Ancient Greek Theatre & Culture
The cult of Dionysus and Greek ancient theatre
So, who exactly was this infamous deity? Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was one of Zeus’ out-of-wedlock children. His origins may be somewhere in the lands of Ancient Phrygia or Lydia, both in modern Turkey.
Although he was not one of the twelve Olympians, he has great significance among the pantheon of Ancient Greek gods.
In contrast to his half-brother Apollo, Dionysus had a dark side. He was the protector of grape harvest, wine and fertility, but also drunkenness, insanity and theatre.
Overall, the cult of Dionysus was connected to occult practices, religious ecstasy, and secret rituals. In fact, little information has been discovered. Much of the Dionysian Mysteries remains exactly that – a mystery.
Remember the solid masks worn on the theatre stage? They were very carefully thought through.
The actors could, literally, hide their true feelings behind a mask. They could then enter a state of frenzied ecstasy, which was further induced by the rhythmical music.
This state of trance was just in line with the obscure rituals of the Dionysian cult. Any similarities to modern-day practices and events, like for example the carnival, might not be entirely coincidental!
What does “theatre” actually mean?
And now some geeky information about the word “theatre” itself! The word “theatre” derives from the ancient Greek word theatron (θέατρον). Originally, this word was used to describe the audience. Later, it encompassed the actual stage, the whole of the ancient Greek theatre, and also the performance itself.
Like other words beginning with the Greek letter θ, “theatre” is connected to the human mind and its mysteries. It’s no coincidence that the words God (Θεός), miracle (θαύμα) and therapy / cure (θεραπεία) all start with the same letter.
Ancient Greek theaters were sometimes built in sacred sites called Asklepieia. These sites were the equivalent of modern-day hospitals, or treatment centres.
God’s synergy was necessary for people to be cured at the Asklepieia, perhaps in the form of a miracle. The theatres were built to honour the gods, who would help people get well.
And now for the twist! Ancient Greeks treated the mind, the body and the soul (psyche, or ψυχή) in a holistic way. Unless the soul was healed, the body would remain sick
As a result, watching theatrical performances was an integral part of the therapeutic procedure for patients.
In other words, ancient theaters were not only a place for entertainment and fun. Theatres were created in order to guide, and eventually cure, the soul.
The ancient Greek word “ψυχαγωγία”, very loosely translated into “entertainment”, means exactly that – guiding of the soul. This was the primary purpose of the theatre. We could perhaps call it ancient art therapy!
Theatres of Ancient Greece
Today, it is possible to visit many Ancient Greece theatres. In fact, some of them host concerts, dance shows, performances and other events
If you are going to Greece in summer, by all means look out for information. Watching a performance in one of Greece’s theatres is an absolutely unforgettable experience!
Here are 9 of the most famous Greek theaters:
- Theatre of Dionysus in Athens
- Herodion theater Athens Greece
- Ancient theatre of Thoriko
- Ancient theater of Epidaurus
- Delphi theatre in Greece
- Ancient theatre of Dodoni
- Theatre in Ancient Delos
- Ancient theatre of Argos
- Theatre of Ancient Messene
Ancient theater of Epidaurus
The theatre of Epidaurus is one of the most iconic ancient Greek theatres. It can be found within a larger archaeological site, the Sanctuary of Asklepios in the Peloponnese.
Ancient Greeks had done a lot of research on health and therapy. Areas with therapeutic springs were the best places to build large healing centres, called Asklepieia. Ancient Epidaurus was one of these places.
A sanctuary of God Asklepios, the god of healing, was constructed around 380 BC. The site comprised several buildings, including a guesthouse, a treatment centre, a gymnasium, a stadium, baths and a banqueting hall.
The theatre itself was constructed a few decades later. It was built both as a tribute to Asklepios, and a means of providing entertainment to the patients and the carers.
Like other ancient sites in Greece, the theatre of Epidaurus was partially buried under debris. It was excavated in the 1880s, and constitutes the best preserved ancient Greek theatre.
The first thing you will notice when you visit the theatre is the amazing setting. Surrounded by thousands of trees, the location is incredibly peaceful. In addition, the theatre has some of the best acoustics in the world.
During the Athens & Epidaurus festival, performances are held here on most summer weekends. If you can fit this in your itinerary in Greece, by all means do, as it’s a lifetime experience.
Even though the theatre has a capacity of 14,000 people, shows can often get sold out, so make sure you reserve your seats well in advance.
Here is some more information about the Ancient theater of Epidaurus. You can get there on your own, or with a guided tour including other sites in the Peloponnese.
And if you are not visiting Greece anytime soon, the ancient theater features in a couple of movies about Greece
Theatre in Ancient Delos
Close to the world-famous island of Mykonos, we can find the ruins of Ancient Delos. This is one of the most fascinating ancient sites in Greece, not least because getting there is a small adventure!
In ancient Greek mythology, Delos was the birthplace of two Olympian gods, Apollo and Artemis. The sanctuary of Apollo became a significant place for all Greeks to visit on a pilgrimage.
During the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the island became an important port and commerce hub. Thousands of people from nearby lands came to live here, and monumental buildings were constructed.
These included temples, sanctuaries, several public buildings, luxurious private mansions and an impressive cistern.
The theatre in Delos was built between around 314-250 BC and had a capacity of about 6,500 people. The main material used was marble, which reflects the wealth of the island.
Like the rest of Delos, it was mostly abandoned over the centuries. The French School at Athens started excavations on the island in 1873, and works are still ongoing.
During the excavations, many of the building blocks of the theatre were removed and placed around the island, without being systematically recorded. As a result, the area around the Greek theatre of Delos is full of large marble pieces.
Even though the theatre is not restored, a handful of performances have been staged here in recent years. For safety reasons, only a few dozen spectators were allowed.
Hopefully, future restoration works will allow this incredible theatre to reach its former glory.
Ancient theatre of Argos
The impressive ancient theatre of Argos is close to Nafplio in the Peloponnese, only an hour and a half away from Athens.
The theatre of Argos was built in the 4th century BC, alongside many existing temples and sanctuaries. It replaced an older, smaller theatre in the wider area.
Its capacity was around 20,000 people, which made it one of the largest theatres in ancient Greece.
During the Hellenistic years, the theatre hosted the Nemean and the Heraean Games. Among other competitions, these games included music and Greek drama performances. The theatre was also used for the citizens’ assemblies.
Heavy reconstruction and many refurbishments took place during the Roman era. An arena was built to host gladiatorial combats and beast fights. Other elements, like safety nets and canopies, were introduced.
The theatre of Argos was abandoned towards the end of the 4th century AD. Unlike other theatres around Greece, it was still visible over the centuries – possibly due to its enormous size and its original construction on a natural mountain slope.
Excavations began in 1890, and the most recent restoration works were completed in 2004. Today, the theatre hosts theatrical performances and concerts on occasion, but can also be visited outside performance hours.
Theatre of Ancient Messene
In my opinion, Ancient Messene is one of the top archaeological sites to visit in Greece. Yet, it’s not as well known as other sites in the Peloponnese, like Olympia or Mycenae.
The town of Ancient Messene was established in 370-369 BC by Epaminondas. He was a general from Thebes, who liberated the province of Messinia from the Spartans.
In the next decades, the city was fortified with an exceptionally long stonewall. Two gates and several towers were built along the wall.
Other important monuments include several temples and sanctuaries, an Asklepieion, an odeon, an impressive stadium and the theatre of Ancient Messene.
The stone theatre was originally constructed in the 3rd century BC, and had a capacity of around 10,000 people. Apart from the theatrical performances, political assemblies were also held here.
Like other Ancient Greek theatres, it was heavily restored during the Roman era. Refurbishments included the installation of statues and the introduction of architectural elements made of marble.
From the 4th century AD onwards, the theatre fell into decline, and was essentially transformed into a quarry. During the Protobyzantine and Byzantine eras, newer settlements were established in the area, using materials taken from the theatre.
The first on-site excavations began in the late 1800s, and works are ongoing. Important restoration works were undertaken in the last few decades. The theatre hosted its first performance after 1,700 years in 2013.
Since then, numerous shows and performances are organized every summer.
Ancient Messene is about 3 hours away from Athens, so can be visited on a day trip. It can also be combined with a stay in Kalamata, a lovely coastal town, or a longer road-trip in the Peloponnese.
Here is some more information about the impressive site of Ancient Messene.
Delphi theatre in Greece
The archaeological site of Delphi is one of the most visited sites in Greece. Delphi was considered to be the most sacred place in ancient Greece, the so-called “navel of the world”. The setting is absolutely magnificent, so this choice is easily justified!
Apollo, the god of light, music, arts and grace, liberated Delphi from an ancient serpent, Python. To honour the liberator god, a grand sanctuary was built on the slopes of mount Parnassos.
This is where the famous oracle, Pythia, delivered her prophecies.
The Ancient theatre of Delphi was one of the largest monuments in the sanctuary. It was made out of local limestone in the 4th century BC, and may have replaced an earlier, woode
In later centuries, there were extensive restorations and refurbishments, including major works in 160/159 BC. The theatre that has survived had a capacity of around 5,000 people.
Every four years, the Pythian games, an important religious festival, was organized in Delphi to celebrate Apollo. The Games consisted primarily of musical contests, both singing and instrumental music, that were hosted in the Delphi theatre.
Similarly to the Ancient Olympic Games, there were also athletic competitions. These were held in the Delphi stadium, which is a short walk up the hill from the ancient theatre.
The ancient site of Delphi was excavated in the late 1800s. A theatrical performance was held in the theatre in 1927, as part of an ambitious cultural project. However, this was soon discontinued.
Due to safety reasons, only a limited number of performances has been held here over the years.n construction.
Here is some more information about the Ancient site of Delphi, including how to visit. It is perfectly possible to get to Delphi on your own, or take an organized tour.
Ancient theatre of Dodoni (Dodona)
The ancient theater of Dodona is one of the largest ancient Greek theatres, with a capacity of around 18,000 people. It is located in the Region of Epirus, a short drive from the picturesque city of Ioannina.
Ancient Dodona was originally a sacred place where Gaia, Mother Earth, was worshipped. Later, it became a sanctuary for Zeus and Dione, a goddess for whom various conflicting stories exist.
According to some versions, Dione was Zeus’ wife, and also the mother of goddess Aphrodite.
Dodoni was also the home of the earliest oracle in Greece, dating from the 3rd millennium BC. This was many centuries before Pythia, the oracle in Delphi, appeared. The first priests were male, but women priestesses appeared in later years.
The sanctuary increased in size and importance during the reign of Pyrrhus, the King of Epirus, in the early 3rd century BC. Several buildings, temples and monuments were built, including a stadium and the massive theatre of Dodoni.
To honour Zeus, Pyrrhus established the Naia Games. The festival consisted of athletic games and theatrical performances, and possibly music competitions and chariot races.
The Naia Games took place every four years, one year after the Olympics and one year before the Pythia.
The theatre was reconstructed and restored over the years, and was used as an arena during the Roman Era. It was abandoned around the 4th century AD.
Excavations in the Ancient theatre of Dodoni began in 1875 and are ongoing. Today, performances and other events are occasionally organized in the impressive theatre.
The site can be visited year-round, and is one of the most amazing places to visit in Epirus
The concept of Amphitheater – Ancient Greece, or Rome?
The words “theatre” and “amphitheatre” are often used interchangeably.
However, they don’t mean exactly the same thing. Here is a fun fact, which explains why the term “ancient Greek amphitheater” isn’t accurate!
Technically speaking, the word “amphitheater” means a circular theatre rather than a semi-circular one. This type of architecture was introduced by the Romans in the 1st century BC.
The best-known example of a Roman amphitheatre is the Colosseum in Rome, which could accommodate tens of thousands of people. You can read more about Roman amphitheaters here.
So, now you know why the phrases “Greece amphitheater” or “amphitheatre Ancient Greece” are not exactly correct!
The art of theatre in Ancient Greece
I hope that this long and geeky article gave you interesting background on Greece! Have you been to any of these theatres, and have you seen any performances? I’d love to read your impressions below!
And since you are here, you might be interested in this article about the best Greek mythology movies