Athens – The Theatre of Dionysus

The sacred precinct of Dionysus, god of the vine, fertility, revelry, and patron of theatrical competitions, is enclosed by a polygonal wall, of which some traces are still visible, and contains the ruined foundations of two temples of different periods, an altar, a stoa, and votive monuments, as well as the remains of a fourth century BC theatre.

Passing through the main gate we come to the conglomerate foundations of the second temple of Dionysus. This temple, built around the year 420 BC, consisted of the sanctuary proper (which housed the chryselephantine statue of the god by Alcamenes, a famous pupil of Pheidias; all that remains of this masterpiece are the foundations of its great base) and the pronaos on the east.

To the right of the foundations of the temple stands a tall marble pillar on which is . recorded a decree of the Amphictyonic Council honoring the Dionysian Guild of Actors, an important body enjoying many privileges and numbering among its members poets and musicians. A little farther on is a delightful circular altar of Dionysus dating from the second century BC, carved with garlands, rosettes and masks of Silenus. A short distance north of this altar, just before we reach the theatre, are the blue limestone foundations of the first temple, a small construction in antis, built under Peisistratus, which housed the primitive wooden image (xoanon) of Dionysus. East of the foundations of this temple lie those of a large stoa with a Doric colonnade which was intended for the convenience of audiences and served as a foyer during intermissions.

The Greeks sited their theatres within easy reach of the city, and adapting their construction to the natural contour of hills built them on the slopes. The earliest theatres were intended for the performance of dithyrambic choruses and consisted of two principal parts: the orchestra – literally, “the dancing place” – a circle of beaten earth, roughly 20 m. in diameter, with the thymele (altar of the god) in the center, and the theatre, that is the auditorium, built in the form of two-thirds of a circle.

At the Great Dionysia during which a he-goat dedicated to the god was sacrificed, the chorus, carrying phallic symbols and dressed in goat-skins to resemble satyrs, sang the Dithyrambos to the accompaniment of a flute, and danced round the thymele of Dionysus Eleutherius. The Dithyrambos, a combination of both song and dance, was a passionate recital of the suffering and exploits of the god and later developed into a special class of Greek lyric poetry. One of the earliest forms of the drama, tragedy (literally goat-song), is derived from the Dithyrambos.

No lover of the theatre can fail to be moved as he stands before the Theatre of Dionysus, for this hallowed spot is the birthplace of Attic drama, where the plays of the great masters, Aeschylus, Sophochles, Euripides and Aristophanes were first performed.

In the Classical period there was no stage and the actors performed on the orchestra. In the Hellenistic period a colonnade was added behind the orchestra, to the proscenium. This colonnade supported a balcony on which the actors representing gods made their appearance; hence the term theologeion (Speaking-place of the gods). The chorus entered the orchestra along passages on either side of the stage. The audience also entered the theatre through the orchestra, from which they climbed the flights of steps leading to their seats. In Roman times seats for the spectators were also added to the orchestra. The actors then started performing on the proscenium, which was levelled above the ground in order to enhance the visibility of the spectators below them. The proscenium was later adorned with statues and other sculptures, particularly by the Emperor Nero in the first century AD.

The proscenium we see today was erected in the third century AD and dedicated to Dionysus by the Athenian archon Phaedrus (AD 224-225) as an inscription informs us. The high reliefs are Attic work of the first century AD and were taken from the proscenium set up by Nero. They represent scenes from the birth and worship of Dionysus. Left of the stairs to the hyposcenium Silenus crouches in the posture of Atlas. Right of the stairs: the Birth of Dionysus; Zeus is shown seated while Hermes stands before him holding the new-born infant in his arms; at the sides two kouretes (demigods, to whose protection his mother Rea entrusted the infant) are performing the Pyrrhic dance; then a scene of sacrifice: on the left Icarius leads a goat and is followed by his daughter Erigone and her dog Maera; at the right Dionysus followed by a young satyr initiates Icarius into the cultivation of the vine; another figure of Silenus crouches in the attitude of Atlas; then the Marriage of Dionysus with the Basilissa (Queen), with Tyche (Goddess of Fortune) carrying a cornucopia, and finally the scene of the enthronement of Dionysus in the theatre. In the presence of.

Continue Reading