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Layout of the Ancient Greek Theater

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Seating at the Greek Theater at Ephesus
Theater at Ephesus

(Ephesus) Theater Layout | Orchestra & Skene | Pit | Epidauros Theater | Miletus Theater | Halicarnassus Theater | Fourviere Theater | Syracuse Theater

Theater at Ephesus. Photo CC Flickr User levork

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 skene 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.

Sources for all theater photo pages:

Photo CC Flickr User levork.

  1. Theater Layout
  2. Orchestra & Skene
  3. Pit
  4. Epidauros Theater
  5. Miletus Theater
  6. Halicarnassus Theater
  7. Fourviere Theater

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