Palea Epidavros, Argolis, Peloponnese

History of the venue

The Little Theatre was originally the theatre of the city-state of Epidaurus, situated on the coast of the Saronic Gulf. This city controlled the major religious centre that was the Sanctuary of Asklepios situated in the nearby mountainous interior, a four-hour walk away. The area of the ancient city, which shows traces of habitation dating back to the third millennium BC, has yet to be systematically excavated, but remains dating to later periods can be clearly seen scattered across the entire area of the small, hilly “Nisi” peninsula, on the slopes of the isthmus that links it to the mainland.

Construction, history and architecture

In its original form, the theatre of the city of Epidaurus dates to the 4th century BC. Unlike the famous, roughly contemporary theatre of the Sanctuary of Asklepios (the Epidaurus Ancient Theatre), which was designed to seat large numbers of pilgrims from across Greek world at major festivals, the Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus was built to meet the needs of the inhabitants of the small city alone. It was consequently much smaller (9 tiers with 18 rows of benches, seating some 2,000 people). All the stone seats were carved with the names of horegoi (sponsors) and civic officials. From these we learn that the theatre was dedicated to the god Dionysus. Building work must have continued sporadically into the Hellenistic period. During the Roman period the theatre underwent major modification work: the stone seats were rearranged, the orchestra was made semi-circular, and the original stage building was replaced with a new one built closer to the auditorium. The site hosted theatrical performances, as well as civic events. Pausanias, who visited the city of Epidaurus in the mid-2nd century AD, speaks of the temples, the agora (market place) and harbour, but makes no mention of the theatre.

Brief archaeological timeline

The Ancient Epidaurus Little Theatre was in use for around seven centuries. When discovered, it was entirely covered by an olive grove. Excavation work, under the direction of Evangelia Deilaki, began in the early 1970s and proceeded slowly. For many years, isolated cube-shaped clods of earth sprouting olive trees stood among the rows of seats in the half-excavated theatre – a strange site indeed for those looking into the area from the boundary fences. After a break in activities, excavations were resumed in the 1990s and have continued on a more systematic basis down to the present day; they have been accompanied by the reconstruction and site promotion activities of the Committee for the Conservation of the Monuments of Epidaurus (CCME) on behalf of the Greek Ministry of Culture. Work at the site has revealed the theatre in its Roman form.
The proscenium was situated close to the auditorium, giving the orchestra a roughly semi-circular shape. Some sections of the lower courses of the proscenium wall survive today, while the wall of the stage building, bolstered by its posts and columns, is in better condition. The proscenium was modified during the later Roman period. The proscenium wall dating to this phase survives in excellent condition. The stone seats missing from the upper rows were used during later antiquity for the construction of a fortification wall at the top of the peninsula. Parts of the auditorium and stage building lie underneath the adjoining rural road. An old two-storey house stands behind the area of the stage. The restoration work being done at the ancient theatre by the CCME is gradually increasing the number of available seats, which currently stands at 800.

The Theatre and the Festival

Requests to use the little theatre of Ancient Epidaurus for performances were turned down for many years due to the fact that it had not yet been fully excavated. Its eventual reuse, under strict conditions, was made possible through the collaboration of the Friends of Music Society, the conservation team of the monument, the Greek Ministries of Culture and Tourism, and the local authorities. Private sponsors also played an important role. In July 1995, a trial “mini” festival of four performances – known as Musical July – was organized by the Friends of Music Society. Some limited work was done beforehand to prepare the surrounding area, and an access path was created, leading from the harbour to the theatre.
The little festival made a name for itself almost immediately, attracting additional private sponsors whose financial assistance allowed it to become self-financing. The number of events staged doubled the following year. Since then, the Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus has hosted events over eight days every July. In 2002, Musical July was brought under the aegis of the Hellenic Festival. Since 1998, an exhibition of local agricultural products, organized in collaboration with the Greek Ministry of Agriculture, has been held in tandem with Musical July, which is helping efforts to develop agri-tourism in Greece.
Palea Epidavros, Argolis, Peloponnese