The Theatre at Aphrodisias, Turkey

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The ancient city of Aphrodisias was built over the remains of numerous prehistoric settlements dating back to the Early Bronze period. Prior to the founding of Aphrodisias, the city names of Lelegonopolis, Megalopolis, and the Assyrian city of Ninoe have all been associated with this ancient site. The Hellenistic city of Aphrodisias was named for Venus Aphrodite, and is located near the modern town of Karacasu in Turkey. Although the 200-acre site was inhabited as early as 2700 BC, the ruins we see today date from the third century BC and reflect the influence of Rome from the first century BC to the seventh century AD.
 
The theater was built on the eastern slope of the larger of two prehistoric settlement mounds surrounded by the otherwise flat and fertile plain of the Meander River Valley. Situated adjacent to the South Agora, or public square of the ancient city, the theatre was ideally located for public performances, forums, and the circus-like entertainment of blood sports. Excavations have revealed the lower section of the cavea (27 rows of seats) and much of the theatre's architecture.
 
The original theatre dates from the Late Hellenistic period, but it was extensively renovated between 38 and 28 BC. An architrave inscription records that the remodeled theater was dedicated to Aphrodite and to the Demos (people) by G. Iulius Zoilos, during the reign of Octavian. Zoilos was an Aphrodisian slave freed by Octavian. By the 30s BC Zoilos had become wealthy and influential in his hometown. Though the inscription is not dated, historical data on Zoilos and Octavian allows us to place the renovation between 38 and 28 BC. We know that the renovation occurred later than 38 BC because Zoilos was not active in Aphrodisias until that year, and we know that the renovation predates 27 BC because the architrave inscription does not call Octavian Augustus, a name he adopted in 27 BC.
 
The renovation completed by Zoilos included a three-story stage building with a logeion, proskenion, and decorated scaenae frons. There may have been no stone cavea at this point; the seating may have been made of wood except for marble prohedria (seats for wealthy and aristocratic guests) in the front row.
 
The theater underwent another phase of construction sometime during the reigns of Claudius and Nero (40-68 AD). Inscriptions from this period show that the wealthy benefactor Aristokles Molossos and his son Hermas built an entrance, the two parodoi (side entrance into the orchestra of the theater), the analemmata (retaining walls) of the cavea, and possibly the third set of seats above the second diazoma (horizontal walkway separating sections of cavea seating). This enlarged cavea was furnished with marble seating and could accommodate between ten and fifteen thousand people.
 
In the late 2nd century AD, under Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), the theatre was further renovated to make the space suitable for gladiator contests. The orchestra was expanded by removing the first two or three rows of seats, and a high wall was built around the orchestra with wood or iron railings on top to protect spectators in the front rows. A Tibunalia (seat of honor) was built in the lower cavea and an access staircase leading from the orchestra allowed victorious gladiators to approach presiding officials to receive recognition and honors.
 
The two covered parodoi built by Molossos lead directly to the Agora as did the central arched entrance in the skene. When the theater was used for political gatherings, politicians could speak to the cavea or turn around and speak to those gathered in the public square of the city.
 
Later, the orchestra was lowered and a water channel was dug around its edge to facilitate cleaning following fights and hunts. The skene and stage were enlarged and connected to the cavea, and a complex of hallways and rooms that housed animals and equipment (via venatorium or pathway of the hunter) was constructed. The theater continued to be used through the early Byzantine period, when chapels were built at each end of the proskenion. The theater collapsed in an earthquake during the reign of Herclius (610-641AD) and was never repaired. The site was used as a fort during the Byzantine period, and later houses were built on top of the rubble.
 
The theater at Aphrodisias preserves a unique record of Hellenistic as well as Roman artifacts. Because the stage building fell forward on itself during the earthquake, and because later builders on the site simply built on top of the rubble, the scaenae frons is remarkably well preserved with much of its decoration and statuary intact. It is also one of the few theaters with an extant skene (stage building); the structure commissioned by G. Iulius Zoilos remains intact. The stage building has four rooms opening off of a vaulted central hallway (portus post scaenium). The façade of the stage building contains three doorways opening onto the stage, the porta regia (center entrance) flanked by a door on either side (the portae hospitals). Inscriptions cut in the doorways show that the space behind was reserved for the equipment of popular actors. In front, the lower level of scaenae frons has been reconstructed, with Doric columns and niches for statuary. Statues of Nike, Aphrodite, the Muses of Tragedy, a youth, and the Emperor Domitian have been found at the site, as well as several statues of pugilists (boxers) complete with scarred bodies and cauliflower ears. These artifacts are on display at the site museum.
 
Another unique feature of the theater is the so-called "archive wall" found in the North parodos (side entrance into the orchestra). The parodos wall, measuring five by fifteen meters, is covered with inscriptions in Greek that record the history of the city. Most inscriptions are letters and decrees from Roman Emperors, including the Roman senatorial decree that granted the city special rank and privileges.
 
Paul Gaudin, a Frenchman in charge of the Smyrna-Kassaba railway, first excavated Aphrodisias in 1904. French excavations continued 1905-1913, and Italians excavated under Giulio Jacopi from 1937-39. In 1961 Dr. Kenan Erim began excavating the site under the auspices of New York University; Aphrodisias was Dr. Erim's life work and passion until his death in 1990. Excavations of the theater began in earnest in 1966 with a grant from the National Geographic Society, and this first phase of the theatre's excavation was completed by 1976. In 1988 the effort to reconstruct the stage building began. Research and excavations at the site have continued since 1990 and are jointly directed by Christopher Ratté, Associate Professor of Classics and Fine Arts at New York University and R.R.R. Smith, Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Oxford.
 
- Author: Amanda Heffernan (student research assistant), Whitman College. 2003

Bibliography:
 
Akurgal, Ekrem. Ancient Civilization and Ruins of Turkey. 9th ed. Istanbul: Net Turistik Yayinlar, 2001.
 
Aphrodisias. New York University. Online document. Accessed 12 November, 2003. Available from http://www.nyu.edu/projects/aphrodisias/
 
Aphrodisias Papers 2: The Theater, A Sculptor's Workshop, Philosophers, and Coin-types. Ed. R.R.R. Smith and Kenan T. Erim. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series No. 2. Ann Arbor, MI: 1991.
 
Erim, Kenan. Aphrodisias: City of Venus Aphrodite. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1986.
 
McDonagh, Bernard. Blue Guide Turkey. London: A&C Black, 2001.

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Copyright © 2003 Thomas G. Hines, Whitman College. All Rights Reserved. Last Updade: 11/26/03