The Theater of The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus

-Joshua Polster
The Epidaurians have a theatre within the sanctuary, in my opinion very well worth seeing. For while the Roman theatres are far superior to those anywhere else in their splendor, and the Arcadian theatre at Megalopolis is unequalled for size, what architect could seriously rival Polycleitus in symmetry and beauty? For it was Polycleitus who built both this theatre and the circular building. (Pausanias 113)
On the west side of Mt. Kynortion in northeastern Peloponnesus is the Theatre at Epidaurus. In antiquity, the Theatre was admired for its excellent acoustics, symmetry and beauty. The craft of geometrically proportioned temples was used to construct the theatre and helped create its famous features (Berve 362). Today, those characteristics survive in the best-preserved theatre in Greece. The Theatre was built in sections starting at the end of the fourth century and continuing into the Hellenistic period, when additions were made to it. In 1881 the Theatre was discovered after being earthed for centuries and underwent a series of renovations to bring it to its present form.
In Epidaurus during the fifth century B.C.E., the cult of Asklepios, the god of healing, held athletic and artistic contests (which included Rhapsodes and possibly religious dramas) that took place not in a theatre building, but in the open sanctuary of Asklepios. As the importance of Asklepios developed in Epidaurus, so did the sanctuary. Gradually, the Temple, the Tholos, and then the Theatre were built as essential structures for the sanctuary. The Theatre is actually 550 yards southeast of the sanctuary, but its connection to the sanctuary is strong (Berve 361). The Theatre, therefore, was built to aid in the worship and celebration of Asklepios. When it was built, however, is uncertain (Tomlinson 85- 86).
The Greek traveler Pausanius mentions in Descriptions of Greece that the architect of the Theatre was the famous sculptor Polykleitos. In recent times, this claim has been debated. Historians have said that Pausanius may have confused Polykleitos (who lived in the second half of the fifth century B.C.E.) with another Polykleitos, who was an architect and perhaps the grandson of the sculptor. This would date the building of the Theatre at around 360 B.C.E., a time more in agreement with architectural dating (Tomlinson 86).
The outdoor Theatre has the three main features of a Greek theatre: the orchestra, the skene, and the cavea. The foundation of the orchestra is beaten earth surrounded by a complete circle (67 feet in diameter) of white limestone (Bieber 72). In the center of the orchestra is a white stone, which could have been an altar (Dinsmoor 244). This altar may have been a later Hellenistic addition and used to honor Dionysus (Lawrence 365). The orchestra also has a drainage channel to prevent rainwater from the auditorium to collect on the orchestra floor (Tomlinson 88). The rows of seats near the edge of the orchestra are slightly pushed back in order to provide a wider parodoi for the thousands of visitors to leave more quickly and efficiently.
Unfortunately, only the foundation of the skene from the time of Polycleitus remains today; however, there is enough to suggest its structure. The fourth century remains had a rectangular proskenion, 64 feet long and 20 feet deep, which was adjacent to the orchestra circle and had a smaller room on each end. It was supported by pillars that had grooves to possibly hold painted scenery panels (Berve 363). On each side of the proskenion was a ramp (Dinsmoor 246). The ramps leading to the proskenion suggest that during the Hellenistic period they may have been used more frequently as a stage than as background scenery for the orchestra (Berve 363). During the Hellenistic period, additional rooms were developed behind the ramps and the proskenion. Behind the proskenion there was another rectangular room that was supported by several columns. This structure may have been high enough for a two-story skene. If so, the second story could have been used to create a background for the proskenion when it was used more as a stage. On both sides of the skene was a gateway that had two openings: one being the parodoi that led to the orchestra, and the other to the ramp, which led to the proskenion (Tomlinson 88).
The cavea is 387 feet in diameter and is sunk into a hillside. Unlike the theatre in Athens, the Theatre of Epidaurus had no obstructions with other buildings or cliffs, so the auditorium could be perfectly symmetrical (Lawrence 365). This symmetry is what helped create the Theatre's well-known acoustics. The rounded cavea has two seating sections that can hold a total of around 14,000 spectators; the lower section has 13 stairways with 34 rows of benches, while the upper section has 23 stairways with 21 rows of benches (Lenas 99). The wedge-shaped benches, made of local limestone, enveloped two-thirds of the orchestra (Izenour 11). The wedge-shape of the block benches, hollowed beneath the edge, gave the feet more room, which allowed people more comfortable seating positions and the ability to tuck their feet in to let people walk by (Izenour 11). Spectators near the end of the auditorium had a difficult view of the skene, but everyone could see the orchestra (Lawrence 365). The lowest seats had back supports and were the seats of honor, called proedria (Dinsmoor 244). When the two-story skene was developed, the proedria was moved to the second section to give the honored a better view. George Izenour, Professor of Theatre Design and Technology , measured the maximum sight line distances from the skene to the center of the orchestra to be 194 feet, and from the skene to the center of the two-story stage to be 232 feet (257).
There is argument about whether or not the cavea was built in one or two phases. Armin von Gerkan and Wolfgang Muller-Wiener, two well-known scholars of architectural theatre studies, believe that the cavea was built in two phases. The first phase was at the end of the fourth century B.C.E., when the Theatre did not have an upper section; only the lower section existed, along with the skene and orchestra. The second phase was during the Hellenistic period, when the upper section was added along with the two-storied skene. Archaeologist R.A. Tomlinson believes that it is more architecturally sensible that the cavea was built with two seating sections from the start, with no significant alterations in design or construction (Tomlinson 89).
An interesting acoustical study by G.C. Izenour seems to support the idea that the upper section was built during the Hellenistic period. He concluded that an actor speaking on the orchestra floor would not be able to project all the way to the upper level of the cavea. Only after the invention of the two-level stage (and the enlarged mask, which could have help with projection) would it have been possible for the actor to expand his speaking range to the upper level (Izenour 258).
Perhaps the excellent acoustics and perfect geometric construction of the Theatre were the reasons why the Romans did not change the stage or cavea, as they did with other Greek theatres during their empire (Izenour 11). The Theatre continued to be used by the Romans, but with no known major renovations or developments. At some point, however, the Theatre fell into disuse and the cavea was buried under layers and layers of earth while the skene was left exposed and vulnerable to time.
It is unknown exactly how many centuries the cavea remained buried and if it was a gradual or sudden burial. The silt covering the cavea was the evidence needed to answer these questions; unfortunately, the silt was shoveled away at the time of the first excavations in 1881 (Tomlinson 88). Except for the rows near the edges and the retaining wall, most of the cavea was found in good condition. The skene, however, was in ruins.
At the start of the twentieth century, the retaining wall and the gate of the western entrance were restored. From 1954 to 1963, the Theatre underwent large-scale restorations and reconstructions of sections that were completely destroyed. Today, the Theatre at Epidaurus is considered the best-preserved theatre in Greece. Its acoustics, symmetry and beauty are still greatly admired not just by tourists, but by patrons who visit the Theatre for performances which continue to be held there.
The Theatre at Epidaurus survived many years to reach us today. It was originally built to honor Asklepios, but its later additions, such as the two-story skene, suggest that it was used for conventional plays that were imported from Athens. At some point, the purpose of the Theatre changed from worshiping and celebrating Asklepios to performing standard plays. The Theatre for Asklepios turned into another theatre for Dionysus. In modern times, however, it is a theatre for all.
- Author: Joshua Polster, University of Washington. 2003

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