). The architectural form of the Greek theatre was
developed from the circular dancing-place, the ὀρχήστρα
used by the Bacchic dancers. At first there was no Chorus distinct from the general body of
worshippers, all of whom were free to join in the dance. As soon, however, as a regular Chorus
was instituted, it became necessary to reserve a circular space of ground for it. A ring of
stones sufficed to mark off this circle. The altar of Dionysus was placed at its centre. The
spectators stood around it and watched the dance. So long as the dramatic element was limited
to a dialogue between the Chorus and one actor, that person could stand on a raised
place in the middle of the Chorus and address himself to various points of the circle in turn;
but when Aeschylus added a second actor, it became necessary that the actors should play
towards some one side. It was then no longer possible that the spectators should form a
complete circle, but they were now arranged in a semicircle, or something like it, though the
whole circle of the dancing-place was still, as of old, kept clear for the Chorus. The actors
stood facing the spectators, not within the circle of the dancingplace, but on the farther
side of it. Behind them was the tent or booth (σκηνή
which they dressed. It was an easy improvement to conceal this tent from the spectators by a
modern screen which could represent the front of a house or anything else that suited the
requirements of the play. This screen was the proscaenium
), i. e. that which masked the σκηνή
. The term was retained in the later history of the theatre, though its
primitive sense was lost. The proscaenium
was the background visible to
the spectators, whether it was a temporary screen or a permanent wall. Then σκηνή
came to denote that part of the theatre which belonged to the
actors, as distinguished from ὀρχήστρα
, the place of the
Chorus. Aristotle (
) uses the phrase ἐπὶ σκηνῆς
where we should say “on the stage.”
The oldest theatre of which we have any knowledge is the Dionysiac Theatre at Athens. It has
generally been supposed that a permanent stone theatre existed in the Λήναιον
, or precinct of Dionysus, from the early years of the fifth century
B.C., a belief resting on a passage in Suidas (s. v. Πρατίνας
). But the history of the Dionysiac Theatre has been placed in a new
light by the recent researches of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens. Its
excavations, begun in 1886, have yielded the following results:
- 1. In the fifth century B.C., and down to about B.C. 330, the precinct contained no
permanent building for scenic purposes, but there was near it a circular ὀρχήστρα, about seventy-eight feet in diameter, of which traces
have been found under the buildings erected by Lycurgus. This ὀρχήστρα was then the only permanent provision for drama. All scenery,
therefore, was temporary, and the spectators sat on wooden benches.
- 2. The first permanent building for the drama in the Λήναιον was that completed by Lycurgus, about B.C. 330. It consisted of a stone
wall with two small wings, like towers, projecting from it on right and left (a, a); the length of the wall between them was about sixty-five feet
seven inches. The temporary decorations (of wood, with linen hangings) were erected in front
of this wall, and supported by the wings. Behind the wall was an oblong room, extending
somewhat beyond the wings, and serving for the use of the actors. A portico (c, c), opening on the precinct of Dionysus, ran along the south side
of it. The new orchestra was to the north of this building. Dr. Dörpfeld supposes
that it formed, like the older one, a complete circle, and that there was no raised stage;
the actors stood on the same level with the Chorus. Rows of stone seats for the spectators
were now constructed. After the time of Lycurgus no change, except of detail, took place in
- 3. At some later date, which cannot be fixed, a permanent stone proscenium (b), adorned with columns, and about ten or twelve feet high, was
built in front of the wall with projecting wings
which Lycurgus had erected. As the wings no longer served a practical purpose (in
supporting the temporary scenery), they were annexed to the new proscenium, a part being cut
off the front of each, so as to bring them more nearly into line with it.
Dionysiac Theatre at Athens.
- 4. An architrave-inscription found in the theatre shows that it was modified and
embellished in the reign of “Claudius,” by whom Nero seems to be meant.
It was probably at this time that the orchestra received its present pavement of Pentelic
and Hymettus marble. To this period also is referred the erection of a raised stage,
supported in front by a sculptured wall.
- 5. The latest recorded changes in the Dionysiac Theatre are associated with the name of
a certain Phaedrus, and took place probably in the third century (C. I. A.
iii. 239). To these belong the existing front wall of the stage, adorned with sculpture of
an earlier period; also the balustrade which now separates the auditorium from the
orchestra, and the partial covering of the orchestra-canal with marble flags.
It is maintained by Dr. Dörpfeld that, not only
Marble Sculptures on Front Wall of Stage, Dionysiac Theatre.
in the Dionysiac Theatre, but in all theatres of the Greek type, the actors stood on the
same level with the Chorus; a stage raised above the orchestra was a Roman invention; and
where such a stage occurs in a theatre of Greek origin, it is a later addition, made under
Roman influence. The Roman raised stage, he thinks, was developed, when a Chorus was no longer
used, by depressing the level of the circular orchestra in that part of it—the part
farthest from the actors—where the Chorus formerly stood. This startling theory is
based chiefly on the nature of the proscenium as it appears in the remains of some Greek
theatres. The theatre of Epidaurus, built about the middle of the fourth century B.C., is the
best-preserved example of the Greek type; excavations were made in it by the Greek
Archaeological Society in 1883.
The orchestra forms a complete circle, defined by a ring of flat stones. Beyond this circle,
on the side farthest from the audience, are remains of a wall, about twelve feet high, adorned
with Ionic half-columns, and flanked by slightly projecting wings; there was one door in it,
at the middle point. This wall must have been either the background of the scene, or the front
of a raised stage. It is argued that it must have been the background, because (a
) twelve feet would be too great a height for a stage; (b
width of the stage—about eight feet—would have been too small; (c
) there is no trace of steps leading from the top of the wall to the
orchestra. A similar wall occurs in the theatre at Oropus, and is identified as the proscenium
by an inscription which it bears. The theatre in the Piraeus affords another example.
On the other hand, several considerations tell in favour of the received view, that Greek
actors, at every period, had a raised stage.
- 1. The statement of the architect Vitruvius, who wrote about A.D. 20, is decisive, so
far as the Roman period is concerned. He states that the Greek theatre had a raised stage,
about ten or twelve feet high, but narrower than the Roman; the Greeks, he says, called it
λογεῖον. Vitruvius uses the word proscaenium to describe this stage; and the same use of the term occurs in other
writers, both Roman and Greek. Dr. Dörpfeld is therefore reduced to assuming that
Vitruvius has made a mistake—confusing the background of the scene in a Greek
theatre with the front of a raised stage. But it is absurd to suppose that Vitruvius should
have made such a blunder about the Greek theatres of his own day; and
that, having accurately described a raised stage which did not exist, he should also have
invented a name for it, λογεῖον.
- 2. The theatre at Megalopolis in Arcadia has lately been excavated by members of the
British School at Athens (see the report of the School for 1890). The date of
this theatre may be placed in the second half of the fourth century B.C. Here there is a
raised stage, of which the height was originally about six feet, and the width about
eighteen feet. A flight of steps, extending from end to end of it, led down to the
orchestra. That it was a stage, and not a background, is proved (a) by
these steps, (b) by the fact that access was given to it by three doors
in the wall behind it. There is no reason to doubt that this stage is of the same date as
the auditorium. A later Roman stage has been found in front of it. By this example, then,
the existence of a raised stage in a Greek theatre of the fourth century B.C. is placed
- 3. With regard to the fifth century B.C., it was not to be expected that any remains of
a raised stage should be found; temporary wooden structures would leave no trace. The Greek
plays do not supply any literary evidence which can be deemed conclusive. There are some
passages which indicate that the place where the actors stood was accessible to the Chorus
(e.g. Oed. Col. 836 foll.); as would be the
case if we supposed a stage with steps leading up to it, as at Megalopolis. Among the
passages which seem to imply a raised stage, we may notice Suet.
Vesp. 1514, where Philocleon says, ἀτὰρ
καταβατέον γ̓ ἐπ̓ αὐτούς. This may, indeed, be rendered, “I must
enter the lists against them”; but it also implies some
change of position, more marked than such as would consist in moving merely from one spot in
the orchestra to another, and would be most naturally explained by a descent into the
orchestra from the stage. Some vases of Lower Italy, referable to the period B.C. 300-100,
depict scenes from the Old Attic Comedy acted on a raised λογεῖον (cf. Baumeister, Denkmäler, pp. 1750 foll.).
Plato (Symp. p. 194 A) speaks of the tragic poet Agathon as ἀναβαίνοντος ἐπὶ ὀκρίβαντα μετὰ τῶν ὑποκριτῶν. This shows
that the idea of placing actors on a raised platform was familiar to Athenians of the fifth
century B.C. Even in the days before Thespis , when one member of the Chorus held a dialogue
with the rest, he was mounted, we are told, on a kind of table (ἐλεός). A recent writer suggests that the source of this story may have been a
Comedy in which the beginnings of Tragedy were burlesqued (Hiller, Rhein.
Museum, xxxix. p. 329). If this were so, it would only show that some sort of raised
stage was conceived as necessary for even the most primitive form of drama. Lastly, there is
a strong a priori objection to the theory that actors and Chorus stood
on the same level. The Chorus was usually drawn up in ranks facing the actors. With his cothurnus and mask, a tragic actor would still not overtop the Chorus by
more than a head. Hence, a view of the actors would have almost been wholly denied to
spectators whose seats were in the middle part of the lowest row. But those were the
seats assigned to the most distinguished persons. This argument cannot he met by saying, as
Dr. Dörpfeld does, that the Chorus was “usually” divided into
ἡμιχόρια (leaving the actors visible between the two
groups). Such an arrangement was not usual, but very exceptional. It may be allowed that,
when the stage came to be as high as twelve feet, permanent means of communication between
stage and orchestra cannot have existed, though temporary wooden steps might be employed at
need. But before stages of that height came into use, such communication had ceased to be
requisite, since the Chorus had no longer an active part in drama.
Vitruvius gives the ground-plan of a Greek theatre as follows: describe a circle for the
orchestra, and in it inscribe three squares. One side of one of these squares will represent
the front line of the stage (a b). A parallel tangent to the circle will be the back wall of
the stage (c d). The stage (pulpitum
) must be not less than ten or more than twelve feet high. Next, parallel
with a b, draw a diameter of the circle, e f. It will be seen in the diagram that at e and f
the semicircle is so continued as to make a horseshoe, ending at g h. The curves which thus
continue it are segments of circles described from e and f as respective centres, with e f as
radius. This is known as “the construction from three centres,” viz., e,
Greek Theatre, after Vitruvius.
and the centre of the orchestra. The auditorium is shut in by lines which bisect the
right angles at i and k. The space between g h and c d is a raised stage.
The fourth century B.C. was the period at which stone theatres became usual in Greece. We
may now proceed to consider their characteristics more in detail.
It has been seen that, even in the matured theatre, the “dancing-place”
was still a complete circle, as in the old days of the Cyclic Choruses. Its central point was
sometimes marked, either by a small pit (as at the Piraeus), or by a stone (as at Epidaurus).
Such marks probably indicate the spot on which the altar of Dionysus was to be placed. The
, “a place of sacrifice,”
means in classical poetry either “a shrine,” or, more specifically,
“an altar.” The most probable conclusion is that the
was the altar of Dionysus, in the centre of the
orchestra. Another view is that the name θυμέλη
transferred from the altar to a platform in the orchestra on which the altar was placed, and
that this platform was the station of the Chorus—connected by steps with the lower
level of the orchestra (κονίστρα
) and with the higher level
of the stage (λογεῖον
). It is true that the use of θυμέλη
to denote a kind of stage was current in later times, when
, “music-hall artists,” were distinguished
from actors proper (Isidore,
Orig. xviii. 47
). But this use arose under Roman influences, and
cannot be assumed for the Greece of the fifth or fourth century B.C. A channel, to carry off
rain-water, often surrounded the orchestra, being bridged by stones at the points from which
the stairways led up to the seats.
In default of a special term like cavea
, this is sometimes called
: though that word, when it does not mean the whole
building, more often denotes the spectators, as we speak of “the house.”
In the older Greek theatres the public entered by the side-passages (πάροδοι
) between the proscenium and the orchestra—the same which the
Chorus used. Sometimes, indeed, we find an alternative mode of access, viz. by a path
traversing high ground, and leading directly to one of the upper tiers: this was the case at
Athens. but it was exceptional. A crowd entering by the πάροδοι
would find the pressure greatest at the mouths of the semicircular
passage between the orchestra and the lowest row of seats—before the spectators had
distributed themselves to the several parts of the house. This fact helps to explain a
peculiarity of construction. The lowest row of seats is not, as a rule, completely concentric
with the orchestra, but is usually so contrived as to leave a wider space at the points just
mentioned. A further advantage of this arrangement was that it afforded a better view to
those who sat at each end of the semicircle.
Flights of steps ascending from the orchestra to the highest tier of seats divided the
auditorium into wedge-like segments. The Greek word for such a segment was κερκίς
, which properly meant “radius”; the Latin
term was cuneus.
A further division into upper and lower zones was
effected by passages called διαζώματα
), which ran completely
round the semicircle. The word διάζωμα
can denote, not only
the passage itself, but the zone which it marks off (C. I. G.
4283). Above the
highest tier, another open passage ran round the house. The term ἴκρια
properly denoted the wooden benches on which, in the earlier times, the
spectators sat. When stone seats were introduced (cir. B.C. 330), such seats were founded,
where it was possible, on the natural rock of the slope. At Athens, as at Megalopolis,
artificial substructions were required in several parts, and this must almost everywhere have
been the case, more or less. The material used for the seats varied much. Sometimes it is
marble, as at Iassus in Caria and Perga in Pamphylia; at Athens and in the Piraeus, it is a
white limestone, finely wrought; while the smaller provincial theatres were often content
with coarser stone and workmanship. The tiers of seats were called βάθρα
. At Athens the space
allotted to one person was indicated merely by a line engraved on the stone: it is described
as ἕδρα, τόπος, χώρα, χωρίον
, or simply θέα
The privilege of free seats (προεδρία
) in the theatre was
given chiefly to four classes of persons:
- 1. certain priests and priestesses, among whom the priest of Dionysus was foremost;
- 2. certain magistrates;
- 3. foreigners who were honoured in an official character, as πρέσβεις or θεωροί;
- 4. citizens or foreigners who were honoured in their personal capacity, as benefactors
of the State. For such persons special seats were provided, like armchairs, called θρόνοι or καθέδραι. At Athens
these chairs, made of Pentelic marble, occupy the whole of the lowest row, while others are
placed in different parts of the house, though in no case higher up than the twenty-fourth
row; those assigned to priests or officials bear their titles. At Epidaurus several rows of
seats with backs and arms were assigned to those who enjoyed προεδρία.
The acoustic properties of a Greek theatre would be naturally good, since the actors had a
high wall behind them and a rising slope in front. Vitruvius, indeed, says that artificial
aid was sought from “brazen vessels,” “which the Greeks call
,” so placed in the auditorium as to
reverberate the voices of the actors. He even speaks of these
“resonators” as being nicely adapted to the required musical pitch (ii.
1, 9). The theatre at Aizani in Cilicia has a series of niches above the διάζωμα
: and similar niches exist elsewhere. According to one view,
these niches held the ἠχεῖα
, while another connects them
merely with the substructions of seats.
The outer wall enclosing the auditorium ordinarily followed the curve of the semicircle,
unless the nature of the ground caused some deviation. At Athens the auditorium was partly
bounded on the north by the steep rock of the Acropolis, while the rest of its boundary was
formed by strong walls of conglomerate. Where the external appearance of these walls became
important, viz., in the south and southwestern portions, they were cased with finely wrought
limestone. Examples occur in which the walls enclosing the auditorium were rectangular, as at
Cnidus, and in the smaller theatre at Pompeii. The walls flanking the seats at each end of
the semicircle were either carried in a single sloping line from the topmost tier to the
orchestra, or built in a series of steps corresponding with the tiers. In the best Greek
period such walls were not exactly parallel with the line of the proscenium, but started
inwards a little, towards the centre of the orchestra. This was the case at Athens and
The testimonies on this subject are of two classes.
- 1. Notices in writers chiefly belonging to the Roman age, especially lexicographers
and scholiasts. Among these the most important is the grammarian Iulius Pollux (flour. A.D.
170), in his Onomasticon, book iv. 128-132. As has lately been shown by
Rohde, the source principally used by Pollux was a work by Iuba, a writer of the later
Alexandrian Age, entitled Θεατρικὴ Ἱστορία, in at
least seventeen books; while Iuba, in his turn, had sources going back to Aristophanes of
Byzantium (B.C. 200), but not further. The besetting fault of Pollux, in abridging from
this ample material, seems to have been an omission to distinguish between the normal and
the occasional resources of the stage.
- 2. The second kind of evidence is that derived from the Greek dramatic texts
themselves. This source, scanty as it is, is the principal one on which we have to rely in regard to the practice of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Not
long ago it was the custom to treat the notices in Pollux and the other late authorities as
if they could be applied without reserve to the great age of Athenian Tragedy and Comedy,
but a more critical study has shown the need of greater caution in this respect.
In the extant plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, the action most
often takes place in front of a house with a “practicable” door;
sometimes in front of a temple, a cottage, a tent, a cave, or a rock. Painted linen hangings,
erected on a wooden frame, would have sufficed for such a background. Aristotle, in sketching
the growth of Tragedy, says that Aeschylus added the second actor, and made the dialogue
predominate over the choral part, while Sophocles introduced the third actor and the use
Remains of Greek Theatre at Tauromenium. (From a photograph.)
of scene-painting (σκηνογραφία
). Now, this last
fact must have stood out clearly in Athenian tradition, which Aristotle had every means of
knowing, when he thus coupled it with the other novelty as an invention distinctive of
Sophocles. It is usually assumed, even by recent writers, that Aristotle is here
irreconcilable with Vitruvius, who ascribes the introduction of scene-painting to Aeschylus.
Such an assumption is not, we think, necessary. The words of Vitruvius (vii. praef.
11) are: “primum Agatharchus Athenis, Aeschylo
, scaenam fecit et de ea commentarium reliquit”; and he
then goes on to say how the stimulus given by Agatharchus led Democritus and Anaxagoras to
develop principles of perspective. The phrase “while Aeschylus was exhibiting
tragedy” merely describes Aeschylus as con temporary with the innovation.
Sophocles first exhibited in B.C. 468, twelve years before the death of Aeschylus. Aristotle
and Vitruvius are reconciled if we suppose that Sophocles introduced σκηνογραφία
in the early days of his career; a fact which will also help us to
understand why that improvement was peculiarly associated with his name. Even before
Agatharchus had made a beginning of artistic σκηνογραφία
some ruder kind of drawing may have been used. Thus in the Persae
(B.C. 472) the palace was probably indicated. In the Ion
of Euripides (cir.
B.C. 421), where the scene is laid at Delphi, the Chorus of Athenian maidens point with
admiration to the sculptures which adorn the front of the temple.
With regard to “massive” decoration, as distinguished from a painted
background, the objects required by the texts are simple, such as altars, statues of gods or
heroes, rocks, and seats. But the texts further prove that certain mechanical appliances were
available at need.
- 1. The ἐκκύκλημα was a small movable stage on
wheels, which could be rolled forward through the door in the proscenium. There was room on
it for three or four persons, and it was low enough to allow of an actor stepping off it
with ease. The most frequent use of the ἐκκύκλημα was
when the corpse of a person slain within the house was to be shown to the
audience—sometimes with the murderer standing beside it. The moment at which the
ἐκκύκλημα was pushed forward is often, though not
always, marked in the text by a reference to the opening of the door. But this was not the
only case in which the appliance was used: it could also be employed for any tableau in the
interior of a house. Thus in
Eumen. the Pythia speaks the prologue in front of the temple, and then the
ἐκκύκλημα is used to show Orestes at the omphalos
within. Similarly in Aiax, when Tecmessa opens the tent, this machine serves
to display Aiax prostrate amidst the slaughtered cattle. As appears from some passages, the
ἐκκύκλημα could be pushed far enough forward to admit of
an actor entering, or making his exit, at the door behind it. It should be noted that the
use of the ἐκκύκλημα is not merely an inference from
later writers and from hints in Tragedy, but is proved by the two parodies in Aristophanes,
where Euripides and Agathon are wheeled out, and are thence once more withdrawn from view
Ach. 408 foll., ἐκκυκλήθητ̓ . . .
ἐκκυκλήσομαι: Thesm. 265, ἐσκυκλησάτω). The exact nature of the ἐξώστρα is uncertain, but it was evidently akin to the ἐκκύκλημα, differing from it, possibly, only in the mode of propulsion.
- 2. Machinery for showing persons in the air was required by the appearances of the
gods, and in some other cases—as when Medea is seen above the palace in the
chariot given to her by the Sun (Eur. Med.
1319), or when Trygaeus soars aloft on his beetle (Aristoph. Pax, 80). Two different contrivances seem to have been
used: both were, of course, concealed by the proscenium. One was an apparatus worked by a
wheel (τροχός) and ropes (αἰῶραι), and called αἰώρημα, which was used
when the person was to be seen gradually rising into the air, or descending from above. The
other device was a sort of platform, projecting from the wings at the back of the
proscenium, close to its upper edge. This was the socalled θεολογεῖον, used when the apparition of a god or hero was to be sudden. The
κρεμάθρα in which Socrates is suspended
(Nub. 218) is a burlesque of the tragic appliances.
- 3. Akin to the θεολογεῖον must have been the
contrivance used when a person is to appear on the roof of a palace (as the watcher in
Ag.; Antigoné and the paedagogus in Eur. Phoen.
etc.). A wooden platform, high up behind the proscenium, would have sufficed: according to
Pollux, it was called a διστεγία.
These seem to be the only forms of decoration or mechanism which can certainly be inferred
from the texts of the tragedians and of Aristophanes. They are all compatible with a
temporary wooden structure and with a comparatively simple phase of scenic art. When, in the
course of the fourth century B.C., permanent stone theatres became usual in Greek lands, the
general character of scenic decoration was perhaps not at first affected thereby. Behind the
proscenium there was now a permanent wall, forming the front of the building assigned to the
actors. But the proscenium itself probably continued, for a time, to be temporary—a
wooden structure, with painted hangings.
It may have been at this period that περίακτοι
introduced. These were triangular wooden prisms, revolving on a pivot (whence the name), with
scenery painted on each of their three faces. One περίακτος
was placed at the left wing and another at the right. They took the place of modern
side-scenes, and also served to indicate changes of scene, according to a regular
conventional method. The περίακτος
on the spectator's right
hand represented the locality in which the action was taking place. The περίακτος
on his left hand represented a region outside of that locality. If,
for instance, the scene of the play was laid at Delphi, the right-hand περίακτος
would illustrate that place, while the other might
represent the road leading to Athens. The same rule governed entrances and exits: a Delphian
would come on from the right, a stranger from the left. If the scene was to be changed from
one spot near Delphi to another in the same vicinity, the left-hand περίακτος
would be turned so as to present a new face, but the right-hand one
would be left unaltered. If the scene was shifted from Delphi to Athens, both περίακτοι
would be turned.
There are only two Greek plays in which it is necessary to assume a change of scene. In the
the action is transferred from Delphi to Athens; in the
, from the front of the hero's tent to a lonely place on the sea-shore. It
is probable that in the first of these examples the change was merely symbolized by
substituting the βρέτας
of Athené for a statue of
Apollo, while the building painted on the background was identified, first with the Delphian
temple, and then with the Erechtheum. In the second example, if the background was a
landscape, nothing was required but to remove the hangings which represented the tent. The
use of περίακτοι
in the fifth century B.C. cannot be proved
from the dramatic literature. On the other hand, they would have been found peculiarly
convenient when the old wooden proscenia, with painted hangings, were replaced by stone
proscenia adorned with sculpture. There is no evidence that, in addition to revolving
scenery, the Greek theatre had scenes which could be shifted on grooves; though the Roman
stage, as Servius tells us, had both (ad
Georg. iii. 24
Entrances for the Actors
Pollux speaks of three doors in the proscenium, the central one being called θύρα βασίλειος
, because the chief persons of the play used it.
Vitruvius confirms this statement. Ruins of the Hellenistic or Roman Age show sometimes three
doors, sometimes five. In the latter case, the two extreme doors may have opened, not on the
stage, but on spaces at either side of it (παρασκήνια
by actors waiting for their turns, or by officials. In the theatre at Megalopolis (fourth
century B.C.) there were three entrances to the stage. Only one entrance is traceable in the
remains at Epidaurus, Zea, and Oropus respectively. It is on a level with the orchestra;
hence those who disbelieve in a raised stage regard it as the entrance for the actors. But it
may have passed beneath a raised stage, serving to give the employés of the
theatre a direct access to the orchestra. How many doors there may have been in the painted
hangings of the old wooden proscenia, we cannot tell. The fifth-century texts show that,
besides the door or doors in the proscenium, there were also entrances for the actors from
the sides, right and left.
Pollux says that when ghosts appeared on the scene they came up either by ἀναπιέσματα
(our “trap-doors”) or by the
. It has generally been supposed that
led from the orchestra to the stage. This is
the case at Megalopolis. Another theory is that they connected the stage with a passage
beneath it, invisible to the spectators.
No curtain was used in the Greek theatre. When a play opened with a group in position (such
as the suppliants in the Oed. Tyr.
), the actors must have simply walked on to
the scene and assumed that position. When one play followed another and
the background had to be changed, that change took place before the eyes of the spectators.
In such matters we cannot judge the feelings of Athenians assembled at the Dionysia by the
requirements of modern playgoers.
The Administration of the Theatre
A Greek theatre was the property of the State, and the performances in it were acts of
public worship under State control. At Athens, in the fifth and and fourth centuries B.C.,
drama accompanied two Dionysiac festivals—the Lenaea, in January, and the Great
Dionysia, in March. At each festival both Tragedy and Comedy were produced; but the Lenaea
were peculiarly associated with Comedy, and the Great Dionysia with Tragedy. The cost of the
performances at each festival was defrayed from three sources:
- 1. The theatre was let by the State to a lessee, who received the money paid for
admission, and in return undertook certain charges. One of these, as appears from an extant
document (C. I. A. ii. 573), was the maintenance of the building in good
repair. Hence the classical name for the lessee, ἀρχιτέκτων. He was also bound to provide a certain number of free seats (as
for the persons entitled to προεδρία); but for these he
was probably reimbursed by the treasury. The provision of scenery and of costume for the
actors (excepting the choreutae) appears also to have devolved upon
the lessee. He was certainly charged with the custody of the scenery and of all the
theatrical dresses and properties. He also paid the cashiers, the persons who showed
spectators to their places, and all other employés of the theatre.
- 2. The second source of contribution was the choregia. For each
festival the Archon Eponymus appointed as many choregi as there were
competing poets; at the Great Dionysia the number was usually three for Tragedy and three
for Comedy. The choregi were chosen from men nominated by the ten
Attic tribes in rotation. The duty of the choregus was to furnish
one Chorus of fifteen persons for Tragedy, or of twenty-four for Comedy. He provided a
suitable place for their training (χορηγεῖον), and
maintained them till the festival was over. If the poet did not train them himself, the choregus had to find a χοροδιδάσκαλος.
He had also to supply the flute-player (αὐλητής) who
preceded the Chorus on entering or quitting the orchestra and played the occasional music.
He purchased the costumes, masks, etc., for the Chorus. But his task was not finished when
the Chorus was trained and equipped. He had also to supply any mute persons (κωφὰ πρόσωπα) that might be required for the piece.
- 3. The third contributor was the State. When a poet had applied to the archon for a
Chorus and his application had been granted, the archon next assigned to him three actors,
who were paid by the State. It did not rest with the poet to decide which of these three
should be πρωταγωνιστής, etc.: he received them from the
State already classified according to merit, as actors of first, second, and third parts.
This classification rested ultimately on special ἀγῶνες
in which actors were directly tried against each other, and which were distinct from the
performances at the festivals. If a poet ever required a fourth actor (probably a very rare
case), he could only go to the choregus, who might make an
“extra grant” (παραχορήγημα). The
State also paid the marshals (ῥαβδοῦχοι) who kept order
in the theatre, and who were stationed in the orchestra. Lastly, a certain honorarium, distinct from the festivalprizes, was paid by the Treasury to
each of the competing poets, according to the order in which they were placed by the
The character of the dramatic contests as solemnities conducted by the State was strongly
marked in the forms of procedure. A few days before the Great Dionysia, the ceremony called
(“prelude”) was held in the
old Odeion near the Enneacrunos. The competing poets, with their respective choregi
, were then formally presented to the public; the actors and choruses were also
present, in festal, but not in scenic, attire; and the titles of the plays to be produced at
the approaching festival were officially announced. When the first day of the Great Dionysia
arrived, the dramatic contests were preceded by the transaction of some public business in
the theatre. It was then that crowns of honour were awarded for public services, and that the
orphans of Athenians slain in war were presented to the citizens. In due course a public
herald summoned the first on the list of competing poets. He entered the orchestra, attended
by the choregus
and Chorus, and poured a libation at the thymelé
to Dionysus. His procession then withdrew; the
orchestra was once more empty, and the play began. One prize for Tragedy and one for Comedy
were awarded by ten judges, taken by lot from a large number of persons whom the Senate (with
) had chosen from the tribes. At the close of the contests,
five judges (taken from the ten by a second ballot) announced the awards. The successful
poets were then crowned, before the audience, by the archon. Shortly after the festival, a
public meeting, for business connected with it, was held in the theatre.
According to a recent estimate, the Dionysiac Theatre was once capable of seating about
27,500 persons. It must be remembered that all the upper tiers have been destroyed, and that
the ancient capacity was enormously greater than it would appear from the seats which still
exist. Plato was using round numbers when he spoke of “more than 30,000
Greeks” as present in the Dionysiac Theatre at the tragic contests (
E), but it is quite conceivable that the number was sometimes
nearer to 30,000 than to 20,000. The vast theatre at Megalopolis could hold, according to one
modern computation, no fewer than 44,000 persons. Such numbers become intelligible when we
consider that the Greek drama was essentially a popular festival, in which the entire civic
body was invited to take part. Even young boys were present both at Comedy and at Tragedy.
Women were certainly present at Tragedy; and a fragment of Alexis shows that, in the fourth
century B.C., they were admitted to the performances of Comedy also. This, however, was the
Middle Comedy—very different, in some respects, from the Old Comedy of
Aristophanes. It would be a natural inference from the seclusion in which Athenian women
lived that they were not admitted to the Old Comedy. But against this a
argument may be set another—viz., that, at the Dionysia, Tragedy and
Comedy were merely different sides of one ἀγών
: those who
could participate in one were entitled to share in the other. A line drawn on grounds of
decorum would dissever elements which, in the Dionysiac idea, were inseparable. There is no
conclusive literary evidence. At Athens
Theatre at Segesta. (Restoration.)
were admitted to the theatre.
Foreigners were also admitted, whether officials or private persons.
In the earliest days of Athenian drama, admission was doubtless free of charge; payment may
have been introduced after the expulsion of the Pisistratidae, when the city began to find
the cost too heavy. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. the price of admission for one day
was two obols, or not quite $0.08. Pericles introduced the system by which the State paid two
obols to each citizen for each day of the Dionysiac festivals, in order that he might attend
the theatre. This θεωρικόν
was partly defrayed from the
tribute of the allies, and probably began about B.C. 454. It was distributed by the demarchs
in the several demes; and, though it was first devised in the interests of the poor, the only
condition of obtaining it seems to have been enrollment on the register of the deme. The
number of persons receiving the θεωρικόν
in B.C. 431 has
been computed at 18,000. All seats were of the same class, except those reserved for persons
who had the right of προεδρία
, and who paid nothing. (Cf.
Dem. De Cor.
28.) The places of payment were probably in the πάροδοι
leading to the orchestra. Specimens of ordinary Greek
theatre-tickets are extant. These are small leaden coins, bearing on one side some emblem of
the theatre, such as a Dionysus with a tripod, or an actor's mask; and on the obverse, the
name of an Attic tribe, or a numeral. Many examples have been published by
Benndorf (Zeitschr. f. d. österr. Gymn.
Another kind of theatre-ticket also occurs. This is a small round mark of bone or ivory,
bearing on one side some artistic device (such as the head of a deity), and on the other a
number (never higher than 15), in both Greek and Roman figures. These were tickets, of the
Imperial Age, for persons who had προεδρία
. The numbers
probably indicate divisions of the house. How far such division was carried is uncertain. The
members of the Senate sat together in a definite part of the Dionysiac Theatre (τὸ βουλευτικόν
). For youths between the ages of eighteen and
twenty-one, a space was similarly reserved (τὸ ἐφηβικόν
The performances began in the morning, and lasted till evening; but it is attested by the
comic poet Pherecrates—who gained his first prize in B.C. 438—that the
spectators had usually taken the morning meal (ἄριστον
before they came (Athen. x. 464 e). In the next century, however, we hear of performances
beginning at daybreak (in Ctes.
76). The older Athenian custom was for all the
spectators to wear wreaths (as at a sacrifice); but this had perhaps gone out before B.C.
350. As the whole day was spent in the theatre, the visitors brought light refreshments
) with them. Choregi
courted popularity by a distribution of cakes and wine: and Aristophanes has pilloried those
rival poets who employed slaves to throw nuts about the house. An Athenian audience was
closely attentive—detecting the slightest fault of speech—and highly
demonstrative. Loud clapping of hands and shouts of applause expressed their delight;
disapproval found vent in stamping with the feet, hissing, and hooting (κλώζειν
). Never, probably, has the ordeal for an actor been more severe than it was at Athens. Persons of note who entered the house were recognized
with frank favour, or the reverse. Indeed, the whole demeanour of Athenians at the Dionysia
appears to have been marked by a certain sense of domestic ease, as if all the holiday-makers
were members of one family.
From the latter part of the fourth century B.C. onwards, it became usual to produce drama,
not merely at the Dionysia, but on any occasion of special rejoicing; a result partly due to
the personal taste of Alexander the Great for theatrical shows of every kind. Hence the
theatres gradually lost that sacred character which had been theirs so long as they were set
apart for the worship of Dionysus. A further consequence was that they began to be used for
various entertainments which had nothing to do with drama, such as the exhibitions of
conjurers or acrobats, and, in the Roman age, gladiatorial shows, or combats with
Remains of Greek Theatre at Syracuse.
wild beasts. Even in the fifth century B.C., indeed, cock-fighting had been held on
one day of the year in the Dionysiac Theatre.
Mention has been made of the meetings for public business held in the Dionysiac Theatre
just before and after the Great Dionysia. In the latter part of the fifth century we hear of
the citizens convening the ecclesia in the theatre at Munychia, and in the Dionysiac Theatre
itself, when the Pnyx was not available (Thuc.viii. 93
B.C. 250 it had become usual to hold ordinary meetings of the ecclesia in the Dionysiac
Theatre; though the elections of magistrates (ἀρχαιρεσίαι
continued to be held on the Pnyx. From the fifth century B.C. the theatre had been the
regular place for the bestowal of public honours, such as crowns. In later times a theatre
was often also the scene of an exemplary punishment (
). As statues of Themistocles and Miltiades stood in the
Dionysiac Theatre, so, at every period of Greek antiquity, such places were adorned
with monuments of statesmen and soldiers, no less than of poets, musicians, and actors. This
was in accord with the true idea of the Greek theatre, which was not merely the home of an
art, but also a centre of civic reunion.
Rome possessed no theatre of stone till B.C. 55. Just a century
earlier such an edifice had been in progress, when P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica procured a
decree of the Senate for its destruction (Livy, Epit.
48). The spirit of the
Roman veto on permanent theatres was one which refused to regard the drama except as a
passing frivolity. Wooden theatres were erected, and pulled down when the occasion was over.
But before the middle of the first century B.C. these temporary structures had already begun
to show a high elaboration. The building put up by the aedile M. Aemilius Scaurus in B.C. 58
contained 80,000 seats; the proscenium was adorned with pillars of marble and statues of
bronze; and the whole work seems to have possessed every element of grandeur except
permanence. The old interdict had already lost its meaning, and three years later Pompeius
was allowed to erect, near the Campus Martius, the first theatre of stone. The model is said
to have been the theatre of Mitylené, and the number of seats 40,000. The theatre
of Marcellus, built by Augustus, and named after his nephew, was also of stone, and could
hold 20,500 persons. A third such building, with a capacity of 11,510, was completed in B.C.
13 by L. Cornelius Balbus. These are the trina theatra
). Meanwhile many provincial towns in Italy and elsewhere had
long possessed stone theatres, built or altered under Roman influence.
The Roman type of theatre is simply the Greek type modified in certain particulars. The
Roman Theatre, after Vitruvius.
plan is thus described by Vitruvius: In a circle of the same diameter which the
orchestra is to have, inscribe three equilateral triangles. Take one side of any triangle,
and let this be the back wall of the stage, scaenae frons
(a b). A diameter of the circle, drawn parallel with a b, will represent the line dividing the stage from the orchestra
(c d). The seats for the spectators are arranged round the
orchestra in semicircles concentric with it. The five points above the line c d, where the angles touch the circumference, are the points from
which five flights of steps lead up to the seats, dividing them into six cunei.
Above the first zone, or semicircular passage (praecinctio
), the seats are divided into twelve cunei
stairways. Just above the points c and d,
access is given to the orchestra by two vaulted passages which pass under the upper rows of
seats (e, f). The platform of the stage is prolonged right and
left, so that its total length (g h) is equal to twice the diameter
of the orchestra. In the back wall of the stage there are to be three doors, the positions of
which are marked by the points i, k, l. Thus the distinctive
features of the Roman theatre are these two:
- 1. The orchestra is not, as in the Greek theatre, a circle (or the greater part of
it), but only a semicircle. The diameter of the orchestra is now the front line of a raised
stage. Consequently the auditorium, also, forms only a half-circle. The primary cause of
this change was that the old Dionysiac Chorus had disappeared; the orchestra, therefore,
had no longer a dramatic use.
- 2. In the Greek theatre the auditorium and the scene-buildings were not
architecturally linked. The πάροδοι were open passages
between them. In the Roman theatre the sidewalls of the scene-building were carried
forward till they met the side-walls of the auditorium. By this organic union of the two
main parts the whole theatre was made a single compact building.
These two main differences explain the other points in which the Roman theatre varied from
its Greek original. Thus: (a
) Having closed the openings afforded by the
, the Romans needed some other access to their
semicircular orchestra. Here the arch served them. By cutting off a few seats in the lower
rows at the angles right and left of the stage, they obtained height enough for vaulted
passages, which ran under the auditorium into the orchestra. (b
solid unity of the Roman theatres lent itself to the Roman taste for decoration of a
monumental character. The permanent Greek proscenia, though usually adorned with columns, had
been simple. But the richest embellishments of architecture and sculpture were lavished on
the Roman proscenia, in which two or more stories were usually distinguished by carefully
harmonized modes of treatment. (c
) A similar magnificence was shown in
the external façades. Greek theatres had usually been erected
Small Theatre at Pompeii. (Overbeck.)
on natural slopes. A Roman theatre was more often built on level ground.
The auditorium rested on massive substructions, of which the walls were connected by arches.
From the open spaces thus afforded, numerous wide staircases ascended, beneath the
auditorium, to the several rows of seats. Corridors, opening on these staircases, ran along
the inner side of the semicircular wall which enclosed the auditorium. The exterior of this
wall was adorned with columns, having arcades between them, and rising in three or more
successive stories, divided by architrave and cornice. Thus while the architectural
significance of a Greek theatre depended wholly on the interior, a Roman theatre had also the
external aspect of a stately public building.
With regard to the internal arrangements of the Roman theatre, the following points claim
- 1. The raised stage (pulpitum, λογεῖον) is in some instances on a level with the lowest row of seats behind
the orchestra. Sometimes, again, the stage is rather higher, but the (originally) lowest
row of seats has been abolished, leaving the stage still level with those seats which are
actually lowest. In a third class of examples, the stage is higher than the lowest row of
seats—as it is at Orange in France. The Roman stage in the Dionysiac Theatre at
Athens is of this class.
- 2. Awnings were spread over the theatre to protect the spectators from sun or rain.
These were usually called vela: the term velaria
occurs only in Juv.iv. 122.Pliny , who describes them as carbasina vela (of linen), says that they were introduced by Q. Catulus,
in B.C. 78 (xix. 23). They were supported by masts (mali), fixed to
the outer walls of the theatre by massive rings or sockets, which can still be seen at
Orange and Pompeii. Between the masts were cross-beams (trabes), for
greater convenience in unfurling the vela. Such awnings were of
various colours, as yellow, red, dark-blue (Lucr.iv. 75 foll.).
- 3. Until the play began, the stage was concealed by a curtain, which was then lowered.
The place into which it sank, just inside of the front line of the stage, can be seen in
the larger theatre at Pompeii. At the end of the piece the curtain was drawn up. Hence,
where we say “the curtain rises,” the Romans said aulaeum mittitur or subducitur; “the curtain is
up,” aulaeum premitur; “the curtain
falls,” aulaeum tollitur. The word siparium (from the base of σίφαρος, topsail, supparum) meant a folding screen. Apuleius (A.D. 150) describes a kind of
ballet as beginning “when the curtain had been lowered, and the screens folded
up” (sipariis complicitis [
Met. 10, p. 232]). If these screens were within the curtain, the
reason for using them along with it may have been to heighten the effect of a tablean by
disclosing it gradually. In the later parts of the piece, they may have served to conceal
scene-shifting. Another use is also possible. Theatres of the Macedonian and Roman period
sometimes had two stages, the higher being used by the regular actors, the lower by mimes
or dancers; and the latter may have been concealed by the siparium, as
the other by the aulaeum. The word siparium is
regularly associated with comedy or mimes (Seneca, De Tranq. An. 11.8; Juv.viii. 186).
- 4. Assignment of seats. The orchestra was reserved for senators. As a special mark of
distinction, foreigners (usually ambassadors) were occasionally admitted to it (see Tac. Ann. xiii. 54). The rest of the auditorium
was called cavea. The Lex Roscia, proposed by the tribune L.
Roscius Otho in B.C. 67, provided that the fourteen rows of seats in the cavea nearest to the orchestra should be reserved for the equites— excluding any who should have become bankrupt
(Cic. Phil. ii. 44). Owing to the
large number of equites who had been ruined by the Civil Wars,
Augustus decreed that the privilege given by the Lex Roscia should be enjoyed by any eques who had at any time possessed, or whose father
had possessed, the amount of the equester census—viz.,
400,000 sesterces (Suet. Aug. 40). This is
probably the Lex Iulia Theatralis meant by Pliny (Pliny H.
N. xxxiii. 8). Augustus further assigned special portions of the cavea to (a) women; (b)
praetextati —i. e. boys who had not yet assumed the toga virilis, and their
paedagogi; (c) soldiers; (d) married men
belonging to the plebs. This was a premium on marriage, like others provided in the Lex
Iulia et Papia Poppaea. In some provincial theatres the town-councillors (decuriones) had seats of honour (bisellia) on the rows next
the orchestra. Corresponding to the “royal box” in a European theatre
was the tribunal, immediately over the stage on the spectator's left.
This was occupied by the emperor, or by the president of the performance. A corresponding
tribunal on the left side was assigned to the Vestals, among whom the
empress sat. Thus, from the Augustan Age onwards, the contrast between a Greek and a Roman
theatre was extended to the arrangements for the audience. Instead of the simple Greek
distinction between those who had or had not προεδρία, the
Roman auditorium exhibited an elaborate classification by sex, age, profession, and
Restoration of the Scena Stabilis at Herculaneum. (Overbeck.)
The term ᾠδεῖον
, denoting a species of theatre
appropriated to musical performances, occurs first in a fragment of the comic poet Cratinus
(cir. B.C. 450), with reference to the Odeum of Pericles, but it may have been in use from a
much earlier time. The oldest recorded example is the Σκιάς
at Sparta, which is said to have been round, and to have been named from the resemblance of
its top to a sunshade (σκιάς
: Etym. Magn.
). Athens possessed three ᾤδεια
- 1. that near the fountain Enneacrunus by the Ilissus, conjecturally referred to
Pisistratus or Solon;
- 2. the Odeum of Pericles, a little to the northeast of the Dionysiac Theatre;
- 3. the Odeum built by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife, on the south slope of the
Acropolis. This was built later than A.D. 161. Considerable remains of it still exist. The
Odeum may best be regarded as the supplement to the Greek theatre.
Wieseler, Theatergebäude (Göttingen, 1881)
Oemichen, Griechischer Theaterbau (Berlin, 1886)
Höpken, De Theatro Attico
, etc. (Berlin, 1884)
Donaldson, The Greek Theatre
(largely antiquated), 7th ed. (London,
; Haigh, The Attic Theatre (Cambridge, 1889)
Müller, Lehrbuch der griechischen
Bühnenalterthümer (Freiburg, 1886)
Vitruvius and the Gk. Stage (Chicago, 1893)
, vol. iii. (2d ed.
; and papers by Wilamowitz-Möllendorf in Hermes
, xxi. pp.
579 foll.; and by Kawerau and Arnold in Baumeister's Denkmäler
, s. v.
“Theatergebäude” and “TheatervorstelIungen”;