Sometime around 380 BC the citizens of the small Peloponnesian city Epidaurus launched a massive building program at the
nearby healing sanctuary of Asclepius.
In terms of scale, expense and design, nothing like the Epidaurian building program had been attempted since Pericles’s grand imperial project in fifth-century Athens.
Above: in the foreground is the Thymele, behind it stands the Abaton, and to the right is the Temple of Asclepius.
The sanctuary was expanded to include a fine new temple designed and built by the architect Theodotos, an expensive chryselephantine cult statue created by the Parian sculptor Thrasymedes, an innovative theatre attributed to Polykleitos the Younger and, most important for us here, an elaborate round building, exquisite in design and decoration, known as the Thymele.
Only the best
In terms of labour, expense and complexity, the
Epidaurian thymele eclipsed the structures that surrounded it. The variety and quality of the materials used in its construction were unmatched in the Epidaurian Asclepieion and in most other Greek sanctuaries.
This sumptuous building was central both physically and ritually to the panhellenic sanctuary it adorned. This is confirmed by its position next to the temple of Asclepius and directly across from the old altar of Apollo and Asclepius. For its size, the Thymele was the most costly and ornate building in the Peloponnese.
The Thymele was also innovative in terms of structure and design: not only were tholoi (round buildings) rare in Greek sanctuaries generally, but this particular round building had an unusual labyrinthine substructure that made it unique in the history of Greek architecture.
It is with good reason that the famous American epigrapher Alison Burford describes the Thymele at Epidaurus as “the most beautiful building in the sanctuary, surely intended by the planners to be a wonder to all beholders.
Interpretations and Hypotheses
Since its excavation in the nineteenth century, scholars have proposed a wide range of interpretations for this enigmatic
structure, all prompted in part by its curious design.
For example, the Thymele has been considered to be either Asclepius’s tomb or an architectural frame for an altar to the hero-god. These readings seem logical, given the building’s central position in the sanctuary and its name: the term Thymele is often associated with altars or other places of sacrifice. The Thymele has also been interpreted as a prytaneion, a fountain house, a dining hall, an astronomical tool, a library, a space for therapeutic incubation, and even a house for sacred snakes.
A curious hole at the centre of the Thymele’s floor opens into the substructure below, and this been interpreted as a well or a pit for offerings including blood libations and eggs (a common symbol of rebirth) that were supposedly poured into it from the cella above.
Other scholars have suggested that the substructure was a maze through which worshippers wandered like initiates in a mystery cult.
Some of these interpretations have captured the popular imagination and appear in handbooks and guides on Greek architecture and religion, but there is room for further research and new hypotheses.
Harmonics of Healing
We are suggesting that in addition to many other possible functions, the Thymele at Epidaurus served as a space or musical performance. This music may have been specifically and intimately related to the function of the sanctuary of Asclepius: ritualised healing. We show how the architects of the Thymele harnessed the latest innovations in ancient musical, medical, and acoustical theory and created a building that provided a locus for the sacred harmonics of the gods, a building that would indeed inspire awe and wonder to all who saw—and heard—it.