Sparta - The Shrine of Artemis Orthia
A crucial story in the study of ancient Sparta is formed by the finds from the temple of Artemis Orthia. Orthia was a local goddess in the Southern Peloponnese -- there is also a temple to Orthia at Messene — but she was later assimilated with the better known goddess Artemis. The temple began very early, perhaps as early as the ninth century BC, but became famous or perhaps notorious as the scene of one of the Spartan initiation ceremonies in which boys and young men were flogged until they bled. Indeed according to later traditions, the goddess demanded blood, and young men had to be flogged until the blood flowed.
In the Roman period, this became a very popular spectator sport to see boys and young men being flogged in this way, and in the third century AD, the temple was enclosed by a theatre where spectators could watch the floggings. The building of the theatre seating had the fortunate by-product in that earlier remains were preserved under the later seating and early in the 20th century the site was excavated by the British School at Athens with remarkable results, revealing that in the early period, that is the eighth to sixth centuries BC, the artistic standards of the offerings made at the temple were very high indeed — as fine as anything found anywhere else in Greece at that time.
Here we see the temple in the centre and the altar
in front of it where the floggings took place, at the bottom right
corner. On the left are the foundations of the seats of the theatrical
arrangements of the Roman period.
This stitched-together panoramic photo (below) gives a good impression of the arrangements, with the temple to the right and the altar, where presumably the floggings took place, in the centre, with the seating arrangements around. The site looks somewhat bare because when we were there in 2008 and took these photos it was in process of being re-displayed. The site lies in an out of the way part of the modern town, on the other side of the town from the Acropolis where the Roman theatre and the archaeological park are situated. Sadly the site had been somewhat neglected and gypsies moved in, but now the gypsies have been removed and the site is being restored with the help of a grant from the EU and restoration work was in progress which is why the site looks so barren.
But modern Sparta can be seen in the middle distance with Taygetus beyond. The river Eurotas lies just behind the photographer.
Some of the finds from the excavation are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge which received them as their share of the finds of the excavations at a time when it was customary to divide up the finds between the host country and the country that carried out the excavations. The small lead figurines shown here over-sized, are crude and mass-produced, but give some idea of the liveliness of artistic work at Sparta in the seventh and sixth centuries BC.
Revised draft 27th October 2010