The temple was dedicated to Apollo Epikourios (« Apollo the helper »). It was supposedly designed by Iktinos, architect at Athens of the Parthenon. The ancient writer Pausanias praises the temple as eclipsing all others but the Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea by the beauty of its stone and the harmony of its construction. It sits at an elevation of 1,131 metres above sea level on the slopes of Kotylion Mountain.
The temple is aligned north-south, in contrast to the majority of Greek temples which are aligned east-west; its principal entrance is from the north. This was necessitated by the limited space available on the steep slopes of the mountain. To overcome this restriction a door was placed in the side of the temple, perhaps to let light in to illuminate the cult statue.
The temple is of a relatively modest size, with the stylobate measuring 38.3 by 14.5 metres containing a Doric peristyle of six by fifteen columns (hexastyle). The roof left a central space open to admit light and air. The temple was constructed entirely out of grey Arcadian limestone except for the frieze which was carved from marble (probably in ancient times colored with paint). Like most major temples it has three « rooms » or porches: the pronaos, plus a naos and an opisthodomos. The naos may have housed a cult statue of Apollo, although it is also surmised that the single ‘proto-Corinthian’ capital discovered by Cockerell, and subsequently lost at sea, may have topped the single column that stood in the centre of the naos, and have been intended as an aniconic representation of Apollo Borealis. The temple lacks some optical refinements found in the Parthenon, such as a subtly curved floor, though the columns have entasis.
Fragment of a metope, depicting an Amazon, displayed at the British Museum
The temple is unusual in that it has examples of all three of the classical orders used in ancient Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Doric columns form the peristyle while Ionic columns support the interior and a single Corinthian column features in the centre of the interior. The Corinthian capital is the earliest example of the order found to date.
It was relatively sparsely decorated on the exterior. Inside, however, there was a continuous Ionic frieze showing Athenians in battle with Amazons and the Lapiths engaged in battle with Centaurs. This frieze’s metopes were removed by Charles Robert Cockerell and taken to the British Museum in 1815 (they are still to be seen in the British Museum’s Gallery 16, near the Elgin Marbles). Cockerell decorated the walls of the Ashmolean Museum’s Great Staircase and that of the Travellers Club with plaster casts of the same frieze.
Re-discovery and removal by the British
The Bassae Frieze has its own room at the British Museum.
Foot fragment of a colossal statue at Bassae, displayed at the British Museum
The temple had been noticed first in November 1765 by the French architect J. Bocher, who was building villas at Zante and came upon it quite by accident; he recognized it from its site, but when he returned for a second look, he was murdered by bandits. Charles Robert Cockerell and Carl Haller von Hallerstein, having secured sculptures at Aegina, hoped for more successes at Bassae in 1811; all Haller’s careful drawings of the site were lost at sea, however.
The site was explored in 1812 with the permission of Veli Pasha[dubious – discuss], the Turkish commander of the Peloponnese, by a group of British antiquaries who removed 23 slabs from the Ionic cella frieze and transported them to Zante along with other sculptures. Veli Pasha’s claims on the finds were silenced in exchange for a small bribe, and the frieze was bought at auction by the British Museum in 1815. This frieze’s metopes were removed personally by Cockerell. The frieze sculptures were published in Rome in 1814 and officially, by the British Museum in 1820. Other hasty visits resulted in further publications. The first fully published excavation was not begun until 1836; it was carried out by Russian archaeologists, among which the painter Karl Bryullov. Perhaps the most striking discovery was the oldest Corinthian capital found to date. Some of the recovered artefacts are on display at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
In 1902, a systematic excavation of the area was carried out by the Greek Archaeological Society of Athens under archaeologist Konstantinos Kourouniotis along with Konstantinos Romaios and Panagiotis Kavvadias. Further excavations were carried out in 1959, 1970 and from 1975–1979, under the direction of Nikolaos Gialouris.