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Ancient Theater of Thassos

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The ancient theatre, built in a natural concavity in the hill of the ancient city of Thassos’ acropolis, is located at the eastern end of the city. It is leaning against the wall of the city, its koilon opening to the west. To the east, there is a steep slope, while to the north and west extend the sea, the harbor and the ancient city, occupied today by the modern city of Limenas. There was already a theatre in Thassos at the time of Hippocrates (Epidemics A’ 20) in the fifth century BC but we do not know if it was at the same place in the city. A large retaining wall, built with exceptional quality marble blocks was found under the floor of the proskenion, but it could not be identified if it belonged to a theatre of the classical era or to another building.

The oldest phase of construction of the theatre of Thassos dates back to the beginning of the Hellenistic period (late fourth – first quarter of the third century BC). The theatre had a stage building with a marble facade. The proskenion, dedicated to the god Dionysus by the Thassian Lysistratos, son of Kodes, had a supporting facade composed of twelve columns with a pillar on each side as well as a frieze with plain metopes and a cornice. The small columns were fluted about three quarters of their circumference and had notches to support the scenery of the staging. At the proskenion level, the stage building façade was in a Doric style. Several sections of its architraves, capitals and metopes are preserved. There are no indications about the form of the orchestra and koilon of this period.

The koilon in its present form covers an area inferior to a half circle, which is unusual, and dates back to the Roman period. The retaining walls of the side entrances, clad in marble, are asymmetrical and convergent. The rows of seats are made of simple marble blocks without curvatures, except for the seats found in the lower part of the koilon. The names of the individuals or families for which seats were reserved are engraved on many seats. Three radiating stairs divide the koilon into four sections. There does not seem to have been any diazoma.

From the 1st century AD, the theatre was used for animal hunts and gladiator fights. The conversion of the theatre into an arena took place at the time of the Roman dynasty of the Severans (late 2nd – early 3rd century AD). The thresholds of the heavy doors that closed the side entrances are still visible. Before 140 AD J.-C., Eragoras, son of Eufrillos, and his wife, erected a parapet with a balustrade around the orchestra for the safety of the spectators. Many of the posts of this parapet have been restored to their original position. In order to ensure better visibility for the audience, the slope of the new koilon has been accentuated, a common practice during the conversion of the ancient theatres into arenas.

During the same period, the stage building was transformed: its facade was enhanced by large marble supports, while its Doric elements were scattered. The proskenion remained in place after dismantling and brief renovations. Some of the plain metopes of the frieze were carved with figures of gods: Dionysos, the Thracian horseman and Ares in armor and wearing a helmet, the patron of gladiators. The pillars located at both ends of the proskenion front colonnade were also renovated: the southern one was decorated in the upper part with a bas-relief of Nemesis, homage of Eumerius, son of Dionysios – obviously a gladiator – to the merciless goddess. Other gladiators also carved Nemesis bas-reliefs on the walls of the stage building.
Maria Nikolaidou – Patera
Archaeologist
Deputy Head of the Ephorate of Prehistorical and Classical Antiquities

Name of monument

Ancient theater of Thassos

Category

Theater

Brief description

Installed in a natural cavity of the hill of the ancient Acropolis and in contact with the wall of the ancient city, the ancient theater is located in Limenas, the capital of the island of Thassos. Its first building phase dates probably in the early Hellenistic period (late 4th / first quarter of the 3rd century BC). Since the 1st century AD it had been used as an arena for gladiator fights, whereas during the imperial era restoration works took place, mainly in the stage building. The theater was later deserted and turned into ruins, when the space was occupied by an early Christian cemetery.

Images - plans

Photographic documentation of the excavations by French archaeologists can be found at the French School in Athens. There is also a complete photographic documentation of the excavation research and the first interventions to restore the monument by the 18th Ephorate of Prehistorical and Classical Antiquities (EPCA) between 1974 and 2000, in the photographic archives of both the Archaeological Museum of Kavala, and the Archaeological Museum of Thassos. Rich material can be also found in the digital photographic documentation of the excavation and restoration works that took place between   1996 and 2002.

Documentation - Bibliography
  1. Fr. SALVIAT, “Le batiment de scene du theatre de Thasos”, BCH 84 (1960), p. 300-316 (where the earlier bibliography)
  2. G. DAYX, “Trois inscriptions de la Grece du Nord”, CRAI (1972), p. 487- 493
  3. P. BERNARD, Fr. SALVIAT, “Inscriptions de Thasos”, BCH 86 (1962), p. 596-603 (offerings to Nemesis) and p. 606-608 (gladiators)
  4. B. HOLTZMANN, EtThas XV (1994), p. 108-111 (sculptured panels)
  5. Z. BONIAS, J.-Y. MARK, D. VIVIERS, BCH 119 (1995), p. 667-681 (recent excavations with references to the BCH Chronicles 1993 and 1994)
  6. Z. BONIAS, J.-Y. MARK, BCH 120 (1996), p. 795-812
  7. D. VIVIERS, BCH 121 (1997), p. 761-765 (wall and early Christian necropolis)
  8. 8. Z. BONIAS – Z.Y. MARK, “The Ancient Theater of Thassos. Completion of excavation – Start of restoration. “AEMTH 10B (1996), Thessaloniki 1997.
Location

Ancient Theater of Thassos, Municipality of Thassos, Regional Administration of Kavala

Dating

A theater in Thassos existed since the time of Hippocrates in the 5th century BC, but we do not know if this was at the same place. The first building phase of the current theater is probably dating in the early Hellenistic period (late 4th / first quarter of the 3rd century BC). It was given its present form in Roman times when it became a venue for gladiator shows and hunting contests. It was  in the era of the Roman Severan Dynasty (end of 2nd – beginning the third cent.) when the orchestra was converted to an arena.

General description of Monument

The ancient theater, installed in a natural cavity of the acropolis hill and adjacent to the city wall, is directed to the west. It is located in Thassos, the capital city of Thassos island, which was also the urban center in ancient times. There had been a theater in Thassos since the time of Hippocrates (Epidemics A 20) in the 5th c. BC, but we do not know if it was located at the same spot in the city.
According to research taken place between 1992 and 1995, the first phase of the construction dates in the early Hellenistic period (late 4th / first quarter of the 3rd century BC.) and included a stage with a marble facade. Lysistratus from Thassos, son of Kodis, built the proscenium and dedicated it to the god Dionysus. The proscenium’s facade had twelve Doric pillars between two pilasters, crowned by an architrave, a frieze with smooth metopes and a cornice with beam-ends. The colonnade supported the logeion, an elongated space like a balcony, where actors performed. The columns were streaked on three quarters of their circumference and had notches for attaching the written boards of the stage set. From the stage’s upper level, which was also built in Doric style, many fragments of architraves, column capitals and metopes are also preserved. There is no evidence showing details on the format of the orchestra and the cavea of that time.
In its current state, the cavea, which has an unusual shape of an incomplete semicircle, dates to the imperial era. The retaining walls of the lanes, converging but asymmetrical, are made of irregularly placed stones, are covered with marble plates in normal masonry of high and low layers alternately. The seats are made of single marble bricks, profiled only at the bottom of the cavea. There is no finding of diazoma. Three radial scales, of which one in the center, divide the cavea into four tiers. Names of individuals or families who had reserved seats are curved in many seats.
Since the 1st AD c. the theater had been for hunting competitions and duels; high priests of the imperial cult were maintaining teams of professional gladiators at the time. The orchestra had been transformed into an arena by installing heavy doorways that blocked accesses to the lanes (their imprints are still visible) at the time of the Roman Severan Dynasty (late 2nd – beginning of the 3rd century AD.). In the years before 140 AD, to better protect the spectators during duels and animal fights, Iragoras, son of Effrillos, and his wife Ispani, sponsored a marble parapet along the orchestra which ended in a metal railing. Several of the supports of this parapet, each of which bears a few letters of the monumental votive inscription, were restored in place. Traces of wooden supporting pegs at the back of the parapet reveal that during the performances, a “tent” was installed above the seats of the cavea to protect viewers from bad weather.
In the imperial era, the stage building of the Hellenistic period that had been partially destroyed was also reshaped. The new edifice was erected on top of the ruins of the old one and its façade was highlighted by large marble supports. Only the proscenium remained in place after being disassembled and roughly renovated. In the middle of its colonnade, on top of the old inscription, some metopes acquired reliefs depicting popular deities: Dionysus who gives his panther the last drops of wine to drink from his cup, Heron, a horseback deity from Thrace, and a cuirassed Mars, patron god of gladiators, in a helmet. The pilasters at each end of the proscenium’s colonnade were also renovated: The one to the south was decorated at its top section with a relief of goddess Nemesis, which was a donation made by Evimeros, son of Dionysius, a gladiator apparently, to the ruthless goddess. Other gladiators too carved reliefs of Nemesis on the walls of the stage building: two of them were found in 1887 and transferred to the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul.
During excavations in the stage building area, archaeologists found some remains that were dated to the Archaic and Classical periods, but were difficult to explain. Also in the east of the theater’s cavea, they found various constructions that were built prior to the city’s wall, which were partially destroyed when the wall was built. Finally, after the theater desertion and its turn into ruins, the space was occupied by an early Christian cemetery.

Current situation

With the latest rehabilitation study of the theater’s cavea, which was completed from 1996 to 2002, with the supervision of the Culture Ministry’s Directorate of Restoration of Ancient Monuments, much of the space where the marble seats were kept was restored. In its lower part, wherein the seats had been destroyed, a metal stainless steel construction was built on which wooden seats were placed to accommodate the needs of the “Filippi-Thassos” Summer  Festival.

Excavations - Interventions

The first excavations at the ancient theater of Thassos were conducted by the French School at Athens in 1920-1921 and revealed the cavea, the orchestra, the side lanes and part of the stage. In the following years, research was focused on the study of the already known facts, especially in understanding the architectural form of the stage building. The maintenance and partial restoration works in Thasos theater began in 1957 in order to prepare the  monument for the newly founded Philippi-Thassos festival. It was then that the parapet of the orchestra was mounted, the gaps between the cavea’s marble seats were filled and replaced with wooden ones, the first five rows of seats in the cavea were “restored” quite arbitrarily and the path which leads to the theater was formed. Over time the wood rotted, the roots of trees caused damages and so, to protect both the monument and the spectators, the theater was shut down. The state to which the monument had fallen led to the drafting of a pre-study, titled “Rehabilitation and development of the theater of Thassos” by architect P. Papagiannakos in 1988 and later, in 1995, to the final study by the same architect, titled “Study of restoration/support of the cavea of the ancient theater of Thassos and its protection during  performances.” From 1990 to 1995 excavations were made in cooperation with the French School at Athens. The study for the cavea’s restoration was approved by the Minister of Culture and the project was funded from the state budget from 1996 to 2002. The restoration works focused at the replacement of seats and the  damaged wooden materials. In November 2010  Z.Al.Saayah, N. Hatzidakis, M. Hatzis, A. Valavani with scientific directors of Z. Bonias and D. Malamidou, conducted a comprehensive study entitled ” Study on the recovery and enhancement of the ancient theater of Thassos.” The study focused at the maintenance, restoration and partial reconstruction of the stage building and the theater side lanes, the replacement of the damaged wooden seats with seats made of marble, making the monument accessible to to disabled people, creating sanitary and recreation areas within the monument area in order to offer comfort and security not only to visitors, but also to viewers who come for their entertainment. The study was approved by ministerial order YPPOT/DAAM/2383/114456/ 10-12-2010, following consultation of the Central Archaeological Council and was included in the Operational Program “Macedonia-Thrace 2007-2013” on 20/07/2011 with a budget of € 1,645,000.00.

Permitted uses

Visiting tours. Venue of performances for the “Philippi-Thassos Festival,” which began in 1959 and is the second most important ancient drama festival after Epidaurus Festival.

History of modern uses

Located in an area of great natural beauty and major archaeological interest, the Ancient Theater of Thassos is an attraction to a large number of tourists, especially in the summer months when the island receives many visitors. The theater is used  for performances under the “Philippi-Thassos Festival”.

Additional information

The monument belongs to the jurisdiction of the 18th Ephorate of Prehistorical and Classical Antiquities in Kavala

Copyrights

18th Ephorate of Prehistorical and Classical Antiquities in Kavala

Jurisdiction

18th Ephorate of Prehistorical and Classical Antiquities in Kavala.

Latitude

40.782122°

Longitude

24.717623°

  • The works at the ancient theater of Thassos, began in July 2012. The project was included in Priority Axis 9. “Sustainable Development and Quality of Life in East Macedonia and Thrace”, OP. MAKEDONIA – THRACE 2007-2013, which was co-funded by the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund), entitled “Restoration and promotion of the Ancient Theater of Thassos”.
  • The cleaning and deforestation of the area was followed by the removal of the wooden seats of the tier in order to investigate the application of the approved study proposal for their replacement with corresponding marble slabs.
  • The supplies of the necessary tools and materials, as well as the personal protective equipment for the employees and the pharmacy were completed. l
  • Finally, the project’s information sign was placed.
  • A cluster of unencumbered gravestones were discovered and investigated following the displacement of the architectural members from the site where at the construction workplace hutches were to be placed. Both of the auxiliary public service buildings, the cleaning and the formation of the specific area led to the discovery and further investigation.
  • The competition for the construction site was completed, but due to the extremely unfavorable weather conditions and the difficult access through a rugged rural road to the ancient theater, it was put in place in March.
  • However, despite the adverse weather and local conditions until the end of March, the infrastructure works of the two auxiliary public service buildings (backstage, sanitary facilities) had been completed as well as the installation of the water, sewage, fire fighting and lighting networks.
  • At the beginning of December, the construction crane was transferred and installed for the necessary restoration of the project. We note that our Ephorate, in consultation with the neighboring P.C.A (Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities), borrowed for the needs of the project the crane that existed there and had been used in the ancient theater of Maroneia. This saved a considerable amount from an economic aspect of the project and thus it can be used to cover other needs.
  • Because it was deemed necessary to change the location of two of the five auxiliary buildings in order to become operational and to effectively service the needs of the Philippi Thasos Festival, the revision of their building permit proceeded. The changes were approved by the HCLA (Hellenic Society for Law and Archaeology) at its meeting on 14.04.2013 and will proceed immediately.
  • The supervising team observed that the wall of the west passage of the theater had a strong inclination; a solution was sought for the problem after the autopsy of the Director of Restoration Mr. D. Svolopoulos.
  • The internal filling of the wall was cleaned, and a geotechnical and static study was commissioned to restore the saved parts of the ancient wall and its restoration with the existing ancient materials.