The archaeological site of the Asklepieion, and the unique Ancient Theater of Epidaurus, make up the first choice for visitors of Argolis. It is located circa 30 km from Nafplio and 4 km from Ligourio, while since 1988, it is included in the list of world heritage sites of UNESCO.
History of the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus
The Asclepeion of Epidavros was one of the great national sanctums of antiquity. It belonged to Epidavros, a small city-state of the classical times, that was located at the nearest western coast of Saronikos bay, where nowadays lies the community of Palea Epidaurus. Along the basis of an ancient worship, the therapeutic art was developed in that place, since the 6th century BC and the sanctum was considered the cradle of medical science. In the 4th century BC, it was decorated with glorious buildings, such as the temple of Asclepius and the building “Tholos”.
The well preserved theater of the sanctum was built between 340 BC and 330 BC, by the architect from Argos, Polykleitos Neoteros, and it was already in antiquity famous for its perfection and harmony. The theater was built for the amusement of Asclepeion’s patients, but also as a method of treatment, as there was the notion that watching theater had beneficial results to the mental and physical health of patients. In it, musical, singing and dramatical events would take place, while drama shows that were included in the worship of Asclepius would also take place.
Architecture of the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus
The theater is comprised of the circular orchestra in the center, where the actors and chorus would play, and the cavea, which is the semi-circular part around the orchestra, with the seats for the spectators. Across the cavea and behind the circle of the orchestra, the oblong building of the stage (“skene”) is located. The stage would service the actors, it was where the necessary things for the operation of the theater would be kept, while its facade was part of the scenery of the play. At the center of the orchestra, there is a round altar, “themeli”, devoted to Dionysus.
Spectators would enter from two large and impressive gates at the side of the stage and between the stage and the cavea. The cavea is divided into two sections, the lowest having thirty four rows of seats and the upper having twenty one rows. The two sections are divided by a wide walkway. The capacity of the theater is estimated that would reach 13.000 to 14.000 spectators.
The material used for its construction was local grey and red limestone for the cavea, and soft porous stone for the stage, that is sound absorbing in the same way as the human body. The harmony of this Theater is the result of its unique architecture, based on a normal pentagon, within which the orchestra is outlined, as well as the use of three centers for the carving of the curved rows of the cavea.
The theater was in use for many centuries. In 395 AC, Goths who invaded Peloponnese, caused severe damage to the Asclepeion. In 426 AC. Theodosios the Great forbid by a decree the operation of all Asclepius, and the sanctum of Epidaurus finally closes down, after nearly 1.000 years of operation. Natural disasters and human intervention completed the desolation of the area.
Modern Greece and the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus
The ancient theater was uncovered after excavation performed by archaeologist P. Kavvadias, during 1881-83 and continued under the care of the Athenian Archaeological until 1926. A few years later, in 1938, the first play was staged in the ancient theater of Epidavros. The play was the tragedy “Electra” by Sofokles, starring Katina Paksinou and Eleni Papadaki. Following that, the plays ceased due to World War II, but in the early 50s, reconstruction took place, so that a large number of spectators can be seated, while in 1955, the Festival of Epidavros was inaugurated, where plays are staged every summer. For the Festival of Epidavros, some of the greatest Greek and foreign actors have appeared in Epidaurus, as well as the famous Greek soprano, Maria Kallas.