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  • Writer's pictureLucy Felmingham, MA

A Brief History of the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens

What is the Theatre of Dionysus?

The Theatre of Dionysus is an ancient theatre founded in the 6th century BC that once hosted the Great Dionysia, a dramatic festival in honour of the god Dionysus.

View of the Theatre of Dionysus stage and seating

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Theatre of Dionysus History

The extensive influence of ancient Greek theatre is quite remarkable. Perhaps even more so when we appreciate that fewer than 50 complete works survive, written by just a handful of playwrights. Nevertheless, over the centuries their classic tales of revenge, deception and pride have been recreated and reappropriated for different ends. However, the business of writing plays in ancient Athens was far removed from today’s industry: theatre was understood as part of religious ceremonies and festivals. The most famous of these was the Great Dionysia, a spring-time celebration in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine, revelry, and religious ecstasy.

The traditional music and singing competitions between the tribes of Athens developed, around the 6th century BC, into the more official dramatic contests of the Great Dionysia. This reached its zenith in the 5th century, when the powerful and moving tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the bawdy and surreal comedies of Aristophanes were performed. During the festival, the image of Dionysus was processed around the sacred precinct nearby and prized animals were sacrificed along with other offerings. In fact, the word ‘tragedy’ means something like ‘goat-song’ in ancient Greek, leading scholars to suppose that the form developed out of a performance at the sacrifice of a goat. During the 5th century, the dramatic competitions included tragedies, comedies, satyric drama (a kind of ‘joking tragedy’) and choral songs. The performers were all men, who wore exaggerated masks suited to the theatrical occasion.

VIP seating at the Theatre of Dionysus

The theatre itself is part of the encompassing sanctuary of Dionysus, which included two temples to the stage’s south. The site wasn’t re-identified until the 18th century and the function and meaning of its parts are still widely debated among scholars. However, it’s generally considered to be the first theatre and the birthplace of European drama.

The natural landscape provided the original scenic backdrop for the music and dancing that formed part of the religious celebrations: the flat area north of the temples used for dancing and the lower slope beneath the Acropolis by the peripatos (the pathway round the Acropolis) providing audience seating. Eventually the flat area became the orchestra (or stage) and the hillside became the theatron (or seating area). The eventual structure, made of limestone and marble, was developed in the 4th century BC, bestowing on the theatre the structure we see today. The front row consisted of 67 beautifully sculpted marble thrones, reserved for various priests and dignitaries. At its peak, the audience capacity is estimated at around 16,000. Although the crowds flocked to observe a religious festival, the atmosphere was far from solemn. Audiences were noisy, demanding, and often unruly, sometimes disrupting performances by jeering, shouting and throwing fruit!

Like many other sites on and around the Acropolis, the Theatre of Dionysus has been subject to numerous reinventions and reappropriations of its materials. Even in the Classical period, it served as a rehearsal site for orators practicing their speeches, as well as a functioning performance space. Later, in the Roman period, the theatre was adapted to host gladiatorial bouts, and the orchestra was even flooded for the staging of mock sea battles.

Destruction during the invasion of the Heruli, an early Germanic tribe, in AD 267 heralded the beginning of the end for the site – though of course, Greek theatre has no end. The Byzantine outlawing of pagan worship left the theatre neglected, descending into disrepair. Material from the theatre was re-used in other buildings and the site was eventually covered by earth, only to be re-identified and restored during the 18th and 19th centuries.

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