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Just north of the ancient mining town of Lavrio, east of Athens, lies an almost-forgotten archaeological site where the oldest known theater in existence still stands proudly.
The theater of Thorikos dates to the end of the Archaic era, between 525 and 480 B.C. But that is not its only distinction. Unlike Greek theaters built in later eras, it is elliptical rather than circular in shape, and has a rectangular, rather than circular orchestra.
With twenty-one rows of seats, the theater had an impressive seating capacity of 4,000 people when it was constructed.
The few people who visit the site today can see the base of an ancient temple on the east side of the orchestra, sculpted out of the bedrock, and a room — complete with benches — also sculpted from the rock.
Visitors are also treated to a panoramic view of the southern Attica coastline to the east and the ancient olive groves to the west.
The theater was never intended solely for theatrical performances, but was also used for meetings of the citizens of Thorikos, the settlement which had been inhabited beginning in the Neolithic Age.
The area also became the mining center of the region east of modern day Athens. There is evidence of lead extraction there beginning in the the 3rd millennium BC and of silver, beginning in 1500 BC.
The ancient city’s center and its acropolis are situated on Velatouri Hill, next to the theater. The town was once crowded with irregularly-sized buildings which served as homes and smiths’ workshops, many dating from the 7th–4th century BC.
Excavations have brought to light part of the prehistoric settlement, including residential quarters that expanded to the top of the hill, cemeteries, and the so-called “industrial quarter,” along with the ancient mines.
After the exhaustion of the mines of Lavrio and the destruction of Thorikos by the Roman general Sulla in 86 BC, the area was abandoned temporarily. It was re-inhabited during the Roman period until the 6th century AD, when the countryside of Attica was nearly emptied of its population due to the Slavic invasions of the time.