HistoryThe 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 SeeThe 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.
Construction and decorationThe temple is aligned north-south, in contrast to the majority of Greek temples which are aligned east-west; its principle entrance is from the north. This was necessitated by the limited space available on the steep slopes of the mountain. To overcome this restriction a door was placed in the side of the temple, perhaps to allow worshippers to face east or let light in to illuminate the statue.
The temple is of a relatively modest size, with the stylobate measuring 38.3 by 14.5 metres containing a Doric peristyle of six by fifteen columns (hexastyle). The roof left a central space open to admit light and air. The temple was constructed entirely out of grey Arcadian limestone except for the frieze which was carved from marble. Like most major temples it has three "rooms" or porches: the pronaos, plus a naos and an opisthodomos. The naos most likely once housed a cult statue of Apollo. The temple lacks some optical refinements found in the Parthenon, such as a subtly curved floor, though the columns have entasis.
classical orders used in ancient Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Doric columns form the peristyle while Ionic columns support the porch and Corinthian columns feature in the interior. The Corinthian capital is the earliest example of the order found to date.
It was relatively sparsely decorated on the exterior. Inside, however, there was a continuous Ionic frieze showing Greeks in battle with Amazons and the Lapiths engaged in battle with Centaurs. This frieze's metopes were removed by Charles Robert Cockerell and taken to the British Museum in 1815. (They are still to be seen in the British Museum's Gallery 16, near the Elgin Marbles.) Cockerell decorated the walls of the Ashmolean Museum's Great Staircase and that of the Travellers Club with plaster casts of the same frieze.
Re-discovery and removal by the British
The Bassae Frieze has its own room at the British Museum.
Foot fragment of a colossal statue at Bassae, displayed at the British MuseumThe temple had been noticed first in November 1765 by the French architect J. Bocher, who was building villas at Zante and came upon it quite by accident; he recognized it from its site, but when he returned for a second look, he was murdered by bandits. Charles Robert Cockerell and Carl Haller von Hallerstein, having secured sculptures at Aegina, hoped for more successes at Bassae in 1811; all Haller's careful drawings of the site were lost at sea, however.
The site was explored in 1812 with the permission of Veli Pasha, the Turkish commander of the Peloponnese, by a group of British antiquaries who removed twenty-three slabs from the Ionic cella frieze and transported them to Zante along with other sculptures. Veli Pasha's claims on the finds were silenced in exchange for a small bribe, and the frieze was bought at auction by the British Museum in 1815. This frieze's metopes were removed personally by Charles Robert Cockerell. (They are still to be seen in the British Museum's Gallery 16, near the Elgin Marbles.) Cockerell decorated the walls of the Ashmolean Museum's Great Staircase and that of the Travellers Club with plaster casts of the same frieze. The frieze sculptures were published in Rome in 1814 and officially, by the British Museum in 1820. Other hasty visits resulted in further publications. The first fully published excavation was not begun until 1836; it was carried out by Russian archaeologists under the direction of Carlo Brullo. Perhaps the most striking discovery was the oldest Corinthian capital found to date. Some of the recovered artefacts are on display at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
In 1902, a systematic excavation of the area was carried out by the Greek Archaeological Society of Athens under archaeologist Konstantinos Kourouniotis along with Konstantinos Romaios and Panagiotis Kavvadias. Further excavations were carried out in 1959, 1970 and from 1975–1979, under the direction of Nikolaos Gialouris.