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 p1120  Theatrum

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D, F.R.S.E, Rector of the High School of Edinburgh,
on pp1120‑1125 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

THEA′TRUM (θέατρον). The Athenians before the time of Aeschylus had only a wooden scaffolding on which their dramas were performed. Such a wooden theatre was only erected for the time of the Dionysiac festivals, and was afterwards pulled down. The first drama that Aeschylus brought upon the stage was performed upon such a wooden scaffold, and it is recorded as a singular and ominous coincidence that on that occasion (500 B.C.) the scaffolding broke down. To prevent the recurrence of such an accident the building of a stone theatre was forthwith commenced on the south-eastern descent of the acropolis, in the Lenaea; for it should be observed that throughout Greece theatres were always built upon eminences, or on the sloping side of a hill. The new Athenian theatre was built on a very large scale, and appears to have been constructed with great skill in regard to its acoustic and perspective arrangements, but the name of the architect is not known. It is highly probable that dramas were performed in this new theatre as soon as it was practicable, and before it was completely finished, which did not take place till about B.C. 340, unless we adopt the untenable supposition that the completion of the Attic theatre at this time refers to a second theatre (Paus. I.29 §16; Plut. Vit. X. Orat. pp841C, 852C). During this long interval of forty Olympiads theatres were erected in all parts of Greece and Asia Minor, although Athens was the centre  p1121 of the Greek drama and the only place which produced great masterworks in this department of literature. It should also be borne in mind that theatres are mentioned in several parts of Greece where the worship of Dionysus and the drama connected with it did not exist, so that these buildings were devoted to other public exhibitions. Thus at Athens itself there were in later times, besides the theatre in the Lenaea, two others, viz. the Ἀγρίππεον and the ἐπὶ Ῥηγιλλῃ θέατρον, which were not destined for dramatic performances, but were only places in which the sophists delivered their declamations. At Sparta there was a theatre of white marble (Paus. III.14 §1) in which assemblies of the people were held, choral dances performed, and the like (Athen. IV p139, XIV p631), for the festive joy of Dionysus and the regular drama were foreign to the Spartans. All the theatres however which were constructed in Greece were probably built after the model of that of Athens, and with slight deviations and modifications they all resembled one another in the main points, as is seen in the numerous ruins of theatres in various parts of Greece, Asia Minor, and Sicily. Some of them were of prodigious dimensions. The theatre at Epidaurus in the grove of Asclepius, of which considerable ruins are still extant, excelled in beauty the Roman theatres (Paus. II.27 §5), and in size even that of Megalopolis, which was reckoned the largest theatre in Greece (Paus. VIII.32 §1). The great number of ruins of theatres may enable us to form an idea of the partiality of the Greeks for such magnificent buildings, and of their gigantic dimensions. The ruins of the theatre at Argos enclose a space of 450 feet in diameter; the theatre of Ephesus is even 660 feet in diameter. Upon these ruins see the works of Clarke, Dodwell, Leake, Hughes, Arundell, and the Supplement to Stuart's Antiquities of Athens.

The construction of the Greek theatres has been the subject of much discussion and dispute in modern times, and although all the best writers agree on the great divisions of which a theatre consisted, the details are in many cases mere matters of conjecture. The Attic theatre was, like all the Greek theatres, placed in such a manner that the place for the spectators formed the upper or north-western, and the stage with all that belonged to it the south-eastern part, and between these two parts lay the orchestra. We shall consider each of these three divisions separately, together with its parts and subdivisions, referring the reader to the annexed plan which has been made from the remains of Greek theatres still extant, and from a careful examination of the passages in ancient writers which describe the whole or parts of a theatre, especially in Vitruvius or Pollux.


[image ALT: A plan of a semicircular structure with columns.]

1. The place for the spectators was in a narrower sense of the word called θέατρον. The seats for the spectators, which were in most cases cut into the rock, consisted of rows of benches rising one above another; the rows themselves (a) formed parts (nearly three-fourths) of concentric circles, and were at intervals divided into compartments by one or more broad passages (b) running between them and parallel with the benches. These passages were called διαζώματα, or κατατομαί, Lat. praecinctiones (Vitruv. V.3 and 7; Bekker, Anecdot. p270; Pollux, IV.123; Harpocrat. and Suid. s.v. Κατατομμή), and when the concourse of people was very great in a theatre, many persons might stand in them. One side of such a passage formed towards the upper rows of benches a wall, in which in some theatres, though perhaps not at Athens, niches were excavated which contained metal vessels (ἠχεῖα) to increase the sounds coming from the stage and orchestra (Vitruv. I.1 §9, V.4;​a Stieglitz, Archäol. der Baukunst, &c. II.1 p150). Across the rows of benches ran stairs, by which  p1122 persons might ascend from the lowest to the highest. But these stairs ran in straight lines only from one praecinctio to another; and the stairs in the next series of rows were just between the two stairs of the lower series of benches. By this course of the stairs the seats were divided into a number of compartments resembling cones from which the tops are cut off hence they were termed κερκίδες, and in Latin cunei. The whole of the place for the spectators (θέατρον) was sometimes designated by the name κοῖλον, Latin cavea, it being in most cases a real excavation of the rock. Above the highest row of benches there rose a covered portico (c), which of course far exceeded in height the opposite buildings by which the stage was surrounded, and appears to have also contributed to increase the acoustic effect (Apul. Met. III p49, Bip.) The entrances to the seats of the spectators were partly under­ground, and led to the lowest rows of benches, while the upper rows must have been accessible from above (Pollux, IV.123; Athen. XIV p622).

2. The orchestra (ὀρχήστρα) was a circular level space extending in front of the spectators, and somewhat below the lowest row of benches. But it was not a complete circle, one segment of it being appropriated for the stage. The orchestra was the place for the chorus, for which purpose it was covered with boards. As the chorus was the element out of which the drama arose, so the orchestra was originally the most important part of a theatre: it formed the centre around which all the other parts of the building were grouped. In the centre of the circle of the orchestra was the θυμέλη, that is, the altar of Dionysus (d), which was of course nearer to the stage than to the seats of the spectators, the distance from which was precisely the length of a radius of the circle. In a wider sense the orchestra also comprised the broad passages (πάροδοι, e) on each side between the projecting wings of the stage and the seats of the spectators, through which the chorus entered the orchestra. The chorus generally arranged itself in the space between the thymele and the stage. The thymele itself was of a square form, and was used for various purposes, according to the nature of the different plays, such as a funeral monument, an altar, &c. It was made of boards and surrounded on all sides with steps. It thus stood upon a raised platform, which was sometimes occupied by the leader of the chorus, the flute-player, and the rhabdophori (Müller, Dissert. on the Eumen. of Aeschyl. p249, &c. transl). The flute-player as well as the prompter (ὑποβολεύς, monitor) were generally placed behind the thymele, so as to face the stage and not to be seen by the spectators (Plut. Rei publ. gerend. praec. p813E; Ath. XIV p631). The orchestra as well as the θέατρον lay under the open sky; a roof is nowhere mentioned.

3. The stage. Steps led from each side of the orchestra to the stage, and by them the chorus probably ascended the stage whenever it took a real part in the action itself. The back side of the stage was closed by a wall called the σκηνή or scena, from which on each side a wing projected which was called the παρασκήνιον. The whole depth of the stage was not very great, as it only comprised a segment of the circle of the orchestra. The whole space from the scena to the orchestra was termed the proscenium (προσκήνιον), and was what we should call the real stage. That part of it which was nearest to the orchestra, and where the actors stood when they spoke was the λογεῖον, also called ὀκρίβας or ὀκριβάντες, in Latin pulpitum, which was of course raised above the orchestra and probably on a level with the thymele. What the ὑποσκήνιον was is not clear; some think that it was a place to which the actors withdrew when they had acted their parts, others think that it was the same as the κονίστρα (Suidas, s.v. Σκηνή); but as it is stated that the ὑποσκήνιον was adorned with statues, it seems more probable that it was the wall under the λογεῖον which faced the orchestra and the spectators. The σκηνή or scena was, as we have already stated, the wall which enclosed the stage (proscenium and logeum) from behind. It represented a suitable background or the locality in which the action was going on. Before the play began it was covered with a curtain (παραπέτασμα, προσκήνιον, αὐλαίαι, Latin aulaea or siparium; Etymol. M. s.v. Αὐλός; Athen. XIII p587; Pollux, IV.122). When the play began this curtain was let down and was rolled upon a roller underneath the stage. The proscenium and logeum thus were never concealed from the spectators. As regards the scenery represented on the σκηνή, it was different for tragedy, comedy, and the satyric drama, and for each of these kinds of poetry the scenery must have been capable of various modifications according to the character of each individual play; at least that this was the case with the various tragedies, is evident from the scenes described in the tragedies still extant. In the latter however the back-ground (σκηνή) in most cases represented the front of a palace with a door in the centre (i) which was called the royal door. This palace generally consisted of two stories (διστεγία, Pollux, IV.129), and upon its flat roof there appears to have sometimes been some elevated place from which persons might observe what was going on at a distance (Eurip. Phoeniss. 88, &c.). The palace presented on each side a projecting wing, each of which had its separate entrance. These wings generally represented the habitations of guests and visitors. All the three doors must have been visible to the spectators (Vitruv. V.7). The protagonists always entered the stage through the middle or royal door, the deuteragonistes and tritagonistes through those on the right and left wings. In tragedies like the Prometheus, the Persians, Philoctetes, Oedipus in Colonus, and others the back-ground did not represent a palace. There are other pieces again in which the scena must have been changed in the course of the performance, as in the Eumenides of Aeschylus and the Ajax of Sophocles. The dramas of Euripides required a great variety of scenery; and if in addition to this we recollect that the several pieces were played in one day, it is manifest that the mechanical parts of stage performance, at least in the days of Euripides, must have been brought to great perfection. The scena in the Satyric drama appears to have always represented a woody district with hills and grottoes; in comedy the scena represented, at least in later times, the fronts of private dwellings or the habitations of slaves (Vitruv. V.8 §1; Pollux IV.125). The art of scene-painting must have been applied long before the time of Sophocles, although Aristotle (Poet. IV.16) ascribes its introduction to him. [Pictura, p908B]

The machines in the Greek theatres were extremely  p1123 numerous, but we are in many cases unable to form an exact idea of their nature and their effects. We shall only mention the most important among them.

  1. The περίακτοι (m) stood near the two side entrances of the scena; their form was that of a prisma, and by a single turn they produced a change in the scenery (Vitruv. V.7; Pollux, IV.126).

  2. The χαρώνιοι κλίμακες, or the Charonian steps, by which the shades ascended from the lower world upon the stage (Pollux, IV.132).

  3. The μηχανή, κράδη or ἑωρημα, a machine by which gods or heroes were represented passing through or floating in the air: hence the proverb, deus ex machina (Pollux, IV.126, 128, 131; Suidas, s.v. Ἐώπημα: Hesych. s.v. Κράδη).

  4. The ἐξώστρα or ἐκκύκλημα [Exostra]

  5. The θεολογεῖον, an especial elevated place above the scena for the Olympian gods when they had to appear in their full majesty (Pollux, IV.130; Phot. Lex. p597).

  6. The βροντεῖον, a machine for imitating thunder. It appears to have been placed underneath the stage, and to have consisted of large brazen vessels in which stones were rolled (Pollux, IV.130; Suidas, s.v. Βροντή: Vitruv. V.7). Respecting several other machines of less importance, see Pollux, IV. περὶ μέρων θέατρον.

It is impossible to enter here upon the differences, which are presented by many ruins of theatres still extant, from the description we have given above. It is only necessary to mention, that in the theatres of the great cities of the Macedonian time the space between the thymele and the logeum was converted into a lower stage, upon which mimes, musicians, and dancers played, while the ancient stage (proscenium and logeum) remained destined, as before, for the actors in the regular drama. This lower stage was sometimes called thymele or orchestra (Müller, Hist. of Greek Lit. I p299; Donaldson, The Theatre of the Greeks.)

The Romans must have become acquainted with the theatres of the Italian Greeks at an early period, whence they erected their own theatres in similar positions upon the sides of hills. This is still clear from the ruins of very ancient theatres at Tusculum and Faesulae (Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, III p364, &c.). The Romans themselves however did not possess a regular stone theatre until a very late period, and although dramatic representations were very popular in earlier times, it appears that a wooden stage was erected when necessary, and was afterwards pulled down again, and the plays of Plautus and Terence were performed on such temporary scaffoldings. In the meanwhile many of the neighbouring towns about Rome had their stone theatres, as the introduction of Greek customs and manners was less strongly opposed in them than in the city of Rome itself. Wooden theatres, adorned with the most profuse magnificence, were erected at Rome even during the last period of the republic. The first attempt to build a stone theatre was made a short time before the consul­ship of P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica. It was sanctioned by the censors, and was advancing towards its completion, when Scipio, in 155 B.C., persuaded the senate to command the building to be pulled down as injurious to public morality (Liv. Epit. 48). Respecting the magnificent wooden theatre which M. Aemilius Scaurus built in his aedile­ship, 58 B.C., see Pliny, H. N. XXXVI.24 §7. Its scena consisted of three stories, and the lowest of them was made of white marble, the middle one of glass, and the upper one of gilt wood. The cavea contained 80,000 spectators (cf. Plin. H. N. XXXIV.17). In 55 B.C., Cn. Pompey built the first stone theatre at Rome near the Campus Martius. It was of great beauty, and is said to have been built after the model of that of Mytilene; it contained 40,000 spectators (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.24 §7; cf. Drumann, Gesch. Roms. IV p520, &c.). C. Curio built in 50 B.C. two magnificent wooden theatres close by one another, which might be changed into one amphitheatre (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.24 §8). After the time of Pompey, however, other stone theatres were erected, as the theatre of Marcellus, which was built by Augustus and called after his nephew Marcellus (Dion Cass. XLIII.49; Plin. H. N. XXXVI.12); and that of Balbus (Plin. l.c.), whence Suetonius (Aug. 44) uses the expression per trina theatra.

The construction of a Roman theatre resembled, on the whole, that of a Greek one. The principal differences are, that the seats of the spectators, which rose in the form of an amphitheatre around the orchestra, did not form more than a semicircle; and that the whole of the orchestra likewise formed only a semicircle, the diameter of which formed the front line of the stage. The Roman orchestra contained no thymele, and was not destined for a chorus, but contained the seats for senators and other distinguished persons, such as foreign ambassadors, which are called "prima subselliorum ordo". In the year 68 B.C. the tribune L. Roscius Otho carried a law which regulated the places in the theatre to be occupied by the different classes of Roman citizens: it enacted that fourteen ordines of benches were to be assigned as seats to the equites (Liv. Epit. 99; Ascon. ad Cornel. p78, ed. Orelli). Hence these quattuordecim ordines are sometimes mentioned without any further addition as the honorary seats of the equites. They were undoubtedly close behind the seats of the senators and magistrates, and thus consisted of the rows of benches immediately behind the orchestra. Velleius (II.32) and Cicero (pro Muren. 19) speak of this law in a manner to lead us to infer that it only restored to the equites a right which they had possessed before. Another part of this law was that spendthrifts and persons reduced in their circumstances (decoctores), whether through their own fault or not, and whether they belonged to the senatorial or equestrian order, should no longer occupy the seats assigned to their order, but occupy a separate place set apart for them (Cic. Philipp. II.18). In the reign of Augustus the senate made a decree, that foreign ambassadors should no longer enjoy the privilege mentioned above, as it had sometimes happened that freedmen were sent to Rome as ambassadors. The soldiers also were separated from the people by the same decree; the same was the case with women, praetextati and paedagogi (Suet. Aug. 44). This separation consisted probably in one or more cunei being assigned to a particular class of persons. The woodcut on the following page contains a probable representation of the plan of a Roman theatre.

[image ALT: A plan of a semicircular structure.]

For a fuller account of the construction of Greek and Roman theatres see the commentators on Vitruvius (l.c.), J. Chr. Genelli, das Theater zu Athen, hinsichtlich auf Architectur, Scenerie und Darstellungs Kunst überhaupt, Berlin, 1818, 8vo.; G. C. W. Schneider, Das Attische Theaterwesen,  p1124 zum bessern Verstehen der Graech. Dramatiker; Stieglitz, Archäologie der Baukunst der Griech. under Römer; Ferrara, Storia e descrip. de' princip. teatri ant. e moderni, Milano, 1830; the Supplement to Stuart's Antiq. of Athens. A general outline is also given, by Müller, Hist. of Gr. Lit. I. p299, &c.; and by Bode, Gesch. der dramat. Dichtkunst d. Hellen. I. p156, &c.

It remains to speak of a few points respecting the attendance in the Greek theatres. Theatrical representations at Athens began early in the morning, or after breakfast (Aeschin. c. Ctesiph. p466; Athen. XI p464); and when the concourse of people was expected to be great, persons would even go to occupy their seats in the night. The sun could not be very troublesome to the actors, as they were in a great measure protected by the buildings surrounding the stage, and the spectators protected themselves against it by hats with broad rims (Suidas, s. vv. Πέτασος and Δράκων). When the weather was fine, especially at the Dionysiac festivals in spring, the people appeared with garlands on their heads; when it was cold, as at the Lenaea in January, they used to wrap themselves up in their cloaks (Suidas, l.c.). When a storm or shower of rain came on suddenly, the spectators took refuge in the porticoes behind the stage, or in those above the uppermost row of benches. those who wished to sit comfortably brought cushions with them (Aeschin. c. Ctesiph. l.c.; Theophr. Char. 2). As it was not unusual for the theatrical performances to last from ten to twelve hours, the spectators required refreshments, and we find that in the intervals between the several plays, they used to take wine and cakes (Athen. XI p464; Aristot. Eth. Nicom. X.5).

The whole of the cavea in the Attic theatre must have contained about 50,000 spectators. The places for generals, the archons, priests, foreign ambassadors, and other distinguished persons, were in the lowest rows of benches, and nearest to the orchestra (Pollux, IV.121, VIII.133; Schol. ad Aristoph. Equit. 572), and they appear to have been sometimes covered with a sort of canopy (Aeschin., l.c.). The rows of benches above these were occupied by the senate of 500, those next in succession by the ephebi; and the rest by the people of Athens. But it would seem that they did not sit indiscriminately, but that the better places were let at a higher price than the others, and that no one had a right to take a place for which he had not paid (Plat. Apolog. p26; Aelian V. H. II.13; Demosth. in Mid. p572). The question, whether in Greece, and more specifically at Athens, women were present at the performance of tragedies, is one of those which have given rise to much discussion among modern scholars, as we have scarcely any passage in ancient writers in which the presence of women is stated as a positive fact. But Jacobs (Vermischt. Schriften, IV p272), and Passow (in Zimmermann's Zeitschr. für die Alterth. 1837, n29) have placed it almost beyond a doubt, from the various allusions made by ancient writers, that women were allowed to be present during the performance of tragedies. This opinion is now perfectly confirmed by a passage in Athenaeus (XII p534), which has been quoted by Becker (Charikles, II p560), in corroboration of the conclusion to which the above mentioned writers had come. In this passage we find that at Athens, and at the time of the Peloponnesian war, the spectators in the theatre consisted of men and women. We have, however, on the other hand, every reason to believe that women were not present at comedies, while boys might be present both at tragedy and comedy (Theoph. Charact. 9; Isaeus, de Ciron. hered. p206; Aristoph. Nub. 537, &c.; Lucian, de Gymnast. 22). The seats which women occupied in the Greek theatres appear to have been separated from those of the men (Göttling, in the Rheinisch. Mus. 1834, p103, &c.).

For the purpose of maintaining order and preventing excesses, the ancients had a sort of theatre-police; the persons who held this office were called  p1125 in Greece ῥαβδοφόροι or ῥαβδοῦχοι, and at Rome Praecones (Schol. ad Aristoph. Pax, 718).

Respecting the attendance at the Greek theatres, and the conduct of the people, see a very good dissertation of Becker, in his Charikles, II pp249‑278.

Thayer's Note:

a And se Acoustic Jars, in Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, ed. William Andrews, 1897.

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