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Theatre – Stadium of Thessaloniki

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The theatre – stadium of Thessaloniki is located on Apellou Street, in the area of Navarino Square. It is a circus building, combining two types of building, the theatre (as regards the structure of the cavea on one side), and the stadium (as regards its length and the straight layout of the long sides).
The presence of the theatre in Roman Thessaloniki is attested by inscriptions and written sources. The earliest reference is by Lucian in his well-known work Lucius or The Ass. An inscription dated to 141 AD informs us of the financing by a private citizen of gladiatorial games and hunts in honour of the emperor. Another inscription of the Severan dynasty, dated to 252 AD, refers to the holding of classical games in the city during the fourth Pythiad.

In the early 1990s, the curved part of a theatre with an estimated width of 100 m was excavated on two plots of land in Apellou Street. An outer colonnade of pillars came to light, along with the outer ring on which the last tiers of seats were set. In the middle of the width of the curved wall, which is up to 3.5 m wide, is a staircase with two flights symmetrical to the axis of a semi-cylindrical arch bridging a large landing. This section with the symmetrical flights of stairs and the entrance between them is a typical example of access to the theatre from secondary seats around the cavea.

At right angles to this axis, and at a distance from the outer ring of the theatre, was discovered a strong wall, 5 m high, which formed the enclosure of the building. The section of the building which has come to light on the two plots is only part of a huge circus building, the largest in the city of Thessaloniki after the Late Roman hippodrome, and of much earlier date than the Palace of Galerius to the east.

The section of the building laid out at the southeast end of the city has been identified as the theatre-stadium known from the sources. It is thought to have had a lifespan of three centuries, from the late 1st to the 4th c. AD. During this time there were several interventions to the building, the most important of which is its embellishment with brickwork pillars and marble columns around the outer ring. This intervention may be linked to the erection of the palatial complex of Galerius further to the east, in an attempt to provide direct access from the palace to the theatre cavea, from where Galerius would have enjoyed the Roman circuses.

The theatre-stadium of Thessaloniki has not yet been conserved, and is covered with sand for temporary protection, until the study for its promotion can be approved and implemented.

Is the theatre-stadium connected to the martyrdom of St Demetrius?

The discovery of this large circus building has raised questions of particular importance for the history and topography of Thessaloniki. This site and building must be directly linked to the events surrounding the teaching, arrest and martyrdom of St Demetrius, the patron saint of Thessaloniki. According to one of the Lives of the saint, his martyrdom took place in a prison near the palace, in the hypogeum of a bath-house. This information fits in with the existence of a large thermal bath complex excavated on plots of land in Mackenzie King Street, south of the five-aisled basilica, on the site of St Sophia, west of the stadium and immediately adjoining it and the subterranean galleries where the holy spring of St John is today.

Crosses were found carved into the marble columns of a large room in the baths, showing that it was consecrated by contemporary Christians. If, therefore, this is the area of the bath-house where St Demetrius was imprisoned, it must also be where his disciple Nestor went to be blessed by the saint before his fight in the stadium with the idolater Lyaeus. Immediately after Nestor’s victory in the uneven struggle before Galerius Maximus in the packed stadium, according to the sources, St Demetrius was martyred as the man responsible for the defeat of the idolatrous gladiator, who was favoured by the emperor.

The consecration of the baths south of St Sophia, the belief in the existence of a holy spring in the subterranean galleries of St John, the five-aisled basilica, i.e. the “church at the stadium”, all around the same area, bear witness to the sanctity of the site and its importance to the inhabitants of Thessaloniki. It was a site of equal religious significance to the basilica of St Demetrius, where the murdered saint would have been secretly moved immediately after his death, far from his place of martyrdom, and buried by his fellow-Christians.

On these two distant sites, those of the saint’s martyrdom and burial, were built during the Early Christian period the two largest churches in Thessaloniki and indeed the whole of Macedonia: two five-aisled basilicas, one on the mountainous side of the city, where it stands today, and one in the plain. The latter was destroyed relatively early on, perhaps by natural causes, and replaced by the smaller church of St Sophia, which occupied its western section.

Symeon, Bishop of Thessalonica, in a well-known codex of the National Library of Athens, vividly describes a ceremony held on the eve of the feast of St Demetrius and connected to his worship. Information on this ceremony is also provided by two panegyrics declaimed by two notable 14th-century figures, Gregory Palamas and Constantine Armenopoulos. All three texts agree that the procession set out from a relatively small church and ended at the church of St Demetrius, representing the beginning and end of his martyrdom.

The sanctity of the area around St Sophia, its connection to the place of martyrdom of St Demetrius, and the recognition of the right of sanctuary in the area, are major reasons to seek the Panagia Kataphyge (Our Lady of Refuge) very close to the church of St Sophia, in the precinct of the former cathedral, perhaps in the remaining part of the older basilica, which the inhabitants of Thessaloniki retained as an unaltered element of local worship. Furthermore, the clergy of Agia Sophia took pride of place in the ceremony of the procession, which set off from the neighbouring church of Kataphyge, St Demetrius’ place of death, and continued “along the avenue” to the place where the saint was buried and where the five-aisled basilica was eventually founded, the largest church in the city during the Early Christian period.

Giorgos Velenis and Polyxeni Adam-Veleni
Architects, Archaeologists

Monument Name

Theatre – Stadium of Thessaloniki

Category

Theatre

Brief Description

A curved, 3.5 m. wide wall was excavated. In the middle of the curved wall there is a staircase with two flights symmetrical to the axis of a barrel-shaped vault. This section with the symmetrical stairways and the entrance between them is a typical way to access the theater from secondary seats around the cavea. To the east of the curved wall, which is the cavea of the theater, the outer colonnade and the outer ring on which rested the last rows of seats, were preserved.

Images - Plans

See Photo Gallery.

Documentation - Bibliography

1. G. Velenis-P. Adam Veleni, Roman theater in Thessaloniki, AEMTh-3 (Project: Archaeological Work in Macedonia and Thrace, vol. 3), 1989, 241-256.
2. G.Velenis- P. Adam Veleni, The Theater-Stadium of Thessaloniki, Simposio International de Universidad de Granada “La Religion en el Mundo Griego, De la Antigüedad a la Grecia Moderna”, Granada 1992, 249-262.
3. 2. G.Velenis- P. Adam Veleni, The Theater-Stadium of Thessaloniki, Archaeology mag., 46, March 1993, 69-75.
4. P. Adam Veleni, Thessaloniki, fairy, queen, mermaid. Archaeological walkthrough from the prehistoric to the Roman times, Thessaloniki 2001, 93-96.
5. P. Adam Veleni, History and City Planning in D. Grammenos (publ), Roman Thessaloniki, guide of the periodic exhibition, Thessaloniki 2002, 147-150.
6. P. Adam Veleni, Hellenistic and Roman Thessaloniki in the collective publication Cartography of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki 2008.
7. P. Adam Veleni, Macedonia Thessaloniki, through the collections of the Archaeological Museum, a guide of the permanent exhibitions, under publication from the Archaeological Resources and Receipts Fund (TAPA) (publication, summer 2009).

Location

6 and 8 Apellou St., Navarino Square area.

 

Dating

1st – 4th century AD.

General Description of Monument

In the early 1990s, the curved part of a theatre with an estimated width of 100 m. was excavated on two plots of land in Apellou Street. An outer colonnade came to light, along with the outer ring on which rested the last tiers of seats. In the middle of the curved wall, which is up to 3.5 m wide, there is a staircase with two flights symmetrical to the axis of a semi-cylindrical arch bridging a large landing. This section with symmetrical stairways and an entrance between them is a typical example of access to the theater from secondary seats around the cavea. At right angles to this axis, and at a distance from the outer ring of the theater, a strong 5 m. high wall, forming the building;s courtyard, was discovered. The section of the building which came to light on the two plots is only part of a huge edifice for spectacles, the largest in the city of Thessaloniki after the Late Roman hippodrome, and of much earlier date than the Palace of Galerius to the east. The presence of the theatre in Roman Thessaloniki is attested by inscriptions and written sources. The earliest reference is by Lucian in his well-known work Lucius or The Ass. An inscription dated to 141 AD informs us of a private citizen funding gladiatorial games and hunts in honor of the emperor. Another inscription from the times of the Severan dynasty, dated to 252 AD, witnesses classical games in the city during the period of the fourth Pythiad (between the 4th and 5th Pythian Games). The section of the building laid out at the southeast end of the city has been identified with what the sources describe as theater-stadium. It is estimated that the theater had had a lifespan of three centuries, from the late 1st c. AD to the 4th c. AD. During this time there were several interventions to the building, the most important of which is its decoration with brick-made pillars and marble columns around the outer ring. This intervention may be linked to the erection of the palatial complex of Galerius further to the east, in an attempt of the architect to provide direct access from the palace to the theater’s cavea, from where Galerius would enjoy watching the Roman spectacles.

Current Situation

The monument has not been conserved and is covered with sand for temporary protection, until the study for its enhancement can be approved and implemented, as submitted by the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities for the inclusion of the project in the NSRF.

Excavations - Interventions

No interventions have taken place, apart from covering the monument with sand until work on its enhancement can begin.

Permitted Uses

The monument is not currently in use. Once the study has been completed, it can be used for educational programs, small musical events and public lectures.

History of modern uses

There is no modern use of the monument.

Additional Information

The monument is one of the most important buildings of Roman Thessaloniki, mentioned in sources and sought by researchers for many decades. It is related to the martyrdom of St, Demetrius. The discovery of this large circus building has raised questions of particular importance for the history and topography of Thessaloniki. This site and building must be directly linked to events surrounding the teaching, arrest and martyrdom of St, Demetrius, the patron saint of Thessaloniki. According to one of the biographies of St. Demetrius, his martyrdom took place in a prison near the palace, in the basement of a bath-house. This information fits in perfectly with the existence of a large thermal bath complex excavated on plots of land in Mackenzie King Street, south of the five-aisled basilica, on the site of St. Sophia, west of the stadium, right next to it, as well as with the subterranean galleries where St. John’s holy spring lies today. Crosses were found carved into the marble columns of a large room in the baths, a fact that shows that the place was consecrated by Christians of that time. If, therefore, this is the area of the bath-house where St. Demetrius was imprisoned, this must also be the place where his disciple Nestor went to be blessed by the saint before his fight in the stadium with the idolater Lyaeus. Immediately after Nestor’s victory in the uneven fight in the packed stadium, in the presence of Galerius Maximus, according to the sources, St. Demetrius was martyred as the man responsible for the defeat of the idolatrous gladiator, who was favored by the emperor. The consecration of the baths south of St. Sophia, the belief in the existence of a holy spring in the subterranean galleries of St. John, the five-aisled basilica, i.e. the “church within the stadium,” all around the same area, bear witness to the sanctity of the site and its importance to the people of Thessaloniki. It was a site of equal religious significance to the basilica of St. Demetrius, where the murdered saint was probably secretly moved immediately after his death, far from his place of martyrdom, and buried by his fellow-Christians. The sites of the saint’s martyrdom and his burial are distant one from the other. On these two sites, the two largest churches in Thessaloniki and indeed the whole of Macedonia were built during the Early Christian period: two five-aisled basilicas, one on the hillside part of the city, where it stands today, and the other in the plains. The latter was destroyed relatively early on, perhaps by natural causes, and was replaced by the smaller church of St Sophia, which occupied half of its western section. In a well-known codex at the National Library of Athens, Bishop Symeon of Thessalonica, vividly describes a ceremony held on the eve of of St. Demetrius’s feast, which was linked to his worship. Information on this very ceremony is also provided by two eulogies given by two notable 14th-century figures, Gregory Palamas and Constantine Armenopoulos. All three texts agree that the procession set out from a relatively small church and ended at St. Demetrius church, representing the beginning and the end of his martyrdom. Based on Symeon’s text, S. Pelekidis believed the starting-point to be the basilica of Acheiropoietos. A. Xyggopoulos looked for this church in the city center, near the Roman agora. However, new excavation data appear to fortify Pelekidis’s view. Thus, his conclusion that the Kataphyge church must be very close to St. Sophia’s church seems perfectly logical. We know that the latter, or perhaps another church nearby, was a sanctuary for the citizens of Thessaloniki in Byzantine times. This was a church where one could seek refuge to avoid someone’s wrath. The sanctity of the area around St. Sophia, its connection to St. Demetrius’s place of martyrdom, and the recognition of the right of sanctuary in the area, are major reasons to seek the Panagia Kataphyge (Our Lady of Refuge) very close to St. Sophia’s church, in the precinct of the former cathedral, perhaps in the remaining part of the older basilica, which the people of Thessaloniki retained as an unaltered element of local worship. Furthermore, St. Sophia’s clergy played a prominent role in the procession ceremony, which set off from the neighboring church of Kataphyge, St. Demetrius’ place of death, and continued “along the avenue” to the place where the saint was buried and where the five-aisled basilica was eventually founded, the largest church in the city during the Early Christian period. THE RESCUE OF THE THEATER-STADIUM. The central part of the Theater-Stadium of Thessaloniki, with the curved section which proves it was a theater venue, was preserved and expropriated thanks to the steadfast resistance of the archaeologists of the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, to the support of some of the press and a radio station (“Paratiritis”), and to the approximately 17,000 signatures of the residents of Thessaloniki, submitted during the re-examination of the case by the Central Archaeological Council (KAS). The story, briefly, is as follows: The first plot of land at the corner of 8 Apellou and Al. Svolou Streets was excavated between 1986-1987. It was realized then that this was an exceptionally important building, but its use was not identified from the beginning. Since the same contractor team was due to build up the second plot at 6 Apellou St., the 16th Ephorate proposed that the second plot should also be excavated and the fate of both plots would be decided together. The engineer in charge did not accept the proposal, and so the antiquities were covered over and partially destroyed, to the height that they projected and “impeded” the laying of a continuous reinforced concreted bed, which was the foundation method planned for the new building. The engineer was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for the damage by the Court. In 1989-90 the second plot at 6 Apellou Street was also excavated. It was then that the central curved section of the theater with the two staircases was discovered, and it was realized that the theater-stadium of Thessaloniki, sought for centuries, had been found. The 16th Ephorate proposed that the land be expropriated, and this was approved by the KAS and decided by ministerial decree in the spring of 1992. However, in the summer of the same year the matter was placed before the KAS again, without the Ephorate being informed and given the opportunity to make a recommendation anew. Thus, the expropriation decision was changed to a decision to cover the monument over. In September 1992, in view of the impending burial of the antiquities, archaeologists of the 16th Ephorate, led by the excavator P. Veleni and with the support of the then Director Julia Vokotopoulou, entered the plot of land in order to prevent the burial. There followed a six-month legal battle to persuade the political leadership of the Ministry of Culture to alter the decision again and rule in favor of expropriation, something which was finally achieved in March 1993, after a major public awareness campaign for the preservation of this extremely important monument. The expropriation process was concluded a few years ago, and the land has been paid for in full and is now property of the Greek State. However, until this lengthy process could be completed, the plot of land has remained covered with sand in order to be protected, depriving both citizens and scientists of the opportunity to visit a historic monument, and allowing some people to question the value of the fight to preserve it. Its inclusion in the National Strategic Reference Framework following the configuration study prepared by the 16th Ephorate, and the realization of the study, will give this major monument the place it deserves in the city.

Copyrights

Giorgos Velenis and Polyxeni Adam-Veleni.

Jurisdiction

16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Thessaloniki.

 

 

Latitude

40.631233°

Longitude

22.949291°

Altitude
0