Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus

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The Theatre of Dionysus, located on the southern slope of the Athens Acropolis hill, is an ancient Greek theare. The Theatre of Dionysus, which served as a model for Greek theaters, was located on the southern part of the Acropolis in Athens. It was the venue where all surviving ancient Greek plays were originally showcased. The construction of the theater commenced with the establishment of the orchestra, a circular space measuring 60 feet in diameter and featuring an altar at its center.

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It is in this place that the ancient theatre was born and developed, both as an artistic and as an architectural concept. It originated from the ancient temple of Dionysus and the higher plateau (called the orchestre) to the north of the god's sanctuary, the final destination of the festive procession in the Great Dionysia and the venue for the circular Dionysian dances performed by the worshipers wearing animal and satyr masks, singing the Dithyramb in the god's honour to the sound of the aulos.

Thespis (according to the legend was the first actor in Greek drama) is recorded as the founder of the earliest documented tragic play, during the Dionysia of 534 BCE, at which he also took first prize, comedy and satyr plays were only added to the theatrical competition later.

Brief History

circa 400 BCE

The first theatre (theatron), the place where the spectators sat, extended over the southern slope of the Athenian Acropolis. The ancient sources refer to the ikria, a wooden framework of huge wooden posts supporting the seats,and that the first theatre was indeed constructed out of wood has been confirmed by the recent archaeological evidence. The wooden infrastructure of the theatre was renovated and extended with the addition of a stage building after the mid fifth century BCE as part of the Periclean building program which envisaged religious and cultural venues - the monumental Odeon of Pericles, for instance, which was built to the east of the theatron - on the southern slope of the Acropolis. Work on Athens'first monumental stone theatre was interrupted by the devastating Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), but would ultimately after the mid fourth century BCE,largely due to the skillfil fiscal policies of Eubulus and Lycurgus.

The architectural design of the new Athenian theatre revolved around the circular orchestra and served as the theatrical archetype to this day. Its seating capacity is estimated to have been between 17,000 and 19,000.

In the years that follow, theatre types evolved in parallel with broader sociopolitical changes, which triggered extensive alterations to the stage building. The facade flanked by projective wings (paraskenia) at both ends was remodelled and monumentalized during the Roman period with the addition of a second storey (scaenae frons). During the reign of the philhellene emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), in particular, the theatre, now an impressive structure, assumed a new role, hosting celebrations of the emperor as a New Dionysus. The stage was adorned with monumental statues personifyring the three genres of dramatic poetry (tragedy, comedy and satyr play), while thirteen bases for statues of the emperor were installed among the seats, with honorary thrones higher up and a tall podium for the throne of the emperor himself.

In 267 CE the theatre suffered extensive damage during the Herulian raids, but regained some of its lost glory when the stage front (the so-called Phaedrus Bema after a dedicatory inscription of the fourth century CE) was repaired and embellished with reliefs, carved on stones which originally formed part of the sanctuary's now-destrued Hadrianic alter, depicting scenes fromthe life of the god. The edict banning pagan religion, coupled with the construction of the early Christian basilica in the sixth century CE at the eastern entrance, mark the termination of the theatrical function of a structure linked to numerous highlights in the history of Greek culture.

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