New research on the Hellenistic Theatre in Apollonia

The German Archaeological Institute is working at Apollonia in Albania to try and understand the original form of the theatre there and to attempt at least a partial reconstruction. Their goal is to reconstruct the theatre in a basic form and record changes over time, dating individual phases and fitting them into the history of the city.

The theatre at Apollonia poses several important questions including about local variations in theatre plans (in terms of Greek theatres it is an unusual plan, but it may have counterparts in other Illyrian cities) and the date of the introduction of formal theatres (a sequence of phases under the stage and orchestra may suggest that there was some kind of theatre in the pre-Hellenistic period).

At work on the orchestra area 
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut 
Apollonia’s theatre is located in the centre of the town on the western slope of the hill and provides a connection between the upper and lower town. Theatres are a key element of cities in the Hellenistic period. Archaic and classical period towns had buildings and facilities used for the staging of performances and the Assembly of citizens, and also a central area for gatherings and speeches, but the conventional form of theatre construction, being a monumental structure with a large area for spectators including places for notables and a structured stage dates mainly to the second half of the 4th and the 3rd centuries BC. Since then, all cities possessed some type of theatre.

In the Hellenistic period in addition to the traditional function, theatres were used for the performance of games, a place where citizens were honoured by their polis, and were sometimes the physical manifestation of benefaction by wealthy citizens who wished to conspicuously display their wealth. They may also have been used for cultic practices.  Thus, the theatre was an important place for the cultural tradition and social hierarchy of a town.

Since the 3rd century BC monumental theatres were a key part of towns situated at the edge of the Greek world, for example in Babylon (Mesopotamia) and Ai Khanoum (Bactria).  The theatre may have held the role of a signifier of Hellenistic culture. However, in the Greek cities of the Hellenistic period, there is a huge variety of size, type, features and location of the theatre on the Greek mainland and in Asia Minor and in some cities of central importance theatres have not yet been discovered (for example Alexandria, Antioch, Pella).

The Germans are examining several theatres in Albania in order to shed light on the questions posed above.  The theatres are all currently dated to the second half of the 3rd century BC and are in three cities with very different characteristics.

Excavations in the theatre of Apollonia started in the seventies (1971) and in the orchestra, the stage and at the bottom of the cavea.  The orchestra was circa. 18 m in diameter and individual sectors of the cavea were marked with letters that have been associated with individual tribes on the front of the lowest level. It is calculated that the capacity of the theatre was between 6,000 - 8,000. The stage had a proscenium with the Ionic order and places for paintings. Less certain is that there may have been a second Ionic order with a scroll and a richly decorated Doric frieze. The decoration may give some clue to dating, though of course there may have been alterations over time. In Late Antiquity a basilica was built, with the apse covering part of the original backstage buildings.

Drainage under the orchestra 
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut 
A programme of documentation and stone removal is now underway. A donor’s inscription has been discovered (YΛOY YIOΣ TAPANTINOΣ ANA), and a graphic reconstruction made of the parodos. This investigation has shown that the parodos of the theatre at Byllis has been wrongly reconstructed. The orchestra channel has been exposed and documented and a greater understanding reached of the transformations in Roman times. It will at some point be possible to know when the orchestra was remodelled for gladiatorial shows with the front seats being removed for the construction of a parapet.
The foundations of the Hellenistic proscenium have been uncovered and traces of wooden fixtures in the orchestra found which may have either been to do with the original construction or wooden structures in their own right.

A great number of the stones are no longer in position, having been robbed or moved to other structures.  However, the north wall of the Hellenistic building can now be assigned and geomagnetic surveys showed that 3rd century BC residential buildings close to the top of the cavea were removed to create an open space at a time when the theatre was expanded. The main entrance was probably in the centre of the auditorium, and there were probably superstructures which gave more seating. The space to the west was fairly open and designed to be highly visible from afar, similar to the situation of the theatre at Byllis.

Work on the project continues, but it is clear that a huge amount of new information is being revealed that will shed light not only on the theatres in Albania but on the development of theatres throughout the Greek world.

Image from geophysical survey  Deutsches Archäologisches Institut