You are here

Le théâtre d’Aphrodisias: Les structures scéniques

Le théâtre d’Aphrodisias: Les structures scéniques

By Nathalie de Chaisemartin and Dinu Theodorescu (Aphrodisias 8). Pp. xviii + 349. Reichert, Wiesbaden 2017. €79. ISBN 978-3-95490-112-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Located in the southeastern part of the city’s monumental center, the theater of Carian Aphrodisias was in use for almost seven centuries, from the original construction in 30–27 B.C.E. until its collapse in the seventh century C.E. The precise chronology of its phases is possible thanks to a rich set of epigraphic records, which are currently available online. De Chaisemartin has devoted many years to the study of this monument, which was entrusted to her and Theodorescu in 1988, and this book does justice to the many seasons spent conducting fieldwork, recording and sorting the material, and studying it carefully. The activity of both scholars at the theater also included the restoration of certain sections of the monument—namely, the Doric proskenion and large portions of the lower level of the stage building. Discussion in the volume analyzes mainly the stage structures of the theater, leaving aside the incompletely investigated auditorium, and is a welcome addition to recently published works that deal with theaters of Asia Minor, such as Öztürk’s Die Architektur der Scaenae Frons des Theaters in Perge (Berlin 2009) and the new book authored by Rugendorfer and Krinzinger, Das Theater von Ephesos: Archäologische Befunde, Funde und Chronologie (Forschungen in Ephesos 2.1 [Vienna 2017]).

The first three chapters are of a descriptive nature, dealing with the present state of preservation, the history of the research on the theater, and the archaeological exploration of the monument led by the authors themselves in the late 1980s. Chapter 4 presents the building phases of the monument, and one of the main achievements is undoubtedly the fact that trenches and surveys in the theater confirmed the chronology of the different phases as obtained from the epigraphic record. The first scene building constructed, by Zoilos (30–27 B.C.E.), modeled according to Vitruvian principles and using the Aphrodisian foot of 17.68 cm, had shared characteristics of Hellenistic and Roman stage buildings. This phase was followed by the works attributed to Aristocles Molossos (mid first century C.E.), which included the shift of the orchestra 10 Aphrodisian feet westward, the building of the auditorium, and the construction of two lateral staircases that led to the upper auditorium from the level of the main north–south road. The third building phase is linked to the name of Hermas, adoptive son of Molossos, who in the third or last quarter of the first century C.E. constructed the upper auditorium and added along the northern parodos a cult room in honor of his father, named Molosseion in the relevant inscription. The next phase can be attributed to Zelos, high priest and the husband of a possible descendent of Zoilos, whose works (dated between 139 and 161 C.E.) mark the transformation of the theater into an arena. Later phases, not always epigraphically attested, include repairs and refurbishments in the area of the orchestra and the upper parts of the stage walls (age of Caracalla, by Menestheus Skopas), the removal of the porticus post scaenam and the use of collapsed material from the stage building for the construction of the so-called Tetrastoon (probably after an earthquake, ca. 360 C.E.), the restoration of the stage structures by the benefactor Androklos (around the same time), and the transformation of the orchestra into a pool for water spectacles (late fourth century C.E.). The final collapse of the stage building may have occurred in the age of Heraclius (610–641 C.E.) and was followed shortly afterward by the construction of a Byzantine fort that concealed the eastern part of the monument.

A chapter devoted to the architecture of the lower level of the stage building and the restoration works conducted there is followed by two chapters that examine in full detail the architecture of the scaenae frons and provide a comprehensive stylistic analysis. Unsurprisingly, they form the larger part of the volume and make for challenging but rewarding reading. The facade of the theater at Aphrodisias is preserved to a large extent (roughly 85%), and the authors suggest possible reconstructions. It had two stories, the lower in Ionic order with freestanding columns and a central door with an arched frame, and the upper in the Corinthian order surmounted by half pediments and showing a monumental central niche housing the group of Apollo and the muses. Meticulous and plentiful comparisons to architectural and decorative patterns found everywhere in the Mediterranean lead the authors to suggest that the revival of Attic classicism, which characterizes the urban landscape of Asia Minor in the third quarter of the first century B.C.E., is evident in this facade, which shows a peculiar mixture of local and imported features.

The remaining three chapters examine the iconographic program of the facade, present an assessment of the architecture of the scene, and stress the role of the monument in the city’s identity. The authors pursue with determination a semantic analysis of the decorative program of the facade, not only following a political interpretation that relates to the victory at Actium, Augustan politics, and the role of Aphrodisias in the wider context of the province and the empire but also adopting different approaches. The religious and philosophical implications they suggest sometimes, however, push the interpretation of this iconographic program too far. Comic and satyr masks are seen as an allusion to “la vie envisagée par le sage comme une pièce de théâtre” (146) and to the mimus vitae (148), rather than as a common decorative pattern widely used in theaters (and elsewhere) from earlier periods. Similarly, one might hesitate to attribute to the Tritons an eschatological meaning that would permeate the whole scaenae frons, or to read many of the decorative elements as references to the symbolism of the ages of man.

The fact that the first stage building was preserved unmodified thanks to the transformation of the monument into a Byzantine fort makes this theater unique. In fact, the earlier phase dates to the very last years of the Hellenistic period, a delicate transitional phase in the history of theaters, at the edge between a consolidated Hellenistic tradition and newly appearing Roman trends. Falling between the construction of the theaters of Pompey and Marcellus, the two-story facade of the theater of Aphrodisias plays the role of guide for our knowledge of pre-imperial scene buildings and shows that Carian architects were aware of how to implement innovations that transformed the Hellenistic design. The architecture here also demonstrates that some features considered typical of the theaters of Asia Minor, such as the five-door design in the facade, were not yet widespread at the very beginning of the Imperial period. In this regard, the theater of Aphrodisias allows more precise evaluation of the relationship between Greek and Roman theater design.

In a volume aimed at specialists in theatrical architecture, a consistent use of the terminology regarding ancient theaters would have been welcome, especially due to the widespread use, even in specialized publications, of incorrect theatrical vocabulary. It is regrettable, for example, that the authors still retain words such as charonion to designate the vaulted corridor that runs beneath the stage building; use the expression “façade à thyromata” for facades pierced by openings on the upper level; and continue the custom of using Latin vocabulary for a theater in Asia Minor that bears Greek inscriptions labeling some of its constituent elements, thus offering precious data to modern scholars. For instance, the Molossos’ inscription (IAph: Inscriptions of Aphrodisias, 2017) 8.108: mid first century C.E.) designates the upper, horizontal section of the auditorium as τρίτον διάζωσμα, thus using a term that often occurs erroneously in current scholarship to describe the horizontal corridor that separates two tiers of seats. This is all the more regrettable because the authors themselves are well aware of the many problems of theatrical terminology, indicated for instance by their accurate analysis (30–31) of the issue of how to define λογήιον and προσκήνιον found in inscriptions from the theater of Aphrodisias (on this matter, and the development of the raised stage in Asia Minor, see most recently A. Öztürk, “Was Dörpfeld Right? Some Observations on the Development of the Raised Stage in Asia Minor,” in R. Frederiksen et al., eds., The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre. Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens 17 [Aarhus 2015] 381–89).

Readers not strong in French will benefit from detailed summaries in English and Turkish that complete this well-argued, elegant, pleasantly written, and richly illustrated volume. The extensive bibliography, spanning many languages, including modern Greek and Turkish, attests to the competence of the authors, but unfortunately it does not include works published after 2012, thus leaving aside some important recent contributions. The minor shortcomings mentioned above do not diminish the value of this book. It well deserves a place in scholarship about the architecture of ancient theaters and will soon become a standard reference work for scholars interested in the topic.

Valentina Di Napoli
Department of Theater Studies
University of Patras

Book Review of Le théâtre d’Aphrodisias: Les structures scéniques, by Nathalie de Chaisemartin and Dinu Theodorescu

Reviewed by Valentina Di Napoli

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.dinapoli

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.