The Epidauros theatre has to be one of the most iconic views of Greece. It’s also one of those scenes which is difficult to capture in a photo, like the Samaria gorge in Crete, or the crater of Santorini. Pictures just don’t capture the grandeur of the site.
It’s the size which impresses you as you approach the Epidauros theatre. When you’ve taken the time to climb to the top seats, sat down and surveyed both the theatre itself and the magnificent views beyond, you begin to get a sense of the achievements and abilities of the ancient Greeks.
From wood to stone
Until about the 4th C BC, Greek theatres were built using wood. While this didn’t make any difference to the theatre goers (the seats were just as uncomfortable and the people probably took something soft to sit on), it meant that none of these early theatres survived.
The theatre was built by the architect Polykleitos the Younger. The design uses the natural contours of Mount Harani (ancient name Kynortion) to from the amphitheater. It faces the valley of Asklepios, which was considered to be sacred.
The theatre was restored in 1954 so that it could be used for the production of both ancient and modern productions. Many famous actors and singers have performed here.
The theatre structure
The Epidauros theatre can set up to about 12,000 people. The seating section is slightly larger than a semicircle, which consists of 55 rows of seats divided into two by a gangway or promenade (greek diazoma). The lower section was built in the early part of the 3rd C BC, and the upper section added in the 2nd C BC.
In front of the theatre is the central area, or orchestra. This is a circular area where the chorus performed. Between the edge of this and the first row of seats is a shallow channel for rain water. Between the stage buildings and the supporting walls of the theatre seats are two impressive gateways.
On the far side of the orchestra were the stage buildings, including a raised area where the actors performed. This was known as the proskenion.
Know your place
You’d be in trouble if you turned up at the Epidauros theatre in these early years and just sat where you wanted. The first row of seats of the upper section, together with the back and first row of the lower section, were reserved for the priests of Asklepios and the magistrates.
As far as acoustics were concerned, it didn’t really matter where you sat. Even if you sit in the back row of the upper section, you can still hear even a whisper from the orchestra. And the highest seat is about 22m (74 feet) above the orchestra. This is from a 2020 study: “A team of six professors from the University of Patras conducted extensive research on the ancient theatre and concluded that “the measurements confirm the theatre’s excellent acoustics and speech intelligibility, for all the typical listener positions tested.”
If you’re very fortunate, you might visit the theatre when another visitor happens to be a professional actor or singer. I have been there and heard a very fine performance from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, together with an aria from “La Boheme”!
A recent blog post includes a video demonstration of the sound quality. Find it HERE
Go to the top
It’s worth climbing to the top row of the theatre for the magnificent views, especially if it’s a clear day. The soft light of early evening is also particularly good.
From this vantage point you’ll also be able to appreciate the shape of the theatre. It’s proportions are said to be based on the ‘golden mean’.