Online Review: Book

Le Théâtre

Frank Sear


By Philippe Fraisse and Jean-Charles Moretti. 2 vols. Vol. 1, Texte. Pp. xxi + 282, tables 32; vol. 2, Planches. Pp. 16, pls. 112, plan 1. École Française d’Athènes, Athens 2007. €150. ISBN 2-86958-235-8 (paper).

The theater at Delos is one of the most important in the Greek world. This is due partly to the survival of detailed inscriptional accounts relating to the construction and maintenance works of the building and partly to the fact that, despite its generally poor state of preservation, sufficient architectural elements survive scattered over and near the theater site to allow a plausible reconstruction of the building. Additionally, it is familiar as the exemplar of Vitruvius' prescriptions for building a Greek theater.

The theater has attracted visitors since the 15th century, and in the 400 years until 1873, when J.A. Lebègue was appointed director of excavations, dozens of visitors mentioned or described the remains. A full transcript of these texts and a detailed evaluation of the subsequent excavations make a useful beginning to the book. The work of the authors themselves, between 1985 and 1999, has resulted in new accounts of the remains, complementary excavations, and a systematic inventory of any missing blocks that could be restored to the monument. The architectural elements are evaluated stone by stone, and clear deductions made of their provenance. The fragments were drawn and photographed, and these, along with detailed reconstructions, are contained in the second volume. The authors' work and the clarity of their presentation in these two volumes are exemplary.

The building is analyzed under the following headings: the scene building, the parodoi, the orchestra, the koilon, and the cistern behind, and west of, the scene building. The reconstruction of the proskenion in its first two phases is largely unproblematic (29–62), but the porticoes built around the other three sides of the skene in the third phase are difficult to explain. Reconstructions usually show these as extensions of the stage that thus extends around all four sides of the building. Fraisse and Moretti point out that such an arrangement is unparalleled in other Hellenistic theaters (62) but nonetheless show the three porticoes as supporting an extension of the stage (vol. 2, figs. 425, 426). It is difficult to explain a stage like this; given that two of these porticoes flank the parodoi, which were important entrances to the theater, and the other faces the square behind the theater, could they be stoas? It may be noted that Vitruvius (De arch. 5.9.1) recommends colonnades behind the scaena of a theater, and in the case of the Stratoniceum at Tralles, he says that there is a colonnade on each side of the scaena.

The skene also presents problems. The classic reconstruction by Dörpfeld, used in most architectural histories, shows a two-story skene with a single door in the middle and unadorned apart from the doorposts and a pilaster at each angle. Although there is little available evidence for the upper story, the authors suggest that the skene had three thyromata of the kind usually associated with Hellenistic theaters. Their evidence is three marble capitals that may belong to the piers, or antae, flanking the thyromata. On the analogy of Ephesus, which has a proskenion of similar height to that of Delos, they suggest a height of 4.30 m for the upper story. Their pictorial reconstruction (vol. 2, figs. 425, 426) shows a skene similar to those reconstructed by Fiechter at Oropos, Sicyon, and Oiniadai.

None of the surface of the orchestra has survived, but two of the thrones that stood around its rim were found, one in the synagogue and the other in the Theater Quarter. Remarkably, these were both of exactly the same height. There was also a series of honorific monuments standing in the orchestra just in front of the proskenion. The drain around the orchestra that carried water to the cistern behind the theater is described, as are two underground passages between the proskenion and the orchestra. These were presumably the so-called Charonian tunnels. Only the north one is a true passage. The southern one is too low along most of its length for a person to have passed. However, at the orchestra end there is a seat, and the authors conclude that an actor must have sat there waiting to emerge.

The theatron had 27 rows of seats facing west, divided into seven kerkides by eight staircases. It was separated by a diazoma from the irregularly shaped epitheatron, which had a maximum of 16 rows of seats. Construction of the surrounding wall, along with the north and east ramps, began in about 280 B.C.E., and the first stone seats were installed in 276 B.C.E. The south ramp was built in a later phase, ca. 246 B.C.E., along with the 15 rows of seats of the epitheatron. All three doors at the tops of the ramps were also built in this phase. These doors have an architectural significance that would repay further investigation. The features of these doorways are half-columns attached to antae, supporting a plain architrave with five sets of guttae at the top. There is no frieze, and the crowning element is an Ionic cornice. The authors rightly point to the analogy of Hypogeum 1 at the Mustapha Pasha necropolis in Alexandria. However, this style originates in Cyrenaica. The Treasury of the Cyreneans at Delphi (built between 350 and 330 B.C.E.) also has Doric columns attached to antae, and several Cyrenean monuments of the fourth century have a plain architrave with guttae and no frieze (F. Sear, "The Architecture of Sidi Khrebish," in J.-P. Descoeudres, ed., Greek Colonists and Native Populations [Oxford 1990] 399–403).

Another finding that throws some light on the initial planning of the theater is the fact that the curved outer retaining wall seems to have followed the somewhat irregular outline of the koilon even before any seating was put in place (88 and fig. 397). This is curious because the plan gives the impression that the theatron was planned first and that the epitheatron was a later addition. Indeed, Fraisse and Moretti date the building of the diazoma and upper seating some 30 years after the seating of the theatron. However, if the outer wall belongs to the first period, this suggests that the irregular epitheatron was envisaged at the outset. On page 242, the authors argue against a "master architect" responsible for the definitive plan of the theatre. It is true that a second architect was probably responsible for the later building phase: the diazoma, epitheatron, the south ramp, and the three ramp doors, especially considering that the last are stylistically distinct from the architecture of the skene and proskenion. However, if the outer wall was built at the outset, it could be argued that a single architect was responsible for the overall plan of the building. Certainly Vitruvius (De arch. 5.7.1–2) seems to be using this theater as his model for the Greek theater, as shown in plate 104. It is also interesting to see that Fraisse and Moretti calculate the unit of measurement used in the theater as a foot of 0.2961 m. This suggests that the building was designed in Attic feet.

The koilon of the theater offered a great opportunity to collect much needed water; a cistern with a capacity of 800 m2 was built just to the west and fed by the two water channels that ran around the orchestra. Its ingenious use of transverse arches and its fine stone paving incorporating eight cistern heads are explained with exceptional clarity. Full texts and commentaries of the inscriptions relating to the theater are given, including the important series of building accounts accompanied by authoritative interpretations. The history of the theater, near the end of volume 1, is a useful synthesis of all the information given in the previous seven chapters.

This book represents an exhaustive study of the monument. It is lucid, detailed, and extremely well illustrated and will quickly take a well-deserved place as the definitive work on this important building complex.

Frank Sear
Centre for Classics and Archaeology
University of Melbourne
Victoria 3010


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