Magnificence in Theatres

In the classical world, theatre was in origin a religious ritual associated with the god Dionysos, whose temple (or sometimes just altar) is often adjacent to the theatre building. At Pergamum, the steeply raked seating flows down to a narrow terrace on which stood the stage building, the sockets for the wooden beams of which are still in place; the temple is to one side so that, as it were, the god might watch the performances, as well as keeping an eye on the market at the other end of the same terrace.

Giving points for impressiveness depends on one's interests: if scenery is important, then it would be difficult to beat Pergamum, or Arycandra, which has been called "the Turkish Delphi", and with good reason. However, given that so many theatres have a beautiful setting, were they in fact so sited to take advantage of the views, or were they simply built against a convenient hill? At Pergamum, given the extremely steep rake of the seating, nothing could block out the view, which is magnificent; at Miletus, the theatre looked out over what was then the sea. At Tlos, the theatre spectators would face the acropolis, but a full view of this would be blocked by the frons scenae; at Pinara, the site is so low (little more than sea level) and the theatre is so placed that the major part of the city, plus the necropolis to the north, would be visible above the frons scenae. At Cyaneae and at Alinda, as at Pergamum, the theatre is so high that nothing could block out the view of the valley.


To the visitor used to Roman sites further West, the relative dearth of amphitheatres in Turkey is a little puzzling. Amphitheatres were an exception here, because an imported idea, and one which perhaps appeared barbaric to the indigenous Greeks. The necessary arenas for gladiatorial combats with men and animals were sometimes adapted from theatres (Kyzikos, Pergamum) or stadia (Perge, Aphrodisias, Laodicia ad Lycum). Perhaps refitting became the norm in the later Empire. The slight adjustments needed to protect the spectators from this more dangerous form of theatre (such as the removal of seating, and the insertion of safety barriers) have left clear signs at many sites (the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens, for example), and at several in Turkey, as at Termessos, Miletus, Assos and Pergamum (De Bernardi Ferrero 1974, 145-52 for details); and other structures have subsequently become caravanserays (Aspendos) or fortresses (Miletus).

The Stadium and Hippodrome

The stadium for foot-racing and the circus for chariot-racing (hippodrome) neatly illustrate the differences in attitude and scale between Greek and Roman leisure activities. The stadium (a structural type which survives nearly as well as theatres, and for some of the same reasons) was for the foot-race, a simple activity whose religious origins were well remembered by the Greeks. All that was needed for such races was a track of the requisite length, perhaps with banked seats to either side: see Olympia, with starting marks, a grassy bank for the spectators, and water in channels for refreshment. At Perge, the stadium is next to the gymnasium, to which it forms a natural extension: the ground is flat here, so vaulted foundations support the twelve rows of seating. At Tlos, steps up the slope of the acropolis also do service for spectators at stadium events, on flat ground at the foot of the same hill. This might also have been the case at Kadarinda, north of Fethiye. The top of this high hill, covering vaulted cisterns, is surely the agora; but the area is fringed by six rows of seats (not just steps, for they are lipped). At Didyma the stadium, echoing perhaps the religious origins of sport, was adjacent to the temple. In Roman times, running and exercising take place within the baths - huge complexes sometimes the size of a small village. The stadium, as a separate building, therefore becomes irrelevant - or, rather, changes its size and purpose. That is, its shape (a long narrow track with banked seating and one semi-circular end) could be enlarged for chariot-racing, and a central spine inserted round which the teams could race. One might perhaps say that the stadium became a hippodrome.


The most prestigious of all hippodromes was in Constantinople, and its basic shape is still preserved in the layout of At Meydani, together with some of the ornaments of its central spina, or division, around which the chariots raced. Indeed, this is one of the few locations in Istanbul where the traveller may conjure up the appearance of the ancient city. The scale of the site impresses and, although the starting gates and seating have gone (the bronze quadriga from above the former to S. Mark's, Venice), the massive substructures needed to support the semi-circular end on a steeply sloping site (28) remain. The spina was embellished by Constantine, reports Zosimus (II, 30-31), with every type of beautiful ornament. Some elements of that decoration survive, such as the remains of the famous bronze tripod brought here from Delphi, and two obelisks. In fact, the spina apparently preserved a large part of its decoration of statues in bronze and marble right up to the disastrous Sack of the city by the Crusaders in 1204. Much admired by travellers, it is interesting to note that the old and very "Roman" sport of chariot racing was still in progress there in the tenth century, and wild animal fights even later. In the twelfth century a guest was treated to acrobatics and singing, while another in 1162/3 mentions juggling - but also fights between animals (Van der Vin 1980, I, 266-71; II, 487, 516, 530). In the West, chariot racing had not outlived the fall of the Empire; and fights between men and animals were considered un-Christian. The animal-animal fights at Constantinople were perhaps a compromise.

Other adjustments to stadia were also possible: at Aphrodisias, for instance (SB5.2), an additional structure has been built within it, conceivably for gladiatorial contests - just as we find the "front stalls" removed from some theatres, and barriers erected instead, as at Miletus, or on the Greek island of Thasos.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey