Epidaurus was famous in the classical world for its shrine of Asklepios, the the God of medicine and health: it was the foremost hospital in the Greek world. Today it is famous for its well preserved theatre with wonderful acoustics which attracts many visitors.

However it is also has another claim to importance in that the building accounts were inscribed in stone, and many of them have survived: if you want to know how a Greek temple was built, Epidauros is the place to come.  Here we take a look at the inscriptions to see how the Greek economy really worked.


It is often argued that Greece was not really a market economy, so it is interesting at this point to take a look at the question of how a Temple was actually financed and built. The best evidence for this comes from the sanctuary at Epidaurus, where fortunately many of the details of the contracts for building the Temple were preserved in stone. They were the subject of a thorough analysis by Alison Burford in her book The Greek Temple Builders at Epidaurus, published in 1969 from which many fascinating details of the building of the Temple can be obtained.

The theatre at Epidauros: Wikipedia photo, courtesy of Fingalo

Epidaurus is mainly known to tourists for its theatre with its superb acoustics: a whisper on stage can be heard in the very topmost rows of seating. However the theatre is essentially an outlier to the main attraction which was a sanctuary to the healing god Asklepios, which meant that it was one of the great hospitals of antiquity.

Its history is interesting. It began life as a shrine to the god Apollo, who was the original god of healing, and it overlay a former Mycenaean shrine.  Asklepios was originally a ‘hero-healer’ and it was only later that he became a full-blown God. He didn’t appear until the sixth century and it wasn’t until around 430 that the first definite buildings appear. This was the time of the great plague of Athens when there was a great need for healing gods, and Asclepius suddenly came to the forefront as the leading patron of healing. A rectangular structure was erected, part temple,  part altar, and part a place for incubation, that is a sleeping place,  for sleeping was always part of the healing process:  you went  to sleep, and the god visited you in a dream and told you how to recover.

However sometime around 370,  Epidauros changed from being a small local shrine to being a great international shrine.  Over the next centuries, many buildings were erected —  temples, shrines, hotels and the theatre, buoyed up by the offerings of the pilgrims. Fortunately many of the contracts for the buildings were carved in stone and have survived, so it is possible to work out how the building process was delivered. (Click here to see the plans of the site)

The first item to be built was the temple itself, which cost around 23 talents, or around £140,000 in modern money (see my calculations below). Surprisingly however the most expensive single item was the great gold and ivory statue of the god in the main temple which cost some 50 talents, or in today’s money some £300,000.

The most expensive building was not as the main temple but the tholos, the round building which had very elaborate Corinthian columns and was much praised by later authors including Plutarch in his travels: this cost much the same as the great statue. By comparison the Theatre, today the major attraction,  cost only around 10 talents (£60,000), though we should remember that it was considerably enlarged in the Roman period and the upper half of what we see today is in fact Roman.  A number of other buildings cost around three or four talents, but the katagogeion, the hotel,  in area the largest building on the site, may have cost around 5 talents, or £30,000.

The katagogeion, or hotel. This is the corner of one of the courts

Sometimes the contracts for individual buildings were split up. For instance the Athenian sculptor Timotheos was paid 900 drachma for six metopes,  that is the sculptured blocks for the frieze in the portico at the front of the temple, which comes out 150 drachma each. Now a drachma was typically reckoned to be  a day’s pay, so that each metope would be worth 150 days’ work, which is perhaps not unreasonable. From this I estimate that a drachma must be worth around £100, which I think is close to the average day’s pay today:  and I have made all my calculations at this conversion. Had he carved two metopes a year, he would have received 300 drachma or £30,000, which seems about right.  Presumably he would have had assistants, and I imagine that between them they will probably have carved all six metopes within the year, making a total of 900 drachma or £90,000, perhaps split between the sculptor and two assistants.

The biggest single contract was paid to Lykios of Corinth who undertook the quarrying and carting into the sanctuary of stone for the whole of the Temple’s outer shell for 640  drachmas (£64,000), his guarantors being Orsias and Hagemon. This was the biggest single contract, but some sections of the work were subdivided: thus Euterpidas of Corinth undertook the quarrying and carting  into sanctuary of half the stone for the cella  (the inner room) for 6169 drachma. Most of the big jobs were done under contract but some were done under direct hire, e.g. the painters, tile-layers, and the letter cutters while certain commodities were procured by direct purchase, for example glue, ivory, and timber for scaffolding.

Sometimes building was carried out by direct labour rather than by contract. The best example of this is the other major source of inscriptions for a building contract that is the Erechtheion in Athens. The Erechtheion is the smaller building on the Acropolis beside the Parthenon and some of the building inscriptions for the later part of the building in 408/7 BC have survived. These show that much of the work was done by hired labour working under wage payments. However some of the other craftsmen stood halfway between hired  workers and full contractors, for they were paid not by the day but on a piece rate. However Athens is not typical,  for being by far the biggest economic entity in ancient Greece, there were probably skilled labourers available for daily hire, whereas in Epidaurus many of the workers were drawn from other cities and would need to be assured of a long-term contract.  Thus at Epidaurus most of the work was done under contract.

(Click here to see some sample contracts)

Administrators and contractors

At Epidaurus there was a fairly strict dividing line between the administrators who set up the work and drew up the contracts,  and the contractors who did the work. Epidaurus was an oligarchy where the state was governed by 180 men, from whom the councillors were chosen. Most of the populace worked in the fields: Plutarch tell us that  they were called the ‘dusty-footed’ because they could be recognised by the dust on their feet when they came into the city. The sanctuary was under the direct control of the city. Unlike in ancient Egypt where the temples had considerable autonomy and had their own economic power as the centres to which tribute was paid and from whom resources were distributed,  at Epidaurus all the decisions about the building were made by the state. At first the priest of Asklepios was the chief official; he appears in the first building accounts for the Asklepios temple, but later he was supplemented by a board appointed by the state to control the sanctuary’s finances.

The Administration was divided into three parts. Firstly there was the finance board which arranged the finances and was thus in overall control. Then there was the Building Commission, which actually arranged how the building was carried out and drew up the contracts. Finally the strange part is a third category,  the guarantor. In most of the contracts, a guarantor is named who would guarantee the payment of the fines if the work was not carried out properly. There was an elaborate system of fines both for bad work and for late work: the majority being fines for lateness: the late delivery of material presumably had a knock-on effect for the remainder of the workmen. The guarantor was therefore a sort of intermediary who  arranged to collect the fine from a defaulting contractor ,and if the contractor defaulted completely,  would have to pay the fine himself. I suppose in a way the guarantor comes closest to the modern idea of a ‘capitalist’ but it shows how very different was the way of working in the classical world in that he provided no capital but simply guaranteed the payment of fines.

Financing the building

The big problem is to know how the building of the sanctuary was financed in the first place. The classic evidence for the financing of temple building is from the Parthenon in Athens.  Here the finance was built up in advance by the payment of tribute from the Allies. After the successful defeat of the Persians in 480, Athens led the campaign to free the Greek cities particularly those in the Aegean islands from Persian control, and the cities then became the allies of the Athenians and the Allies soon found that they were paying heavy tribute to the mother city. Fortunately for us, the Athenian Tribute Lists have survived, so we know in considerable detail how much tribute each city paid,  and by 450 BC, so much had built up that it was decided to spend it on building the Parthenon.

There does not appear to have been any similar source of money for Epidaurus. Certainly once the sanctuary was up and running, it would have been very profitable, as those who had come there and been successfully cured will show their generosity by making substantial donations. One only has to look at Lourdes, or some of the healing shrines in the Middle Ages to see how profitable a healing shrine could be. But how do you get such a shrine started? A start may have been made in the 430s with the construction of the first shrine to Asklepios: was this sufficiently profitable that enough money could be accumulated to enable the great building outburst of the 370s –  the grand temple,  and the even grander rotunda, and the theatre? Or was there some dynamic personality, part politician, part priest, part healer but most of all a visionary entrepreneur who drove through the decision to make it a great sanctuary? If so, his name is completely unknown.

But the building inscriptions from Epidaurus demonstrate the extent and workings of the market economy in classical Greece. It  is interesting to note in the details of the contract how often payment was made for messengers or heralds and one must assume that it was their task to carry bids for the contracts to the bigger cities from whose workforce many of the workers came,  Argos, Corinth, and particularly Athens. The heralds presumably also acted as a form of marketing, or advertising  for the new shrine. But there is no hint of any of the ‘feudalism’ or other forms of work done as labour service.  By the fourth century, Greece was in the full market economy.


Click here to see some plans of the site

Click here to see some sample contracts


Uploaded: 27th September 2011