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Asclepios at Kos

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Archaeological Development

The origins of the sanctuary of Asclepius at Kos are unclear – though the archaeological evidence suggests that it was all constructed at approximately the same time – as part of a broader building programme in the area.[1] The site’s initial excavators dated the sanctuary to roughly 350 BC, though later scholarship has argued for alternative timeframes, including the latter half of the 4th century and or an even narrower window, the final quarter of the fourth century.[2] There has been some speculation of an earlier, 5th century sanctuary on the site on the strength of two inscriptions – indicating the presence of cult activity and of a temenos - dated to this period.[3] However, the inscriptions make no explicit reference to Asclepius, so whether or not the 5th century activity at the site ought to be viewed as connected to the later foundation is unclear.[4] Regarding the maintenance of the sanctuary, the early excavators suggested that Ptolemy VI and Eumenes II were among its benefactors, funding a range of building work including a new temple, stoas and a monumental staircase.[5]


In Greek mythology, Asclepius is generally described as the son of Apollo and a mortal woman from Thessaly. [6]He was a hero, made a god by Zeus on his death on the request of his father.[7] He learnt medicine from Chiron, but surpassed his teacher, becoming so skilled that he was able to bring dead patients back to life – attracting the ire of Zeus, who ultimately killed him.[8] In practice, Asclepius was the god most associated with medicine – therefore it is unsurprising that the sanctuary of Kos with which he was associated was a healing centre and school of medicine.

Ritual Activity

Sacrifice- Different animals that could be sacrificed to God: any animal (except male goats), cock, pigs. Other things: frankincense, money, rings, armour, mirrors. Sometimes people would sacrifice things that had been requested by the god during their incubation dreams.
Sacrifice of a cock was a normal offering once somebody has recovered from an illness.
Sacrifices were done daily (in the morning and in the evening) in the temple. There were other ways to honour the god though: by living a healthy life, being mindful of what you eat and to be sure to exercise regularly.

Dedications- People would bring dedications, such as votive statues, depicting sick or diseased body parts. Votive tablets have also been found at the site. (Paus. ii. 27. § 3; Strab. viii. p. 374; comp. Dict. of Ant. p. 673). Not only did people offer votive gifts of their healed/diseased body parts but they sometimes offered representations of Asclepius himself.

Festivals- Celebrations of public festivals were integrated into the religious calendar. (Not at Kos, but Epidaurus), every 4 years to celebrate theatre, sport and music in honour of the god. Festivals throughout the year:

  • Asklepia (March/April) Celebration of the God
  • Asklepieia (generic name of festivals of Asklepios in all cities). Epidauria (at Epidaurus) in September/October time - ‘simpler preparation to the Great Mysteries’.

    Other- There were two steps for a patient to be fully cured at the Asclepius: the first being a purification process (this would include bathing and other forms of purging). Then an offering would be made to the Gods. The priest at the temple would give a prayer to put the patients mind at ease.

    Incubation where the patients would go to sleep after they had gone through the above process. They would be given hallucinogenic and enter their dream journey. The priests would then interpret these dreams and offer them a cure that they saw fitted with the dream of the patient.

    Non-venomous snakes were usually left to move around where the patients slept. The snake was sacred to Asclepius.

    Rules and Regulations

    note here any rules and regulations relating to sanctuary use that have been found inscribed in and around the site.

    Other Activities

    The Asklepieia Megala: established in 242 B.C constituted of athletic games and music competitions held every 5 years. "The competitions were more or less identical to those of the Isthmiae, Nemeae, and Panathenaeae, yet prizes were given not only to the first, but also to the second contestant, in order to make the games more attractive." [9]

    • List of Victors in the Asclepieia games (THI 61.D)

    Surgical instruments were found in the Koan Asclepieion, either connected with dedications (ritual use) or with medical activity (practical use). [10]

    During the reign of the Ptolemys in 260 B.C. the Asclepieion was recognised as a pan-Hellenic asylum for the preparation of the Asclepieia. (Tacitus, Annales, 4.14) (THI 80; SEG 51.1056)

    Organised extensive health-spa services that provided opportunities for both spiritual and physical healing. [11]

      Historical Significance

      Hippocrates said to have received his medical training at an Asclepieion on the isle of Kos and taught in the school that he instituted within the sanctuary’s area. (Pliny Natural Histories 29.2)

      Development of Asclepios sanctuaries closely connected with the beginnings of scientific medicine.

      Byzantine church built on the foundations of the Doric temple of Asclepios.

      Discovery that the god Asclepios was not revered in Kos until the middle of the fourth century B.C. The temple itself can only be traced to the third century.

      Importance of Epidaurus at the end of the third century B.C. challenged by Kos. The newly founded temple rose quickly to a place of prominence.

      • Syrian king made a dedication to a Coan Asclepios. (Pliny, Natural Histories, 20.100)
      • Caesar upheld its sanctity. ( Cassius Dio, Historia Romana, 51.8)
      • The Koans themselves has shown they respected the holiness of the place by not handing over Mithridates the Romans who had sought refuge in the sanctuary. (Tacitus, Annales, 5.14.1-2)
      • Claudius granted special honours to Kos. (Tacitus, Annales, 7.61.1-2)
      • When in the second century an earthquake damaged the sanctuary, help was given by Antoninus Pius for rebuilding the shrine.

      Who used the site, and where did they come from? 

      As this site was a famous healing sanctuary, many Greeks and Romans from all over the ancient world came for healing throughout the Hellenistic and Roman era. These visitors could be very powerful people, such as Hellenistic kings and high-ranking Roman officials. Evidence for this can be found in the site being repeatedly mentioned by ancient historians such as Tacitus. The fact that Hippocrates was born and based in Kos only enhanced the site's fame. Many Koans would use this prestige to reach high positions, such as Xenophon, who became the personal doctor to the Emperor Claudius.

      Select Site Bibliography

      Atsma, A.J (2017), ‘Asklepios’, (Accessed 06/02/20)

      Buraselis, K. (2000). Kos between Hellenism and Rome: Studies on the Political, Institutional and Social History of Kos from Ca. the Middle Second Century B.C. Until Late Antiquity. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 90(4)

      Edelstein, E. and Edelstein, L. (1998) Asclepius. Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies. (London: John Hopkins University Press)

      Guarducci, M (1978), Epigrafia Greca IV: Epigrafi Sacre Pagane e Cristiane (Rome: Liberia dello Stato Roma)

      Herzog, R (1928), Heilige Gesetze von Kos (Berlin: De Gruyter)

      Herzog, R, Schazmann, P (1932), Kos: Ergebenisse der deutschen Ausgrabungen und Forschungen (Berlin: H. Keller)

      Interdonato, E (2013), L’Asklepieion di Kos: archeologia del culto (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider)

      Koester, H. (1995) History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age vol.1. (Berlin: De Gruyter)

      Leeming, D (2005), ‘Asclepius’ in The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Accessed 06/02/20)

      Sherwin-White, S.M (1978), Ancient Cos: A Historical Study from the Dorian Settlement to the Imperial Period (Gottingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht Verlag)

      Walton, A. (1894). Asklepios. The Cult of the Greek God of Medicine. (Chicago: Ares Publishers Inc.)


      1- To enter footnotes, put [1] in your text above, and place the footnote down here.
      2- If you press "shift + enter" it will insert a line break without any paragraph spacing.

      [1] Sherwin-White (1978) 341-2

      [2] Herzog and Schazmann (1932) 73; Sherwin-White (1978) 74; Guarducci (1978) 146

      [3] Interdonato (2013) 108; Herzog (1928) 33 no. 2; IG 12.4.1.

      [4] Interdonato (2013) 108

      [5] Herzog and Schazmann (1932) 72-74.

      [6] Leeming, D (2005), https://0-www-oxfordreference-com; Atsma, A.J (2017),

      [7] Leeming, D (2005), https://0-www-oxfordreference-com

      [8] Leeming, D (2005), https://0-www-oxfordreference-com

      [9] Edelstein and Edelstein (1998) 209.

      [10] Koester (1995) 167.

      [11] ibid.


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