South Slope

The building of the Theater of Dionysus was apparently precipitated by the collapse of wooden bleachers in the agora, where dramatic and musical competitions were held up until the late sixth century BC. The decision was made to build a new theater on the south slope of the Acropolis next to the shrine of Dionysus Eleutherios (a cult transplanted from Eleutherai in Boeotia, but nobody is sure exactly when). The first win on record belongs to Thespis (534 BC), from that time on known as the Father of classical Theater. The early 6th century theater was composed of wooden seats surrounding a circular orchestra of beaten earth. Theater-goers worshipped at the nearby shrine of Dionysus. Sometime in the 5th century during the time of Pericles and the tragedians, a wooden skene (stage area) was added. In the 430,’s Alkamenes made a chyselephantine cult statue of Dionysus for his temple. Walls were built to support the east and west sides of the theater and a stoa was connected to the wooden set. But the theater that has survived to our time was designed between 342 and 326 BC, when the archon Lycurgus commissioned an extensive reconstruction in stone and marble including the following improvements:

Lycurgus expanded the number of seats to 17,000 (even though Plato suggests the figure 30,000 in theSymposium) Of the 64 tiers, about 20 survive. A diazoma (division between upper and lower seats) was added also. At this time, the wooden seats werereplaced with the Piraeus limestone visitors still scamper over today. The ingenious design of the seats allows a 13-inch trough in which spectators can rest their feet without discomfiting those in the row below (right).
Lycurgus replaced the portable, wooden sets with a permanent stone skene, complete with side-entryways (paraskenia) and paths (paradoi); he also built a new Temple of Dionysus for the chryselephantine statue made by Alkamenes. At this time, when official copies of their works were first entered into the public record, portraits of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were displayed in the theater as well. A base with Menander’s name on it can be found in situ, but this dates to a later era.

Also added at Lycurgus’ time was a row of 67 high-backed chairs of Pendelic marble for judges and dignitaries (upper left). Each seat is inscribed with the name of the individual for whom it was reserved (example, upper right). The elaborately carved throne in the center of the first row (below, left) belonged to the Priest of Dionysus – who officiated over the event – and lies in direct line with the thymele, or altar of the god, in the center of the orchestra. The throne of Hadrian sat on the stone plinth immediately behind the priest. This other remarkably preserved throne (right) is of unknown ownership but sports the same elaborately carved lion-claw feet as the one belonging to the Priest of DionysThe Hellenistic Era didn’t see too many changes to this theater, but in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, a raised stage with a stone proskenion was added, as well as a second story for the skene.

The Roman Era saw some major changes to the structure, such as a marble barrier to protect the audience during gladiatorial exhibitions (AD 1st). Like most Greek structures of civic importance, the Romans rededicated the theater, in this instance in the names of Dionysus and the Emperor Nero (in much the same way as they rededicated the theater at Delphi to Nero).

The Bema of Phaedrus has been dated to the 2nd century AD: the ophot on the left (below)would have been the front of the Roman stage, and the reliefs (below, right)depict stories from the life of Dionysus. One shows the depiction of the god’s enthronement in the theater. The Acropolis is seen in the background. The crouching figures in the middle are particularly appropriate to a relief dedicated to Dionysus (close-up, below center). Called Sileni after Silenus, Dionysus’ mentor, they bear witness to the drunken revelry most associated with the worship of Dionysus, god of the vine.

In the 4th century AD, Romans put down the marble slabs we see today in the orchestra to make it watertight so that they could perform naumachia (brutal sea battles in which gladiators in boats hacked at each other until the water ran red with their blood for the entertainment of the spectators). Even the beautiful sculptures of the Bema (above) were plastered over with cement to make the entire area water-tight.

Tour some VERY cool virtual reality models of the Theater of Dionysus in its various stages of evolution from the fifth century BC to Roman times

Choregic Monument of Thrasyllos

This monument, at the very top of the theatron of the Theater of Dionysus, was initially erected in 320 BC by Thrasyllos in front of the cave he dedicated to Dionysus. 50 years later, the monument was enlarged by his son, Thrasykles, in celebration of similar choregic victories. The monument was much more elaborate that the surviving parts suggest, and even these Corinthian columns once supported votive tripods. The picture on the right was taken from the Wall of Cimon, a defensive wall surrounding the acropolis built after the Persian Invasion. That cave once dedicated to Dionysus sported a painting of Apollo and Artemis killing Niobe’s children when Pausanias passed through Athens in the 2nd century AD (1.21.5), and it is now a Christian shrine.

Stoa of Eumenes
Odeum of Herodes Atticus

The Stoa of Eumenes is what remains of the colonnade built by Eumenes II, King of Pergamon (197-159 BC). It serves as a magnificent backdrop for the Odeum of Herodes Atticus, built in AD 160. The Roman writer Vitruvius says that the stoa served as shelter for spectators in inclement weather as well as storage space for scenery and sets. It is a typical Roman theater design, seating 5-6000: note that while Greek theaters lean into hills and become one with their environments, Roman theaters depend onman-made structures for support and backdrop. Amazingly, this auditorium was roofed in antiquity. The building was destroyed by the Hirullians in AD 267. The entire theater was refurbished in the 1950’s and is today used for theatrical performances during the summer Athens Festival.

Herodes Atticus was a wealthy Athenian who spent his money on public works, among them this Odeum (or Odeion) in Athens for musical performances and the stadium at Delphi; he officiated as the Priest of Dionysus at the Panathenaic Festivals, and he was a sophist who counted Marcus Aurelius among his students. He has a generally spotless record with one exception. As the story goes, Herodes built this magnificent structure in memory of his dear departed wife, Regilla. But a story circulated that he had in fact killed her by kicking her in the abdomen when she was pregnant – but since he was able to point to the great expense he incurred building this memorial as proof of his love for her, he was never charged with a crime…


Temple of Asklepios Building Complex


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