Theatre of Dionysus: Architecture & Reconstruction

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, Greece is said to be the birthplace of Greek drama. Dedicated to Dionysus, the god of winemaking, and originally used for religious ceremonies, the theatre later became known for its performances of many of the famous Greek plays. This lesson will look at the origins and history of the theatre and the efforts to reconstruct it.

The Birthplace of Greek Drama

Originally built in the 6th-century BCE, the theatre was a portion of a larger area reserved for religious ceremonies dedicated to Dionysus, the god of the wine and winemaking. The Cult of Dionysus built a temple on this site, which is located in Athens, where the god was celebrated during the spring. Many early Greek plays were written to be performed during this celebration.

The area where this complex was built is on the south side of the Acropolis. Since the Acropolis was high on a rocky hill, the hillside was used as seating for people watching the ceremonies taking place, on the cleared area at the bottom. The ceremonies dedicated to Dionysus included singing, drinking, animal sacrifices, and mask-wearing to tell the story of Dionysus. The finale of the celebration, the Great Dionysia, was a competition of plays, by famous playwrights, that was performed. This space eventually became a traditional theatre and was, at first, primarily made of wood.

Drawing of the Theatre of Dionysus
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Remodeling the Theatre

During the 5th-century BCE, the cavea, or tiered semicircular seating area, was expanded by adding rows of seating around the performance area, and replacing the wooden structures with ones of stone. The first few rows of seating were made of limestone and the ones further back were wooden. These rows of seats were created against the hillside with stairs allowing access to the rows farther away from the stage. Large gateways were built on each side of the stage, and a skene was constructed at the back of the stage. The skene could be used as a backdrop and a place where actors could change costumes.

In the 4th-century BCE, Lycurgus, a statesman in Athens, oversaw the completion of a grand remodelling of the theatre. More rows of stone seats were added, and extra horizontal walkways were built to allow easier access to theatre seating. These changes allowed 15,000 to 17,000 people to be seated in 68 rows. Carved marble seats in the front row were reserved for officials of Athens, including one large throne in the center reserved for the priest of Dionysus. The construction of the horizontal walkways and the vertical stairs separated seating into sections. Most modern theatres are built in similar fashion. Also during this time, a monument was created as a tribute to Thrasyllos of Dekeleia, a sponsor of the dramatic contests during the Festival of Dionysus. Used for presenting the awards during the Dionysia, this monument sat at the top of the cavea.

Stone Thrones
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During the Roman occupation, beginning in 146 BCE, the theatre underwent its final modification. Around 61 CE a new stage was built, with a floor of marble dedicated to Dionysus and the Roman emperor Nero. A grander skene was constructed and Roman architectural features were added. Seating was increased.

After the 5th-century CE, the theatre was not used and sat empty and decaying. The orchestra, the area in front of the stage, became a courtyard for a basilica which was built at its eastern entrance. The seating area became a quarry for stone to be used for other projects. Soon, the theatre was stripped of its stone and covered up by dirt, obscuring it from sight.

Theatre of Dionysus
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Rediscovery and Renovation

The Theatre of Dionysus was rediscovered in 1765, and excavation began in 1838, led by the Archaeological Society of Athens. Excavation and restoration have continued since. During the 1970s, a plan was made to restore the theatre and hold events, but that plan was abandoned. Beginning in 2002, the European Union's 3rd community Support Program funded partial restoration and repair of the western retaining wall, the walls of the southern corridors leading to the orchestra, some statue bases, and the lowest rows of seating. Beginning restoration of the Monument of Thrasyllos was also funded.

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