Amphiareion: A colorful, quiet refuge in Attica

Among the low, rolling hills of northern Attica, in a narrow, pine-clad valley carved into the landscape by a seasonal stream, a secluded ancient sanctuary ? the Amphiareion of Oropos ? is hidden from view, far removed from the daily turmoil of Athens. As one descends from the village of Kalamos toward the northern coast of Attica, the road begins to snake around several tight bends before crossing a streambed traversed by a narrow bridge. Here, the Amphiareion lies on the banks of the ancient Charadra channel (modern Mavrodilesi), whose rocky course continues down to meet the sea at a small, now-long-forgotten local port called Delphinion. More than 2,000 years ago, travel was more easily accomplished by sea than by road and the ports of Delphinion and nearby Oropos were regular hosts to sea traffic.

Why did Greek and foreign travelers often converge on this remote region of Attica? They were naturally drawn to Oropos, a maritime hub of no little strategic and commercial importance located directly across the Euboean strait from Eretria ? but they also came for the Amphiareion. Founded in the hills above Oropos during the last third of the 5th century BC, the Amphiareion was dedicated to the Argive hero Amphiaraus, whose widely recognized cult was originally venerated in the area of Thebes. In Herodotus? time (ca 484-425 BC) a gold shield and spear dedicated to Amphiaraus several generations earlier by King Croesus of Lydia were kept, according to the historian, in the Temple of Ismenian Apollo at Thebes. Amphiaraus was a legendary figure reputed to have been a king of Argos and a seer whose cult offered both prophesy and, like that of Asclepius, healing through the interpretation of dreams. Amphiaraus? heroic story is featured in Aeschylus? play ?Seven Against Thebes? (467 BC), which relates how Amphiaraus joined an Argive invasion of Thebes (arranged by Oedipus? son Polynices to unseat his brother Eteocles), despite foreseeing its failed outcome and his own demise. Ultimately, while fleeing a Theban defender, Amphiaraus was struck down instead by Zeus, who threw a thunderbolt that split open the earth and caused the hero and his chariot to be swallowed up.

Textual, archaeological and inscriptional evidence reveals that Amphiaraus was worshipped at many sites in Greece, including Athens, Argos, Corinth, Sparta and Rhamnous, but his main temple stood just outside Thebes at Cnopia (Strabo 9.2.10) until the late 5th century BC. In Oropos, his cult was especially prominent in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Even after 146 BC, however, when the Romans took over Greece, leading generals, politicians and other well-known figures ? including Sulla, Caesar?s assassin Brutus, Augustus? right-hand man Agrippa and the traveler Pausanias (see below) ? continued to visit, support and record the history and activities of the Amphiareion.

The ruins of the sanctuary of Amphiaraus at Oropos, today set among tall pines and broad-leafed plane trees whose autumn colors are a stunning display, rest on both banks of the shady stream that divides the site. Amphiaraus, whom the ancient Oropians deified, was worshipped in a temple now partly washed away by seasonal flooding. The temple was of singular design, Doric, in antis (in which the side walls protrude to flank the columns on the porch in front), with six columns across its facade. Two half-columns on the ends of its projecting side walls, however, made it appear not as a hexastyle but an octastyle temple. Also unusual was a small room entered from the back of the naos, used either as a special cult chamber or a treasury. Inside the naos were two rows of unfluted Ionic columns that divided the temple into three aisles. Still extant today is one enormous arm of the white marble cult statue of Amphiaraus, now lying on a low stone slab in the center of the naos.

Beyond the temple to the east are many inscribed statue bases that commemorate the sanctuary?s important visitors and benefactors. Among the names can be read ?Brouton? (Brutus) and ?Queen Arsinoe? (III), wife of the Hellenistic king Ptolemy IV Philopater of Egypt. At the eastern end of the site, where the original main entrance to the sanctuary once was, a bath complex, a 110-meter-long Doric stoa with an internal row of Ionic columns and a theater with a reconstructed Doric colonnade that once fronted its scene building attest to the sanctuary?s former elegance and vitality. Several finely carved inscribed thrones for VIP guests still occupy the theater?s orchestra. Every five years, in addition to an annual smaller festival, the sanctuary hosted the Great Amphiareian Games, which included musical, athletic and equestrian events. To accommodate its many visitors, the sanctuary was equipped with a long curving bench from which to observe sacrifices on the enormous altar outside the temple and a second bathing facility adjacent to the stream. On the opposite, southern bank was a small settlement of hostels, stoas and other accommodation separated by narrow streets and alleys. A well-preserved stone water clock, with a deep reservoir, a bronze nozzle and a steep flight of access steps, provides an instructive parallel for the clock remains also to be seen beside the Heliaia (law courts) in the Athenian Agora.

Athenians were frequent visitors to the Amphiareion, especially during the plague in the late 5th century BC, when afflicted city-dwellers might find some refuge and hope of a cure in the northern Attic hills.

Pausanias said

The Roman traveler Pausanias (2nd century AD) described Greece?s landscape and antiquities and recorded many local myths.

He writes concerning Oropos: ?When Amphiaraus was running away from Thebes, the earth split open and took him in with his chariot? on the way? to Chalkis. The Oropians were the first to believe Amphiaraus was a god? Oropos has a temple of Amphiaraus and a white stone statue.?

Also, ?the Oropians have a spring called Amphiaraus? Spring near the shrine? where they say Amphiaraus rose up (after the earth had swallowed him).?