3000 Years of Greek Drama at the Theatre in Syracuse
For many centuries Sicily was part of the wider Greek world and this can be seen in the many spectacular monuments and ruins on the island. One of these is the Greek theatre at Syracuse. Syracuse was founded by Dorian Greeks in the 8 th century BC and became one of the leading powers in Magna Graecia. The beautiful structure has inspired poets and artists for millennia. Its importance has been recognized by UNESCO who have given it the status of a World Heritage Site. It is still in use, almost 3000 years after it was the site of some of the earliest plays.
The Melodramatic History of the Theatre
It is believed that a theatre was built at the site in the 6 th century BC. Many great Greek playwrights had their works performed there, including comic writers, and Aeschylus (525 BC – 456 BC), one of the greatest tragedians of all time. A noted playwright and patron of the arts, Dionysius I of Syracuse, who also happened to be a tyrant and ruled the city with an iron grip, had some of his tragedies performed at the theatre.
Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse (Public Domain)
This monument was not only a cultural center it also played a critical role in the political life of the city-state as the citizen-assembly was also held in the theatre.
During the First Punic War, the Romans conquered the city and it became part of their empire until the 5 th century AD. Despite this, the city retained its quintessential Hellenic character and Greek was the language of the population. The theatre continued to flourish under the Roman emperors, especially when a new colony at Syracuse was established by Augusta.
Based on archaeological excavations it appears that the Romans altered the site so that it could accommodate gladiatorial games and possible mock-naval battles. It was only in the 4 th century AD that the site began to decline in part because the theatre was seen as sinful by the Christians.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the theatre was abandoned, after almost a millennium of being in use. Much of the monuments marbles and stones were stripped away and used in other buildings erected down the centuries. Some of its blocks were used to construct a fortress during the period when Sicily was ruled by Spain (1500-1700). The site has been intensively investigated by archaeologists since the 19 th century.
The Spectacle of the Theatre in Syracuse
The monument lies on the south slopes of the Temenite Hill and overlooks the modern city of Syracuse, offering a spectacular view of southern Sicily and the Mediterranean.
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The scale of the vast seating at the Greek Theatre (bepsphoto / Adobe Stock)
Most of the remaining structure dates to the Hellenistic period and some traces of the original theatre can still be seen. The structure was built in a semi-circle with tiers where people sat to watch the entertainment. The cavea, or seating arrangements, is almost 200 feet wide, surrounds an open circular area known as the orchestra and is among the largest ever found in the Greek world. Graffiti dating back to ancient times, carved onto the seating and walls of the theatre, is still visible. The space is renowned for its acoustics.
The theatre was redeveloped by the Romans, who added new features such as columns. Sadly, the stage and the scenery building where dramas and entertainment were held has collapsed and now only traces can be seen.
Grotta del Ninfeo artificial cave of Temenite Hill (vvoe / Adobe Stock)
Stairs lead to a small platform above the theatre where a famous shrine to the Muses, known as the Grotta del Ninfeo, is found. Water cascades into an open pool and here the actors’ guild would gather and beseech the Muses to ensure that their performances were a success.
How to see the Greek Theatre, Syracuse, Sicily?
The site can be accessed privately or as part of a group. There is transport to the area by public transport. An admission fee is required to enter the historic site. Every year a drama festival has been holding her. Classic Greek plays are performed here during the summer season, at sunset.
The theatre is near the world-famous Necropolis of Pantalica, the ancient burial chambers dug into a limescale gorge and well worth a visit
Top image: The Greek theatre of Syracuse, Sicily Source: Marco Brivio / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Dilke, O. A. W. (1948). The Greek Theatre Cavea. Annual of the British School at Athens, 43, 125-192
Frederiksen, R. (2002). The Greek Theatre. Even more studies in the ancient Greek polis, (162), 65
Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=maTd3nJQGQAC&oi=fnd&pg=PA65&dq=greek+theatre+syracuse&ots=n3S2YYcWl6&sig=WE77BYDw-pAiXtvNEWPVJisXyx8#v=onepage&q=greek%20theatre%20syracuse&f=false
Sanders, L. J. (2014). Dionysius I of Syracuse and Greek Tyranny (Routledge Revivals). Routledge
Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=gqQAAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=greek+theatre+syracuse&ots=UryCmlJZWl&sig=tpwn7AjaA_XVFWOsuas_rObMgHY#v=onepage&q=greek%20theatre%20syracuse&f=false