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The Ancient Theater at Tyndaris (modern Tindari), Province of Messina, Sicily, Italy

The ruins of the ancient city of Tyndaris can be found on a spectacularly sited promontory, 180 meters above the bay of the Tyrrhenian Sea on the northern coast of Sicily. The city was founded in 396 BCE by the Greeks as a colony for exiles of Messenia, who had been forced out of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. With its location on a rock-face, high above the sea, Tyndaris was an almost impenetrable fortress. The site is 59 km from modern Messina (ancient Messana) and is bounded by the Punta di Milazzo on the east, and the Capo Calavà on the west. Visitors to the site will find the excavated ruins of a 3,000 seat Roman theatre that was built upon the foundations of a Greek theatre dating from the 4th century BCE.

History: Ancient Tyndaris or Tyndarion was founded as a Greek city, and one of the latest of all the cities in Sicily that could claim a purely Greek origin, having been founded by Dionysius the Elder, tyrant of Syracuse, in 396 or 395 BCE. The original 600 settlers were the remains of the Messenian exiles, who had been driven from Naupactus, Zacynthus, and the Peloponnese by the Spartans after the close of the Peloponnesian War. Tyndaris was inhabited, controlled and modified by Roman forces after 254 BCE, but continued to flourish as a result of its strategic position and for its loyalty in the battles against Carthage.

Around 42 BC, due to its strategic importance, Tyndaris became the stronghold of Sextus Pompey (67-35 BCE) in the war against Octavian (63 BCE-19 CE). But in 36 CE it was conquered by Agrippa (63-12 CE) and at the end of civil wars, the city was depopulated and impoverished. In 20-21 CE, the emperor repopulated it and gave it the name of “Colonia Augusta Tyndaritanorum”.

Although it has lost its autonomy, it was exempted from various taxes and experienced a second period of prosperity. It was then that the basilica, probably one of the most monumental works, was built. Around the first century CE, "Tyndaris" was hit by a landslide. From that time the city began a period of decline and depopulation. The inhabitants were scattered in the surrounding countryside and the town was abandoned, the public buildings went into disrepair and their materials were reused to reinforce the new walls.

The town recovered gradually, although it never reached its ancient splendor. At the beginning of the Byzantine Empire, Tyndaris became a bishopric seat and around the 8th century the first shrine of the “Madonna Nera” ("Black Madonna") was presumably built, on the ruins of the Temple of Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, at the top of the ancient acropolis.

In 835-836 the town was almost completely destroyed by the Arabs, and the inhabitants took refuge in the area where Patti was built in Norman times (11th century). With the transfer of the bishopric seat to Patti, the decline of Tyndaris continued, and it was now a village with just a few inhabitants.

Tyndaris and archaeology research in recent centuries: At the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, the first research of the ancient monuments of Tyndaris began. After World War II the first systematic excavations were conducted by Luigi Bernabo Brea and Madeleine Cavalier.

According to their studies, as with many Greek cities Tyndaris had a regular plan, with three long flat straight roads, the "plateiai" corresponding to the Roman “decumans”, which intersected with the "stenopoi" (the Roman "cardines") three meters wide, along which were located the "insulae" ("District") and "tabernae" ("workshops"). The Acropolis, or the sacred area of the town, rose over the “agora” (city square). Among the temples stood one dedicated to Demeter (or Ceres), goddess of grain and the harvest, while the cemeteries were located outside of walls, especially in the southern and south-east of the hill.

The Theatre: The theatre was built by the early Hellenistic founders of the city after 396 BCE and later remodeled by the Romans after 254 BCE. Following the destruction of Tyndaris during the Arab conquest in 835-36 CE, the city and theatre were abandoned. Two excavation and restoration campaigns, (G. Cultrera in 1938 and L. Bernabò Brea between 1960 and 1966), revealed the theatre ruins we see today.

The original Greek cavea (seating area) was dug into a hill and rectangular slabs of stone provided seating for about 3,000 spectators. The original 34 rows of seats, (0.40 m high and 0.70 m deep), were divided into 11 cunei (wedge-shaped seating sections) and accessed by 10 scalae (stairways). The orchestra (flat, ground level performance space) was probably horseshoe shaped and was backed by a high stage and stage house (scaenae frons). Ground level paradoi (side entrances to the orchestra) and three doors in the scaenae frons provided entrances for actors and audiences. Above and behind the seating area is space for an additional 6 rows of seats or a possible ambulacrum (atrium or courtyard).

The existing ruins of the theatre are more Roman than Greek and reflect modifications to the seating, orchestra, stage, and scene building that followed the Roman occupation of the city in 254 BCE.

The lack of an amphitheater at Tyndaris prompted a remodel of the Greek theatre to make it more appropriate for blood sport entertainment: the Hellenistic orchestra was too small and the logistics of containing combatants to the fighting arena were non-existent. The solution was multifold:

1. Enlarge the orchestra: The Imperial remodel removed 5 lower front rows of seats thus widening the space to 23 meters.

2. Lower the orchestra .9 meters and build a retaining wall between the front row of seating and the arena.

3. Construct a semi-circular, barrel-vaulted corridor below the front rows of seating and provide 3 entrances to the arena (left, center, and right).

4. Remove the Hellenistic stage and face the scanae frons with a wall with additional entrance to the arena.

5. Provide 5 brick-lined slots in the arena floor to accommodate supporting posts for temporary staging.

The end result of the Roman remodel was an almost circular arena surrounded by a wall some eight feet high. The audience sat safely above the action below and combatants and animals could enter the arena space though multiple openings in the retaining wall. For theatrical performances, a temporary stage could be quickly erected by placing support posts in the five brick-lined slots in the arena floor.

Tyndaris (Tindari) today: is an archeological site containing Roman habitations and baths, complete with wonderful floor mosaics and a small but well presented museum. Further on is the Basilica, a fine example of Graeco-Roman architecture built around a series of arches, and the well-preserved theatre. Each year from late May until mid-June and from late July to late August it is possible to see performances of Greek plays and other theatrical events.

A bus ferries visitors from a parking lot below to the acropolis top where sits the much visited Santuario di Tindari. The shrine was founded in 1960s to house the much-adored statue of The Black Madonna, which according to legend arrived here of its own accord over 1000 years ago, and has performed countless miracles since. If you want to experience real religious zeal, you should visit the shrine on September 8th, which is the festival of the Madonna.


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Copyright © 2019 Thomas G. Hines, Department of Theatre, Whitman College. All Rights Reserved. The Ancient Theatre Archive is a non-profit, educational project, located at Whitman College, USA. Research and Publication Partially Funded Through Grants from Whitman College, The United States Institute for Theatre Technology, The Benson Foundation, and The National Endowment for the Humanities.
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