The Theatre at Epidaurus is recognised as one of the finest examples of an ancient Greek theatre. The meticulous attention paid to the design and construction of the Theatre at Epidaurus provided acoustics that delivered a quality sound that we would consider unimaginable for the Hellenistic period.
When you visit the Theatre of Epidaurus, plan to be equipped with a little knowledge of its history, a sense of its design and architecture, familiarity with what it was used for, and particulalry be prepared to think about the reasons as to why the theatre’s quality of sound is so good.
The Great Theatre of Epidaurus
- Where is the Theatre of Epidaurus Located?
History of the Theatre of Epidaurus
- Who Designed and Built the Theatre of Epidaurus and When?
- What Was the Theatre of Epidaurus Used For?
- The Design and Construction of the Greek Theatre at Epidaurus
- The Orchestra
- The Skene
- The Cavea
Why the Acoustics of the Theatre of Epidaurus Produce Quality Sound
- Why the Sound of the Theatre at Epidaurus was Enhanced by Circular Rows
- How The Circular Rows of the Epidaurus Theatre Aligns Posture
- Why the Sound at the Theatre at Epidaurus was Enhanced by the Gradient of the Seating
- Why the Sound at the Epidaurus Theatre was Enhanced by the Distance Between the Rows
- Why the Theatre’s Sound was Enhanced by Reflection and Interference of Sound
- Why the Sound at the Theatre of Epidaurus was Enhanced by Suppressing Background Noise
Our Final Thoughts on the Theatre of Epidaurus
- Arriving at the Theatre of Epidaurus by Car
- Visiting Times at the Theatre of Epidaurus Pre Covid
Where is the Theatre of Epidaurus Located?
The Great Theatre of Epidaurus is located approximately 40 kms east of Napflion and approximately 10 kms west of Palaia Epidaurus. It is within the grounds of The Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus.
History of the Theatre of Epidaurus
The Theatre of Epidaurus and its exceptional acoustics and sound quality has hosted over a span of 2,500 years the worship of Asclepius, the production of Greek tragedies and the enjoyment of modern concerts.
Who Designed and Built the Theatre of Epidaurus and When?
Pausanius, an itinerant second Century AD geographer born in modern-day Turkey, identified Polyclitus the Younger from Argos as the designer and builder of the Epidaurus theatre. The work was completed about 330 BC.
The Epidaurians have a theater within the sanctuary, in my opinion very well worth seeing.
For while the Roman theaters are far superior to those anywhere else in their splendor,
and the Arcadian theater at Megalopolis is unequalled for size,
what architect could seriously rival Polycleitus in symmetry and beauty?
For it was Polycleitus who built both this theater and…
Description of Greece Book 2:27.5
This date is interesting. The history of the Peloponnese includes a narrative of long term antagonism and military conflict between Argos and Sparta, with Sparta often victorious. Sparta finally fell in 371 BC to Thebes who was supported by Argos, and again in 362 BC. Macedon emerged in 359 BC when Phillip II became king. Phillip II’s death was followed by the beginning of the rapid ascension of Alexander the Great in 336 BC. The construction of the Epidaurus theatre was therefore influenced by Argos following the demise of Sparta and during the reign of the Macedons. Did these events contribute to the viability of the Theatre at Epidaurus?
A prominent 19th century Greek archaeologist, Panagís Kavadías, was intrigued by Pausanias’ quotation. He pursued the possibility that Theatre at Epidaurus still existed and following six years of excavation exposed the theatre in 1881. The structure had been protected over the years by more that 6 metres of soil and so remained in excellent condition. This has provided researchers with extremely valuable archaeological information about the insight of the ancient Greeks in respect of construction, design and architecture, materials, geometry and acoustics.
What was the Theatre of Epidaurus Used For?
The Theatre of Epidaurus was used predominantly to support the healing goals of the Sanctuary of Asclepius. Ancient Greek medicine was holistic. The consumption of medicines was integrated within a religious environment that accentuated the beseeching of gods for cures of body and mind. These goals promoted a host of ideas that were given expression that related to death and regeneration. In this respect the Theatre of Epidaurus provided music and plays to offer calming and distracting experiences. Consequently, the quality of the sound at the Epidaurus theatre, and hence the construction of the Epidaurus theatre and its a acoustics, was important to their expression.
The theatre also served as the centre around which the cult of Asclepius organised festivals to honour their god. These festivals included athletic games, and musical and drama contests. Ceremonies more deeply rooted within the cult also took place at the theatre.
The Theatre of Epidaurus therefore became an important contributor to the progress of Greek arts. This was achieved through the production and presentation at the theatre of drama, plays and recitals.
The population at the nearby ancient city of Palaia Epidaurus may have influenced additional possible uses of the Theatre of Epidaurus. This minor coastal city-state, located just 16 kilometres to the east, had its own Little Theatre from the mid-4th Century BC. Palaia Epidaurus also had a temple to Dionysius and the worship of Dionysus was no doubt promoted at their city’s theatre. The Classical and Hellenistic depiction of Dionysius was of an effeminate youth holding a bunch of grapes, occasionally drunk. Dionysus was celebrated in prior history as the God of Wine, Fertility, Theatre and Religious Ecstasy. These gatherings were associated with community festivities and feasts associated with the vine-gathering and fertility celebrations. The construction of the larger capacity theatre at the Sanctuary of Asclepius may have brought with it a focus on a different style of celebration.
The Design and Construction of the Greek Theatre at Epidaurus
The basics of the design and construction of the ancient Theatre at Epidaurus are readily identifiable due to its excellent physical condition. The theatre comprises three primary characteristics of the architecture of Greek theatres of the period; the orchestra, skene and cavea. These features are shared with the oldest of the Greek theatres, the Theatre of Dionysus, in Athens.
The orchestra as identified in the image is the flat, circular floor space which is 20 metres in diameter. Greek tragedies and plays often featured a chorus of between 10 and 20 personnel. The chorus and other performers such as musicians occupied the orchestra. When you visit you will see a flat strip of marble that decorates the orchestra’s perimeter. It can just be made out in the image. The orchestra’s floor isn’t limestone or marble, but compressed earth. Can you infer why earth was used? You will also be able to locate the eroded marble or limestone remains of the altar base, or thymele, at the centre of the orchestra.
Behind the orchestra you will find the eroded foundations of the skene, an area designed for scene building, performance and storage. The skene was rectangular and constructed from a softer grade of limestone. The skene extended the width of the theatre, behind the orchestra. Smaller rooms at both ends of the skene served as change rooms and for storage. In the classical era the ground-level area in front of the skene was used for acting. The skene was also used to support painted scenery to complement the theme of the play.
In the Hellenistic period a raised platform called a proscenium was installed in front of the skene so the actors would be elevated in front of the audience. The skene of the Theatre at Epidaurus was estimated as 7.60 metres. Skenes became increasingly elaborate and multi-storied in the second century BC such that the proscenium also carried scenery. Our post describing the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens has an image of the proscenium.
In front of the orchestra you will see the rows of seats (cavea; Lat: auditorium). The seats were originally made from a hardened grade of limestone. The rows were uniformly arranged perpendicularly to the steps that took the patrons to the upper tiers.
The Epidaurus theatre was designed to accommodate social considerations, such as status. The lower section of the auditorium was divided from the upper section by a horizontal walkway, the diazoma. The seating below the diazoma was available for patrons of higher social standing. This area comprised 34 rows which were divided into 12 wedge-shaped sections by 13 vertical sets of steps. The seats of honour in the lowest row were provided with stone backrests.
The seating above the diazoma comprised 20 rows of seats separated into 22 wedge-shaped sections by 23 vertical sets of steps.
The monumental entrance ways to the sides of the Theatre at Epidaurus provided access into the theatre. The design and arrangement of the seats is an important acoustical element of the theatre and therefore the sound it transmits. Should you visit the Little Theatre at Palaia Epidaurus you will see the same design except less attention was shown to seat construction due to the smaller distance over which voices needed to be heard. Read about it at Palaia (Ancient) Epidaurus and its Little Theatre
Why is the Acoustics at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus Produce Quality Sound
There is a difference between sounds and acoustics. Sounds are produced by the vibrations of a source. The energy of those vibrations is propagated through the medium as variations in pressure. The molecules in the medium respond to the variations in pressure by vibrating about their average position. Our ears detect these variations and code them as sound.
The quality of the sound we hear very much depends on the quality of its source. But there are other factors that will modify the sound we hear. These factors make up the acoustics. Acoustics is the term given to the relevant characteristics of the space that transmits the sound.
The beautiful Epidaurus Theatre is recognised globally for its sound and acoustics. Even today it hosts televised concerts and performances. The theatre promotes wonder as to how the ancients at the time of its construction understood the principles of acoustics that we today consider modern. When you visit you will no doubt repeat what we all do – stand in the middle of the orchestra and sing, recite (usually something silly), or test the acoustics at Epidaurus by whispering, gradually increasing your volume until your voice is recognised by your partner sitting in the top tiers. It is remarkable that these sounds in sotto voce can be so efficiently transmitted.
So here are a few basic design observations about the Theatre at Epidaurus that contribute to the acoustics. We are using no more than our own knowledge of the wave properties of sound for our unscraped explanations.
Why the Sound of the Theatre at Epidaurus was Enhanced by Circular Rows
The image above suggests a fundamental advantage. Sound emanates from a point source as spherical wave fronts. So what does that mean? The effect can be modelled simply by dropping a stone into a still pond. We’ve all done it and have seen the concentric water waves transfer energy away from where we dropped the stone – the source. It should be noted that it is the energy that is being transferred and not the water. You can almost imagine dropping an imaginary stone into the ‘watery’ orchestra.
We can apply this model to the sound at the Theatre at Epidaurus. Replace the dropping of the stone with a source of sound such as a player’s mouth and substitute the water waves with sound waves. The ‘circular’ geometry of the sound will fit the circular geometry of the rows of seating. Every person in the audience seated in the same row will be the same distance from the source and will enjoy the same intensity of the sound.
Should you wish to be a little more imaginative, replace those ‘circular’ sound waves that moved away from the source with concentric spheres. Can you visualise it?
How the Circular Rows of the Epidaurus Theatre Align the Patrons
The seating geometry of the Epidaurus theatre also has important implications for the alignment of the patron, whether 2300 years ago or now. Should a patron sit directly facing the centre of the orchestra then the patron will be correctly aligned for hearing. Try it. Sit on a seat squarely facing the centre of the orchestra. Assess the sound. Now change your posture so that your head no longer faces the orchestra. Could you detect a change in your hearing?
Why the Sound at the Theatre at Epidaurus was Enhanced by the Gradient of the Seating
Another feature of the design of the Theatre of Epidaurus is the steepness of the steps as you make your way up to the top rows. It’s hard to miss this one! This aspect of design is to reduce the tyranny of distance. The intensity of sound falls off with distance from the source by the inverse square law. That’s pretty rapid.
The steepness of the seating would limit the loss of intensity at the top tier by reducing the distance the sound would have to travel compared to the situation if the structure were a flat, rectangular auditorium. And if the speaker raised his head when he spoke, then there would be likely that the sound would reach the patron in the upper rows without its being physically impeded. Give it a go! Speak down into the front rows and then left your head up and speak to the top tier. Can your partner discern an appreciable difference in volume and quality?
Why the Sound at the Epidaurus Theatre was Enhanced by the Distance Between the Rows
We performed a quick and dirty calculation when at the Theatre at Epidaurus and the interesting result was that the distance between the rows of seats is about the average wavelength of a spoken monotone! It seems that the dimensions of the inter-row distance were designed to match what was intended to happen there. Did they know? Had they tested it? Or was the architecture and theatre acoustics a fluke? Of course, a spoken performance consists of many wavelengths. However, it could be argued that as the performance would have been achieved over a reasonably narrow bandwidth then the relationship between wavelength and the distance between the rows would be maintained. What do you think?
Why the Theatre’s Sound was Enhanced by Reflection and Interference of Sound
You will see in the photographs some very hard vertical limestone and marble surfaces behind each seat. Mechanical waves reflect in phase off fixed boundaries. This produces constructive interference between the incident sound and the sound being reflected back towards the source. This may have resulted in an increase in amplitude of the sound in the patron’s immediate space. And this would be occurring right across the theatre. Can you visualise why this would be an advantage to the listeners?
Why the Sound at the Theatre of Epidaurus was Enhanced by Suppressing Background Noise
Any theatre is going to produce a distraction in the form of noise. However, the Theatre at Epidaurus has some design features to reduce its nuisance. The theatre is not enclosed and so some background noise will escape without reflection. Secondly, noise and sound coming from every possible direction that patrons may temporarily face may tend to interfere destructively. This would result in a loss of intensity of the unwanted wavelengths. Thirdly, background noise from voices tends to sum to a lower frequency than the signal of choice. Our hearing is also very proficient at selecting out the required frequencies. We also tend to unconsciously predict conversation that will follow which enables us to fill in the gaps if the signal temporarily disappears. Think of the auto correction in your mobile phone!
And don’t forget the direction of the evening breeze. How would this impact on the sound coming from the orchestra and our hearing? This would not have been overlooked in the design and orientation of the theatre.
These factors that enhanced the acoustics of the theatre are pretty self-evident, so have some fun testing them. There are sure to be other factors. Audiologists could certainly add to the explanation by considering the overall complexity of hearing.
But whether listening to ‘Highway to Hell’ or ‘Nessun Dorma’, the sound at the Theatre of Epidaurus is exceptional.
Our Final Thoughts on the Theatre of Epidaurus
We couldn’t help but admire and respect the skills of those who constructed such a beautiful edifice. How much of the design of the Theatre at Epidaurus was due to intelligence and how much was fortuitous may never be answered. But, for now, we are more than happy to come away with a deeper respect for the skills of those who lived in antiquity and who delivered acoustics at Epidaurus beyond what could be expected of an open-air stone theatre.
Arriving at the Theatre of Epidaurus by Car
Should you arrive by car you will find plenty of parking on open fields adjacent to the site.
The parking space is necessary because the 13,000 capacity Theatre of Epidaurus is still in use. You will see the administration buildings from the car park. Take the longish walk along a narrow, sealed lane that leads to the ticket office. It is easy to find the Theatre at Epidaurus, the major attraction – just follow the crowd.
The Entrance Fee is 13 euros.
Visiting Times at the Theatre of Epidaurus Pre Covid
|Period||Visiting Hours||Closed||Free Entry|
|Nov-Feb||08:00 to 17:00||25-26 Dec, 1 Jan||First Sunday|
|March||08:00 to 18:00||25 Mar||6 Mar, First Sunday|
|April||08:00 to 19:00||Sundays: 09:30 – 17:00||18 April|
|May-Aug||08:00 to 20:00||1 May||18 May|
|Sept||08:00 to 19:00||n/a||Last WE|
|Oct||8:00 to 18:00||n/a||28 Oct|
|Easter||Good Fri 12.00-19.00, Sat 8.00-15.00||Easter Sun||28 Oct|
Entrance Fee: 13 euros
The opening times currently published by AthensTours Greece can be found here
Ancient Theatre of Argos
Ministry of Culture and Sports
Pausanias 2. 27,5
Description of Greece Book 2:27.5
Translated by W. H. S. Jones
Theoi Classical Texts Library