The Greco-Roman Theatre at Sicyon, Greece

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The Theatre: The Hellenistic theatre at Sicyon (modern name Vassiliko. Greece) was built between 303 and 251 BC and was altered at least twice by the Romans; the scene building was expanded in the 1st century and the stage was altered in the late Roman period (Sears 405). With a seating area estimated at 122 meters wide and 58 meters deep, it is one of the larger theatres in the Peloponnesus. The present day ruins at Sicyon are but a faint reminder of the Romanized theatre Pausinias visited in the second century CE. "On the stage of the theater built under the citadel is a statue of a man with a shield, who they say is Aratus, the son of Cleinias. After the theater is a temple of Dionysus" (Pausanias 2.7.5).
A visitor today finds little more than the exposed remnants of the partially excavated theatre: a bowl shaped depression in a hill with a few rows of exposed stone seats, a horseshoe shaped orchestra of packed earth with evidence of ancient drains, the remnants of an ancient skene and the foundations of a proskenion stage, the remains of stone proskenion access ramps, and two rather imposing arched passageways leading through the hill to the cavea. The casual viewer will note the picturesque view of the Corinthian Gulf some 2 kilometers in the distance but the grandeur of a restored theatre such as Epidaurus is noticeably missing. The "statue of Aratus" has long since vanished, as have the columns and carved marble ornaments that once graced the theatre's façade. What remains are the foundations of a late 4th century Hellenistic theatre with evidence of successive Roman alterations to the skene and proskenion stage.
The Seating Area: The koilon (bowl shaped seating area) of the ancient theatre at Sicyon is carved for the most part out of living rock in the side of a hill. Initial excavations in the late 19th century by the American School of Classical Studies under the successive directorships of M.L. D'Ooge and A.C. Merrim, and M.L. Earle, unearthed portions of the lower 4 rows of seats. Successive excavations exposed portions of the lower nine rows and included a row of prohedriai benches (stone seats of honor with backrests) that borders the orchestra. The remainder of the koilon remains buried beneath several feet of earth. Analemmata (supporting or retaining walls) reinforce the walls of the koilon facing the parodoi. Composed of ashlar masonry, the stepped analemmata heights correspond with the tiers of stone seating before ending in the natural rock of the koilon hill.
The lower section of the koilon is divided into 15 seating sections (kerkides) by 14 stairways. At least one diazoma (horizontal walkway) separates the upper and lower seating areas. This first diazoma was easily confirmed during early excavations due to the remains of an upper retaining wall and portions of an open drain that extended the length of the wall (McMurtry 277). The Koilon measures 122 meters (400 feet) wide by 58.41 meters (192 feet) deep as measured from the back of the center prohedria to the rear of the unexcavated koilon. Based on this measurement, Fossum proposes the possibility of a second diazoma and a third tier of seating (Fossum 264). The number of seating rows is estimated at 40 to 60 but no approximate seating capacity is cited.
The front row of seating consists of 13 prohedriai (seats of honor). These wide benches have arms as well as backs and each extends the width of its corresponding kerkis. Unlike the marble prohedriai at the Dionysiac theatre at Athens, the prohedriai at Sicyon are carved from the same native rock as the bulk of the ordinary rows of seats. Like their counterparts in Athens however, ornamental scrollwork can still be observed on the benches' exterior arms and bases (McMurtry 278).
A pair of vaulted passages on the east and west side of the koilon provided audience access to the first diazoma. Both extend approximately 16 meters (53 feet) through the theatron and were found to be in good condition during initial excavations. The 2.55 meters (8.4 feet) wide tunnels are important examples of true Greek arches. The vaults at Sicyon predate Roman influence and are contemporary to the original construction of the theatre; "the blocks have the same dimensions and are laid in the same manner (close fitting without mortar, ashlar masonry) as those in the Hellenic stage foundation wall" (McMurtry 278). Winter sites arch-and-vault Hellenistic constructions at Letoon, Assos and Aigai in Asia Minor, but concedes Roman influence on these constructions (Winter 110).
The Orchestra: The orchestra at Sicyon has a diameter of 24.3 meters (about 80 feet) if measured to the base of the prohedriai (Sear 405). It is composed of packed earth and comprises somewhat more than half the circumference of a not entirely complete circle. A wide drainage channel surrounds the orchestra and separates it from the prohedriai in the first row. As in the Dionysiac theatre in Athens, stone slabs cover the channel in front of each stairway acting as a bridge. An elaborate network of subterranean channels extends from the center of the orchestra to the perimeter of the prohedriai and to the rear of the skene. (McMurtry 276). It is tempting to compare these covered tunnels to the underground passageways for actors at the Hellenistic theatres at Eretria, Corinth and Argos. These passageways led to stairs (Charonian steps) and allowed for mysterious entrances of performers. Arguments have been made that the channels served performance purposes along with drainage needs; others contend that they are nothing more than large drains suitable for an orchestra with a clay floor and a coastal city with heavy rains (Brownson 404).
Parodoi provide side entrances to the orchestra. Each is approximately 5 meters (16.4 feet) wide and the remains of gate supports and stone thresholds indicate gated entrances similar to those at Epidaurus (Fossum 270).
The Hellenistic Skene: Bieber characterizes the Hellenistic scene building as having "a two-story structure with a one-story forebuilding facing the orchestra" (proskenion). The forebuilding consisted of a colonnade supporting a long and narrow stage. Stairs (Priene) or ramps running parallel to the parodoi (Sicyon, Eretria, Epidaurus) at the far ends of the stage provided access to the stage from the orchestra level. Access from the rear was provided through large openings (thyromata) that pierced the second-story wall (episkenion). These 3rd and 2nd century BC constructions imitated a two-story palatial house with a one-story terrace supported by a colonnade (Bieber 118 - 124).
The excavations at Sicyon reveal a scene building 24.5 meters wide and 12.11 meters deep with proskenion ramps carved out of bedrock on either side. These ruins represent both Greek and Roman constructions (Sear 405). The skene and proskenion are roughly the width of the orchestra. Based on the incline and the width of the stone-carved ramps, Fossum estimates that the stage was about 3.3 meters (10.7 feet) high and 2.8 meters (9 feet) wide. He further notes that the height conforms to the standard established by Vitruvius for a stage "not less than 10 nor more than 12 Roman feet high."
The ruins indicate Roman renovations in the 1st century BC and in the late Roman period. Initial alterations extended the scene building away from the audience and included a Doric portico at the rear. A late Roman renovation replaced the Hellenistic proskenion with a deeper Roman stage that extended forward to the edge of the koilon. The Hellenistic proskenion wall was replaced with a Roman wall and had three openings: a double set of doors in the center flanked by 2 single doors. Little of this wall remains (Fossum 270).
Excavations at Sicyon by the American School of Classical Studies ran from 1886 to 1891 under the direction of M. L. D'Ooge and A. C. Merrim, and M. L. Earle. The Archaeological Society at Athens conducted further excavations in 1920 and 1984. The 4th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Archaeology is responsible for all city excavations as well as those in the surrounding area. Exhibits are housed in the onsite Sicyon museum which reopened in 2007.
 - Author: T. Hines. 2007

Bieber, Margarete. The History of The Greek and Roman Theatre. 2nd ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961.
Brownson, Carleton L. "Further Excavation at the Theatre of Sicyon in 1891." The American Journal of Archaeology and the History of the Fine Arts, Vol. 8, No. 3. (Jul.-Sep., 1893), pp. 397-409.
Fossum, Andrew. "The Theatre at Sikyon." The American Journal of Archaeology and the History of the Fine Arts, Vol. 9, No. 3. (Jul.-Sep., 1905), pp. 263-276.
Haigh, A.E. "Dorpfeld's Theory of the Greek Stage." The Classical Review, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Feb., 1898), pp. 1-11.
McMurtry, W.J. "Excavations by the American School at the Theatre of Sikyon. I. General Report of the Excavations." The American Journal of Archaeology and the History of the Fine Arts, Vol. 5, No. 3. (Sep., 1889), pp. 267-286.
Pausanias. Description of Greece. Trans. J.G. Frazer. Vol. I. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965.
Sear, Frank. Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Tomlinson, R.A. Argos and the Argolid: From the End of the Bronze Age to the Roman Occupation. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1972.
Winter, Frederick E. Studies in Hellenistic Architecture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Online Sources:
The American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Excavation Records
Ancient Greek Cities (Sikyon/Sicyon/Athens)
Greek Travel Pages
Odysseas: Hellenic Ministry of Culture
The Perseus Project
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites (Eds. Richard Stillwell, William L. MacDonald, Marian Holland McAllister)

Copyright © 2007 Thomas G. Hines, Department of Theatre, Whitman College. All Rights Reserved
Last Update: 7/25/07

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