Feature image of the Greek ruins of the theatre at Palaua Epidaurus

Ancient Epidaurus And Its Little Theatre At Palaia Epidaurus

The modern coastal town of Palaia Epidaurus (also referred to as Archaia Epidaurus) is adjacent to an ancient archaeological site formerly occupied by the the ancient city-state of Epidaurus. The archaeological site at Palaia Epidaurus hosts an acropolis and ancient theatre which is referred to as the Little Theatre of Palaia Epidaurus. The Little Theatre is sometimes confused with grander theatre located just 10 kms away at the Healing Sanctuary of Asclepius.

The Greek name ‘Epidaurus’ can be confusing as it has a number of usages. The archaeological site in which the Little Theatre is situated is often referred to as ‘Ancient’ Epidaurus. Its acropolis overlooks the modern coastal town of ‘Palaia’ Epidaurus. Confusion can occur because although the modern coastal town is named ‘Palaia’ Epidaurus, ‘palaia’ (Gr: παλαιός) translates to ancient, old or dated. Immediately inland from Palaia Epidaurus is the equally modern town of ‘Nea’ Epidaurus. The Argolis prefecture administers both towns. And finally, the Ancient Healing Sanctuary of Asclepius at ‘Epidaurus’ is located a further 10 kilometres inland.

Palaia Epidaurus and its Little Theatre is located geographically on the shores of the Saronic Gulf, approximately 40 kms east of Nafplion and 60 kms south east of Corinth. Palaia Epidaurus is a small town and lies within an undulating green zone of vineyards, citrus orchards and cultivated fields. The ruins and Little Theatre near Palaia Epidaurus draw interest principally due to their association with the Ancient Healing Sanctuary of Asclepius.

The Little Theatre at Palaia Epidaurus against a background of the Saronic Gulf
The Little Theatre at Palaia Epidaurus on the Saronic Gulf

History of Ancient Epidaurus

The archaeological ruins of Ancient Epidaurus are situated on an elevated headland which overlooks the modern town of Palaia Epidaurus. Palaia Epidaurus was considered to be a minor city-state which administered a region around it called Epidauria. However, in the Iliad Homer places Ancient Epidaurus alongside some of the most powerful city-states of the Peloponnese.

In his Iliad Homer writes;

“My own three favourite cities,” answered Juno, “are Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae.”
— Homer
Iliad 800 BC

And in the same quotation Homer includes Epidaurus;

The men of Argos, again, and those who held the walls of Tiryns,
With Hermione, and Asine upon the gulf; Troezene, Eionae,
and the vineyard lands of Epidaurus … with these there came eighty ships.”
— Homer
Iliad 800 BC

Homer centred his Iliad on the Seige of Troy and he inferred that Ancient Epidaurus contributed ships to the conflict. The Siege of Troy has been dated to the 12th and 13th centuries BC. This places Ancient Epidaurus contemporaneous with the Mycenaean civilisation (including Tiryns) which collapsed in the 12th Century BC.

The city-state of Árgos was the capital of the Argolís, an easternmost region of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Argos was located just north-west of Nafplion and approximately mid-way between Corinth and Sparta.

Árgos evolved as the dominant city-state of Argolís circa 1100 BC following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation. Argos continued as the foremost Peloponnesian city-state in the 7th Century BC, only to suffer later defeats by an emergent Sparta, the principal city-state that occupied Laconia in the southern Peloponnese. This confirmed the enmity between the two city-states. There were periods of convenient alliances throughout later history, but the truces were always uneasy. Undesirably, the truces were on Ancient Epidaurus’ western doorstep.

Epidaurus was never far from the politics of the Peloponnese. Consequently, Epidaurus participated in its share of conflicts between the region’s city-states. An example of Epidaurus’ involvement occurred during the Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC. This battle was a significant phase of the Great Peloponnesian War. The battle resulted in a Spartan victory over an alliance of Peloponnesian states led by Argos and supported by Athens. Corinth, Argos and Athens made a treaty with Sparta following the battle. Nevertheless, they were unconvinced about their security and sought to reduce Sparta’s infuence by forming a new defensive alliance. War again erupted and the Epidaurians were attacked in 418 BC as allies of Sparta. Argos and its allies attempted to lay siege to Sparta at Ancient Epidaurus through a maritime blockade but were unsuccessful.

Another example of Epidaurus’ engagement in confrontation was as a participant in the push against the Macedonians. Athens led a military response to oppose the appointment of a Macedonian as king over Greece. This occurred following the death of Alexander the Great.

Epidaurus maintained guarded relations with nearby Argos and generally enjoyed better relations with Corinth and Athens. The city-state continued to prosper through the Hellenic and early Roman periods due to its port and proximity to the Asclepieion. However, the eventual decline of Epidaurus occurred towards the second century. Corinth, due to its commercial strength, attracted a disproportionate numbers of settlers from neighbouring populations, including Epiduria

Southern Greece is in a region of active subduction with a tectonic plate close to its southern shores. Earthquakes will almost always be a threat because of plate movement. Ancient Epidaurus confronted its fate in the 6th Century AD. An earthquake consigned part of the city to the sea-bed.

Ancient Epidaurus Commerce and Culture

The commerce of Ancient Epidaurus would have benefited from its coastal location just as the Ancient Corinthians had benefited from theirs. The advantage enjoyed by Ancient Corinth is that the city was the port of choice of mariners who preferred to sail up the Gulf of Corinth to reach port rather than challenge the unpredictable seas off the coast of the southern Peloponnese. You can read more about this in our post Ancient Corinth: Rich in History, Culture and Religion

Ancient Epidaurus was also a port city and on the same trading route as richer cities such as Athens, Corinth and Aegina, the latter at one stage having a larger navy than Athens. This would have resulted in a constant stream of travellers, itinerant entertainers and maritime personnel seeking accommodation, meals and goods. Ancient Epidaurus would have benefitted through the growth in local trade. Merchants would also have had their products sold to other cities. One of these products, important to both domestic consumption and trade, was wine. Homer’s quotation above … and the vineyard lands of Epidaurus … suggests wine was plentiful at Epidaurus.

The fact that Ancient Epidaurus had a port meant it was the maritime gateway to the Healing Sanctuary. The presence of the Sanctuary would have considerably increased the traffic through Ancient Epidaurus. Afflicted persons would have actively sought transport to the Asclepieion. It would have also provided another commercial outlet for the sale of local produce and goods.

Ancient Epidaurus embedded its culture in the cults of the gods. This was characteristic of all Greek city-states. The observations Pausanias listed during his visit to Ancient Epidaurus included marble images of the god Asclepius and of his wife Epione which were displayed in the open; a Sanctuary of Aphrodite; a Temple of Artemis with the figure of the goddess in hunting posture; a Temple of Dionysius which is to be expected given the accent in Ancient Epidaurus on the consumption of wine; and a figure of Hera which was positioned in the harbour so that it was just visible above sea level. Pausanias was particularly taken with a wooden image of Athena that was located on the citadel.

Ancient Epidaurus Agriculture

The central region of the Peloponnese has been uplifted to a height of 2,400 metres. This has resulted in arid and barren limestone highlands and plateaus. The soils of the Peloponnese are usually very thin over hard calcareous rocks, primarily limestone. These soils seriously reduce much of the peninsula’s usefulness for agriculture. Ancient Epidaurus was more kindly located within the eastern Peloponnese on the Argolis. It was one of the relatively few locations where the soil could have been considered to have had sufficient fertility for the cultivation of a range of crops.

The diet of the Epidaurians would have been determined by factors such as their coastal location, local geology and produce imported from other city-states. The staples would have been seafood, olives, grapes and breads. A variety of fruit and vegetables would have grown due to a natural soil advantage. The lack of drainage and pH of soils typical of the Peloponnese would have discouraged the cultivation of some plants and trees. However, the deposition of sea-gravel and sand may have been improved the drainage of the local soils of Ancient Epidaurus. Local farmers would have been possible to cultivate a wider range of vegetables and tree fruits. These products would have been available for local consumption and export trade. We see evidence of this today in the flourishing orchards that grow in the green basin adjacent to Palaia Epidaurus.

Ancient Epidaurus was not always green and according to Epidaurian and Aeginetan tradition, Ancient Epidaurus suffered a major drought in the 6th Century BC that required consultation of the Oracle of Delphi for a solution.

The Ruins at Palaia Epidaurus

The core of the ruins of Ancient Epidaurus found at Palaia Epidaurus occupies a small, elevated headland immediately south of the small harbour. Adequate parking is available on an open, unsurfaced area.

Small but adequate open car park at Ancient Epiduaurus
Car Park adjacent to the ruins of Ancient Epidaurus

The Acropolis of Ancient Epidaurus

A path leads from the car park up the hill around to the acropolis. The elevation of the path allows a very satisfactory view over Palaia Epidaurus.

View of Palaia Epidaurus from the Acropolis
The Acropolis at Ancient Epidaurus provides views over Palaia Epidaurus

The acropolis at Ancient Epidaurus cannot be compared to the acropolis at Athens. It is much smaller and the remnants of its past exist as ruins of stone steps and walls. There are also minor temple ruins such as columns. These remnants have to be located among thick grasses and vegetation. Nevertheless, there have been some excellent finds for archaeologists. The finds would be in the form of a range of jewellery such as broches; rings, bracelets; hair pins and robe pins; coins, icons, figurines, pottery and even minor weapons – each from any period.

Remnants of the Acropolis of Ancient Epidaurus poking out of long grasses when looking towards Palaia Epidaurus
Remnants found on Acropolis looking towards Palaia Epidaurus

The Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus

The Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus is unmissable. It is located to the right of the ascent up the acropolis and actually sits immediately below the acropolis.

Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus and its location below the Acropolis
The Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus with the Acropolis in background

The Little Theatre is occasionally confused with the Great Theatre located at the Healing Sanctuary of Asclepius. More than one traveller has called up Epidaurus on the car’s satnav only to land in Palaia Epidaurus!
The Little Theatre was constructed during the middle of the 4th century BC. It was located in 1970 and excavated in 1972. The images show 15 rows which provide sufficient seating for approximately 2000 patrons. The Little Theatre is located on private property and fenced off. The property owner or representative requires a fee to enter and a tour is available. Studying the site through the cyclone fence is sufficient.

Cyclone fence around the Little Theatre at Epidaurus
Access to the Little Theatre is not freely available

The relative size of the Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus can be inferred from its capacity. The Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus provides for 2,000 patrons. The Great Theatre of Epidaurus at the Sanctuary caters for 18,000. There are also other similarities and differences. The overall construction for both is similar. They were both constructed from similar materials and have a circular geometry. A difference is that the seating gradient of the Little Theatre is much less than that of the Great Theatre at the Sanctuary. This is dure to the speaker’s voice not having to be projected so far due to the relative closeness of the patrons occupying the back row.

A major difference between the two theatres is the height of the stone backs behind each row of seats. This height is important to the acoustics of the theatre. The acoustics are enhanced by the speaker’s voice reflecting in-phase from the stone seat backing. Consequently, we couldn’t expect the acoustics of the Little Theatre to have the same quality as the Great Theatre. You can read more about our explanations about the acoustics which are relevant to both theatres at The Theatre of Epidaurus Including its Acoustics

The Little Theatre amidst the wider ruins of Ancient Epidaurus
The Little Theatre set within the ruins of Ancient Epidaurus

The image shows construction on both sides of the Little Theatre. These include Roman buildings that include a bath house and other structures that we couldn’t identify without a guide. Perhaps you will.

The Little Theatre is still is use and in the warmer weather hosts a season of music and entertainment.

The Little Theatre shown against the Acropolis is still in use today
The Little Theatre is still being used

Palaia Epidaurus Today

Palaia Epidaurus today is more broadly a recreation destination. It is suitable either as a weekend destination or as a base for a tour of the closest archaeological sites. These include Cleonae, Troezen, Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos all the way up to Corinth. It doesn’t matter which direction you point the car, there will somewhere to visit. A short drive down the Saronic Gulf shoreline leads to Milos, Methana and Poros. These three highly sought areas offer beauty, panoramas and hiking.
Should you stay in Palaia Epidaurus then you can enjoy the still-water beaches. The best beaches near Palaia Epidaurus are considered to be Kalamaki beach and Polemarcha beach. You can also enjoy the local restaurants and go hiking. Perhaps you would like to scuba dive for the remnants of the sunken city of Ancient Epidaurus off Gialaki beach. Or just take a quiet drive through villages in the region that have been unaffected by development or tourism. And don’t forget to notice the citrus trees. Palaia Epidaurus is still benefitting from the drainage offered by its coastal location.

Modern Epidaurus - Palaia Epidaurus
Palaia Epidaurus

Final Thoughts on Palaia Epidaurus and the Little Theatre

If you have some time to spare then Palaia Epidaurus is worth visiting. It is an historical region with sufficient ruins and reminders of its past to satisfy any explorer’s curiosity. Its proximity to many of the eastern Peloponnesian archaeological sites make it suitable to use as a base for touring. It has more than enough to offer if you wish to relax or wind down. A visit to Ancient Epidaurus is representative of archaic civilisation and customs. Some time spent at the Little Theatre of Palaia (Ancient) Epidaurus provides insight into the excellent building skills and use of materials demonstrated by the Epiduarians.

References:

Pausanias 2. 15 – 28
Description of Greece 2. 15 – 28, Translated by W. H. S. Jones

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