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The Greek Theatre

Ortigia, ancient heart
March 20, 2021
Festivities for Saint Sebastian
March 21, 2021
Ortigia, ancient heart
March 20, 2021
Festivities for Saint Sebastian
March 21, 2021
Ph. © S.C.

The Greek Theatre of Siracusa

The Greek Theatre of Siracusa is the most representative monument of the city but it is also the one which has perhaps suffered most at human hands. Today it reveals its delicate state to the many thousands of visitors who used to tread its worn stones before the pandemic - and who will return again in the future, we hope - treating it with all the care such an important monument deserves. The remains of the theatre that have survived are almost entirely reduced to the parts that were cut into the bedrock. The stage building has been lost, the architecture that was the backdrop to the stage, and the blocks of stone that made up the cavea, the seating area for the spectators. The blocks were ‘stolen’ from the theatre and reused by Charles V of Spain between 1520 and 1551 to build the fortification walls of Ortigia.
Giuseppe Voza, great archeologist and Superintendent Emeritus of Cultural Heritage at Siracusa, has provided one of the clearest and most lucid definitions of what can be seen today, describing it as “the enormous footprint of the theatre, built and present over the centuries to amaze the world, because its geometry is reflected in the foundations and remains unchanged, praised above all in the 18th-19th centuries by the great travellers, the great interpreters of the oldest monuments of Siracusa and by scholars…”
Other actions which caused damage to the grand old monument were the construction of various water-mills which were only demolished in the 20th century. Only the so-called Miller’s house on the upper part of the cavea survives.
The Theatre of Siracusa we see today is the result of a series of transformations of the IIIrd century BCE ordered by Hieron II and some rebuilding during the Roman period. We have documentary evidence which describes an older theatre built around the Vth century BCE. Eustazio writes that the writer of mimes Sophron claimed that the architect Damokopos oversaw the construction and was nicknamed Myrilla because he had unguents (μύρον-myron) distributed to his fellow-citizens during the inauguration of the theatre. In this older theatre, Aeschylus presented his “The Aetneans” in 476 BCE, a tragedy written to celebrate the refoundation of Catania with the new name Aetna by Hieron II.
The cavea rests on the slope of the Temenite hill and as is quite clear, is cut directly into the bedrock. It is horse-shoe shaped with a diameter of c.158 metres and originally had 67 rows of seating, divided into nine cunei or wedges by eight stairs, and in two sectors by the diazoma, the corridor that cuts across horizontally half-way up. The back wall of the diazoma is inscribed with inscriptions in Greek, one for each cuneo, and the names of divinities like Olympian Zeus, Heracles and members of the royal family like Hieron II, his wife Philistide and his daughter-in-law Nereide, can still be read. These inscriptions are important for the dating of this phase of the theatre, and indicate a very precise period between 258 BCE when Hieron’s son, Gelon II married Nereide, and 215 BCE, the year in which Hieron II died. It seems highly likely that the inscriptions were made during the upgrading and improving of the theatre ordered by Hieron II himself; an addition that was not only self-celebratory, but also practical in that it made finding your place on the steps easier.
Iscrizione sulla parete del diazoma
The constructed part of the cavea started at the nineteenth row of steps above the diazoma and had analemmata (buttressing walls) that supported the infill on which the upper part of the seating was built. The orchestra was horse-shoe shaped and had an euripos, a channel for draining water, more than one metre wide. This was filled in between the IIIrd and IInd centuries BCE, and substituted by another channel, dug in front of the first row of the seating in order to widen the orchestra area from 16 to 21,4 metres.
The scenery has almost all gone - there are only cavities and holes in the bedrock into which wooden posts and supports were slotted. The wide parodoi at either side can be dated to the IInd and Ist centuries BCE. The corridor that leads to a square chamber carved almost under the centre of the orchestra dates to the same period. It could have been planned as the ‘stairs of Caronte’, for ‘special effects’ which allowed the actors, hidden below, to appear suddenly at centre-stage simply by climbing up a little stair. The statue of a caryatid was found in this underground chamber which must have decorated the Hellenistic stage building.
Teatro Greco Panoramica © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
During the Imperial period, the theatre underwent more radical changes. It appears that a trapezoidal basin was created in the orchestra which might have served for water games before the plays or during the intervals to entertain the crowds.
The cavea of the theatre is dominated from above by a terrace carved into the rock of the Temenite hill, which could be reached by a centrally-placed stairway and by a road, known as the Road of the Tombs to the west of the theatre. This terrace was occupied by an L-shaped portico of which few traces remain; a bank cut into the rock which supported the central colonnade, parts of a pavement in cocciopesto (crushed terracotta) and holes to support the beams of the roof in the rock face to the north. At the centre of the northern side is the artificial grotto called the “nympheum”.

In the area above the theatre, during excavations of the mid-twentieth century, a sacred site was found. Its origins appear to go back to the end of the VIIth century BCE and included an altar and a temenos, a sacred precinct, that has been identified as the archaic temple which sources refer to as dedicated to the cult of Apollo Temenite.
The monumental building still hasn’t given up its role as ‘teller of stories, myths and legends’ - every year in late Spring and Summer, the steps fill with thousand of excited spectators, and the actors and artists of the INDA (National Institute of Ancient Drama) take to the stage and continue to re-evoke the tragedies and the comedies that made the citizens of the old Greek city laugh and cry.
March 2021

Il Teatro greco è un sito del Parco archeologico e paesaggistico di Siracusa, Eloro, Villa del Tellaro e Akrai. Foto su concessione dell’Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana con divieto di duplicazione, anche parziale, con qualsiasi mezzo.

Ha studiato e lavorato in Sicilia e in Lombardia. Specializzata in Archeologia Classica, con una spiccata passione per l’Egittologia e un forte interesse per la Mitologia che ama trasmettere attraverso il suo impegno nei servizi educativi. Divide il suo tempo libero tra la natura e i libri e adesso scrivendo per SiracusaCulture.