Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.13

Peter Schultz, Bronwen L. Wickkiser, George Hinge, Chrysanthos Kanellopoulos, John Franklin, The Thymele at Epidauros. Healing, Space, and Musical Performance in Late Classical Greece.   Fargo, N.D:  Theran Press, 2017.  Pp. 239.  ISBN 9781944296049.  $59.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Margaret M. Miles, University of California, Irvine (

The authors of this book present an intriguing and exciting thesis about the form and function of one of antiquity’s most beautiful buildings, the thymele (or tholos) in the sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros. Attributed to the architect Polykleitos the Younger by Pausanias (2.27.5), the thymele (so labeled in its building accounts) shows off brilliantly the potential of using the rectangular conventions of Greek temple architecture for a round building. With a diameter of almost 22 m and a height of about 9 m, the peripteral thymele would have dominated the broad terrace to the west of the small Temple of Asklepios and must have been a focal-point for the sanctuary as a whole.

The authors’ central thesis is that the thymele served as a venue for performances of song, instrumental music and dance in honor of the deity, and that the unusual construction of the thymele’s foundations (discussed below) served to amplify and make those performances more melodious and soothing. This thesis was initially suggested in brief by Schultz and Wickkiser, and the present book represents a more full and collaborative endeavor to investigate it further.1 The authors have considered many aspects of the conundrum presented by the thymele, and they build a solid, persuasive case for their thesis. It is a pleasure to read a smoothly presented joint endeavor, one that requires expertise from a range of specialties: archaeology, architecture, philology, musicology, epigraphy, and acoustical engineering.

Today we must appreciate the building through its preserved blocks, partial physical reconstructions, drawings and computer imagery. The inner cylindrical building was surrounded by a circular colonnade of 26 Doric columns, and the interior was framed with 14 marble Corinthian columns. It had splendid ceiling coffers with carved anthemia, and an elaborate floral akroterion on the top of its broad, conical roof. The authors print excellent new computer-based reconstructions of the thymele’s exterior and interior, with color versions available on the web (one hopes a future edition of this book will include the color images).2 Construction of the thymele was started ca. 365 BC, thus shortly after the elegant tholos in the Marmaria of Delphi, a much smaller (ca. 13.50 m diameter) round building designed by Theodoros of Phokaia (Vitr. 7, praef. 12), and a likely inspiration for Polykleitos the Younger. Upon analysis, both tholoi show intricate geometry in their plans and elevations, great ingenuity in adapting rectangular conventions to circular design, very fine workmanship, and a proliferation of carved ornament at every level of each building, from the toichobate to the sima and roof.

Until recently the Epidaurian thymele’s unique feature was visible to visitors on the site: its “labyrinthine” foundations beneath the inner building, sadly now covered over by modern reconstruction. The special inner foundations consist of three concentric rings of plain limestone walls with door-like openings that create a possible unidirectional pathway on tamped earth, 2 m high and 0.65 m wide, from the center to the exterior corridor. This subterranean construction, unique in Greek architecture, has given rise to lots of speculation about its intended purpose: a reservoir for a fountain? an elaborate bothros for chthonic sacrifices? a mystical labyrinth for devotees? a house for snakes or even one giant, revered python? etc.

Such flights of fancy don’t work: there is no water-proofing, pythons do not want to be housed in complete darkness, and the “passageway” would be too narrow for files of devotees. No remains of sacrifices or offered pottery were found in the central foundations by the excavators. As for the healing snakes of Asklepios, one can only imagine the daily awkwardness of capturing them and fetching them out from such a repository to do their job. Moreover, the rest of the foundations for the thymele are quite normal, even if circular: they consist of two concentric rings of wider, solid construction that supported the weight-bearing outer colonnade and wall of the cella, with earth and chip packing in between them.

Fortunately part of the white marble center capstone for the center of the interior of the thymele is preserved, and it shows that there was indeed an aperture (ca. 0.38 m in diameter) in the very center of the harlequin-patterned marble floor, perhaps covered by an openwork bronze grille. The capstone itself was 1.236 m (restored), and probably weighed ca. 700 kg, thus too heavy to be lifted regularly. Instead, the authors suggest that the arrangement of hollow spaces beneath the floor of the interior served as a resonating chamber for the music performed above. They suggest further that the design of the building as a whole may have been modeled on the human ear, and support this analogy with discussion of ancient authors’ interest in how the human ear works.

After a brief description of the architectural remains of the thymele and its setting within the sanctuary, the authors begin their inquiry with a philological discussion of the word θυμέλη and its various occurrences and uses. They conclude that the basic meaning of the word seems to be: “a ritual space in which worshippers communicated with the gods through performance of sacrifice, prayer, and/or song and dance” (p. 65). They then discuss circularity and performance, and how circular settings affect acoustics for audiences, including the circularity found in Greek theaters. Pausanias attributes the well-preserved theater at Epidauros also to Polykleitos the Younger, and praises him for symmetry and beauty in both buildings (2.27.5); it appears this architect was particularly interested in acoustics and geometric design. As visitors to Epidauros know, even today a person sitting in the topmost row of this theater can hear a coin drop or a match struck in the orchestra.

The authors then discuss the place of music, both instrumental and sung, in the performative aspects of Greek ritual in sanctuaries, and its use in healing. For this they delve into various literary accounts (not so much archaeological or art historical evidence for instruments). This discussion provides an excellent introduction to the central place of music in Greek religion as practiced, and the therapeutic uses of music. The sensory aspect of Greek sanctuaries is a significant part of the ancient environment that deserves more attention, and their discussion provides a basis for further research.

Chapter Five, by musicologist and classicist John Franklin, is a “response” evaluating the claims and suggestions given in the previous chapters. He is satisfied that the use of the thymele for musical performance fits the available evidence, and explores a further question: did the inscribed letters and marks on the lower walls of the inner foundations indicate placement of bronze resonators, of the sort described by Vitruvius for theaters? Franklin supplies a succinct account of such resonators, well attested in the archaeological and literary records from at least the Hellenistic period onward; they could have been used even earlier, and continued to be used in medieval churches. As for the inscribed letters, Franklin finds that they are likely contractors’ marks, since they do not correspond well with Greek musical notational systems (preserved in papyri and inscriptions from Delphi and Epidauros).3 An appendix by Andrew Fermer provides the results of acoustical modeling for musical performance in the thymele; the measurable results suggest that indeed the hollow foundations could have ameliorated and improved the sound. Thus, even if resonators were not used (and there is no firm evidence for or against them), the design of the hollow foundations itself apparently did improve the acoustic properties of the building.

The authors conclude with a broader discussion of archaeoacoustical studies elsewhere, ranging from prehistoric structures, caves, sites in Peru, and medieval churches. Such studies open new possibilities for understanding ancient environments, ancient music, and ritual behavior, and the authors suggest new questions for further research. This book provides a very welcome, highly readable contribution on music at Epidauros that illustrates the sophistication of Greek architecture.


1.   Peter Schultz and Bronwen L. Wickkiser, “Communicating with the Gods in Ancient Greece: The Design and Functions of the ‘Thymele’ at Epidauros,” The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society 6.6 (2010): 143-164. The authors note that after they began the research on their idea, they found that the function of the thymele as a locus for musical performance had been suggested more than a century ago by S. Herrlich (Epidaurus, eine antike Heilstätte, Berlin, 1898) and by H. Thiersch (“Antike Bauten für Musik,”Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Architetektur 2 [1909]: 67-95), but the idea was not accepted at the time and soon dropped out of the scholarly discussion (p. 145, footnote 7).
2.   Digital Gallery
3.   For discussion of mason’s marks and their various functions, see now Ulf Weber, Versatzmarken im antiken griechischen Bauwesen, Philippika 58, Wiesbaden, 2013.

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