Layout of the Ancient Greek Theater

The Roman theatre in Ephesus
With a capacity of 32,000, the Roman theatre in Ephesus is still used for concerts and special events.

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The modern proscenium theater has its historical origins in the classic Greek civilization. Fortunately for us, archaeological remains and the documents related to many of the Greek theaters are intact and well worth visiting.

Seating at the Greek Theater at Ephesus

Theatre in Ephesus

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Some ancient Greek theaters, like the one at Ephesus (diameter 475 feet, height 100 feet), are still used for concerts because of their superior acoustics. During the Hellenistic period, Lysimachus, king of Ephesus and one of the successors of Alexander the Great (the diadochs), is believed to have constructed the original theater (at the start of the third century BCE).

The Theatron

The viewing area of a Greek theater is called the theatron, hence our word "theater" (theatre). Theater comes from a Greek word for viewing (the ceremonies).

Besides a design to allow crowds to see the performers, Greek theaters excelled in acoustics. The people up high on the hill could hear the words spoken far below. The word "audience" refers to the property of hearing.

What the Audience Sat On

The earliest Greeks who attended performances probably sat on the grass or stood on the hillside to watch the goings-on. Soon there were wooden benches. Later, the audience sat on benches cut from the rock of the hillside or made of stone. Some prestigious benches toward the bottom might be covered with marble or otherwise enhanced for priests and officials. (These front rows are sometimes called proedria.) The Roman seats of prestige were a few rows up, but they came later.

Viewing the Performances

Seats were arranged in curving (polygonal) tiers so that the people in the rows above could see the action in the orchestra and on stage without their vision being obscured by the people beneath them. The curve followed the shape of the orchestra, so where the orchestra was rectangular, as the first may have been, the seats facing the front would be rectilinear as well, with curves to the side. (Thorikos, Ikaria, and Rhamnus may have had rectangular orchestras.) This isn't too different from the seating in a modern auditorium—except for being outside.

Reaching the Upper Tiers

To get to the upper seats, there were stairs at regular intervals. This provided the wedge formation of the seats that is visible in ancient theaters.

The Orchestra and Skene in the Greek Theater

Theater of Dionysus in Athens

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The Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus in Athens is considered the prototype of all the later Greek theaters and the birthplace of Greek tragedy. Built in the sixth century BCE, it was part of a sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god of wine.

To the ancient Greeks, the orchestra did not refer to a group of musicians in the pit beneath the stage, musicians playing symphonies in orchestral halls, or an area for the audience.

The Orchestra and the Chorus

The orchestra would be a flat area and might be a circle or other shape with an altar (thymele) in the center. It was the place where the chorus performed and danced, located in the hollow of a hill. The orchestra could be paved (as with marble) or it could simply be packed dirt. In the Greek theater, the audience did not sit in the orchestra.

Before the introduction of the stage building/tent (the skene), entrance into the orchestra was limited to ramps known as eisodoi to the left and right of the orchestra. Individually, on theater drawing plans, you will also see them marked as parados, which can be confusing because that is also the word for the first choral song in a tragedy.

The Skene and the Actors

The orchestra was in front of the auditorium. Behind the orchestra was the skene, if there was one. Didaskalia says the earliest extant tragedy that utilizes the skene was Aeschylus' Oresteia. Before c. 460, actors probably performed on the same level as the chorus—in the orchestra.

The skene was not originally a permanent building. When it was used, actors, but probably not the chorus, changed costumes and emerged from it through a few doors. Later, the flat-roofed wooden skene provided an elevated performance surface, like the modern stage. The proscenium was the columned wall in front of the skene. When gods spoke, they spoke from the theologion which was on the top of the proscenium.

The Orchestral Pit

Theater of the archaeological site of Delphi

Miguel Sotomayor / Getty Images

At the ancient sanctuary of Delphi (home of the famous Oracle), the theater was first built in the fourth century BCE but was reconstructed several times, lastly in the second century CE.

When theaters like the Theater of Delphi were originally constructed, the performances were in the orchestra. When the skene-stage became the norm, the lower seats of the theatron were too low to see, so seats were removed so that the lowest, honored tiers, were only about five feet below the level of the stage, according to Roy Caston Flickinger's "The Greek Theater and Its Drama." This was also done to theaters at Ephesus and Pergamum, among others. Flickinger adds that this alteration of the theatron turned the orchestra into a pit with walls around it.

Theater of Epidauros

The Theater of Epidauros

Michael Nicholson / Getty Images

Built in 340 BCE as part of a sanctuary dedicated to the Greek God of medicine, Asclepius, the theatre of Epidauros, seated about 13,000 people in 55 tiers of seats. The second century CE travel writer Pausanias thought highly of the Theater of Epidauros (Epidaurus). He wrote:

"The Epidaurians have a theater within the sanctuary, in my opinion very well worth seeing. For while the Roman theaters are far superior to those anywhere else in their splendor, and the Arcadian theater at Megalopolis is unequalled for size, what architect could seriously rival Polycleitus in symmetry and beauty? For it was Polycleitus who built both this theater and the circular building."

The Theater of Miletus

Theater of Miletus

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Located in the ancient region of Ionia, on the western coast of Turkey near the city of Didim, Miletus was built in the Doric style in about 300 BCE. The theater was expanded during the Roman Period and increased its seating, going from 5,300 to 25,000 spectators.

Theatre of Fourvière

Theatre of Fourvière

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Theatre of Fourvière is a Roman theater, built at the behest of Caesar Augustus in Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France) in about 15 BCE. It is the first theater built in France. As its name indicates, it was built on the Fourvière Hill.