More on the temple of Apollo at Bassae

The exhibition in Cuba has reminded me of the existence of this little-visited temple, and my first experience of Greece.

What follows is a bit of nostalgia.

I first visited the temple in September 1958, after my first year as a Classics student. My friend Mark and I travelled by train to Athens (with an adventure on the way that must be for another time), a journey that cost £18 return.

There we joined by arrangement two other young men who had driven across Europe in a green van, and the four of us toured Greece in the van.

Those were the good years for exploring Greece. Tourism was being encouraged, and concrete tourist buildings (can't think of the name they gave them) were new and, to us, expensive, but tourists were few. Little boys ran after us in Athens shouting 'Germani?' and I think were pleased when we replied 'Ochi. Inglesi'.

New roads were being built, but once off these new roads we found we were regarded by the locals as interesting specimens. In one village the only eating place was the village butcher's shop. As we sat at one of the two or three tables enjoying our goat's meat (or was that somewhere else?) it seemed that the entire population of the village just happened to need to visit the butcher. They came in at one door, took a good look at us, and went out of the other door. A couple of girls came over, very daring, and tried out their phrase or two or English. When we answered they ran away giggling.

We were able to walk freely in all the temples, including the Parthenon and the Temple of Athene Nike, and most sites were freely open to all, that now are fenced and charge admission. Near the end of our time Mark and I took a boat to Crete and a bus to Phaestos, where we slept in the open in the palace – my only overnight stay in a royal palace.

But to get on to Bassae.

We were among the lucky few with our own transport, so we were able to go where most people couldn't. Part of the way up towards Bassae was by a newly constructed road that would not be finished by the winter. One of the lads had served in Cyprus in his National Service and had learned Greek from a monk. He was able to talk to the road workers in the taverna that evening, and asked what would happen to the unfinished road in winter. They cheerfully told him that most of it would probably be washed away, but that they would rebuild it in the spring. More employment.

We saw the temple at Bassae when it was dusk, and the columns stood out black against the sky, with nothing else to be seen but barren mountainside.

Only years later did I study the temple, learn about the first Corinthian column ever to be made (now lost) which stood in the temple, inspired by the acanthus that grew on the grave of the sculptor's daughter or so the story goes), understand about engaged columns, and discover the place where the rising sun could strike the cult statue. My more recent visit saw me much better informed, but was not such an impressive experience. The horrid tent covered the building by then.

No, that first visit was the memorable one, when we all had the feeling of discovering something wild and powerful.

My only other visit was by taxi, when I saw, on the way up from the village, a round threshing floor, such as they say was the place where the first tragic and comic choruses were performed in the time of Thespis.

There is a stunning aerial photo of the temple in the Nelson Atlas of the Classical World, edited by van der Heyden and Scullard. My edition is 1959. The temple stands in the middle, dwarfed by the expanse of rock and bare soil all around. I hope it will not be not infringing copyright to take a photo of the page and post it here, to give an idea. You need to see the actual book to get the full effect.


There's a rather hilarious drawing from an 1860 book, reproduced in Roger Ling's Classical Greece, of Bassae being uncovered. Hilarious, because of the size of the human figures, designed to make the temple look huge.


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