the apollo temple at bassae

Walter Burkert in Greek Religion:
That Apollo is a god of healing remains a central trait in his worship – from the mythical foundation of Didyma when Branchos, ancestor of the priestly line of the Branchidai, banished a plague, to the building of the well-preserved temple in the lonely mountains of Bassae in Arcadia, which was erected following the plague in 430 BCE and dedicated to Apollo the Helper, Epikourios.

Pictures and text from the on site presentation board:

Built in a quiet and isolated site, within the high and barren mountains of western Arcadia, in Bassae, at an altitude of 1131 m, the Temple of Apollo Epikourios holds a special place in the history of Greek architecture. The mountain is scored with ravines (bassai or bessai in ancient Greek), which gave the place the name “Bassae”. The  “Parthenon of the Peloponnese”, made by Iktinos (420-400 BCE) according to the Roman historian Pausanias, is one of the best surviving examples of classical architecture, combining conservative and innovative features.

Situated approximately 13 km SW of the temple are the remains of the ancient Arcadian city Phigaleia. In the Archaic period (7th century BCE), the people of Phigaleia asked the oracle in Delphi to reclaim their land from the Spartans. With the help of their neighbors, the Oresthasians, they were successful. To honor Apollo, they erected a temple and they worshiped him as “Epikourios”, which means “assistant in evils of war”.

Some architectural parts discovered in the area probably belong to the archaic temple , which had one or two building phases around 600 and 500 BCE.

Later (429 BCE) the Phigaleians worshipped Apollo as a divine healer, because they understood that they were saved by him from a lethal epidemic. They replaced the original structure with a newer and bigger temple on the same place.

The temple of the classical period that the visitors enjoy today combines several archaic characteristics, influenced by the conservative religious tradition of the Arcadians, and the new features of the classical era. The building is made of local grey limestone, while parts of the roof, the capitals of the cella and the sculptured decoration are made of marble. The Classical temple was erected on the bedrock of a specially built terrace. Like several other temples of Arcadia, the orientation is north-south, instead of the usual east-west, probably because of some local tradition.
The monument is unique, as it combines elements of the main three architectural styles of antiquity. It is Doric, peripteral, distyle in antis, with pronaos, cella, adyton and opisthodomos. The temple has six columns on the short and fifteen on the long sides, instead of the usual ratio 6 : 13. That feature gives the temple its characteristic elongated shape, a memory of the archaic temples.

A Doric frieze of undecorated metopes and triglyphs ran along the outer facades. Only the inner metopes of the short sides were decorated: those on the pronaos had depictions of Apollo’s return to Olympus from the countries “beyond the north” (hyper ton borrean – in Greek), and those on the opisthodomos represented the capture of the daughters of the Messenian king Leukippos by the Dioskouroi. The pediments may have been undecorated.

The most eminent decorative feature of the temple was the marble Ionic frieze, supported by the Ionic half-columns in the cella. Paionios, who created in Olympia the splendid statue of Nike, was probably the sculptor of the frieze. The frieze was thirty-one meters long and consisted of twenty-three marble slabs, twelve of which depicted the battle between Greeks and Amazons, while the remaining eleven showed the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs. During the first systematic excavation of the temple, held by foreign archeologists in 1812, the slabs were discovered under various pieces of the building. After its looting by the so-called excavators, the frieze and other sculptures of the temple were transferred to England in 1814, and exhibited in the British Museum (1815), where they remained until today.

At the time of my visit in 2023 the temple was undergoing extensive restauration. A tent was erected over the temple to protect the existing structure, which can be clearly seen in some of the pictures. Near the temple a masonry workshop has been set up.