Layout of the Ancient Greek Theater

The Roman theatre in Ephesus
The 32 000 capacity Roman theatre in Ephesus, still used for concerts and special events.

 QuartierLatin1968/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

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Seating at the Greek Theater at Ephesus

Theatre in Ephesus

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The photo shows the Theater at Ephesus (diameter 145m; height 30m). 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 B.C.). At this time also, the first permanent or scene building was installed. The theater was expanded, during the Roman period, by the early emperors Claudius, Nero, and Trajan. The Apostle Paul is said to have delivered a sermon here. The Theater of Ephesus was used until the 5th century A.D., although it was damaged by earthquakes in the 4th.

Performed at a festival of Dionysus, beside his temple, in the presence of his altar and his priest, tragedy and comedy are the natural response to that Greek demand for the enrichment of worship by art.
" -Arthur Fairbanks.

Some ancient Greek theaters, like the one featured here, from Ephesus, are still used for concerts because of their superior acoustics.

The Theatron

The viewing area of the Greek theater is called the theatron, whence 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 towards 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 as you can see from the photo 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.

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The Orchestra and Skene in the Greek Theater

Theater of Dionysus in Athens
Theater of Dionysus in Athens.

 Photo CC Flickr User levork.

To the ancient Greeks, the orchestra did not refer to a group of musicians in the pit beneath the stage, or 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 [technical term: thymele] in the center. It was the place where the chorus performed and danced, located in the hollow of a hill. As you can see in one of the (albeit, restored) Greek theater photos, 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 [technical term to know: skene], entrance into the orchestra was limited to ramps to left and right of the orchestra, known as eisodoi. Individually, on theater drawing plans, you will also see them marked as parados, which can be confusing because it 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 Theater of Dionysus in Athens, by the Acropolis, is thought to have had 10 wedges, one for each of the 10 tribes, but then the number was increased to 13 by the 4th century. The remains of the original Theater of Dionysus consist of 6 stones excavated by Dörpfeld and thought to be from the orchestra's wall. This is the theater that produced the masterpieces of Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
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The Orchestral Pit

Theatre At Delphi
Theatre At Delphi.

 Three Lions / Getty Images

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 5' below the level of the stage, according to The Greek Theater and Its Drama, by Roy Caston Flickinger. 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.

As you can see from the photo, the Theater of Delphi is up high, near the sanctuary, with a magnificent view.

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Theater of Epidauros

The Theater of Epidauros
The Theater of Epidauros, Greece.

 Michael Nicholson / Getty Images

Second century A.D. travel writer Pausanias thought highly of the Theater of Epidauros (Epidaurus). He writes:

[2.27.5] 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.
Ancient History Sourcebook
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The Theater of Miletus

Theater of Miletus (4th Century B.C.).
Theater of Miletus.

Theater of Miletus

Theater of Miletus (4th Century B.C.). It was expanded during Roman Period and increased its seating, going from 5,300-25,000 spectators.

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Theater of Halicarnassus

Ancient Greek Theater at Halicarnassus (Bodrum)
Ancient Greek Theater at Halicarnassus (Bodrum).

 CC Flickr User levork 

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Theatre of Fourvière

Theatre of Fourvière
Theatre of Fourvière.

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This is a Roman theater, built in Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France) in about 15 B.C. It is the first theater built in France. As its name indicates, it was built on the Fourvière Hill.