- The Hellenistic
Theatre at Priene
- -Amanda Heffernan
(student research assistant, Whitman College.
- The horseshoe-shaped
theatre at Priene represents one of the best-preserved
and earliest forms of Hellenistic theatres built in
Turkey. Ten kilometers north of Miletus, the ancient site
of Priene sits on the northern edge of the Meander River
plain just outside the small city of Gullubahçe,
Turkey. The ancient city was once a flourishing port, but
the Meander River, true to its name, isolated the city by
depositing silt, thus producing the fertile farmland we
- The city of Priene dates
from 350 BC, and the theatre was constructed at the site
soon after (ca. 332-330 BC). Although the remnants of the
theatre we see today are the product of numerous
alterations by both Greek and Romans over several
centuries, the ruins retain many of features associated
with the Hellenistic theatres that were to follow:
horseshoe-shaped seating area (theatron) dug into
the slope of a hill, a two-story scene house with a high
stage above the lower scene house facade
(proskenion), and a performance space that
de-emphasized the importance of the chorus and featured
the actor. The condition of Priene's remains and the
significance of its features prompts Beiber to cite the
theatre as the earliest, best preserved, and most
important among the new theatres which were erected in
Hellenistic times. (Beiber, 109). This small theatre on
the southern slopes of Mt. Mykale was in use for five
hundred years and although it could accommodate over 6000
people in its 47 rows of seating, only the 15 lower rows
- The seating area
(theatron) of forty-seven rows of seats (22 in the
lower and 25 in the higher theatron seating sections)
were divided by six staircases vertically and one walkway
(diazoma) horizontally. Square holes in the marble
seating are cited as evidence of posts that once
supported temporary shade awnings. Around 300 BC, marble
armchairs (prohedrai) were built around the edge of the
orchestra as seating for distinguished guests. The
existing prohedrai are decorated with lions' claws and
have inscriptions recording that the seats were dedicated
to Dionysos by Nysios, son of Diphilos. The lowest row of
seats is separated from the row of prohedrai in the
orchestra by a 1.85 m-wide water drainage canal that is
covered with smooth stone slabs. At the western end of
the water canal, there is a rectangular pedestal with
hollows on top. Identified as a water clock
(clepsydra), it serves as evidence that political
meetings were once held in the theatre and the water
clock timed speeches.
- The seating faces south,
but for an unknown reason the eastern seating support
wall (analemmata) is not in line with the
north-south plan of the city. These retaining walls were
erected in the later 4th century BC or, at the latest, at
the beginning of the 3rd century.
- Bieber credits the
popularity of "New Comedy" and its emphasis on the actor
with the raised stage and the de-emphasis of the
orchestra as a primary performance area. At Priene, the
skene was rebuilt in stone in the third century BC
(ca. 269-250 BC) and a roof was added to the area in
front of the skene (proskenion) forming a raised acting
area or stage. Stone beams that once supported the floor
of this stage are visible in the space between the skene
and the proskenion. The raised stage provided performers
with a commanding position to address the
- The proskenion, which is
longer than the skene, has twelve Doric half-columns, on
which traces of red and blue paint have been found.
Bieber speculates that the spaces between the columns
often held pinakes, or painted wooden panels for scenery.
The two-story skene projects somewhat into Theatre
Street, which runs behind it, and has three rooms per
floor. In the lower story each of the three rooms has a
doorway opening onto the orchestra. The middle room also
has a door opening onto the street adjacent to the
theatre. A flight of steps on the outside of the western
side of the building leads to the second story. The
second story had three doors (thyromata), which
opened onto the stage. Two cylindrical statue bases at
either side and in front of the proskenion can still be
seen: the western one once bore a statue of Apollodorus,
son of Poseidinius (160 BC) and the eastern one in honor
of Thrasybulus, son of Pylius (150 BC) (Sear,
- Roman modifications to
the theatre during the 1st century AD included the
widening of the stage by removing the front of the stage
building and pushing it back two meters, thus doubling
the depth of the stage. They also integrated the five
armchair prohedria around the orchestra into a row of
bench seating. The altar to Dionysus was set in the
center of the row. The Romans also built barrel-vaulted
rooms in the stage building and constructed plaster walls
between the columns of the proskenion, leaving only the
- Two English merchants
who were trading in Smyrna discovered the Ruins of Priene
in 1673, 400 years after its last habitation. Based on
their report, the London Society of Dillettanti sponsored
excavations in Priene from 1764-66, from 1811-12, and
finally from 1868-9. In 1895, Carl Humann of the Berlin
Museum began excavations, and was succeeded after his
death in 1896 by Theodore Weigand and H. Schrader. The
excavations have been under the charge of the Berlin
Museum and the German Archaeological Institute ever
since. By 1992, the theatre had deteriorated due to
environmental factors and vandalism, so the German
excavators began a reconstruction project to restore and
protect the theatre. They set up the row of prohedria
bordering the orchestra, rebuilt the vault of the western
skene, and rebuilt the proskenion and its twelve
- - Author: Amanda
Heffernan (student research assistant, Whitman College.
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