Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 14, 2017
Rune Frederiksen, Elizabeth Gebhard, and Alexander Sokolicek, eds. The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens, Vol. 17. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 2015. 468 pp.; 37 color ills.; 239 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9788771243802)

Greek tragedy and comedy form a central strand of ancient life that we have inherited and made our own: ancient plays are still performed, still inspire new authorship, still inform us about ancient life; but they also established the very genres that continue in our operas, musicals, television, and film. By the end of the fourth-century BCE, any ambitious Greek city had a stone theater of some sort, and remains of ancient theaters are ubiquitous in Mediterranean landscapes. This handsome volume, edited by Rune Frederiksen, Elizabeth Gebhard, and Alexander Sokolicek, presents twenty-six collected papers given at a conference in Athens on the architecture of ancient Greek theaters. The papers not only present the current state of research in this broad topic but also point forward to new directions of inquiry.

In Athens, the initial heartland of theatrical production, the first audiences for the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes sat on wooden bleachers (ikria) in the Theater of Dionysos on the south slope of the Akropolis. The holes for the supports of the ikria have now been excavated, among the important results of the recent excavations in the theater at Athens, presented by Christina Papastamati-von Moock. She also found evidence of a renovation of the Periklean period (third quarter of the fifth-century BCE), probably tied to the construction of the nearby Odeion, or covered performance hall. The marble theater seen today was first laid out in the second half of the fourth-century BCE, with many modifications since then.

Of considerable interest to both architectural historians and historians of performance is the evolution of the shape of the seating (koilon or cavea), the shape of the orchestra for the performers, the form and elevation of the backdrop for scenery (skene or scaenae frons), and how the three elements were fitted together. The earliest Greek theater (at Athens) dates from the late sixth-century BCE, and had a rectangular koilon and orchestra. The wooden ikria were built into the hillside. This and other early theaters elsewhere are the topic of three chapters by Frederiksen, Sokolicek, and Gebhard, who was the first to identify the early rectangular koilon at Isthmia in 1974. In the fifth-century BCE, stone seating began to be introduced, with still an overall rectangular plan. The rectangular plan was not completely abandoned later, however. A transitional example is the newly excavated stone theater at Kalydon (either fifth- or fourth-century BCE), rectangular in its lower parts, with circular seating added in the upper tiers, and a skene built in the late fourth-century BCE (these preliminary findings are discussed by Frederiksen).

The familiar semi-circular koilon with stone seats and a circular orchestra appears in the course of the fourth-century BCE, and by mid-century became standard. It reflected a practical interest in acoustics and the architects’ delight in applied geometry. Thus a rough-and-ready facility for festivals gradually became an elegant setting for communal performances and supported a wide range of other kinds of gatherings, including political assemblies. Stone theaters grew in size and magnificence, with ever more elaborate skenai, and were suitable places for dedicated statuary, inscribed commemorations, and even manumissions. Preserved inscriptions make clear that theaters could be small economic engines, with leases of various sorts generating income for the state and individuals.

The state of preservation of Greek theaters varies from barely discernible hollows in hillsides, perhaps with a few blocks demarcating the area, to the wonderfully preserved, still-useable theaters such as the one at Epidauros, attributed to the brilliant architect Polykleitos the Younger (fourth-century BCE). There the acoustics are so perfect that a drop of a coin in the orchestra can be heard in the topmost row.

Among the less well-preserved and newly identified or recently studied are a theater at Kastabos, located on a high hill in Caria in Turkey, opposite Rhodes (examined by Christine Wilkening-Aumann). It served the sanctuary of Hemithea, a local healing goddess. A large, early Hellenistic theater at Sicyon (elucidated by Chris Hayward and Yannis Lolos) was built near the acropolis when the city was refounded by Demetrios Poliorcetes at the end of the fourth-century BCE, and probably served primarily as a place for political gatherings. For the early Hellenistic theater at Corinth, exiguous remains have to be traced under lavish Roman refashionings and reveal a sophisticated, mathematically precise arrangement (presented by David Scahill).

One of the fascinating aspects of ancient theaters is the multiplicity of topographical challenges that were overcome by the ancient architects. At Maroneia in Thrace, quite close to a sanctuary of Dionysos, a small-scale Hellenistic theater was excavated. Because of its location near a stream, it was built over a monumental drainage channel. It was used for many centuries, long into the Roman period, and is now being restored (studied by Chryssa Karadima and her colleagues). At Dodona in western Greece, the impressively well-preserved theater looms above the sanctuary and oracle of Zeus and is supported by massive retaining walls, needed on a steep slope; its parodoi and peridromoi, and the architectural details of side portals, are now thoroughly documented (by Georgios Antoniou).

Technical innovations include ingenious apparatuses that allowed even more flexibility of use. The well-preserved second-century BCE skene at Messene includes a set of three parallel stone tracks that allowed the skene to be rolled away (analyzed by Petros Themelis, with a valuable excursus on masons’ marks by Kleanthis Sidiropoulos). The technical vocabulary of theaters in inscriptions and ancient texts is usefully discussed too (by Jean-Charles Moretti and Christine Mauduit).

Another direction of research extends to regional groupings, such as the theaters of Boeotia (discussed by Marco Germani). Theaters in other parts of the Mediterranean illustrate the wide popularity of this form of architecture and the cultural unity of the Hellenistic world: a theater at Nea Paphos in Cyprus and at Apollonia in Illyria (Albania) were both used over many centuries (the one in Cyprus presented by John Richard Green and colleagues, the Albanian example by Stefan Franz and Valentina Hinz). Greeks in Sicily and south Italy were well-known for their avid appreciation of theater: Aeschylus traveled there at least twice to write specially commissioned plays (and died at Gela 456/5 BCE). Theaters, performances, and drama specifically in the Greek west are discussed in a recent volume edited by Kathryn Bosher (Theater Outside Athens: Drama in Greek Sicily and South Italy, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

In Athens, plays were written and performed as part of competitions in the festival of Dionysos, and the sacral character of the festival was emphasized with an altar in the orchestra. Other kinds of sacred performances (dance, sacrifices, processions, initiations) also attracted large audiences that were accommodated in some sanctuaries with long, rectangular rows of banked stone seats. An example of this special kind of monumental theatral seating at Selinunte in southwestern Sicily is posited for a sanctuary on the acropolis (by Clemente Marconi and Scahill). This persuasive interpretation of such stone steps should be pursued in other sanctuaries. Such banks of step-like seats that were used by spectators, often in sanctuaries, are addressed also in Mary Hollinshead’s Shaping Ceremony: Monumental Steps and Greek Architecture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015).

Hellenistic theaters in Asia Minor are particularly well-preserved, and help illustrate the transition between Hellenistic design and Roman design, since several of them show evidence of modification for the later period. Presented here are details about the theater at Ephesos (in two chapters, by Martin Hofbauer and Gudrun Styhler-Aydin), at Iasos (by Fede Berti and colleagues), and at Halikarnassos (by Poul Pedersen and Signe Isager). Four chapters address the general issues surrounding raised stages in Asia Minor (Arzu Öztürk), and specifically the transition to Roman designs (Valentine di Napoli, Hans Peter Isler, and Katja Piesker). Yet another interesting aspect of theater design is the application of geometry, a topic discussed by the Roman architect Vitruvius in the first-century BCE: the authors in this volume all draw attention to this aspect when relevant. The theater at Aphrodisias nicely illustrates the exact application of Vitruvian prescriptions in a sort of “hybrid” between Hellenistic and Roman design (discussed by Nathalie de Chaisemartin).

The book concludes with a useful thematic and topographical bibliography. Collectively the chapters provide up-to-date details about the physical remains of individual theaters in a depth satisfying for most purposes with numerous good-quality illustrations and thoughtful discussions about the history of the subject and future directions for research. This volume is especially useful for scholars and graduate students. In his excellent introductory overview, Isler takes issue with the current practice of using ancient theaters for contemporary performances. He rightly points out that this inevitably causes further damage and deterioration to these once gracious and elegant but now fragile buildings. Although it is thrilling to watch performances in such a setting, plays can be equally powerful in modern theaters—and the audience might find more comfortable seats.

Margaret M. Miles
Professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Irvine

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