- The Theater of The
Sanctuary of Asklepios at
Epidaurians have a theatre within the
in my opinion very well worth seeing. For while the Roman
theatres are far superior to those anywhere else in their
splendor, and the Arcadian theatre at Megalopolis is
unequalled for size, what architect could seriously rival
Polycleitus in symmetry and beauty? For it was
Polycleitus who built both this theatre and the circular
- On the west side of Mt.
Kynortion in northeastern Peloponnesus is the Theatre at
In antiquity, the Theatre was admired for its excellent
acoustics, symmetry and beauty. The craft of
geometrically proportioned temples was used to construct
the theatre and helped create its famous features (Berve
362). Today, those characteristics survive in the
best-preserved theatre in Greece. The Theatre was built
in sections starting at the end of the fourth century and
continuing into the Hellenistic period, when additions
were made to it. In 1881 the Theatre was discovered after
being earthed for centuries and underwent a series of
renovations to bring it to its present form.
- In Epidaurus during the
fifth century B.C.E., the cult of Asklepios, the god of
healing, held athletic and artistic contests (which
included Rhapsodes and possibly religious dramas) that
took place not in a theatre building,
but in the open
sanctuary of Asklepios. As the importance of Asklepios
developed in Epidaurus, so did the sanctuary. Gradually,
the Temple, the Tholos, and then the Theatre were built
as essential structures for the sanctuary. The Theatre is
actually 550 yards southeast of the sanctuary, but its
connection to the sanctuary is strong (Berve
The Theatre, therefore, was built to aid in the worship
and celebration of Asklepios. When it was built, however,
is uncertain (Tomlinson 85- 86).
- The Greek traveler
Pausanius mentions in Descriptions of Greece that
the architect of the Theatre was the famous sculptor
Polykleitos. In recent times, this claim has been
debated. Historians have said that Pausanius may have
confused Polykleitos (who lived in the second half of the
fifth century B.C.E.) with another Polykleitos, who was
an architect and perhaps the grandson of the sculptor.
This would date the building of the Theatre at around 360
B.C.E., a time more in agreement with architectural
dating (Tomlinson 86).
- The outdoor Theatre has
the three main features of a Greek theatre: the
orchestra, the skene, and the cavea. The foundation of
the orchestra is beaten earth surrounded by a complete
circle (67 feet in diameter) of white limestone (Bieber
In the center of the orchestra is a white stone, which
could have been an altar (Dinsmoor 244). This altar may
have been a later Hellenistic addition and used to honor
Dionysus (Lawrence 365). The orchestra also has a
drainage channel to prevent rainwater from the auditorium
to collect on the orchestra floor (Tomlinson
The rows of seats near the edge of the orchestra are
slightly pushed back in order to provide a wider parodoi
for the thousands of visitors to leave more quickly and
- Unfortunately, only the
foundation of the skene from the time of Polycleitus
remains today; however, there is enough to suggest its
The fourth century remains had a rectangular proskenion,
64 feet long and 20 feet deep, which was adjacent to the
orchestra circle and had a smaller room on each end. It
was supported by pillars that had grooves to possibly
hold painted scenery panels (Berve 363). On each side of
the proskenion was a ramp (Dinsmoor 246). The ramps
leading to the proskenion suggest that during the
Hellenistic period they may have been used more
frequently as a stage than as background scenery for the
orchestra (Berve 363). During the Hellenistic period,
additional rooms were developed behind the ramps and the
proskenion. Behind the proskenion there was another
rectangular room that was supported by several columns.
This structure may have been high enough for a two-story
skene. If so, the second story could have been used to
create a background for the proskenion when it was used
more as a stage. On both sides of the skene was a gateway
that had two openings: one being the parodoi that led to
the orchestra, and the other to the ramp, which led to
the proskenion (Tomlinson 88).
- The cavea is 387 feet in
diameter and is sunk into a hillside. Unlike the theatre
in Athens, the Theatre of Epidaurus had no obstructions
with other buildings or cliffs, so the auditorium could
be perfectly symmetrical (Lawrence 365). This symmetry is
what helped create the Theatre's well-known acoustics.
The rounded cavea has two seating sections that can hold
a total of around 14,000 spectators; the lower section
has 13 stairways with 34 rows of benches, while the upper
section has 23 stairways with 21 rows of benches (Lenas
99). The wedge-shaped benches, made of local limestone,
enveloped two-thirds of the orchestra (Izenour 11). The
wedge-shape of the block benches, hollowed beneath the
edge, gave the feet more room, which allowed people more
comfortable seating positions and the ability to tuck
their feet in to let people walk by (Izenour
Spectators near the end of the auditorium had a difficult
view of the skene, but everyone could see the orchestra
The lowest seats
had back supports and were the seats of honor, called
proedria (Dinsmoor 244). When the two-story skene was
developed, the proedria was moved to the second section
to give the honored a better view.
George Izenour, Professor of Theatre Design and
Technology , measured the maximum sight line distances
from the skene to the center of the orchestra to be 194
feet, and from the skene to the center of the two-story
stage to be 232 feet (257).
- There is argument about
whether or not the cavea was built in one or two phases.
Armin von Gerkan and Wolfgang Muller-Wiener, two
well-known scholars of architectural theatre studies,
believe that the cavea was built in two phases. The first
phase was at the end of the fourth century B.C.E., when
the Theatre did not have an upper section; only the lower
section existed, along with the skene and orchestra. The
second phase was during the Hellenistic period, when the
upper section was added along with the two-storied skene.
Archaeologist R.A. Tomlinson believes that it is more
architecturally sensible that the cavea was built with
two seating sections from the start, with no significant
alterations in design or construction (Tomlinson
- An interesting
acoustical study by G.C. Izenour seems to support the
idea that the upper section was built during the
Hellenistic period. He concluded that an actor speaking
on the orchestra floor would not be able to project all
the way to the upper level of the cavea. Only after the
invention of the two-level stage (and the enlarged mask,
which could have help with projection) would it have been
possible for the actor to expand his speaking range to
the upper level (Izenour 258).
- Perhaps the excellent
acoustics and perfect geometric construction of the
Theatre were the reasons why the Romans did not change
the stage or cavea, as they did with other Greek theatres
during their empire (Izenour 11).
The Theatre continued to be used by the Romans, but with
no known major renovations or developments. At some
point, however, the Theatre fell into disuse and the
cavea was buried under layers and layers of earth while
the skene was left exposed and vulnerable to
- It is unknown exactly
how many centuries the cavea remained buried and if it
was a gradual or sudden burial. The silt covering the
cavea was the evidence needed to answer these questions;
unfortunately, the silt was shoveled away at the time of
the first excavations in 1881 (Tomlinson 88). Except for
the rows near the edges and the retaining wall, most of
the cavea was found in good condition. The skene,
however, was in ruins.
- At the start of the
twentieth century, the retaining wall and the gate of the
western entrance were restored. From 1954 to 1963, the
Theatre underwent large-scale restorations and
reconstructions of sections that were completely
Theatre at Epidaurus is considered the best-preserved
theatre in Greece. Its acoustics, symmetry and beauty are
still greatly admired not just by tourists, but by
patrons who visit the Theatre for performances which
continue to be held there.
- The Theatre at Epidaurus
survived many years to reach us today. It was originally
built to honor Asklepios, but its later additions, such
as the two-story skene, suggest that it was used for
conventional plays that were imported from
At some point,
the purpose of the Theatre changed from worshiping and
celebrating Asklepios to performing standard plays. The
Theatre for Asklepios turned into another theatre for
Dionysus. In modern times, however, it is a theatre for
- - Author: Joshua
Polster, University of Washington. 2003
- Bieber, Margarete.
The History of The Greek and Roman Theatre. 4th
ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
- Berve, Helmut and
Gottfried Gruben. Greek Temples, Theatres, and
Shrines. New York: H.N. Abrahms, 1963.
- Dinsmoor, William Bell.
The Architecture of Ancient Greece. New York:
Biblo and Tannen, 1973.
- Izenour, George.
Theatre Design. United States: McGraw-Hill Book
- Lawrence, R.A.. Greek
Architecture. Ed. R.A. Tomlinson. 5th ed. Great
Britain: Penguin Books, 1983.
- Lenas, Peter. A
Historical Guide for Visitors to Old Corinth, Mycenae,
Heraeum, Argos, Lerna, Tiryns, Nauplia, Epidaurus,
Byzantine Churches: Topography, Legend and History,
Monuments, Museums, Churches. Athens: Patsilinakos,
Description of Greece. Trans. J.G. Frazer. Vol. I.
New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965.
- Tomlinson, R.A..
Epidauros. Austin: University of Texas Press,