Epidaurus was a city near the eastern shore of the Peloponnese, the peninsula that makes up the southern part of Greece. According to legend, Epidaurus was the birthplace of the healing god Asclepius, the son of Apollo. A famous sanctuary* devoted to Asclepius lay about five miles inland from the city. People came there from all over to be cured of diseases.
Although an altar to Asclepius had been in Epidaurus for a long time, the healing sanctuary, called the Asclepieium, became most popular in the early 300s B.C., when a great temple was built there. Visitors wishing to be healed first had to cleanse themselves in a natural spring. They then entered the Asclepieium, where they made an offering of cakes and fruit to the god. Pilgrims then slept in a sacred room called an abaton. While they slept, Asclepius visited them in their dreams, where it was believed that he either cured them of their ailments or he prescribed the necessary treatment to ease their suffering.
During its greatest popularity, the people of Epidaurus also held poetry and music contests in honor of Asclepius. Horse races and athletic events took place in a stadium near the sanctuary. The theater at Epidaurus, considered the most beautiful in the ancient world, was so well built that a coin dropped on the ground of the orchestra could be heard in the last row of seats.
Other healing sanctuaries devoted to Asclepius were located on the island of Cos and at Pergamum in Asia Minor, but Epidaurus was the most famous and revered. It was so well known as a place of healing that, during an epidemic in Rome, the Senate asked that the sacred serpent of Asclepius be sent from Epidaurus. In early Christian times, a large church was built on the site of Asclepius’s shrine. (See also Dreams; Divinities; Temples.)
* sanctuary place for worship