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Syracusae History: Ancient Syracusae (modern Siracusa), is a city, on the east coast of Sicily, 33 miles (53 km) south of Catania. Syracusae was settled about 734 BCE as a Corinthian colony established by the aristocrat Archias, and the city soon dominated the coastal plain and hill country beyond. Described by Cicero as "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all", it equaled Athens in size during the fifth century BC. It later became part of the Roman Republic and the Byzantine Empire. Under Emperor Constans II, it served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire (663–669). After this Palermo overtook it in importance, as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily. Eventually the kingdom would be united with the Kingdom of Naples to form the Two Sicilies until the Italian unification of 1860. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Siracusa is home to both the oldest and the largest theatre in Sicily. It is fair to say, however, that they are not necessarily one in the same. The earliest theatre in Ancient Syracusae was not the enormous, 15,000 seat, conical theatre we see today. That distinction goes to a simpler, rectilinear theatre that probably seated 1000 spectators or less.

The Rectilinear Theatre, 5th Century BCE:

“At Syracusae in Sicily a theatre was erected by the architect Damocopus for Hieron I (478-467 BCE), apparently with a trapezoidal orchestra, and it is here that Aeschylus produced a play in 476 B.C.; but the present theatre is Hellenistic.” (Dinsmoor, 210)

The exact location of this early 5th century BCE theatre is suspect, but it is fair to say that it, as well as its successor, were both built on the south slope of the Temenite Hill, overlooking the modern city of Syracusae. “There are remains of two distinct but adjacent theatrical structures on the Temenites hill. On the south-west slope is the set of some seventeen rows of rock-carved seats, around 27.5 m in length and divided by two staircases, of late sixth- or fifth-century date (no strati-graphic study was ever undertaken to narrow the range). This lies some 24 m to the south-west of a small quadrangular sanctuary (excavated by Stucchi), at the south-western corner of the retaining wall of the later, great theatre.” (Csapa and Wilson, 298)

The early 5th century Greek theatres in Argos, Athens, and Thorikos all began as rectilinear theatres, carved into living rock with bench seats on three sides of a trapezoidal orchestra. It is not unreasonable to assume that this excavated ranking of stone carved seats replicated the early theatre designs of the Archaic period (700 to 480 BCE).

The Syracusae rectilinear steps are reminiscent of the “assembly area” found near the theatre in Morgantina. It is reasonable to assume that these Syracusae steps are all that remains of the 5th century “gathering place” that Plutarch (Timol. 34, 38) mentioned when describing Syracusae. Is this the theatre that Diodorus Siculus (13.94;16. 83. 2-3) placed near the altar of Hieron II and called, “the most beautiful theatre in Sicily?” If so, it was here that Aeschylus produced Aetnae in 476 BCE and Persae (The Persians) in 472 BCE.

The Great Theatre, 2nd Century BCE to 5th Century CE:

The great theatre at Syracusae dates from the 3rd century (238 – 215 BCE). It was twice restored in the Hellenistic period; a Roman stage building was added in the 2nd century BCE; and, a Kolymbethra (orchestra adapted for water spectacles) was added in the 5th century CE. (Sear, 191). The theatre we see today is the weathered result of a Hellenistic theatre with Roman alterations.

Cavea: The remains are cut into the living rock on the southern slope of the Temenite Hill, and face south with a view of the bay of the port and the island of Ortygia. The original Hellenistic cavea most likely exceeded a semi-circle in order to accommodate the Greek, horse-shoe shaped orchestra. The semi-circular cavea we see today is the result of Roman remodeling. The theatre is huge. With a cavea (seating area) that measures 138 meters wide, it is without doubt the largest theatre in Sicily and one of the largest in the Greek World.

The theatre seated approximately 15,000 spectators in two seating sections: the ima cavea (lower section) and the summa cavea (upper section). These two sections of seating are separated by a 2.25 meter wide, curved praecinctio (walkway). The ima cavea contains 27 rows (0.33 x 0.80 m), divided in 9 cunei (wedge-shaped seating sections). The summa cavea contains an additional 40 rows of seats subdivided into 9 cunei. Eight stairways allow audience access to the upper rows of seating in both ima and summa cavea sections. The combined seating entails 67 rows of seats.

A terrace above and behind the theatre has been carved into the rock and is accessed by a central stairway and by a recessed path, “Via dei Sepolcri” (Street of Tombs). A grotto, the “grotto del Ninfeo” and niches for housing statues was carved into the hill behind the terrace.

Orchestra: The original 3rd century Hellenistic orchestra was 16 meters in diameter, horseshoe-shaped and bounded by an open euripus (drainage channel). A walking space between the euripus and the first row of seating allowed audience members to access the stairways leading to the upper cavea.

A 0.9 meter wide and 1.75 meter high passageway (probably from Hieron II’s time) was cut beneath the scene building and extended to the middle of the orchestra. Sear speculates that this passageway may have emerged from the orchestra as Charonian steps (underground passage ending in a staircase; used for entrances and exits).

During the Roman occupation in the 2nd century CE, the analemmata (cavea retaining walls) were cut back at both sides of the cavea and a pair of aditus maximi (large side entrances to the orchestra) were added. Additional 2nd century renovations included re-cutting the lowest 12 rows of seats at a steeper angle and extending the orchestra to 21.4 meters wide. The original orchestra drainage channel was covered over and a new 0.34-meter-wide channel was cut closer to the first row of seats. In addition to the widening of the orchestra, a protective barrier was built in front of the first row of seats, presumably allowing for gladiatorial games. In the 5th century CE a trapezoidal kolymbethra (water pool) was cut into the orchestra allowing for water performances. (Sear, 191)

Skênê (stage building), pulpitum (stage) and proskênion (architectural elements in front of the stage building): The scene building at Syracusae no longer exists but the foundations remain. Interpreting these remains has proven difficult given the history of constructions from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE. Sear writes that “foundation cuttings indicate 3 successive stages in Hellenistic times; in the Roman period, a stage 1.40 meters high advanced into the orchestra and ends contiguous with the analemmata, and the old Hellenistic parodoi (uncovered side entrance to the orchestra) became covered passageways leading to sides of stage.” He further writes that an aulaeum (curtain) slot measuring 32 meters long and 0.80 meters wide was cut into the stage as were holes for 12 posts that supported the curtain (in Roman theatre curtains were raised from below the stage). In the 5th century CE a new aulaeum trench was cut some meters behind the older one.

Little is known about the Hellenistic skênê (stage building), but if it conformed to other Greek designs it would have been a two-story building. Doors in the lower story would access the orchestra and upper story doors would access a covered, three-meter high stage. Two paraskênion (projecting side additions to the skênê) would have flanked this Hellenistic stage.

In 21 BCE, Augustus established Syracusae as a colony of Rome and multiple constructions followed including an amphitheatre, triumphal arch, and aqueduct. Roman alterations to the theatre were most likely initiated at this time, and over the following 400 years the Hellenistic skene was replaced by an ornately decorated, multi-storied Roman scaenae frons (front wall to the stage building) and a lower, 1.4 meter high, stage that backed a semi-circular, Roman orchestra. The Greek paradoi were converted into covered, side-entrances to the Roman stage, the theatre was adapted for gladiatorial games and by the 5th century CE, a kolumbêthra (pool for water spectacles) was incorporated into the orchestra.

“An inscription which is now lost mentioned a Neratius Palmatus as the one responsible for a renovation of the scene: if this was the same person who restored the Curia at Rome after the Sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, then the final works on the theatre at Syracusae can be dated to the beginning of the fifth century AD, by which time the building was nearly nine hundred years old.” (Wikipedia)

Following Rome’s demise in 476 CE, the theatre remained abandoned for centuries and a progression of decimations occurred: under Charles the V (14th century CE), the scene building and the upper portions of the cavea were repurposed for constructing fortifications on Ortygia. During the second half of the 16 century, the Marchess of Sortino, Pietro Gaetani, installed several water mills in the cavea, powered by the Roman aqueduct that once supplied water for the kolumbêthra. The remains of one of these mills, the so-called casetta dei mugnai (Millers' Cottage), can be found behind the cavea.

Excavations of the theatre began in the 19th century under Saveria Landolina and Saverio Cavallari, continued with Paolo Orsi in the late 19th century, and ended with Giuseppe Voza in 1988. In 1914, the Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico (INDA) began the annual performance of Greek drama in the ancient theatre and the festival tradition continues today. The ancient Greek tragedies are performed at sunset, in Italian, without sound systems because of the quality of the theatre's acoustics. Each theatre season begins in May and ends in July.

T. Hines, 2-10-2020

Britannica, Encyclopaedia, International, November 01, 2019. Accessed February 08, 2020.

Cartwright, M. (2011, April 28). Syracusae. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Csapo, Eric and Peter Wilson, A Social and Economic History of the Theatre to 300 BC: Volume 2, Theatre beyond Athens. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Dinsmoor, Willam James Anderson. The Architecture of Ancient Greece: An Account of Its Historic Development.BT Batsford LTD, England, 1950.

Sear, Frank. Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Wikipedia contributors. "Greek Theatre of Syracusae." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 Jan. 2020. Web. 10 Feb. 2020.



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Copyright © 2020 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, The Benson Foundation, and The National Endowment for the Humanities.
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