The theatre of Dionysus is the oldest building in Greece, built in the middle of the 6th century BC during the reign of the tyrant Pisistratus. Originally, it was part of Dionysus Eleuthereus’ sanctuary. It was directly connected with the myths and cult of the god. The attraction is located on the southern side of the Acropolis in Athens.
The history of the Dionysus theater in Athens is very fascinating. At least it is so because this is a quite large structure even for Ancient Greece. Just imagine — even at that time it could accommodate several thousand spectators! Meanwhile, originally the theatre of Dionysus on the Acropolis of Athens was made of wood and served as a place for large celebrations for a long time. It was here that the Small Dionysias and the Great Dionysias were held twice a year. These were city festivals, celebrations in honour of the god of vegetation and winemaking.
Since the religion of that time was closely connected with the state life, stage performances were an important part of such celebrations. And state authorities in turn were taking care about it. That was why the community tried to entice outstanding Greek poets into the action by building theatres of colossal size in the open air. In order to emphasize the importance of such buildings, they were mostly built on the slopes of the fortified upper city — the Acropolis. Traditionally, three playwrights were competing on the stage. Each of them enacted three tragedies and a satiric drama, while each of comedy authors presented a play. The results of such cultural competitions were recorded on didascalia and preserved the inscriptions in the Athenian state archive.
The Athenian wooden theatre of Dionysus consisted of several parts. It had seats for audience that rose in tiers from the centre of the structure to its edges in the form of an amphitheatre. The uppermost row was located at a height of 35 m. The four-cornered area behind the orchestra was a fixed stage. Its front wall served as a background.
The orchestra itself was a smoothed area on which the chorus and musicians were placed. The central part of it was occupied by the altar of Dionysus.
The theatre of Dionysus in Greece became made of stone in the 3rd century BC. At that time, it consisted of 64 rows and could easily accommodate half the population of Athens (17 thousand spectators). Some scientists believe that there were even more of audience seats — about 19 thousand. All the old seats and the wooden stage were replaced by pentelic marble. In the first row, the architects of the Dionysus theatre arranged 67 seats for the VIPs, on which the names and posts of their owners were carved. Of course, the area of the ancient theatre of Dionysus was incredibly large, and the architects of the structure rejected the idea of making a roof over it. Therefore, the actors, the chorus, and tens of thousands of visitors watched the performances in the open air and in broad daylight.
The architecture of the new Acropolis of Athens with its semicircular cavity, circular orchestra and abundance of marble served as a model for the development of theatres of that time.
In the later Hellenistic years, some changes were made in the architecture of the theatre. For example, a colonnade and even a second floor appeared near the stage. New marble columns in the Ionic style replaced the old wooden ones after the destruction of Sulla in 86 BC during the rule of the Roman Emperor Augustus. Under Nero’s rule in 61-62 AD, the orchestra and the stage building were re-equipped according to the Roman model and were adapted to gladiator fights and Roman productions. It was at this time that the stage and the platform where the actors used to perform rose to a height of 3–3.5 m above the orchestra. Between the proscenium building and the orchestra, there was also a narrow space of a rectangular form, enclosed by parascenias around the perimeter. It was a kind of arena where the chorus and actors performed plays together.
A new bright period of the theatre of Dionysus began during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 117–138 AD, who was awarded the title of Lord of Athens. Then 13 bronze statues of the Emperor were installed in the lower parts of the rostrum, the inscriptions were removed from the seats in the first row, and the titles of priests of new cults were added. The Roman-style stage structure was adorned with statues of personifications of three theatrical genres (“Tragedy”, “Comedy” and “Satirist”). This was a way to combine the classic past of the capital and its more traditional public space of modern times. The last glimpse of the theatre of Dionysus occurred in 267.
At the end of the 5th century, the theatre was abandoned. Its orchestra became a precinct for the Christian basilica. Later, it was also destroyed. The theatre was reopened in 1765. And in 1895, under the direction of the archaeologist and Greek architect Wilhelm Dorpfeld, a great archaeological restoration was carried out here. But it was not possible to completely rebuild the theatre stage.
From the centre of Athens, you can walk on foot following by pointers. The distance is about 3 km. In order to get by metro, take the train on the red line and go to the “Acropolis” station. The way on foot from there will take you 10 minutes.