The Theater of Epidaurus—Intact Throughout the Centuries


DO YOU like going to the theater? Do you enjoy the good laughs that a comedy can offer? Are you uplifted or even enlightened by an insightful drama that touches your emotions or teaches you about human nature? Then you might be interested to learn about the theater of Epidaurus. It is closely associated with the origins of drama in ancient Greece.

Greek geographer Pausanias, of the second century C.E., wrote that at Epidaurus ‘there is the most remarkable theater of the ancient world. Although Roman theaters are more magnificent and imperial, no architect can compete with the beauty and the harmony of the Epidaurus theater.’

The Best Preserved

Located approximately 40 miles [60 km] south of the Greek city of Corinth is the small village of Epidaurus. Twenty-five centuries ago, it was an important commercial and religious center.

In later times, the smooth rolling hills, the cultivated fields, and the groves of olive trees gave no hint that there had been a large theater there. However, Panagís Kavadías, a prominent Greek archaeologist of the 19th century, was certain that those hills hid a well-kept secret. His curiosity had been aroused by the description of Pausanias quoted earlier, and he was confident that under this ordinary landscape, he would discover a magnificent theater. And discover it he did, in the spring of 1881.

After six years of hard work, Kavadías’ excavations brought to light an imposing, almost intact theater. According to archaeologists, this theater was constructed about  330 B.C.E. by Polyclitus the Younger, an outstanding sculptor and architect from the nearby city of Argos. Modern architect Mános Perrákis reflects the general opinion of researchers when he calls Epidaurus “the most famous and the best-preserved Greek theater.”

The discovery of the Epidaurus theater has been important both for archaeology and architecture. While most of the remaining ancient theaters have suffered partial destruction or undergone reconstruction, the Epidaurus theater has remained intact down through the centuries because it was safely covered by more than 20 feet [6 m] of soil.

The modern visitor can very clearly pinpoint the basic parts of the theater. The orchestra, a flat circular area used for dancing and the chorus, is encircled by a narrow strip of marble. Its floor is of packed earth, and it has an altar in the middle. Behind the orchestra is the scene building, of which only the foundations remain. Initially, the actors performed within the orchestra, and the sets consisted of painted panels installed on revolving triangular boards fixed on the perimeter. Later, the actors began to perform on the scene itself, leaving the orchestra to the chorus, and the sets were shifted to the walls of the scene.

Originally the Epidaurus theater had a seating capacity of 6,000. In the second century B.C.E., the upper part was extended to accommodate an additional 21 rows of seats, bringing the total number of seats to more than 13,000. Seats in the front row, reserved for dignitaries, differed from the rest in that they were built of a reddish stone and had a support for the back.

A Wonder of Acoustics

The theater of Epidaurus is famous for its outstanding acoustics. “The smallest sound—a deep breath or the tearing of a piece of paper—can be heard clearly as high up as the last row of seats,” says professor of archaeology S.E.E. Iakovídis.

When visiting this theater, many tourists like to stand in the middle of the orchestra and recite poems, sing songs, or even whisper to their friends sitting far up in the topmost tiers. They are impressed by the remarkable way in which the sound is conveyed to every corner of this large auditorium.

The amphitheatric, semicircular shape of the Epidaurus theater is credited with producing such fine acoustics. This reminds us of Jesus’ delivery of sermons to large multitudes of people in natural amphitheaters—often hillsides—so that he could be heard clearly by everyone.—Matthew 5:1, 2; 13:1, 2.

Moreover, the steepness of the tiers of seats at Epidaurus reduces the distance from the stage to the topmost rows. The sound waves are hardly diminished when they reach those upper rows.

Something else that contributes to such good acoustics is the appropriate length between the rows. This permits sound to be diffused everywhere with the same volume and clarity. Other factors include the reflection of the sound as it strikes the hard, compact surface of the orchestra and the tiers of seats, the good quality of marble that was used, the noiseless landscape, and the constant breeze that blows from the orchestra to the spectators.

Theater—The Home of Drama

Because the ancient Greeks used meticulous care and skill when constructing theaters  such as this one at Epidaurus, spectators could easily see and hear dramas. The drama originated in fertility feasts to celebrate the harvest and the vintage as well as the ideas of the death and renewal of life. Such orgiastic feasts honored Dionysus, the mythical god of wine and fertility. These performances not only praised mythical gods but often told a story. Three main forms of storytelling developed: tragedy, comedy, and satire. The city rulers, realizing the popularity of those events, supported them as a means to gain greater political power.

In time, the influence of Dionysian celebrations on drama and the predominance of orgiastic spectacles diminished. In search of new themes for their plays, celebrated dramatists of the fifth century B.C.E., such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, turned to Greek history and mythology. It was the growing and widespread popularity of drama that created the need for large theaters, such as the one at Epidaurus. And it was the need for the audience to hear every word of the dramas—which often included subtle wordplay and repartee—that demanded a high level of care and skill in the construction of the theaters.

Each theatrical play required a chorus (usually 10 to 15 people) and actors (never more than 3 speaking characters in each scene). Actors were called hy·po·kri·taiʹ, the ones who respond to the chorus. In time, this term began to be used in a metaphoric sense to describe a person who is playing false or putting on a pretense. The Gospel of Matthew used this word to describe the deceitful scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.—Matthew 23:13.

Epidaurus and Ancient Drama Today

The performance of ancient drama has been revived in Greece at Epidaurus and elsewhere. Until the beginning of the 20th century, ancient Greek dramas, particularly tragedies, were an object of academic study only. But from 1932 onward, with the establishment of the National Theater of Greece, the works of ancient dramatists have been translated into modern Greek.

Since 1954 the Epidauria drama festival has become an annual event. Each summer the Epidaurus theater extends hospitality to many Greek and foreign theatrical companies, which present performances of ancient plays. Thousands of tourists and theater lovers visit this site to attend modern performances of plays that were written almost 2,500 years ago.

So the next time you visit Greece, you are invited to come to Epidaurus. After seeing its impressive theater, you may reach the same conclusion as Pausanias: ‘No architect can compete with the beauty and the harmony of the Epidaurus theater.’

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Theater and the Early Christians

“We have become a theatrical spectacle to the world, and to angels, and to men,” wrote the apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth, who were living close to Epidaurus. (1 Corinthians 4:9; Hebrews 10:33) He meant that because of being reproached and persecuted, they were as if exposed in a theater before a universal audience. In the days of Paul, theatrical plays were a popular form of recreation. However, the early Christians were warned against immorality and fierce violence, which were often represented in the theatrical performances of that time. (Ephesians 5:3-5) Christians themselves were sometimes forcibly led to the theaters or arenas of the Roman Empire as objects of entertainment, even being made to confront wild beasts.

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Greek dramatists: Musei Capitolini, Roma

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Courtesy GNTO