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  • Writer's pictureLucy Felmingham, MA

A Brief History of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens

What is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus?

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a 2nd-century-AD Roman theatre commissioned by Athenian millionaire Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Aspasia Annia Regilla.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

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Odeon of Herodes Atticus History

Herodes Atticus was a controversial Athenian magnate who grew up in Rome in the 2nd century AD, rising to the position of consul before becoming a close companion of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was accused of embezzling the money left by his father to the people of Athens and accordingly replied with expensive, and often vast, public monuments. One such project was this imposing theatre, financed in memory of his Roman wife, Aspasia Annia Regilla, who, pregnant at the time, died in AD 160 in rather suspicious circumstances (for which Herodes was brought to trial). The Odeon was completed in the 170s, and survived until it was destroyed in the invasion of the Heruli (an early Germanic tribe) in the 3rd century, subsequently suffering further damage during the Ottoman occupation of Athens.

This steep theatre, intended for lectures, poetry readings and musical performances, was the third Odeon to be built in Athens – the most famous being the 5th-century-BC Odeon of Pericles, located near the Theatre of Dionysus, whose design supposedly imitated the tent of King Xerxes of Persia.

Built in traditional Roman style, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus was an architectural marvel and a feast for the eyes. The enormous semi-circular seating area was made of Piraeus limestone and clad with blue-hued marble from nearby Mount Hymettus. The orchestra (the semi-circular stage) was paved with black and white marble, and the monumental three-storey scaena (the building behind the stage) contained enormous arches (a very Roman shape in the predominantly Greek architecture of the landscape) in which ornate statues were proudly displayed. There was a grand entrance portico attached to the scaena, of which part of the beautiful mosaic floor still survives. The Odeon supposedly also had a roof made of expensive Lebanese cedar wood.

Following some restoration work at the turn of the 20th century, the Odeon was used during the 1940s German occupation of Athens to house the Athens State Orchestra and the Greek National Opera. In the following decade, significant renovations were undertaken and since then the theatre has been one of the foremost venues for festivals and concerts in the city, with a capacity of approximately 5,000.

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