On a remote hilltop in southern Greece stands one of the most beautiful of all ancient temples. The temple of Apollo at Bassae was built by the architect Ictinus at the expense of the small town of Phigaleia around 425 BC.1 The cost of building this temple, transporting the marble a considerable distance up the mountain and arranging for carving and decorations of superb quality would have been enormous, certainly, one might imagine, far more than the resources easily available to an unimportant town in the middle of a war. Pausanias, our ancient informant, links the dedication to Apollo Epikourios (the Bringer of Help) with dedications made in Athens at the same time to Apollo Alexikakos (the Warder-off of Evil) in an endeavour to put an end to the great plague.2 Pausanias’ instincts, if not his arguments, were sound.3 Plague, as the historian Thucydides had already noted, has an impact upon religion as much as upon medicine. Just as a sick individual might have recourse to a god for assistance, so the leaders of a community suffering from a widespread disease might appeal for divine aid or advice. In 426, when there was a recurrence of plague at Athens, the authorities took advice from an oracle and purified the island of Delos, sacred to Apollo, by removing from it all dead bodies, forbidding all future burials on the island and reinstating a long-decayed festival of Apollo and Artemis.4 At about the same time, the shrine of the daughters of Leos, who had delivered Athens centuries before from plague, seems to have been refurbished after years of neglect. Outside the city, in the deme of Melite a shrine was set up to Hercules Alexikakos (the Warder-off of Evil), whose cult statue was carved by Ageladas, one of the leading sculptors of the day.5 And, within a decade at most, a completely new healing god had been introduced into Athens, Asclepius.6 The burgeoning of the cult of Asclepius in the late fifth century BC is arguably as significant a development in the history of medicine as the contemporary ferment of medical theories that were later included in the Hippocratic Corpus. Asclepius came to be seen as the healing god par excellence, and the methods of healing favoured in his cult, principally incubation (seeking visions while sleeping in a temple), have often been regarded by historians as typifying all religious healing in ancient Greece and Rome. But,

this chapter will argue, it would be wrong to view this development as a conservative reassertion of traditional values in a world where religious explanations for illness were being replaced by others that stressed connections within the natural world. The relationship between religious and secular healing, and between their practitioners, is far too complex to fit a neat opposition between religion and medicine, not least because, as we have already seen, Asclepius and his family were described in literature as secular healers, and, if Ludwig Edelstein was right in his speculations, they gained divine status precisely because of their healing skills.7 The earliest stories about Asclepius are confusing and conflicting. Homer mentions the hero Asclepius and his two sons Podalirius and Machaon in the Iliad, where they are said to rule over the inhabitants of Tricca, Ithome and Oechalia.8 Hesiod, writing about the same time, and the slightly later author of the sixteenth Homeric Hymn also associate him firmly with Thessaly, where Tricca is situated.9 But in historic times Ithome and Oechalia were well-known places in Messenia, in the southern Peloponnese, and there was a tradition, of uncertain antiquity, that claimed that a Messenian was the mother of Machaon, if not of Asclepius himself.10 There was a major healing sanctuary around the tomb of Machaon at Gerenia, and a sanctuary dedicated to his sons at another Messenian town, Pharae.11 Ancient and modern scholars have tried to resolve the discrepancy, some by discovering an ancient Tricca in Messenia, others by transferring the other two names to Thessaly, or by multiplying the number of divinities called Asclepius. None of these solutions is satisfactory, and it may be wisest to assume that the legend developed in the archaic period with two independent foci.12 There was yet a third tradition that linked Asclepius with Arcadia in the northern Peloponnese, where he was said to have been brought up as a foundling.13 The question was not even settled by divine intervention, for, although a poem circulated in Late Antiquity in which Asclepius himself declared that he had been born in Tricca, the oracle of Apollo had pronounced centuries earlier that, although his mother Coronis was a Thessalian, his birthplace was, in fact, Epidaurus. This decision, made in response to a query from an Arcadian, was probably given soon after 369 BC, when Messene was refounded as a city-state after decades of Spartan domination.14 Although Apollo’s decision appears to have satisfied most Greeks, who were by now very familiar with Epidaurus as the most important centre of Asclepius cult, the older traditions lingered on, particularly in Messenia, where the shrine of Asclepius at Messene itself was unusually located right in the middle of the city, as befitted a citizen, not an incomer.15 By favouring Epidaurus, the Delphic Oracle was responding to a new situation that had developed over the previous half-century or more. Epidaurus is not mentioned in the earliest versions of the stories about Asclepius, and the account of the Epidaurian legend given by the Roman traveller Pausanias bears all the hallmarks of a late fabrication to explain why Coronis, the

daughter of a Thessalian king, should give birth to a son several hundred miles away from her home.16 For the Roman geographer Strabo, Tricca was the earliest and most famous temple of Asclepius, and Epidaurus merely a celebrated healing shrine.17 But although there is evidence for an early expansion of the cult, perhaps through association with other local healing cults – Strabo mentions a shrine of Triccan Asclepius at Gerenia in Messenia, and Herondas the mime-writer, around 275 BC, claims that Asclepius had come to Cos direct from Tricca – the shrine at Tricca remained largely local in focus and clientele.18 On this evidence, the early cult of Asclepius in Thessaly, although concerned with healing, remained largely local in focus and clientele. By contrast, from the mid-fifth century onwards the cult in its Epidaurian form spread widely, with obvious benefits for Epidaurus itself. The major shrine of the god grew ever richer in consequence. Thrasymedes of Paros was commissioned around 375 BC to carve the cult image, made of ivory and gold and half the size of that of Olympian Zeus at Athens. The round marble Tholos housed two paintings by the famous painter Pausias. Around 350 BC Epidaurus was so wealthy that it could contract with the architect Polyclitus, the builder of the Tholos, to design what to Pausanias was the most elegant theatre he had seen, as well as one of the largest in the ancient world.19 Games in honour of the god, involving musical and dramatic events, as well as athletic contests, attracted competitors from all over the Greek world.20 Our most detailed evidence for the way in which the new cult spread comes from Athens and Attica. The shrine at Zea, in the port of Piraeus, was probably set up around 420 BC, since the implication of Bdelycleon’s plan in Aristophanes’ Wasps to send Philocleon to the island of Aegina to be cured by Asclepius is that in 422 BC, when the play was first performed, this was the nearest temple to his home.21 When the shrine on Aegina was itself founded is unknown, but it too may not have been of any great antiquity, or, if it was, it was not so important that the cult spread quickly across the bay to Athens itself. Asclepius arrived in Athens only in 420/419 BC, and was soon joined in his sanctuary on the south side of the Acropolis by Hygieia, although the building of the sanctuary itself, and the planting of a small surrounding grove, was not completed for at least half a dozen years.22 Distinguished private citizens were among the earliest supporters of the new cult, including the playwright Sophocles, who composed a famous Paean in honour of the god. Popular tradition soon credited him with the introduction of the cult itself into Athens and with being the actual host of the god.23 In 399 BC the reminder of the dying Socrates to his friends that he still owed a cock to Asclepius excited no surprise as to the object of this obligation, although how it had been incurred and what precisely Socrates meant by it remain obscure.24 Although the initial impetus towards the introduction of Asclepius into Athens came ostensibly from a private individual, Telemachus, civic involvement is also clear almost from the start.25 The decision on the siting of the new shrine

required official endorsement in the face of a protest by the city’s Heralds, and although the first clear-cut evidence for the city’s official control of the shrine does not appear until the 340s, this may have begun much earlier.26 Athens was not the only city to welcome this new god and the various members of his family, including Hygieia, Panacea and Epione. By the middle of the fourth century his cult was established in many parts of the Greek-speaking world, from Cyrene on the coast of Africa to the island of Thasos in the N. Aegean and from Asia Minor in the East to Sicily in the West.27 Associations of worshippers of Asclepius are known from across the Greek world from the fourth or third century BC until the third century AD.28 No other divinity in Classical Greece made so swift or so effective a transition from a mainly local to a pan-Hellenic deity. Particularly striking is the way in which the cult of Asclepius both coexisted with other cults and superseded them. At Athens, it established links with the Eleusinian Mysteries even before reaching the city. The god stopped at Eleusis on his way to Athens to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and, perhaps by 400 BC, a festival called the Epidauria was included in the festival of the Mysteries themselves.29 Worshippers of Asclepius associated with those of two other local Athenian healing divinities, Dexion and Amynos; the already existing shrine of Amynos may have encouraged the building of that of Asclepius immediately adjacent to it.30 But elsewhere co-habitation or co-operation was a prelude to annexation. Recorded dedications to Athena Hygieia on the Athenian Acropolis, for instance, cease around 420 BC.31 On Crete, the shrine of Asclepius at Lebena seems to have been earlier dedicated to Achelous and the Nymphs, and it is possible that before the building of the great temple at Cos in the fourth century the site had formed part of the temple or precinct of Cyparissian Apollo.32 At Gortys in Arcadia, whose shrine and history has been taken to exemplify the development of Asclepius cult, construction of the shrine of Asclepius was begun in the fourth century in an area already identified with healing. Archaeologists have identified, a short distance above the temple, an older building, probably dating from the fifth century, which may once have been dedicated to the deities of the spring.33 Even at Epidaurus the original deity of the remote spot where the Asclepieion was built was Apollo Maleatas, whose shrine stands a little way off on a nearby hill. But by 500 BC Asclepius was already becoming the dominant partner.34 The same pattern of the son of Apollo taking over the healing functions of his father can also be seen at Corinth, Erythrae (on the coast of Asia Minor) and the island of Paros.35 Why, when and how this takeover took place can be only dimly discerned; although the cult of Asclepius at Corinth may be among the earliest known, dating from the early fifth century, that at Erythrae may not have come into operation until a century later, and that at Paros later still. But one should not exaggerate the dominance of Asclepius. For one thing, Asclepius was a latecomer, as the siting of his temples demonstrates. They are

rarely found within the main religious area in a town centre. Sometimes, as in the Piraeus or at Delos, they are located at the edge of the sea; elsewhere they stand on a river bank outside the walls, and sometimes they are separated by several miles from the town itself. The great temples at Cos and Pergamum are a stiff walk away from the main settlement, beautifully situated amid their groves and with a panoramic view. The temple of Epidaurus is even further away from its town, and few of the thousands of tourists who nowadays visit the remains of the shrine even know of the town’s existence, let alone take the opportunity to drive the six or seven miles to see it. The isolation of the temples of Asclepius prompted Plutarch to ask why they should be found in such remote spots, and to suggest that there might be healthful reasons for isolating the sick from those inside the town.36 Only at Messene is a major Asklepieion located in the centre of the town’s main sacral areas, surrounded by all the institutions of public life. But here, as we have already seen (see p. 105), the god was a fellow townsman, allegedly born there and honoured by his fellow citizens in the very centre of their rebuilt town. The god’s role here is far more that of a local tutelary god, protecting his own, than that of a universal healer, which may account for the absence of any building specifically devoted to the curing of the sick.37 Asclepius co-existed as a healer with many other similar cults. Apollo in particular never lost his functions as a healing god. The inhabitants of Phigaleia dedicated their new temple to Apollo the Bringer of Help, even though there was already a tradition of Asclepius worship in that part of Arcadia.38 The cult of Apollo Iatros (the Healer) was particularly prominent in the Black Sea region at colonies founded from Miletus in Asia Minor.39 Indeed, almost simultaneously with the expansion of Asclepius worship within mainland Greece, the cult of Apollo the Healer (Apollo Medicus) was being introduced to Rome in 433 BC.40 Further south in Italy the cult of Apollo Oulios (a word of doubtful origin, but certainly connected with matters medical) flourished, most notably at Elea/Velia, where the philosopher Parmenides is described as being a descendant of the god, and where a series of doctors bore the name of Oulis.41 In Attica a wide range of healing deities continued to attract suppliants. An oracle of Apollo from Delphi in 348 ordered the Athenians to sacrifice for the sake of their health to Zeus the Most High, Hercules and Apollo the Protector.42 Girls and young women made their healing vows to Artemis, Apollo’s sister, at Brauron, while a shadowy figure called the Hero Healer was worshipped at a variety of sites both in the city of Athens itself and around Attica, at Marathon, Rhamnous and Eleusis.43 Who he was was, even at the time, a matter for local conjecture, for he was variously known as Amphilochus, Aristomachus, Oresinius and even Amphiaraus. Amphiaraus, however, had his own sanctuary, with its own incubation rooms, far to the north-east of Attica near Oropus, and it may be the proximity and accessibility of this shrine that prevented the cult of Asclepius from gaining any major foothold in Boeotia.44 But even if

local gods were often aligned with Asclepius and his family, it is important to remember that any divinity had the power to protect and to heal, and that sufferers from illness had a very wide choice of divinities to whom they could appeal for assistance. The author of Regimen mentioned Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Hermes, Earth, Sun and the Heroes as healers who might be invoked to avert disease.45 Nonetheless, the marked expansion of the cult of Asclepius and his family at the end of the fifth century BC is striking, as is the enormous wealth that was quickly amassed by some of the sanctuaries.46 It was a development encouraged by one of the highest religious authorities of Greece, the Delphic Oracle, and it cut across many of the more local healing cults. While the devastation wrought by the plague of Athens may plausibly be invoked as a catalyst, this cannot be the whole story, for there had been plagues before, and there would continue to be so again.47 One might also ascribe some weight to the effectiveness of Epidaurian propaganda, as well as to a spirit of competition among cities to emulate one another in the provision of a shrine, but all this may not be enough to account for what, on the face of it, is a sudden expansion of Asclepius cult.48