The Great Theatre at Ephesus.

The ancient city of Ephesus is located outside the modern city of Selçuk on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey. Although the region was settled as early as 5000 BC, the city whose ruins we see today dates from the 3rd BC and are the product of Hellenistic city planning and Roman renovations. Lysimachus, the Thessalian general of Alexander the Great, relocated Ephesus to its present site and constructed the city using the then modern principles of urban development envisioned by Hippodamus of Miletus. Although Lysimachus is often credited with building the "Great Theatre" at this time, there is no evidence of a theatre in the initial construction phase of the city. Stefan Karwiese of the Österreichisches Archaologisches Insitut questions the existence of a theatre at Ephesus prior to 100 BC but acknowledges the possibility that Lysimachus may have chosen the building site prior to his death in 281 BC.

The Great Theatre at Ephesus - Photo: T. Hines 6/8/03

The magnificent theatre is set into the side of a steep hill at the center of the ancient city. Its design, location and conception may have benefited from Hellenistic influences but its size and ornamentations are the products of Empirical Rome. The theatre was built at the end of the Hellenistic period, but it was significantly altered and enlarged by the Romans during the following five centuries. The theatre remained in use until the 5th century AD.

A major Hellenistic construction phase in Ephesus at the end of the 3rd century BC most likely produced the initial theatre that featured a cavea with a single tier of seats, an orchestra with a drainage channel, and a simple one-story scaenae (stage house). Under the Romans, beginning about 40 AD, the theatre was expanded and renovated to become the massive structure that we see today.

The city of Ephesus grew considerably during the reign of Augustus and the Theatre expanded accordingly. During the reign of Nero in 54 BC, the scaenae was enlarged to eight rooms opening off of a central hallway. This phase of renovation was finished in 66 AD.

Between 87 and 92 AD, a renovation of the theatre, dedicated to the Emperor Domitian, enlarged the stage (pulpitum) and included a richly decorated two-story façade (scaenae frons). The open pardoi of the Hellenistic theatre were enclosed to produce covered side entrances (aditus maximus) to the cavea. At this time, the size of the cavea was increased by adding an additional tier of seating supported by vaulted substructures and reinforced by external retaining walls (analemmata). Sometime prior to 262 AD, a third story was added to the scaena and a third tier of seats was added to the cavea.

"Date of construction: 3rd c BC (Hellenistic); 1st c. to 5th c renovations (Roman)
Roman Cavea width:142 m (466 f); Orchestra width 25,8 m. (84.6 f); stage width 25,4 m. (86.6 f); stage depth: 5,56 m. (18.24 f)
67 rows of seating: ima cavea, 24 rows. 11 cuni; media, 22 rows, 22 cuni; summa, 21 rows, 22 cuni.
Roman seating capacity: 17.000 to 21.000."

Earthquakes between 359 and 366 destroyed the upper cavea, and although repairs to the northern retaining walls were completed Under Arkadios (395-408 AD), the upper cavea was abandoned. An epigram celebrates the proconsul Messalinus, who was responsible for the completion of the repairs. By the 8th century AD the theatre had been incorporated into the defensive fortifications for the city. The theatre continues to be used each May at the Selçuk Ephesus Festival of Culture and Art.

The Roman cavea at Ephesus is larger than a semicircle, with three tiers of seats separated into wedges (cunei) by two diazomata and 58 staircases. The first tier of seats has twelve staircases, while the second and third tiers had twenty-three each. Made of marble, the cavea held 17,000 to 22,000 spectators and measured 140 by 95 meters. The steepness of the rows increases above each diazomata for the benefit of those sitting at the back of the theatre. There was a colonnade above and behind the uppermost tier of cavea seating. An awning (velum) that provided weather protection to the cavea was added in the middle of the second century AD. The velum was still in use a century later as records show repairs to the awning in 205 and 240 AD. The theatre was never covered by a roof. Vitruvius writes that theatres in Asia Minor also featured bronze or clay sounding vessels placed around the cavea to help improve acoustics. These may have been present at Ephesus.

Water run-off channels surrounded the semicircular orchestra. In Roman times the orchestra was covered with slabs of marble, some of which were green. When the Roman stage was completed it projected twenty feet into the orchestra. Thus, compared with Vitruvius' model scheme of the Hellenistic theatre, the proscenium cuts into the "basic circle" of the orchestra by three and a quarter feet; however, this amount is made up for almost exactly by the reduction in the radius of the orchestra caused by the water drain. The stage was eight and a half feet tall and rested on supporting piers. The proskenion, which was the same length as the stage, featured Doric columns five and a half feet high that rested on three-foot wide stone supports. The columns were spaced at twenty-one foot intervals. The central interval was wider than the rest, and held a stairway leading from the stage into the orchestra. The colonnade architecture of the scaenae frons included niches for statues and seven large rectangular openings (thyromata), which may have been used as doors or contained scenic elements, depending on the production requirements.

The Great Theatre at Ephesus - Photo: T. Hines 6/8/03
A major Hellenistic construction phase in Ephesus at the end of the second century BC most likely produced the initial theatre that featured a cavea with a single tier of seats, an orchestra with a drainage channel, and a simple one-story scaenae (stage house).
Under the Romans, beginning about 40 AD, the theatre was expanded and renovated to become the massive structure that we see today.

In the 4th century a high peripheral wall was built around the orchestra to protect the audience from injury during the often-violent gladiatorial contests and circus-like entertainments that had become popular. The orchestra was also made waterproof and served as a kolymbethra (water filled pool used for aquatic displays). Before the wall was built there had been an iron railing between the orchestra and the cavea.

St. Paul argued with the silversmith Demetrius at the theatre at Ephesus. Demetrius responded to Paul's preaching by encouraging the crowd in a chant of "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" Demetrius' alleged motive was to protect the business he had selling silver statues of the Goddess. The theatre was probably still under construction when Paul spoke at Ephesus in the mid-1st century AD.

Ephesus was first excavated by British archaeologist J.T. Wood from 1863-1874. He was primarily concerned with the Artemision (Temple of Artemis), which he located in 1869. Austrian excavations of the site began in 1894 under W. Wiberg. The theatre was one of the first sites the Austrians excavated. Austrian excavations continued until the outbreak of World War I, resumed 1926-35 and have continued from 1954 to the present in connection with the Österreichisches Archäeologisches Institut. In the 1970s and from 1993-8, the cavea was excavated and restored. Since 1997 the work on the theatre has focused on the reconstruction of the scaenae frons. Excavators are photographing, drawing, and cataloguing all the fragments of the scaenae frons that were found collapsed in the orchestra. Austrian teams will analyze this information to determine how the reconstruction of the scaenae frons should proceed. As of 2001, the Ephesus excavations were under the direction of Fritz Krinzinger.

- Author: Amanda Heffernan (student research assistant), Whitman College. 2003