The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus

The remains of the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, in direct spatial and symbolic relation to the namesake sanctuary, dominate the east part of the South Slope of the Acropolis. The site has been associated with the birth and development of drama and the inception of theatre as artistic and architectural creation, one of the pivotal achievements of ancient Greek culture. Here, the most significant plays of the great dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander were staged that not only educated the Athenian audience in a multitude of ways playing a key role in the continuous redefinition of the identity of the Athenian citizen as member of the democratic constitution, but have embodied to this day an intellectual legacy for the entire mankind. The circular layout of the Athenian theatre that was built entirely of stone and its construction on sloping terrain have turned it into a prototype in the history of theatre architecture, as it first took shape in Athens in 350 BC and has served since then as a model for all other theatre structures.

Even though the Athenian theatre suffered severe damages, underwent changes in use, its material was plundered and for many centuries was buried under thick deposits, its memory was kept alive through the centuries in the surviving works of Classical drama. Ever since it was unearthed in 1862 its creation and building phases have been studied by a large number of internationally acclaimed scholars. The largest part of the preserved ruins, including subsequent conversions and alterations, belong to the monumental renovation of the Athenian theatre that lasted from 350 to 320 BC, during which it was reconstructed in stone - a venture instigated by Euboulos and completed by the orator and statesman Lycurgus (334-326 BC), who was responsible for the state finances and admired the great tragic poets of the 5th c. BC as well as the accomplishments of the age of Pericles.

The creation of the theatrical space is directly associated with the establishment of the cult of Dionysus Eleuthereus at the foot of the South Slope of the Acropolis. Tradition has it that the cult was imported from the city of Eleutherae on the borders between Attica and Boeotia, most likely by the tyrant Peisistratus, between 560 and 530 BC. This is corroborated by the earliest archaeological find recovered from the sanctuary, namely a part of a pediment with representation of satyrs and nymphs dating back to that period. During that time the major popular festival of the City Dionysia was instituted, which was gloriously celebrated every year in late March/early April, in the Attic month Elaphebolion. The ancient temple that sheltered the founding xoanon of the god and the altar, around which cult rites of representational character were originally performed, constituted the nucleus of the theatrical space that was built immediately north of it. Respectively, the cell from which ancient drama emerged should be sought in the ritual dance of the god's worshippers who, disguised as satyrs or animals, sang the dithyramb, the sacred song inspired by the myths of Dionysus, around the altar, accompanied by the music of aulos.

The few references of the ancient sources to the famous ikria (wooden scaffolding for the bleachers) of the Athenian theatre and their collapse that occurred in the early and the mid-5th c. BC led to the assumption that in the age of the great playwrights the theatre was made of timber and the seats were arranged on tall scaffolding that was not always statically safe. This phase of the theatre's life, with any changes or alterations that may have taken place, covered the period from the late 6th c. BC to 350 BC, a time at which it was replaced by the new monumental stone-built structure. Until recently, the lack of archaeological finds led many researchers to the conclusion that the theatre was a temporary structure for which no archaeological evidence would have been preserved. However, lately small-scale excavations conducted in the context of the restoration work undertaken by the Scientific Committee of the Acropolis South Slope Monuments yielded the first reliable evidence for the wooden theatre. The unearthing of postholes, rectangular in cross-section, into which the scaffolding posts of the ikria were embedded, the location and the imprints of the wood's structure on the earthen walls of the holes brought to light through "surgical" excavation, showed that the Classical wooden theatre was in fact a permanent installation. From the late 6th to the mid-5th c. BC, the flat surface of the orchestra constituted the centre of the theatrical performances, whereas the wooden benches, possibly in Pi-shaped arrangement around the orchestra, were tiered on a dense "forest" of ikria. In this crucial phase for the development of drama genres, especially tragedy, the skene was most likely indicated by movable elements or makeshift constructions.

From around the mid-5th c. BC, the surviving tragedies bear witness to the serious dramaturgical changes that were under way at the time and the need for a permanent stage-building that featured three doorways and theatrical equipment (theatrical mechane, ekkyklema). Based on the latest research, it appears that in the age of Pericles, an extensive programme had been launched for the renovation of the religious and cultural centre of the South Slope that involved the erection of the famous Odeion of Pericles, the construction of the stone theatre and the refurbishment of the sanctuary. However, as a result of the financial hardship which Athens was experiencing at the time on account of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the building of the new theatre did not come to fruition. Sections of rectangular stone seats bearing inscriptions are associated with the renovation of the first row of seats of the wooden theatre designated for the dignitaries (prohedria). Judging by comparative construction elements of the 5th c. BC as well as epigraphic evidence, the first permanent skene building that accommodated the great plays of the Tragedians (2nd half of the 5th c. BC) was composed of stone foundations and plastered brick walls, reinforced with timber and featured rich scenic elements facing the spectators. The famous theatrical machinery was a fixed, two-legged device supported by a robust foundation "T" in the interior rear part of the skene.

The building of the first monumental stone theatre of Athens was made possible around 350 BC, following the improvement of the city's public finances. It was a colossal technical undertaking that required massive earthworks, processing of huge amounts of stone and high-level technical expertise. The architectural design of the new Athenian theatre, with the semi-circular koilon, the 67 inscribed marble thrones of the Prohedria, the round orchestra and the marble skene and paraskenia, served as a model for the evolution of all theatre structures through the ages. A special feature of the Athenian theatre was the presence of a single, wide diazoma (walkaway) that formed part of the old Peripatos route surrounding the Acropolis. The capacity of the theatre ranged between 17,000 and 19,000 spectators.

In the Late Hellenistic period, the changes observed on the skene involved the addition of a colonnade on the facade of the stage-building and perhaps the construction of a second storey, whereas the projection of the paraskenia was reduced, apparently due to the high demand for sculptural works mounted in the prominent positions of the parodoi (main entrances) of the theatre. Following the destruction inflicted by Sulla (86 BC) in the reign of Emperor Augustus, new marble Ionic propyla replaced the earlier wooden pillars. During the reign of Nero, in 61/2 AD, the stage-building was reconstructed in conformity with the Roman scaenae that introduced deep and low proskenion (pulpitum) and monumental two-storeyed facade (scaenae frons).

The Athenian theatre entered into a new glorious period under the philhellene Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), who was elected archon of Athens, served twice (in 125 and 132 AD) as agonothetes in Dionysiac contests by financing the great festival and was honoured as Neos Dionysos (New Dionysus). During that period changes were introduced to the koilon: thirteen bronze statues of the emperor were installed in the lower parts of the kerkides; extra rows of thrones were added to the central section of the koilon at a higher level, whereas a raised platform (theoreion) was built in the central kerkis for the metal (bronze or gilded) throne of Hadrian. The inscriptions of the marble thrones of the Prohedria were engraved anew and titles of priests of new cults were added. The facade of the Roman stage-building was decorated with statues - personifications of the three theatrical genres (Tragedy, Comedy, Satyrical drama), thereby encapsulating in the spirit of Hadrianean classicism the glorious Classical past of this public space and the overall contribution of the city to Classical education.

After the severe damages which Athens suffered by the barbaric tribe of the Heruli in 267 AD, the theatre?s final heyday is attested by the conversion of the Roman pulpitum into Bema (4th c. AD), in which materials coming from earlier monuments were reused and especially reliefs which formed part of the Hadrianean altar of the sanctuary that narrated the ?Attic? variation of Dionysus? life, from his birth to the establishment of his cult on the South Slope of the Acropolis. The name of its dedicator Phaedrus, who served as archon of Athens, is mentioned in an inscription preserved in situ from which it transpires that the theatre continued to accommodate Dionysiac festivals as part of public gatherings, evidently until 529 AD, a time at which Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens.

When Christianity prevailed, the building of the Early Christian basilica at the east parodos in the 6th c. AD and other serious conversions bear testimony to the permanent change in the use of the monument which for one thousand years had been associated with the profound socio-political power of theatre and contributed to the intellectual impact of the city of Athens on the entire Greco-Roman world.


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Christina Papastamati-von Moock
Archaeologist, Ephorate of Antiquities of the City of Athens
Mythological / Historic Persons