Ancient Greece: The Theatre of Dionysos

Ancient Greece: The Theatre of Dionysos

The Dionysiac Theatre is the sunniest spot in Athens. The tourists know it and bring their teabaskets. The lizards know it and steal out to bask on marble chairs dedicated to priests and magistrates. The Athenian audiences of classical times must also have known it as they sat there the whole of a spring day with the sun in their eyes and the rock behind them glowing like a furnace.

The existing remains of the Theatre of Dionysos are a complex of many periods and the fundamental questions whether there was a raised stage before the time of the Hellenistic theatre and whether the stage buildings in the classical period were of a permanent nature have not yet been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

It is generally agreed that the orchestra with its central altar of Dionysos was originally occupied by both chorus and actors. There is also fairly general agreement that no stone auditorium existed before the Lykourgan theatre in the second half of the fourth century B.C.

The actual remains on the site may be divided into four periods: 1. Pre-Lykourgan; 2. Lykourgan; 3. Hellenistic; 4. Roman.

The Lykourgan Theatre was built in consequence of a decree of the Boulé in 342 B.C. and completed before the death of Lykourgos in 326 B.C. This leaves a long period of at least a century and a half for the pre-Lykourgan Theatre.

The oldest remains are six blocks (SM 1) of a curved polygonal wall of limestone, generally believed to be sixth-century, some 100 m. eastnortheast of the Old Temple of Dionysos, which were identified by Dörpfeld as part of the original orchestra. By plotting an imaginary circle on the evidence of the stones he met a fragment of wall (J 3) on its west side and a cutting (A) in the rock on the east side, north of the six blocks, which he thought were part of the circumference.

Many later authorities have rejected the evidence of either A or J 3 or both but nearly all agree that SM 1 supported a curved terrace which formed the boundary of the orchestra itself or had an orchestra of smaller circumference placed upon it. A fragment of polygonal masonry (SM 3) similar to the six stones, which is north of the west end of the Old Temple of Dionysos may have sustained a road or path rising from the level of the Temple to that of the orchestra.

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