Theatre of Dionysus in Athens

A guide to the Theatre of Dionysus.

Situated on the southern slopes of Acropolis Hill stands the Theatre of Dionysus, dedicated to the god of wine. This was the world’s first theatre where all the well known Ancient Greek tragedies, comedies, and satyrs were first performed with the performers wearing elaborate costumes and masks.

Theatre productions were really popular and at its largest,  the theatre could accommodate an exuberant audience of 16,000 people.

The Theatre of Dionysus was built as part of the Sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus (Dionysus the Liberator) by Peisistratos in the mid- 6th century BC. The original theatre was a large circular area of flattened mud and spectators stood around to watch the performance.

The theatre was modified and extended a hundred years later when the circular stage (orchestra) was constructed from large slabs of stone with large gateways (parodoi) at either side. Seating was also installed.

The seats were long benches constructed in semicircular rows (cavea) that were steeply tiered so all spectators could get a good view. There were staircases at regular intervals so that the audience could climb to the top rows easily.

The theatre was further expanded in the 4th century when additional seating was added, this was made from marble brought from Piraeus. There were two new walkways (diazoma) installed between the seating,  which could now accommodate 16,000 people. 67 elegantly carved marble thrones were placed in the front row and these were reserved for different dignitaries as each was engraved with a name.

The central throne was particularly large and ornate and this was reserved for the Bishop of Dionysus. Three large bronze statues were erected at the main east entrance, depicting the famous Ancient Greek playwrights- Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. The Theatre of Dionysus had become the largest Ancient Greek theatre in the world.

The highlight each year was a week-long drama competition- the Festival of Dionysia- which was held in March/April to welcome the spring. To mark the beginning of the event there was a procession through the streets of Athens with the public happily dancing and playing instruments alongside.

Five different plays were performed for the judges to select a winner. Just three actors took part in each play and they were always male. If there was a woman’s part in a play, this was played by a man wearing a mask.

Famous plays by the ancient Greek writers were regularly performed in the competition. One of the best known to this day is Bacchae by Euripides which had the god Dionysus as the central character.   

The Theatre of Dionysus was always extremely popular and competition for a seat was strong. Active participation by members of the audience was encouraged and a conversation between the performers and audience were expected and all part of the fun. The audience was thought to be only men.

The Theatre of Dionysus continued to be popular in Hellenistic and Roman times until the conquest of Athens by Sulla in 86BC when the city and the Theatre of Dionysus were partially destroyed.

The theatre was later restored by Nero in the 1st century AD and he added the Romanesque style semi-circular stage that can still be seen today. Later a small speaker’s platform (bema) was added. By the 5th century, the theatre had fallen into disrepair and lay untouched for centuries.

Excavation work on the Theatre of Dionysus was begun by the Archaeological Society of Athens in 1838 and it continued until the 1880s. Excavation and restoration work on the site was re-started in the 1980s and continues to this day.

Like with all Ancient Greek theatres, the acoustics of the Theatre of Dionysus were excellent. The acoustics have not been reconstructed yet, but comparisons have been made by archaeologists with other theatres.

Scientific analysis has been made on the nearby Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the acoustics for spoken dialogue was found to be exceptionally good, which is a testament to the sophistication of the Ancient Greeks.

Key information for visiting the Theatre of Dionysus.

  • The Theatre of Dionysus is situated on the southern slopes of Acropolis Hill and is a short walk from Syntagma Square (the center of Athens.
  • The nearest Metro station is Acropolis (Akropolis) Line 2.
  • Visitors to the Theatre of Dionysus are recommended to wear flat, comfortable shoes as there are steps to climb.
You can also see the map here

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