A guided tour of the houses of the gods

The Complete Greek Temples
August 25, 2006

Connoisseurs of superior vade mecums will surely have on their shelves and regularly also in their hands Christopher Mee and Antony Spawforth's Greece: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (2001). There they will have read that, in pre-Christian antiquity, temples were "the most elaborate in a near-endless spectrum of gifts offered by individuals and states to their gods". Le Corbusier too would have been heartened to know that a Greek temple was a machine for living in - by a god or goddess, not mere mortals, of course: hence the two Greek words for it ( oikos and naos ), both signifying habitation, whereas our "temple" comes from the Latin templum , designating a sacred space or precinct, an equivalent of the Greek hieron or temenos .

How lovely were their dwelling places, those lords (and ladies) of hosts! But it was not actually in the temples that their religious worship was typically performed. For that, the indispensable piece of ritual equipment was an outdoor altar, usually rectangular, made of stone or earth, on which would be offered up bloody animal, or bloodless vegetable, sacrifices.

So although there were many thousands of religious sanctuaries in Greece, there were relatively few temples. And even fewer of the colonnaded kind on which Tony Spawforth has chosen to focus in this beautifully conceived and written, thoroughly documented and brilliantly designed and illustrated handbook (with more than 400 well-chosen and reproduced figures, 130 in colour). Sparta, for example, in the 2nd century AD boasted more than 60 sanctuaries for a pious pagan travel writer to log, but not a single colonnaded temple that has survived to make its mark on The Complete Greek Temples . Sparta's isolation and exceptionalism obtrude all the more because "Greek" here means Hellenic, encompassing not just the territory of the modern state of Greece but also Sicily and southern Italy (known to the ancients as "Great Greece"), the Crimea and parts of Libya, Egypt and Turkey.

The book is divided into five main sections. "Homes of the gods" offers a potted political and cultural history of the 200 or so known examples, from their invention in about 600BC to their post-antique decline and modern rediscovery and sometimes re-creation. "Building for the gods" inspects the nuts and bolts, as it were, of their siting, construction, decoration and finance. "The living temple" examines them as a focus for ritual worship and for other not always quite expected (by us) functions. "Encounters with the gods" attempts to convey a feel of the atmosphere of an ancient act of "due recognition" of the godhead. A veil is discreetly drawn over one alleged encounter of a distinctly physical nature between a (stone) cult-statue of Aphrodite and a rather over-excited male admirer. Finally, "Temples of the gods" is a regionally disposed gazetteer in the shape of seven imaginary journeys, starting with Italy and Sicily and ending in Syria and North Africa.

It is invidious to pick out particular plums. But perhaps the temple of (probably) Athena at Assos in the Troad (northwest corner of Turkey today) may serve as something of a type-case of what the Spawforth approach can achieve. It was not unique in being located right by the sea, with a wonderful view (the ancient Greeks' word for "view" was spelt the same as that for "goddess"). But uniquely for a building in the Doric order, it had a continuous sculptural frieze above the outside columns depicting, among other scenes, exploits of the universal hero-god Heracles. Altogether, Assos occupies about a page, including a stunning colour picture that shows the five re-erected columns made from the brittle local andesite.

By contrast, the entire region of Macedonia and the northeast gets just a page and a half in The Complete Greek Temples , whereas in the artefactually comprehensive Oxford guide Macedonia alone gets 50 pages of the 350. Even so, that little is enough to expose the felonious monks of St Panteleimon.

A cornice block that originally adorned the composite pagan temple dedicated to the Greek-Egyptian deity Zeus-Ammon at Aphytis in Chalcidice now graces their Russico monastery on the Holy Mountain of Athos. This is hardly, needless to add, the most heinous case of temple-sculpture relocation: tucked away on the final page of the main text is the reluctant confession that, generally speaking, a museum is where you have to go to see important sculptural material from Greek temple sites - and not necessarily one in what was or is a Hellenic land.

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, Cambridge University.

The Complete Greek Temples

Author - Tony Spawforth
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 240
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 500 05142 9

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