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The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre

The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre

Edited by Rune Frederiksen, Elizabeth R. Gebhard, and Alexander Sokolicek (Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens 17). Pp. 468, figs. 264. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 2015. $70. ISBN 978-87-7124-380-2 (cloth).

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Derived from the proceedings of a 2012 conference held at the Danish Institute in Athens, The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre is an impressive edited volume featuring 26 contributions from an international group of scholars. Individual studies of well-known theaters appear alongside discussion of unpublished and understudied ones, while a handful of broader, more thematic essays serve to underscore the bigger problems and issues at stake in studying the architecture of the Greek theater. An introduction by the editors lays out the conference goals and provides a brief synopsis of the individual essays, highlighting the unique qualities of a book devoted exclusively to theatral architecture from the Classical through Roman periods and with a wide geographic scope, encompassing the Greek mainland and islands, Sicily, and Asia Minor. Rather than focusing on the production of plays or the role of theaters within ancient society, the essays in this book revel in the joy of tool marks, enigmatic channels, construction oddities, and Vitruvian geometry. Specialists in Greek architecture and theater will find much of interest, but scholars of ancient drama may be put off by the technical aspects of many of the contributions. Nevertheless, the volume has much to offer, and the very best contributions are those that marry close architectural analysis with attention to bigger issues and problems.

One example of the melding of these scholarly avenues is the chapter by conference organizer and volume editor Frederiksen (“Early Greek Theatre Architecture: Monumentalized Koila Before and After the Invention of the Semicircular Design”). Alongside discussion of well-known theaters such as the one in the Attic deme of Thorikos, Frederiksen discusses recent findings about the theater at Kalydon. The overarching argument, about the development of the semicircular koilon, arrives at the provocative conclusion that it was not the shape of the orchestra that determined the shape of the koilon, but the shape of the koilon that determined the organization of the rest of the theater structure, and that this shape had no connection to the different types of performance that could (and did) occur. This may seem self-evident to some, but it flies in the face of much received wisdom regarding form following function.

In a challenging but rewarding essay, Papastamati-Von Moock presents new evidence for the earliest phases of the Theater of Dionysos in Athens (“The Wooden Theatre of Dionysos Eleuthereus in Athens: Old Issues, New Research”). After an overview of the recognized problems involved, the author narrows her investigation to the monumentalization of this crucial but complicated structure during the Classical period, reexamining the physical remains and analyzing new finds from small-scale test excavations undertaken during recent restoration work. She concludes, convincingly, that the Lykourgan theater follows the basic outline of an incompletely implemented stone Periklean phase, which in turn takes into account the Late Archaic ephemeral phase. These insights are slightly hindered by her problematic dating of the earliest phase to the Peisistratid period; this needs to be revised and updated to reflect changes in the dating comparanda, such as the Late Archaic Telesterion and peribolos walls at Eleusis, now understood to be datable ca. 500 B.C.E. (M. Miles, The City Eleusinion. Agora 31 [Princeton 1988] 27–8; T. Hayashi, Bedeutung und Wandel des Triptolemosbildes vom 6.–4. Jh. v. Chr. [Würzburg 1992] 20–9; K. Clinton, “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Panhellenism in Democratic Athens,” in W.D.E. Coulson et al., eds., The Archaeology of Athens and Attica Under the Democracy [Oxford 1994] 162; E. Lippolis, Mysteria: Archeologia e culto del santuario di Demetra a Eleusi [Milan 2006] 163–64, 177–80). Despite this and other minor quibbles (the writing is a bit opaque and the figures need better labels), Papastamati-Von Moock is to be complimented for marshaling old and new evidence to arrive at a compelling assessment of what is arguably the most important Greek theater.

Of particular note is the chapter by Moretti and Mauduit on “The Greek Vocabulary of Theatrical Architecture.” The authors present often overlooked (or understudied) textual and epigraphic evidence from the Classical, Hellenistic, and Imperial Roman periods in an evaluation of the different terms used by scholars in discussing Greek theaters, reminding us of the importance of thinking about what terms we use to talk about the different parts of the theater and why. The ramifications of this article, and the drawbacks of ignoring its conclusions, are apparent within the book itself.

One particularly troublesome aspect of this volume is the overall lack of consistency in formatting and terminology. The formatting mistakes are not egregious and, for those dipping into the book for one or two chapters, will not cause many issues; for someone planning to read the entire volume, these errors become irksome. The issue of terminology is a bigger problem. The different contributors use their own preferred terms and renderings, so whereas in some essays the area for spectators is called the “koilon” (or “koilon,” again, a formatting issue), in others it is called the “cavea”; the stage building is either called that, or it is the “scene-building,” or the “scene,” or the “skene” (or “skene”); “scaenae frons” (or “scaenae frons”) is generally and appropriately restricted to discussions of Roman or Roman-style stage buildings, but such a distinction needs to be more explicit, particularly in the chapters that discuss both a skene and a scaenae frons.

The organization of the essays would have been improved by thematic groupings or a more coherent chronological structure. As it is, there is a vague chronological and somewhat geographical progression, but it is not explicit. Discrete sections, grouped thematically, would have made the book easier to use, given the overlapping topics and ideas treated in the essays. For instance, chapters by Hofbauer, Wilkening-Aumann, Pedersen and Isager, and Styhler-Aydin could have formed a section on Hellenistic theaters in Asia Minor, while chapters by Franz and Hinz, Di Napoli, Chaisemartin, Piesker, and Isler would have worked well as a section on Greek vs. Roman theatrical models. A section on Hellenistic theaters in mainland Greece would have brought together essays by Hayward and Lolos, Antoniou, Scahill, Themelis and Sidiropoulos, and Karadima, Zambas, Chatzidakis, Thomas, and Doudoumi. The lack of any clear sense of organization means that many of the connections between chapters that might otherwise have been made are lost.

One essay, however, that does an admirable job of tying together disparate threads is the chapter by Di Napoli (“Architecture and Romanization: The Transition to Roman Forms in Greek Theatres of the Augustan Age”). Her contribution serves as a paradigmatic example of how crucial the Augustan period is to understanding the intersecting roles of continuity and innovation in Greek theater construction in the first century B.C.E. to first century C.E., themes that arise in several other essays. Using the theaters at Corinth, Nicopolis, Sparta, and Dodona as examples, Di Napoli combines evidential analysis with interpretation, linking the previous chapters by Scahill (Corinth) and Antoniou (Dodona), with the subsequent ones by Chaisemartin (Aphrodisias), Piesker (Patara), and Isler (Roman Asia Minor). Such links highlight the interconnected interests of those studying Greek theatral architecture and give a hint at how lively and stimulating the conference must have been.

Each chapter contains its own bibliography, which is a boon for anyone who has ever had to sift through a final compendium of references in a volume like this in order to locate a single entry. In addition, an up-to-date and thematic bibliography is compiled at the end of the volume, organized according to general and regional studies, with 47 sites from the Greek mainland, islands, Magna Graecia, and Asia Minor listed with individual bibliography. This bibliographic arrangement is indicative of the general use to which this volume will be put: specialists will dip into it for a few essays, and some chapters may be of broader interest, but few will read through the entire volume.

Two indices close out the volume: one of names and places, and one general. The general index is, unfortunately, not of much use: entries are either too broad (“cavea” has 48 citations) or too generalized (“architecture”). The lack of consistency in terminology within the chapters reveals itself in the index, with individual entries for “scaenae frons,” “scene building,” “skene,” and “stage.” The lack of an epigraphic index is unfortunate but not catastrophic. Typographical errors likewise are frequent but not insurmountable.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs and drawings in both black-and-white and color, each chapter contains many images of high reproduction quality. This is surely one of the strengths of the volume and should serve as a model for how to incorporate a wide variety of images into an edited book. Overall, this is a rich and rewarding volume with many strong contributions. The editors are to be commended for bringing together such a diverse and excellent array of scholars.

Jessica Paga
Department of Classical Studies
The College of William and Mary

Book Review of The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre, edited by Rune Frederiksen, Elizabeth R. Gebhard, and Alexander Sokolicek

Reviewed by Jessica Paga

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Paga

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