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Temple on the Ilissus

"Across the Ilisus is a district called Agrae and a temple of Artemis Agrotera (the Huntress). They say that Artemis first hunted here when she came from Delos [where she was born], and for this reason the statue carries a bow."

Pausanias, Description of Greece (I.19.6)

When Julien-David Le Roy published Les Ruines des Plus Beaux Monuments de la Grèce in 1758, he was dismissive of what he called "the scanty remains of a very small temple" across the river Ilissus and did not even bother to draw it. Twenty years later, the marble temple was completely destroyed by the Ottoman Turks, who robbed the ruins for material to build a new fortification. Other than the foundation, virtually nothing now remains. The few architectural fragments that do survive (all of which are attributions) include some badly weathered slabs from a continuous sculptured frieze, a marble sima (the upturned edge of the roof that serves as a gutter), and two worn bases that suggest the columns to which they belonged had been in antis, that is, between the antae or pilasters of the pronaos, the vestibule that occupies the space between the colonnade or walls of the portico and the entrance to the cella (Vitruvius, III.2.2). There also is a section of the retaining wall and the rock foundation.

This gouache, painted by Stuart during his survey of Athens, preserves a unique record of the temple, which stood on a rocky knoll above the southern (or left) bank of the river. By then, the church, which may have been converted as early as the fifth century AD, was itself a ruin, having been abandoned late in the sixteenth century, when it was considered to have been desecrated after a Catholic mass had been celebrated there. The temple on the Ilissus was amphiprostyle tetrastyle, an unusual type of which this is the first attested example. There are four columns across the front and rear porticoes but none along the sides of the cella. Nor is there a opisthodormos, the vestibule at the opposite end of the temple that served to balance the pronaos at the entrance. It is not known to whom the temple was dedicated but presumed to have been Artemis Agrotera (cf. Iliad, XXI.471), who is mentioned by Pausanias as having a temple across the Ilissus, which was "sacred to other deities as well" (including Demeter, to whom the temple also may have been dedicated).

Prior to Marathon, Xenophon relates that the Athenians vowed to Artemis Agrotera that a goat would be sacrificed for every one of the enemy killed in battle. Sixty-four hundred Persians died that day (Herodotus, VI.117) and, when the Athenians were not able to find sufficient animals, it was decreed that, in lieu of the actual number, five hundred goats should be offered (Anabasis, III.2.11-12). This sacrifice to Artemis Agortera (the Agroteras Thusia) took place each year on the date of the battle, the sixth of Boedromion, which also was the festival day of the goddess (Plutarch, On the Malice of Herodotus, XXVI; Aelian, Historical Miscellany, II.25). When Xenophon wrote almost ninety years later, sacrifice still was being made; even by the first century AD, Plutarch remarks on the "solemn procession which the Athenians even at this day send to Agrae, celebrating a feast of thanksgiving to Hecate for their victory." As well as the name of the place, Agrae (also Agrai, Agri) was the name of the Lesser Mysteries of Persephone that were celebrated there in the spring, its rites of purification a preparation for initiation into the Greater Mysteries at Eleusis six months later.

In 1834, when the Temple of Athena Nike was discovered on the bastion next to the monumental gateway (Propylaea) to the Acropolis, it was recognized that there were many similarites between it and the temple on the Ilissus. Both were by Callicrates, the same architect who (with Ictinus) had constructed the Parthenon (Plutarch, Pericles, XIII.4). Indeed, the temple, with its Ionic tetrastyle porches and the absence of a opisthodormos, served as a precedent for the Temple of Athena Nike, both in plan and scale. They differ only in length; the cella of the temple on the Ilissus, where the cult statue was contained, was square (unlike any other fifth century example) and had an usually deep pronaos, whereas Nike lacks one altogether. There also is a similarity of architectural detail, two of which are the first known examples: the form of the column base (minus the bottom ovolo) extended around the base of the cella, and the profile of the moldings applied to the capitals of the antae, a combination of cavetto over cyma reversa over ovolo (a concave molding over a cyma, in which the upper section is convex and the lower concave, over a convex molding). Probably for the first time, too, the Attic Ionic column base had a scotia between two tori, that is, a convex molding (the torus), the scotia (a deeply concave molding), and then another torus.

  Traditionally dated to the mid-fifth century BC, the Ionic temple on the Ilissus probably was built about 435-430 BC, a date some time between the construction of the Propylaea (437 BC) and the Temple of Athena Nike, which was begun about ten years later.

Stuart and Revett were not the first to notice the temple, but their drawings are the most exact. Eight plates were devoted to the building, with meticulous measurement of the volutes of the Ionic capital.

References: "Columns in Antis in the Temple on the Ilissus" (1975) by Anthony A. Barrett and Michael Vickers (1975), The Annual of the British School at Athens, 70, 11-16; Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Athens (1971) by John Travlos; "The Date of the Temple on the Ilissos River" (1980) by Margaret M. Miles, Hesperia, 49(4), 309-325; "The Ilissos Temple Reconsidered" (1978) by Carlos Arturo Picón, American Journal of Archaeology, 82(1), 47-8; 1"Kallikrates" (1963) by Ione Mylonas Shear, Hesperia, 32(4), 375-424; Julien-David Le Roy: The Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece [Les Ruines des Plus Beaux Monuments de la Grèce] (1770/2004) translated by David Britt.

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