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The Theater at Epidaurus

Ancient Greek Theater’s Relation to Asklepius

The theater at Epidaurus is both beautiful and intriguing. Its construction has astounded for centuries, but so does its significance within th

This impressive open-air theater is renowned for its nearly perfect architecture and acoustics. Its location within the sanctuary of Asklepius is also of some significance. The theater as a whole is considered to be the best preserved structure in Greece from the Classical period.

The theater was built around the mid-4th century B.C.E. by Polyclitus the Younger. His work at Epidaurus has been praised for centuries, including by Pausanias, the geographer from the 2nd century C.E. Pausanias wrote in his “Descriptions of Greece” that the theater is “most especially worth seeing.” The theater is still considered one of the most beautiful and symmetrically perfect of all Greek theaters.

Theater Description and Dimensions

Its cavea, or the seating of the auditorium, is almost 350 feet (114 m) across. There are about 14,000 seats total, with 54 rows of seating – 34 below and 21 above the diazoma, or horizontal passageway. This was built in two phases, the upper 21 rows having been added during the 2nd century B.C.E. “Seats of honor” were red, and the rest were simply white limestone.

Towards the center there is the round base of the altar or thymele, and the orchestra is a complete circle about 60 feet (20 m) in diameter. There is a parados or entrance on either side of the theater that contained double doors and columns decorated with Corinthian capitals. The skene is a background building connected to the platform stage, and the proskene is comprised of a row of columns in front of the skene that support a high platform used as a raised stage, especially for comedies.

In this stage area in the center, the smallest sound made is amplified and can be heard anywhere in the theater, regardless of seating. The astounding acoustics of the theater are due to a few factors in the architecture of the structure. The limestone material of the seating provides a filter effect of low frequencies, eliminating the problem of sounds from the chatter of the audience, for example. However, the rows of limestone reflect high frequency sound back to the audience from the stage. Also, ridges and grooves on the surface of the seats act as natural acoustic traps. The theater is architecturally perfect for sound and is a true wonder in this sense, though it is also possible that the Greeks did not actually understand the scientific principles behind the perfect acoustics of their architecture.

Theater’s Relation to Asklepius

The theater’s magnificence is often overshadowed by the shrine to Asklepius, although it is the sanctuary’s best preserved structure. It is the oldest shrine dedicated to this god of medicine and healing and was built during the 6th century B.C.E. There is a possibility that a significant relationship exists between the theater and the sanctuary and cult of Asklepius due to the location of the theater within the sanctuary at Epidaurus; there are other places situated in a very similar manner, such as Pergamon in present-day Turkey, where a smaller theater is located within the walls of a sacred area dedicated to Asklepius.

During excavations at Epidaurus, two statues were found – one of Asklepius and one of a woman, likely his daughter Hygeia – between the orchestra and skene in the theater. During a yearly festival, noble citizens of Epidaurus, dressed in white, would march from the city to the Asklepion, chanting hymns to Asklepius and his father, Apollo. At the sanctuary, these choral hymns, accompanied by a kithara, a type of lyre, were continued in the “holy theater,” which was used as a gathering place following processions for Asklepius. Speeches in his honor, as well as regular temple services, also took place in the theater.

Asklepius was said to have prescribed writing songs and “comical mimes” as treatments with the idea that the emotional state of a patient is as important as the physical, and so the theater was part of the cure. Thank offerings to the god from cured patients could include choral performances also. Games and contests in Asklepius’ name date back to the 5th century B.C.E. in Epidaurus and included musical and literary contests. All of these performances would have been performed in the theater linked to the sanctuary.

The Theater’s Fate

The theater was used in general for several centuries, but in 395 C.E., the Goths invaded and damaged the entire sanctuary. Then, in 426 C.E., Theodosius I, the Roman Emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, banned all activities at the sanctuary. Finally, in 528 C.E., an earthquake destroyed the shrine and covered the theater. The first excavations in 1881 found the auditorium in a rather good condition, as it was preserved in a layer of soil.

Sources:

Blue Guide Greece: The Mainland. New York: WW Norton and Company, Inc., 2006.

Boatwright, Mary T. “Theaters in the Roman Empire.” The Biblical Archaeologist. Vol. 53, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp. 184-192.

Chao, Tom. “Mystery of Greek Amphitheater’s Amazing Sound Finally Solved.” LiveScience. April 5, 2007.

Robinson, Alice M. “The Cult of Asklepius and the Theatre.” Educational Theatre Journal. Vol. 30, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), pp. 530-542.

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