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Ancient Theater of Elis

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The ancient theatre is situated on the north of the ancient agora, on an old fluvial terrace of the River Peneus, appropriately landscaped for the purpose. The theatre was built in the 4th c. BC. Major damage, probably due to an earthquake during the Late Hellenistic period, led to the replacement of the west retaining wall with a new one. The theatre was also modified in Roman times.
The theatre boasts the somewhat rare feature of an earthen cavea. Only the access passageways to the upper cavea, the parodoi and a row of stone seats in the lower cavea were faced with stone. Six staircases, approximately one metre wide and paved with river pebbles, divided the cavea into seven cunei. Strong retaining walls supported the fill of the cavea, forming, together with the lateral compartments of the stage, the two parodoi of the theatre.
The permanent stone stage building is one of the earliest in Greece. It also preserved one of the oldest proscenia (early 3rd c. BC), its façade once decorated with half-columns. Large holes along the stylobate were used to set up the scenery. Behind the proscenium were the various spacious compartments of the stage, with the parascenia on either side. The originally circular orchestra was truncated by the construction of an elongated cistern from which rainwater was channelled through an older duct into the River Peneus.
The traveller Pausanias, who visited Elis in the latter half of the 2nd c. AD, found the theatre abandoned. A century later the whole area was turned into a cemetery. This destruction, also visible in other parts of the ancient city, is connected to the invasion of the Heruli (267 AD).

Monument Name

Theatre of Ancient Elis

Category

Theatre

Brief Description

The theatre was built in the 4th c. BC and modified in Hellenistic and Roman times. The stone stage building with the proscenium and parascenia is one of the oldest in ancient Greece. The spectators did not sit on seats but on the slopes of the earthen cavea, just as at Olympia. Access was by six stone staircases dividing the cavea into seven cunei. A complete drainage network protected the theatre from the risk of flooding. The theatre ceased to be used in the Late Roman period, when the city fell into a general decline, and the site was transformed into a cemetery with groups of cist graves and tiled graves.

Images - Plans

Documentation - Bibliography

• Γιαλούρης Ν., “Ανασκαφή Αρχαίας Ήλιδος”, ΠΑΕ 1972, pp. 139-142, pl. 117-119
• Παπαχατζής Ν., Παυσανίου Ελλάδος περιήγησις: Μεσσηνιακά-Ηλιακά, Αθήνα 1979, p. 407, fig. 352
• Καποκάκης Ε., “Αποτύπωση, Ανάλυση και Πρόταση Αποκατάστασης του Κοίλου του Θεάτρου στην Αρχαία Ήλιδα, Αρχαία Αχαΐα και Ηλεία”, Α’ Διεθνές Συμπόσιο, Μελετήματα 13, Αθήνα 1991, pp. 335-339
• Γιαλούρης Ν., Ήλις, το Λίκνο των Ολυμπιακών Αγώνων, Αθήνα 1996, pp. 108-109
• Ανδρέου Η. & Ανδρέου Ι., Ήλις, η Πόλη των Ολυμπιακών Αγώνων, Αθήνα 2004, pp. 16-17
Ήλις, Παρελθόν, Παρόν και Μέλλον Πρακτικά Εκδήλωσης προς τιμήν Ν. Γιαλούρη, (13 Aug. 2006)

Location

Elis Archaeological Site, Amaliada Municipality, Ilia Prefecture. (Amaliada Municipality is to be renamed Ilia Municipality).

Dating

The theatre was built in the 4th c. BC and modified in Hellenistic and Roman times.

General Description of Monument

Founded on the north side of the agora, on an old fluvial terrace of the River Peneus, appropriately landscaped for the purpose, the theatre of Elis boasts the somewhat rare feature of an earthen cavea. Only the access passageways to the upper cavea, the parodoi and a row of stone seats in the lower cavea were faced with stone. Its earliest building phase is dated to the first half of the 4th c. BC. Six staircases, approximately one metre wide and paved with river pebbles, divided the cavea into seven cunei. Strong retaining walls supported the fill of the cavea, forming, together with the lateral compartments of the stage, the two parodoi of the theatre. Major damage, probably due to an earthquake during the Late Hellenistic period, led to the replacement of the west retaining wall with a new one.
The permanent stone stage building is one of the earliest in Greece. It preserves one of the oldest proscenia (early 3rd c. BC), its façade once decorated with half-columns. Large holes along the stylobate were used to set up the scenery. Behind the proscenium were the various spacious compartments of the stage, with the parascenia on either side. The originally circular orchestra was truncated by the construction of an elongated cistern from which rainwater was channelled through an older duct into the River Peneus.
A settlement had already sprung up on the rear part of the stage in the Hellenistic period. Pausanias mentions that there was a temple of Dionysos near the theatre (6, 26, 1). A semi-circular balustrade from a small roofed building of the late 4th c. BC, discovered near the west parodos, may belong to a choregic monument.
The traveller Pausanias, who visited Elis in the latter half of the 2nd c. AD, found the theatre abandoned. A century later the whole area was turned into a cemetery. This destruction, also visible in other parts of the ancient city, is connected to the invasion of the Heruli (267 AD).

Current Situation

Fair state of preservation. The retaining walls of the cavea are in need of consolidation – restoration.

Excavations - Interventions

The theatre was discovered from the first excavations carried out at Elis in 1910-1914 by the Austrian Archaeological Institute, under the directorship of Otto Walter. That was when the theatre stage was revealed in its entirety. After many years at a standstill, excavation work in the theatre was resumed in the 1960s, this time by the Archaeological Society under Ephor of Antiquities Nikolaos Gialouris, in collaboration with the Austrian Institute. During this time, the orchestra, retaining walls and cavea were fully excavated. In view of the 2004 Athens Olympics, a programme for the study, conservation and promotion of the monuments of ancient Elis was launched in 2001 by the Credit Management Fund for Archaeological Works (TDPEAE), a body supervised by the Ministry of Culture. http://www.tdpeae.gr/index.php?ID=1qu3Shwmo7jHp6KD
The project involved various conservation, study and promotion interventions to the ancient theatre. In 2009 the restoration work continued with the removal of the coarse gravel surfacing laid in 2006, the consolidation (with surface coating) of the slopes of the passageways and the drainage duct, and the levelling and seeding with Bermuda grass of the whole cavea. This work consolidated and protected the cavea from rainwater erosion, simultaneously enhancing the monument from an aesthetic point of view.

Permitted Uses

Under Ministry of Culture decision no. ΥΠΠΟ/ΑΡΧ/Α1/Φ42/6145/330/19-4-2000, the use of the ancient theatre of Elis for plays and events is forbidden. Today it is a monument of the archaeological site of Elis, open to the public.

History of Modern Uses

The ancient theatre of Elis was where the Olympic Flame was received on being kindled at Olympia up until the 2000 Sidney Olympics. From the early 1990s, the ancient theatre of Elis hosted unique performances of ancient tragedy and comedy as part of the extremely popular Festival of Ancient Elis. Today the performances and other events of the Elis Festival are held in the wooden theatre built next to the ancient monument by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2005.
(http://www.festivalilidas.gr/public/history.php)

Additional Information

Intellectual Rights

Jurisdiction

The monument belongs to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism / 7th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities

Latitude

37°53’37.86″N

Longitude

21°22’31.50″E

Altitude

25 m asl.