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The Theatre of Dionysos (Dionysus) Elutherea in Athens, Greece

Elizabeth Wells-Thulin

Cut into the south side of the Acropolis is the auditorium of large theatre.  The seating spills down into a flat, semi-circle of a stage.  The stage is bounded on the opposite side by the ruins of different incarnations of the stage buildings, and beyond that lie the ruins of two temples.  These dilapidated, yet majestic buildings are the surviving elements of the sacred precinct of Dionysos.  What can be seen in Athens today is the final chapter of a long and complicated story, a story that ultimately explains the beginning of western drama itself.  The history of the theatre and its surroundings reaches back through the 6th century and includes four major reconstructions, commonly referred to as the Periclean, Lycurgean, Hellenistic and Roman reconstructions.

            There is evidence that the first dithyrambs were performed in Athens at sometime in the 7th century BC.  It is not clear where these dithyrambs were performed, but it is likely that, at this time, the space that became the orchestra was being used for practical and ritualistic purposes relating to the harvest. [1]   During the sixth century, the cult of Dionysos Elutherae came to Athens.  According to the legend recorded by Pausanias, the cult began when Pegasus of Elutherae, a town on the border of Attica and Boetia, brought a statue of the god from a temple in his hometown to Athens [citation].  But whatever its origin, the arrival of the cult was essential to the further development of drama, for the cult encouraged its members to be creative: [a]ll other religions, primitive as well as highly-developed, have rituals or liturgies, repeating the same story every year, while only the Greek worshippers of Dionysos developed myths and with them the material for the highest form of literature” [Bieber 1]. 

Sometime after the cult reached Athens a temple was erected to Dionysos Elutherae in the god’s sacred precinct; this temple, which is usually referred to the Older Temple or Earlier Temple, was probably the first permanent structure erected in the precinct.  A scared grove most likely accompanied the temple.  Dorpfield believes that the temple was 44 feet long and had an external width of 26 feet and 3 inches. [2]   Some remains north of the Older Temple date to before 600 BC and are quite possibly the foundations of an ancient orchestra. [3]   If this is so, then the oldest orchestra was approximately 85 feet in diameter. [4]   Fiechter, however, believes that the remains are those of a wall supporting a road leading to the orchestra, hence, that the orchestra was much smaller. [5]   In any case, there appears to have been a raised orchestra, which indicates to Pickard-Cambridge that the space was no longer used as a threshing ground. [6]

            The Cult of Dionysia brought the festival of Dionysia to Athens, which consisted of three days in the month Elaphebolion, March through the beginning of April, partially devoted to theatrical performances.  The earliest performances related to the City Dionysia probably did not take place in the space that would become the theatre; instead, Bieber believes that they took place in the Agora. [7]   Therefore, in 534 BC, when Thespis, who is credited with bringing tragedy to Athens, claimed the first recorded victory at the Dionysia, he probably did not perform in the precinct of Dionysos Elutherus.  Comedy also did not originate this precinct, but in the precinct of Dionysos Lenaeus which was used during a festival called the Lenaea. [8]   Bieber believes that some of the performances were moved into the precinct of Dionysius after the ikria collapsed during the 70th Olympiad in 498 BC. [9]   Regardless of whether Bieber’s date and location of the collapse is correct, we can safely assume that the collapse “led to the construction of a safe auditorium...of suitably shaped embankments on which wooden planks...could safely rest” and that this construction began at some point in the early half of the fifth century  [Pickard-Cambridge 13]. 

            The work on the theatre that began on the theatre and the precinct in the 5th century is commonly called the Periclean Reconstruction, because it appears to have close connection to the Odeum that was built by Pericles to the east of the theatre in 443 BC.  Bieber claims that Pericles was also directly involved with the construction of the retaining walls of the auditorium, but there is no evidence that Pericles was personally involved in the other constructions that took place in the precinct. [10]   During this time, the entire theatre was moved north, towards the Acropolis, on the same north-south axis.  Bieber hypothesizes that the embankments for seating the ikpria that rested on top of them were probably arranged in an octagonal, as opposed to circular formation. [11]  

The fifth century was abundant with great playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euridipes, who all wrote tragedy, as well as Aristophanes, who composed comedies.  The changes that these authors made in the structure of comedy and tragedy were reflected in the changes made to the physical structure of the theatron.  And it is their plays and the technical demands that they placed on the space that are our greatest source of information about the theatron of the fifth century.  Aeschylus’ Orestia, which was initially performed in 458 BC, is the first of the extant plays to employ a temporary skene. [12]   The Orestia calls for multiple buildings which could either have been represented by the skene itself or by representations supported by the front of the skene.  The Orestia also requires a place for actors to change costumes quickly; this would have taken place inside the skene.

It is difficult to say exactly what a temporary skene of the fifth century would have looked like, for the design could have changed for each festival.  Depending on the play, the skene could have been a simple tent or a building made of logs.  Bieber argues that temporary skene probably looked like what is represented on the Iphigenia vase; the vase shows two buildings on either side of the orchestra: Artemis’ temple on the right and Iphigenia’s palace on the left. [13]

The playwrights also experimented with more dramatic and technologically sophisticated ways to move their actors and indicate a change of location.  Sophocles is said to have invented the art of skenography, or scene painting.  It is possible that multiple katablemas were stacked one in front of the other and removed during the course of the play as the location changed.  Bieber also believes that fifth century performances used a scaena ductilis, which would have allowed for scenery to be changed smoothly and quickly.  Other pieces of theatrical technology included  the ekkulhma, or rolling machine, which was often used to reveal dead characters and the antiphanes, or a giant crane, which Euripides used to create his dues ex machina.

With the beginning of the Peloponnesian Wars in 431 B.C. building projects in the precinct ceased until the Peace of Nikias, which began in 421 B.C.  During this six year period a long building, or stoa, was constructed in between the Older Temple and the orchestra was constructed.  The foundations of  the stoa show that it had an external length of 204 feet and an internal breadth of 22 feet.   Towards its western end, it is divided by a wall into one section that is 34 long internally and another that is 156 feet. [14]   The exact function of this building has been the subject of some debate, for the earliest scholars called it a skenoteche and supposed that it served a similar function as skene, But, Pickard-Cambridge points out that the southern-most wall of the building appears to have been made to support a row of columns not a solid wall, and he believes that the stoa may have been the first incarnation of a building mentioned by Vitruvius, which served to house audience members during sudden rainstorms. [15]   Bieber also believes that this is correct. [16]   The function of the room at the western end of the stoa is unclear.

There was then a lull in constructive activity until a little bit before Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city-states, in 338 B.C.  At this time, control of public finance was given to an Athenian statesman named Lycurgus, who was apparently a lover of the theatre.  Lycurgus was responsible for allotting funds for the improvement of the theatre, as well as the creation of gold statues of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides that were placed in theatre and a law that forbade actors from tampering with the scripts of these authors.  It is important to note, however, that Lycurgus was not responsible for beginning the reconstruction that carries his name, but rather for completing it. [17]

The most important aspect of this major remodel was the creation of a stone auditorium, the lower half of which is visible today.  This stone auditorium was larger than auditorium of the Periclean reconstruction: the eastern wall was lengthened to stretch beyond the northern boundary of the Odeum, and when it had reached this point, it was also expanded to the east.  The northern boundary of theatre was pushed back, though it is unclear how far.  The theatre was divided into kerkidas by twelve staircases, which were constructed so as to prevent spectators from slipping: the difference between steps was smaller than in most Greek theatres and each step was textured to provide traction. [18]

            The stone auditorium offered seating that “with a cushion, would be tolerable, though still somewhat cramping for a long day’s sitting” [Pickard-Cambridge 140].  Lines etched into the rows show that each seat may have been intended to be sixteen inches wide. [19]   There is an indent thirteen inches from the front of the seat that is 2 inches deep and about thirteen inches long.  Spectators were meant to sit in front of this indent, which was for the feet of the spectators sitting in the row behind.  Much more spacious seating was granted to priests and other officials who sat in the sixty-seven thrones that surrounded the orchestra.  Many copies of these thrones, which seem to be fairly accurate portrayals of the originals, were made during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and have survived. [20]

            In between this front row of seats and the orchestra, a water channel, which is still visible today, was dug out.  It is about three feet wide and three feet and seven inches deep in the southwest corner. [21]   Twelve bridges were built to correspond with the twelve staircases, as the paradoi led the audience into the orchestra, from where they had to reach their seats.  While it is rather amusing to imagine the performers of antiquity falling into the spaces between these bridges, Pickard-Cambridge is right in asserting that “it is difficult to suppose that [these spaces were] left open...[and that] the common danger...would long have been tolerated” [Pickard-Cambridge 144-145].  There are letters on the inner edge of the water channel which may have indicated the placement of boards that were temporarily laid down to prevent unfortunate accidents. [22]

            The orchestra, which this water channel surrounded, was a circle with a diameter of sixty-six feet and one inch.  What the surface of this orchestra looked like, however, is unknown, as all of the extant remains date from the Roman period.  Between the orchestra and the stoa, a permanent skene was built.  The remains indicate that the northern wall of the skene was built about twenty feet in front of the stoa, and that the northern wall of the stoa formed the southern wall of the skene.  Two paraskenia were constructed on either side of the skene and the northern walls of these two buildings appear to have projected out sixteen feet and one inch further than the northern wall of the skene.  Little more about the Lycurgean skene and paraskenia can be determined with certainty as the remains have been obscured by those of the periods which follow it.

            It is clear that at this time there was something called the proskenion, but its exact form has been the subject of much debate.  One of the more famous pieces of evidence is a quote from Anthenaeus comparing the proskenion to a prostitute named Nannion, who, like the proskenion, was a “decorative front concealing something quite plain” [Pickard-Cambridge 157].  This passage as well as some other references in texts from the fourth century B.C., lead Pickard-Cambridge to conclude that most likely “the word proskenion, as used of the late fourth-century theatre, applies to a decorative screen (or curtains) attached to or erected just in front of the front wall of the skene itself,” and that a proskenion erected far enough away from the skene to create another acting space came about in the following period [Pickard-Cambridge 159].

            The Hellenistic reconstruction probably took place around 160 B.C., though many other dates have been given for it, ranging from after anywhere after the death of Lycurgus to before the birth of Christ. [23]   This reconstruction is particularly hard to date for unlike the other reconstructions, we can neither connect it with a specific person or event.  Nor, as with the earlier reconstructions, can we claim that what occurred in Athens precipitated the occurrence of similar changes in other theatres, for “[w]ith the Peloponnesian War, Athens lost not only the political, but gradually the cultural leadership” [Bieber 116].

 The changes that were made to the theatre during this period are best viewed as “a compromise which met the needs of the lyrical choruses and old classical tragedies...as well as the needs of New Comedy” [Bieber 115].  As New Comedy placed no unique demands on the orchestra, it was not altered. [24]   New Comedy did, however, require a raised stage, for while the chorus had been growing less and less important since Thespis introduced the first actor in the sixth century B.C., it was the focus of New Comedy on personality types and dialogues between characters that finally demanded a separation between actors and chorus. [25]   Therefore, the proskenion was transformed from a screen into a wall that could support a logeion.  This new proskenion was moved from directly in front of the skene to a distance of four feet and five inches away.  It is not clear how high above the orchestra the logeion was raised, but Pickard-Cambridge determines that the columns of the proskenion were roughly thirteen feet in height, and so the logeion would have been slightly higher than this. [26]

What the actors of New Comedy in the Hellenistic period would have performed in front of is purely a matter of conjecture.  Feichter’s reconstructions suppose a building on the second story equal or almost equal to the lower story in width, with a roof supported by a number of tall columns. [27]   Dorpfield’s reconstructions, which depend heavily on his assumption that the logeion must have been rather deep in order for gods to appear on it, show a building much smaller in width and in length. [28]   With regards to the Hellenistic paraskenia the evidence indicates that they were actually reduced in size, so as to increase the width of the paradoi.  They projected three feet and seven inches in front of the proskenion.  Feichter’s reconstruction does not show the paraskenia as particularly important playing spaces, and Dorpfield’s reconstruction appears to omit them altogether. [29]

While New Comedy was being performed on the logeion, the old types of plays were still performed in the orchestra and the new proskenion served as their background.  Remains of the marble on which the columns of the proskenion stood have been found and on them are markings indicating the spacing of the columns. The columns were placed about four feet apart, with the exception of the space between the middle columns, which was eight feet. [30]   Pickard-Cambridge interprets some markings found in this middle section to mean that at some point in time it housed double doors. [31]   The front of the proskenion was a relatively flexible background, for left unadorned, these columns could represent a market place, and if another setting was needed, panels could have been placed in between the columns for scene paintings to rest on. [32]

The Theatre of Dionysos was the first theatre in Greece to be Romanized, a process which took place doing two distinct periods.   The activities of the first period are sometimes collectively called the Neronian reconstruction as the constructions were completed around 60 A.D. and were dedicated to the Roman emperor, Nero.  The second reconstruction was overseen by the archon Pheadrus in 270 A.D.

There is no archeological evidence of a pulpitum during the Neronian period, which has lead some scholars to hypothesize there was none.  It is, however, improbable that “when constructing the theatre of Roman lines as a compliment to Nero, the Athenians should have omitted the stage, which was one of the most important and characteristic elements in all Roman theatres and Greek theatres influenced by them” [Pickard-Cambridge 257].  It is likely that a pulpitum did exist and that it resembled other pulpitums contemporary to it; it was probably raised five feet above the ground. [33]   How far forward the pulpitum extended into the orchestra, however, is not clear.  In his excavation of the theatre, Ziller observed a fragment of a wall that seemed to him to have been the outer edge of the Neronian pulpitum. [34]   The wall was located far enough to the south for the orchestra to have remained a full circle. Unfortunately, this wall no longer exists and other scholars have suggested that this wall was simply a support for the stage, and not its termination. [35]   There is no way to conclusively resolve this problem, but as the reduction of the circular orchestra to a semi-circular one was characteristic of Romanized Greek theatres, we can assume that this reduction had occurred before the time of Pheadrus. [36]

            The Romans paved the orchestra with marble tiles.  In the center of the orchestra, one can still see a large rhombus that is composed of smaller, colored marble tiles.  Pickard-Cambridge suggests that the rhombus may have existed during Nero’s time, for if Ziller is correct about the length of the stage, then the rhombus would have been “practically central” [Pickard Cambridge 258].  In the rectangular tile in the center of the rhombus there is an indentation that is apparently for an altar.

            As has been mentioned previously, the thrones that surround the orchestra today are from the Roman and the Hellenistic periods, though there is reason to believe that they are copies of thrones from an earlier period.  At some point in time, the second row of thrones was removed in order to create room behind the first row of thrones.  The Romans also installed an basis in the middle of each kerikades.  These basises held statues both of gods and of political figures.  Many statues that may have set on these basises and in other places in the theatre, such as in the paradoi, were discovered at the site, but I do not know if they are still there. [37]

The Romans transformed the relatively simple skene of the Hellenistic period into what we assume was a much grander scanae frons.  Hardly anything of the scanea frons remains standings in Athens, so scholars must base their reconstructions on the surving sceanea fronses of other theatres.  In the rubble surrounding the theatre, the excavators of the theatre have found many pieces of columns and architraves that are thought to have been part of the scanea frons.  Feichter’s illustration of how the pieces found at the site inspired his reconstruction illustrates how much imagination is employed in creating the various designs proposed by scholars. [38]   Despite the lack of evidence, it is generally agreed that the scanea frons, which was made of marble, was two stories, or roughly 40 feet, tall.  According to Feichter’s calculations the columns of the lower level were 14 feet and six inches while, while the columns of the upper level were only about 11 feet tall. [39]   There was a central aedicula, framed by an architrave, which has survived and contains a dedication to Nero and Dionysos.  The foundations also reveal that the scaena frons consisted of a row of pillars and then a space of unknown width, which Dorpfield refers to as a proskenion, and then a facade. [40]   Behind the facade was a Roman wall and, behind that was the stoa.

Versurae were constructed on either side of the scanea frons.  But there is even less evidence from which to reconstruct their appearance than there is for the scanea frons.  The problem is further compounded by the fact that the Hellenistic paraskenia appear to have been left in front of or incorporated into the versurae. [41]   Fiechter’s reconstructions suppose the vesurae to have equalled, if not surpassed the scanae frons in height and one of his drawings suggests tops of Hellenistic paraskenia could have been used as acting spaces in front of the versurae. [42]   Dorpfield’s and Schleif’s reconstructions of the versurae, however, are much more modest. [43]

            The type of entertainment that took place in the Romanized theatre was of a decidedly different flavor than the tragedies and comedies of the earlier periods.  The theatre became a venue for gladiatorial contests. Dio Chrysostumus chastised the Athens for this saying that “in their theatre under the very walls of the Acropolis, in the place where they put up their Dionysos in the orchestra, so that often a fighter is slaughtered among the very seats in which the heirophant and the other priests must sit” [Oratio, xxxi, 121 as qtd. by Bieber, 215].  The appetite for bloodshed, however, among audiences of the Roman period did not extend to a desire for it take place in their laps, and so a boundary wall, or parapet, was constructed between the first wall of seats and the orchestra.  Pickard-Cambridge entertains the possibility that this wall may have been part of the Neronian reconstruction, but believes it more probable that the wall was built after this time and before Pheadrus. [44]   Though gladitorial contests in the theatre did not cease, the Athens seemed to have agreed with Dio Chysostumus that it was no longer the proper venue for religious activities.  The performances given in honor of Dionysos were eventually moved to the theatre of Herodes Atticus.

            If there was any major constructive activity in the scared precinct in the 200 years following Nero, no evidence of it has survived.  The reconstruction that took place in 270 A.D. was prompted by the destruction of Athens by the Herculians during the previous year.  The most astounding piece of work from this period is the bema of Phaedrus, a sculpture mural that was built to support the new stage.  That Phaedrus was the archon of Athens at this time seems to have been discovered in between the time when Pickard-Cambridge and Bieber wrote, as Pickard-Cambridge claims that aside from the inscription dedicating the bema to Dionysos from Phaedrus, Pheadrus is “otherwise unknown” [Pickard-Cambridge 259].  The figures on the bema appear to show scenes of Dionysos’ life from his birth to his marriage to Basilina, and finally his enthronement at the Theatre itself. [45]   It is generally accepted that pieces comprosing the bema were not originally created for this purpose, and Bieber believes that “they were originally the four sides of an altar dedicated to Dionysos, either of the Neronic of Hadrianic period. The...theatre...was desecrated and no longer required an altar” [Bieber 215].

            The final constructive activity of which there is any evidence, probably occurred in the third or fourth century A.D. and consisted of transforming the orchestra into a watertight basin, ostensibly for nicomachia, or sea battles. [46]   Apparently, a structure lower than the previous pulpitum was desired, so all the figures in the bema of Pheadrus were decapitated.  The figures were then covered with cement, which has sense been removed.  This same cement was also used on the parapet to strengthen it and make it capable of retaining water.

            It is with these rather crude and inglorious adjustments that the archeological trial of the Theatre of Dionysos ends.  And, in the following centuries the theatre, which had once been a scared and vital place, was neglected and eventually covered by earth.  How this occurred so close the heart of a city that has continuously inhabited since the third millennium is difficult to understand, but it is in many ways a blessing, for it prevented the theft and displacement of the artifacts important to unraveling the theatre’s history.  Unlike other theatres, whose existence was discovered by accident, the written records of the Theatre Dionysos never completely disappeared, and its location was probably determined sometime after Chandler visited Greece in 1765. [47]   The first excavations were conducted by Dorpfield in 1862 and, after his death, his work was continued by Bulle and Feichter. [48]

[1] “The smooth surface and circular shape of the Greek orchestra have recently been explained from the form of the threshing floor, which has remained the same in Greece since antiquity.  It is natural that gay dances at religious festivals and particularly at harvest time were performed at the same place where the oxen had trodden out the grain” [Bieber 54].

[2] Pickard-Cambridge 4.

[3] Pickard-Cambridge 1.  The remains referred to are SM1 and SM3, according to Feichter’s plan.

[4] This is Dorpfield’s estimate as cited by Bieber on page 54.

[5] Bieber 55.

[6] “Threshing floors are still used for dancing by simple people in many lands; but it is hardly likely that a high terrace would have been built to support a threshing floor, where there was plenty of level ground not far off, whereas the hill-side would offer great advantages to the spectators of performances in an orchestra” [Pickard-Cambridge 9].

[7] Bieber 54.

[8] Bieber says that plays were being performed in the Lenaion precinct as early as 487/6 B.C. and that after the completion of the theatre in the Eletheurian precinct, which was probably around the end of the Peace of Nikias in 416 B.C., that all performances were moved there [Bieber 54].  Haigh, however, claims that there is a written record proving that contests were being held in Lenaion precinct through the second century B.C. [Haigh].  No physical evidence of a theatre in Lenaion remains.

[9] This event corroborated by two at least two sources, though both are relatively corrupt.  One of these sources is the Suda, a Byzantian encyclopedia written in the 10th Century.  The reference to the collapse of the ikpria is found in the entry on Pratinas: “[Pratinas] competed against both Aischylos and Khoirilos in the 70th Olympiad[1] and was the first to write satyr plays. While this man was exhibiting a play, it happened that the benches[2] on which the spectators were standing collapsed, and because of this a theatre was constructed for the Athenians. And he exhibited 50 plays, of which 32 were satyric. He was victorious once” [citation].  Bieber interprets this as meaning the collapse occurred during the 70th Olympiad, but Pickard-Cambridge points out that the text does not support this assumption.  Pickard Cambridge also questions the assumption that the collapse took place in the Agora.

[10] Bieber 73.

[11] Bieber 63.

[12] Bieber 57-58/

[13] Bieber 66.

[14] Pickard-Cambridge 25.

[15] Pickard-Cambridge 27.

[16] Bieber 60.

[17] Pickard-Cambridge 136.

[18] Pickard-Cambridge 139-140.

[19] Pickard-Cambridge 140-141.

[20] Pickard-Cambridge 141-142.

[21] Pickard-Cambridge 144.

[22] Pickard-Cambridge 145.

[23] Pickard-Cambridge 175.

[24] Pickard-Cambridge 176.

[25] For the demands of the New Comedy on the Hellenistic stage see Bieber 115.  For the focus of New Comedy on personality types see Bieber 87.

[26] Pickard-Cambridge 177.

[27] Bieber 123.

[28] Pickard-Cambridge 186.

[29] For Feichter see Bieber 123.  For Dorpfield see Pickard-Cambridge 186.

[30] Pickard-Cambridge 177.

[31] Pickard Cambridge 182.

[32] Bieber 115.

[33] Pickard-Cambridge 256.

[34] Pickard-Cambridge 257.

[35] Pickard-Cambridge 257.

[36] Pickard-Cambridge 258.

[37] Pickard-Cambridge 263-264.

[38] Pickard-Cambridge 253.

[39] Pickard-Cambridge 254.

[41] Pickard-Cambridge 255-256.

[42] Bieber 213.

[43] Pickard-Cambridge 256.

[44] Pickard-Cambridge 258.

[45] Pickard-Cambridge 262.

[46] Pickard-Cambridge 264.

[47] Pickard-Cambridge 264.

[48] Pickard-Cambridge 264.


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