You are in the city of Epidaurus in Argolis, the eastern part of the Peloponnese in southern Greece, with your feet on the ancient theater of Epidaurus. In the upper stage of the ancient theater, you gaze at the heady view of the horizon. Tranquility. That’s the sentiment that overwhelms you, making you understand why the ancient Greeks chose this place for the erection of the ancient sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology.
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The ancient theatre of Epidaurus is the most beautiful open theater in the world and of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Greece. As a result, it is one of the top things to do in Argolis.
When was the Theatre of Epidaurus built?
According to Pausanias, a Greek traveler and geographer of the second century AD, the ancient theatre was the construction of architect Polykleitos, who was also the creator of the dome of the sanctuary of Asclepius. It was completed in two stages, the first taking place at the end of the 4th century BC - around 340 BC- and the second in the middle of the 2nd century BC, with the theater, initially having only 34 rows of seats, which was later raised to a maximum capacity of 13,000 to 14,000 spectators.
The auditorium of the ancient theatre at Epidaurus is divided into two unequal parts, the lower and the upper theatre, separated by a horizontal pathway that allows the audience to move around. There are designated seats reserved for important people in the bottom rows of both the upper and lower sections – VIPs were a thing even in ancient Greece!
At the heart of the theater, you can find a circular orchestra. Opposite the auditorium and behind the orchestra is the stage of the theatre. East and west of the stage, is the backstage, two small rectangular rooms used for the needs of the performers. The amphitheatrical shape of the theatre offers not only remarkable audibility but also the opportunity for the audience to have a clear, unobstructed view of the stage.
The acoustics of Epidaurus theatre
The incredible acoustics of the Epidaurus ancient theater have been a topic of discussion since the beginning of the theater’s life. It is said that people sitting in the furthest back row can hear the performers just as well as someone sitting a breath away from the stage. At first, the unmatched acoustics of the theatre were attributed to its location, built on the slope of Mount Kynorthio at an incline of 26 degrees. However, the Georgia Institute of Technology discovered in 2007 that while the location plays a significant part, the real reason lies in the seats themselves.
The stone steps filter the background noise and create a phenomenon called ‘virtual pitch,’ which enhances the clarity and quality of sound. Additionally, the distance between the rows of seats diffuses the sound everywhere with the same intensity. Other factors include the sound bouncing back from the hard, compact surface of the orchestra and the theater stands, the good quality marble used, the quiet scenery, and the constant breeze blowing from the orchestra to the viewers.
History of Epidaurus theatre
Impressive due to its immaculate symmetry and allure, the ancient theatre was in full use at least until the 3rd century AD, worshiping Asclepius through musical and theatrical events. Supporting the belief that dramatic shows were beneficial for both mental and physical health, the great theatre of Epidaurus was also used for the healing of patients from all over Greece.
The theater was eventually destroyed in 395 AD when the Visigoths occupied the Peloponnese. In 426 AD, Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius shut the sanctuary down, forbidding all pagan activities across Greece, while the site suffered major destructions following a series of earthquakes, which deemed it permanently unusable.
Ruins of Epidaurus - credits: bloodua/Depositphotos.com
In 1881, the first organized effort to excavate the ancient theater of Epidaurus was initiated by the Archaeological Society, with archaeologist Panayis Kavvadias as the director. With a great effort from Kavvadias and the Preservation Committee for Epidaurus Monuments, the theatre was almost fully restored, apart from the stage building that could not be salvaged.
The first play that the ancient theatre of Epidaurus hosted in modern times, was Electra, the famous ancient tragedy written by Sophocles. The play was performed in 1938, starring Katina Paxinou and Eleni Papadaki, two of the most emblematic Greek actresses of all time.
During World War II, all performances came to a halt. In 1954 however, they began again in the context of an organized festival, which was established as an annual event for ancient drama in 1955, known as the Epidaurus Festival.
Today, almost 2359 years after its foundation, the striking monument still attracts visitors from all over the world, looking to experience its charm through ancient drama performances. The festival of Epidauros continues, taking place during the summer months, with famous Greek and foreign actors who have appeared through the years, including the world-renowned Greek soprano Maria Callas, who performed in 1960.
How big is the Epidaurus Theater?
The theater consists of the circular orchestra, the place where the actors and the dance played, and the 'koilon', the semicircular part around the orchestra -named after the dance that sang and danced- where the seats for the spectators are located. The 'koilon' is divided into two moldings, the upper with 21 rows of seats for the people and the lower with 34 rows of seats for priests and lords. The orchestra has a diameter of 20 meters and is surrounded by a special underground sewer, 1.99m wide to remove rainwater flowing from the 'koilon'.
A lot has been said and written about the supreme form of art of ancient Greek theater over the centuries, but one thing is for sure: ancient drama touches your soul, teaching you invaluable lessons for human nature. So, if you consider yourself a theater lover, visiting is the ancient theater of Epidauros isn’t optional, it’s mandatory for your cultural health. A treat for both body and soul.
Grab the opportunity for a day trip to Argolis and experience first-hand the ancient theater of Epidauros, the site closely related to the birth of the drama in ancient Greece. Top tip: if you’re traveling with kids, take a Percy Jackson-inspired tour around ancient Corinth and Epidaurus, and keep your little one entertained with the mythical adventures of their favorite book hero!
If you’d like to watch a performance in the great theatre of Epidaurus, you can find the schedule of the Epidaurus Festival for 2019 and more info here.