The Cult of Asclepius at Empuries

Gaze! Gaze upon the face of Asclepius, Greek god of healing, as his contemporary followers would never have done. This Greek statue from the 2nd century BC is from the ancient settlement of Empuries in Catalonia, near the French border.

Had you been an ancient Greek, you would have travelled to the temple on this site with hope in your heart and a cock under your arm. The cock was a sacrificial offering to the god to seek a cure when all other options had run out. Alas, you would not have had access to the temple itself nor the statue within, as only the priests could look upon that dread visage.

Our ancient supplicant would, however, have undergone a course of treatment that even the Internet would not advise. He would be taken to a communal sleeping area and then given narcotic drugs that would trigger strange dreams. These dreams would then be told to the priests who would interpret them to settle on a course of treatment.

The symbol of Asclepius is the snake wound around a staff, and remains the symbol of many chemists’s today. While our supplicants would be off on their drug-fuelled journeys into the inner mind, loose snakes were free to slither around the room in honour of their master.

The connection between snakes and healing seems odd to our modern eyes, where the poor reptiles are demonised and feared. In the ancient world, the snake was admired for its ability to shed its skin, sloughing off its old hide to emerge rejuvenated, its scales sparkling in the light.

The cult of Asclepius flourished at the site as it did all over the ancient world. Many statues to the god survive, although this one was found still in situ at Empuries when excavations began in 1909. Although broken, the early architects probably could not believe their luck at such an early discovery. Found in two halves, with a third piece (the remaining coil of its serpent accompaniment) nearby, it is now on show at the site museum.

This is just one of many marvels at Empuries. The name comes from the Greek word ’emporion’, meaning ‘market’ or ‘trading post’ because the town was originally built to allow Greek merchants to trade for wheat and metals with the local Iberians (who were mostly interested in wine in exchange).

Later, the Romans appeared and built a military camp alongside the Greek city. Thus for much of the ancient period, a Greek and Roman town stood side by side in the same place. The Roman ruins are much better preserved than the Greek ones and are also on a slightly better location up on a hill overlooking the sea.

Visitors today can see wonderfully well preserved mosaic floors in the Roman zone set out in abstract geometric patterns. These are the large white squares in the wide-lens picture above. There are also the remains of the old city wall, still showing ruts worn down by the carts going in and out of the main gate, as you can see below.

If you look carefully at the wall below, you will also see a, uhm, fertility symbol carved on one of the bricks, which was ‘a symbol of strength and prosperity’ according to the notes handed out at the information desk. Just beyond this entrance, there are also the remains of an arena laid out on the ground which would have been surrounded by wooden seats for the local citizens to watch animal fights and gladiatorial contests.

The seats were wooden because this was the provinces, although, as you can see, an astonishing amount of archaeological material is still here. Even now, only a small proportion of the site has been excavated, and people were at work in the hot sun as we arrived. Just as the poor slaves who built this place would have been, two and half thousand years ago.