Priene Home

Photos and Panorama Movies
Theatre Archive Home
Glossary of Terms

The Hellenistic Theatre at Priene
-Amanda Heffernan (student research assistant, Whitman College. 2003)
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 see today.
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 remain.
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 audience.
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, 349).
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 doorways open.
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 columns.
- Author: Amanda Heffernan (student research assistant, Whitman College. 2003)

Akurgal, Ekrem. Ancient Civilization and Ruins of Turkey. 9th ed. Istanbul: Net Turistik Yayinlar, 2001.
Bayhan, Suzan. Priene, Miletus, Didyma. Trans. Anita Gillett. Istanbul: Keskin Color Kartpostalcilik Ltd., 2002.
Bean, George. Aegean Turkey: An Archaeological Guide. London: Earnest Benn Ltd., 1966.
Bieber, Margarete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.
Cormack, Sarah. "Priene, Theater." Perseus Digital Library Building Catalog. Accessed July 21, 2003. Available at:
Dinsmoor, William Bell. The Architecture of Ancient Greece: An Account of its Historic Development. Reprint of 1950 rev. ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1975.
McDonagh, Bernard. Blue Guide Turkey. London: A&C Black, 2001.
Rumscheid, Frank. Priene: A Guide to the "Pompeii of Asia Minor." Trans. R. Blumel. Deutsches Archaeologisches Insitut, Abteilung Istanbul. Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 1998.

Archive Home
Google Maps
Theatre Specification Table

Copyright © 2003 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, and The National Endowment for the Humanities.
© This website is copyright protected. Pages may be downloaded, printed, copied, and distributed as long as they remain unchanged and The Ancient Theatre Archive is given due credit.Last Update 3/25/2009.