wealthier patrons brought their slaves along to carry their possessions for them.

The Palaestra

A palaestra in Pompeii

A palaestra in Pompeii

The palaestra was the workout area where some patrons would exert themselves before going into the baths themselves. Just as people hit the gym today, so the Romans exercised on the sands of the palaestra by wrestling, boxing, lifting stone or lead weights, and other activities. The scene here would have been one of competition, of grunting, and sweating. It could get pretty loud, as attested to by the Roman Seneca:

I live over a public bath-house. Just imagine every kind of annoying noise! The sturdy gentleman does his exercise with lead weights; when he is working hard (or pretending to) I can hear him grunt; when he breathes out, I can hear him panting in high pitched tones. Or I might notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rub-down, and hear the blows of the hand slapping his shoulders. The sound varies, depending on whether the massager hits with a flat or hollow hand. To all of this, you can add the arrest of the occasional pickpocket; there’s also the racket made by the man who loves to hear his own voice in the bath or the chap who dives in with a lot of noise and splashing.” (Seneca in AD 50)

Roman Women working out

Roman Women working out

But the palaestra was not just for men. In ancient Rome, women too were permitted to exercise and stay fit. One famous mosaic shows a group of women engaged in exercise on the palaestra floor, though this was probably done at a different time, or in a separate area from the men.

The Tepidarium

Tepidarium, Chedworth Roman Villa, England

Tepidarium, Chedworth Roman Villa, England

After the exertions of the palaestra, patrons would then move to the first room of the baths proper, the tepidarium. As the name implies, this was the ‘warm’ room where one could begin to heat up and start sweating. In some cases, the tepidarium had a warm water bath in which bathers could submerse themselves, but in other instances, it was just a room of warm air, thanks to the underground, and in-wall heating from the system of hypocausts that were used to heat the baths.

The tepidarium was often highly ornate too. Men and women could lounge and talk business, gossip or anything else while being rubbed down with oils which the Romans used instead of soap. Once they were warm enough, and the oils had started to go to work on their pores, bathers moved to the next room.

The Caldarium

Hypocausts beneath the  floor of the caldarium at Bath, England

Hypocausts beneath the floor of the caldarium at Bath, England

The caldarium was the hottest room in the bath complex, located as it was directly above the hypocaust furnace. This was the equivalent of the modern sauna where patrons would be more still, sweat, and scrape the mixture of oil and dirt from their skin with a tool called a strigil.

Roman strigil set with container for oil

Roman strigil set with container for oil

The caldarium had a basin with cold water for patrons to wet themselves with, but also a hot pool if they wanted to soak some more. The heat from the caldarium is what brought the dirt to the surface and aided with the cleaning of their bodies in concert with the oil that was rubbed on.

The Frigidarium

Frigidarium in the Baths of Diocletian, Rome

The frigidarium of a Roman bath complex

After the tepidarium and caldarium, it was time to close the pores and revive, and what better way to do this than by jumping into a cold pool of water.

Welcome to the frigidarium! One can imagine the echo of people’s squeals as they landed in the cold water, the shock running through them in a great wake-up call. Some of the larger bath complexes would also have included a swimming pool at this stage, in which patrons could swim a few laps.

The frigidarium was not a room patrons would spend too much time in. Who would want to when the next step is so enjoyable?

Massages, Food, and more Socializing

After having made his/her way through the various rooms of the bathing complex, many Romans would opt to get a massage. Either they had their own slaves oil them again and work away at their muscles, or they would have one of the bathing complex’s massage slaves work on them.

What better way to work out the knots owed to debates in the Senate house, fights on the battlefield, haggling in the imperial fora or other activities than to have fragrant oils massaged into your newly cleaned skin.

I tell you, the Romans knew what they were doing with this ancient toilette ritual! I’m relaxed just thinking about it.

After the massage, and dressing again in the apodyterium, some of the larger complexes had tabernae attached where patrons could go and eat, have a drink, gamble a bit at games, and most importantly, socialize.

Layout of the Antonine Baths of Roman Carthage (modern Tunis)

Layout of the Antonine Baths of Roman Carthage (modern Tunis)

That’s the interesting thing about public baths in the Roman Empire; they weren’t just facilities intended to curb public health issues by keeping the populace clean and hygienic, they were also the community centres, or community hubs, of the ancient world.

They were a bit of an equalizer too. In the Colosseum or Circus Maximus, the rich might have had the better seats with cushions, but in the thermae of the Empire, when naked, everyone was standing on equal footing.

The magnificent ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome

The magnificent ruins and gardens of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome

So, next time you visit your, gym, local pool, or community centre, remember that you are participating in a highly social activity, owed mainly to the ingenuity of the Romans.

Thank you for reading.

For a bit more information, check out the video below from the series What the Romans Did for Us, with Adam Hart Davis. In this episode, he looks at Roman baths among other things related to Roman luxury!