Why Greeks Built Their Temples

Why Greeks Built Their Temples

Crafting A Binding Contract With The Sacred

Delphi: Treasury of the Athenians by Richard Sheppard

People tend to treat Greek temples as ancient houses of worship. Later generations didn’t hesitate to turn them into churches, then into mosques. Today, these battered ruins still evoke powerful spiritual impulses. But we should be mindful of what we project onto romantically dilapidated piles of marble.

Ancient Greek authors vividly described a society in which most holy places had no preacher or temple and needed none. The act of worship took place under the sky, around an altar, as prayers and sacrifices and ceremonial meals. Their stone temples, a huge collective effort that still dominates our image of the Classical past, left surprisingly few traces in surviving literary sources to explain why they were built.

Once built, we know what temples were used for. The offerings excavated around them fill our museums: drinking cups, figures of people and animals, but also a surprising amount of military hardware: spearheads, shields, helmets, chariot hubs, warships’ rams. Some objects are inscribed: “The Athenians [offered this helmet] to Zeus having taken it from the Medes.” And if you look up at the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens you can trace the circular weathering marks from the gilded bronze shields offered to Athena, the city’s patron goddess.

In a world without plate glass, a temple colonnade makes a decent trophy case. Temples serve as treasuries and museums, advertising a Greek city’s special relationship with its gods and its citizens’ exploits in war, athletic competition, and politics.

But why did they build them in the first place? Hoping for better answers, I created an app called ToposText to link ancient literature to the ancient sites I loved to visit. Rome ultimately subjugated Greece, and Roman historical sources colonized my app. Roman historians had no problem explaining why temples got built.

An inland temple, built astride a key land route to Athens about the time the plague struck, is also oriented with uncanny accuracy toward Apollo’s sacred island. 

The Story of Veii

Veii, an Etruscan metropolis less than 10 miles from the Forum in Rome, had been Rome’s favorite enemy for centuries. About the same time the Athenians were putting Socrates to death, the Romans decided to get rid of Veii once and for all. When a multiyear siege produced no results, the Romans appealed for divine help. An embassy was sent to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. The helpful prophecy that ensued attracted a huge army, hungry for plunder. Still, Rome was taking no chances with the gods, particularly Queen Juno, the powerful local goddess who had Veii under her protection.         

Before the battle, Livy tells us, the Roman general Camillus reached out his arms to heaven:

Pythian Apollo, inspired by thy guidance and divine power I go forth to destroy the city of Veii, and a tenth part of its spoils I devote to thee. You too, Queen Juno, who live in Veii now, I pray that you follow us, victorious, to the City which is ours and which will soon be yours, where a temple worthy of thy majesty will receive thee.

The temple was a bribe, and the goddess took it. Veii was conquered, its inhabitants slaughtered or enslaved, and Queen Juno’s ancient image took up residence in a fine new temple on the Aventine hill, gazing out over the fields she had forsaken. Nor was Apollo forgotten. A suitably inscribed golden bowl made its way to Delphi.

Not all Roman temples, but a high percentage, can be documented as the offspring of such unlovely promises. Could it be that this transactional approach—bribing the gods with temples and gold—was borrowed from their Greek neighbors? The simple answer is yes.

Religious topography

As Athens grew from small town in the 7th century BCE to a mini-empire in the 5th century BCE, each addition to its territory was associated with a new shrine in Athens for the patron deity of the territory added. The Eleusinion was built beneath the Acropolis for Demeter and Persephone when their home in Eleusis was conquered;

The Eurysakeion was built to house the local demigod who surrendered the island of Salamis; The temple of Dionysos Eleuthereus was built for an ancient image of the wine god plundered from Eleutherai. The list goes on, and in each case, a foreign or half-foreign deity was conciliated and domesticated as Athens advanced its borders. 

The eve of a major battle is not the only situation in which a god’s favorable intercession might need to be purchased. The face of Apollo as depicted in ancient art is beautiful and passionless, but he could be an all-too-human angry god. The deadly plague he sent to punish the Greeks in Book I of the Iliad was a semiregular occurrence in the ancient world.

Camillus at Veii was of an age to remember a pestilence that hit Rome in 433 BCE. Some obscure sin had triggered Apollo’s deadly wrath. So a temple was promised, the plague eased, and Rome duly dedicated a temple to Apollo the Doctor.

That same plague affected the entire Eastern Mediterranean. On a desolate mountaintop at Bassai, the Arcadians built a stunning temple for Apollo Epikourios—Apollo of mercenaries and/or adjuvant medical remedies. Pausanias wrote that the architect was Iktinos, the architect of the Parthenon, and that Bassai was built in response to the same plague that hit Athens.

As the leading naval and trading power of Greece, Athens was acutely vulnerable to exotic diseases. Medicine was primitive, so the heart of the Athenian response was religious, including a ring of temples marking the Athenian coastline, built up over time and dedicated to Apollo and his equally deadly sister Artemis. She guarded the harbor of Mounychia at Piraeus; Apollo sat above the old harbor at Phaleron and had another temple at Zoster, pointed toward the island of Delos, where Apollo and Artemis were born.

The great marble temple at Sounion had statues dedicated to Apollo and points directly to Delos. An inland temple, built astride a key land route to Athens about the time the plague struck, is also oriented with uncanny accuracy toward Apollo’s sacred island. Aigina’s Apollo temple also points at Delos, and so does that of Eretria on the island of Euboea. 

Greece’s magnificent temples were offerings—for victory or protection—whose motives can sometimes be read in their orientation toward a god’s birthplace. Like medieval churches offered to saints or the Virgin Mary in similar circumstances, they were physical manifestations of deep and genuine piety, articulated by the best architects their society possessed in a time of unifying, transformative crisis. Even when that crisis was not an elegant one, the trek to a fallen temple will continue to inspire. The ancient Greeks chose marble as a canvas onto which their spiritual aspirations painted themselves easily and beautifully. Among the tumbled ruins we can do them same.

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