Features of the Upper Sanctuary

Although the Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia are concerned primarily with the Roman Bath, the Greek Pool and the East Field areas, the Isthmian Sanctuary to Poseidon holds many other areas of interest including the Temple to Poseidon, the Temple to Palaimon, the Early and Later Stadia, and the Theater.

layout to the Scanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia.
The Sanctuary to Poseidon at Isthmia

The Temple to Poseidon

An archaic temple to Poseidon of the Doric style was constructed in the seventh century BC. The site at the Isthmus was a natural spot for the structure, since many travelers passed through on land and there were many ports nearby that served maritime traders. The archaeological evidence suggests that the temple was quite rich and had colorfully painted cella walls.

Doric temples usually consisted of three parts. The cella was the middle section where the statue of the deity was located. There were also two porches, the pronaos and the opisthodomos. The pronaos tended to serve as a staging area for religious ceremony, and the opisthodomos sometimes served as a treasury for past gifts given to the god.

hypothetical reconstruction of the temple oto Poseidon.
Hypothetical reconstruction of the temple to Poseidon

Around 480 BC the archaic temple was destroyed by fire. The classical temple was erected around 465 BC. This building succumbed to fire in 390 BC, but was quickly rebuilt. The temple seems to have been abandoned after 146 BC when Korinth was sacked and destroyed by the Roman general Mummius. However, when Caesar reestablished Korinth as a Roman colony, the temple was soon refurbished and the Games returned to Isthmia.

The Temple to Palaimon

Poseidon's was not the only major cult at the site of Isthmia. Palaimon was also worshipped and there was a temple dedicated to him in the upper sanctuary. The Roman temple to Palaimon was a circular structure of the Ionic style with ornaments on the roof. These details are confirmed by archaeological evidence: the structure appeared on a number of Roman coins.

Hypothetical reconstruction of the temple to Palaimon.
Hypothetical reconstruction of the temple to Palaimon

The archaeological evidence has also issutrated another interesting feature of the temple to Palaimon. Below the temple there lies a channel which runs through the center of the structure and would have been completely enclosed when the building was in use. It has been suggested that this cutting in the foundation served as an underground passage where the athletes taking part in the Isthmian games would swear oaths not to cheat during the competitions.

The Early Stadium

In antiquity, a stadium was typically long and narrow, designed primarily for running games. There were two stadia in the upper sanctuary. The Early Stadium was used during the Classical period, and a ramp led from the sacrificial area of the temple to the starting line of the early stadium. The stadium's close proximity to the temple to Poseidon denotes the religious importance of the games to the Greeks.

Drawing showing proximity of the stadium to the temple.
Proximity of the stadium to the temple

When originally built, the length of the Early StadiumDrawing of the starting mechanism at the stadium at Isthmia. measured about 192 meters.The stadium had an interesting starting mechanism to ensure that the races started evenly. The pavement in the starting area contained a series of cuttings and a large hole. The runners would take their place in one of sixteen lanes, while an official stood in the hole behind them. The official held cords that ran through the cuttings and were connected to the gates, giving the official control over the beginning of the race. The stadium was later rebuilt with a new starting mechanism, and shortened to 181 meters.

The Later Stadium

The Later Stadium was used during the Hellenistic period. This later structure was built to take advantage of a natural ravine in the landscape, unlike the Earlier Stadium which was designed to be near the temple. The Later Stadium is located approximately 250m. to the southeast of the Earlier Stadium. The distance of the Later Stadium from the temple implies that the festival had grown enormously, and that more distance was desired between athletic competition and religious ceremony. For the most part, the Later Stadium has not been excavated; and it lies under several agricultural fields that are currently being used.

The Theater

First built at the end of the 5th century BC, the theater was designed to accommodate around 500 spectators. Drama and musical events played an important role in the Isthmian games; these competitions were just as important as the athletic events. The theater was remodeled by the Romans in AD 67 for the emperor Nero's visit to the Isthmian games. It was eventually abandoned in the latter 3rd century. Today, spolia from the theatre can be found in the hexamilion wall.

View of the Theater at Isthmia as it appears today.

The theater at Isthmia

An additional interesting feature near the theater is the location of the "cult caves." Positioned above the seating area there is a cave, divided into two chambers. Large amounts of dining ware, plates, and pans were found in this area, suggesting that ceremonial feasting was a part of the cult's activities. More than likely, worshipers in this ancient cult would have gathered to share common meals together. Poseidon, Palaimon, or Dionysus have been suggested as the primary deity for the cult activity in these caves. The cult caves were out of use by the late 4th century BC.