Quick Navigation

Theater of Dionysus, restoration in spotlight

Controversy over the birthplace of ancient drama reveals different approaches to dealing with archaeological sites

By John Leonard
A minor dust cloud has been rising over the Theater of Dionysus, on the southern slope of the Acropolis in Athens, since November 25, 2010, when the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that 6 million euros would be spent for restoration of the beloved monument  the celebrated birthplace of ancient drama.

This seemingly ominous news quickly spread, eventually passing down the halls of the Archaeology and Classics departments at universities around the world, and a month later a petition signed by 53 archaeologists and professors from Greece, joined by professors from Germany, Canada, the USA and Britain appeared in the local press (Kathimerini, December 30, 2009).

Decrying the plan, the petition termed it a vulgar stage design out of character with the singular site and suggested that the money allotted could be better spent in other, more useful ways. On the surface, 6 million euros does seem like a large sum and restoration if total  of the Theater of Dionysus would certainly change the character of the archaeological site.

However, as with many controversial issues publically aired in the media, there is more to the story at the root of which evidently lies a common concern for the preservation of ancient Greek monuments but also occasional disagreement over how archaeological sites should be managed and presented to the public.

Much of the recent controversy surrounding the Theater of Dionysus seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the Culture Ministry’s intentions at the site.

Partial restoration is a significant part of the six-year program, according to architect Constantinos Boletis but also planned for 2010-15 are various works intended to preserve the hillside monument from the ill-effects of erosion and the passage of time. The scheme, encompassing the theater itself and the choregic Monument of Thrasyllus at the top of the cavea (auditorium), was approved like all such projects undertaken by the ministry  only after passing the scrutiny of numerous archaeological experts, officials, and committees, including the Central Archaeological Council (KAS).

The basic principles underlying the final plan, according to Boletis, are preservation, visitor safety and comprehensible presentation of the site in a manner as historically accurate as possible.

Largely forgotten since the Culture Ministry’s November announcement has been the philanthropic decision by the Athens Prefecture, encouraged by the archaeological organization Diazoma (www.diazoma.gr), to provide the funds necessary to proceed with the Theater of Dionysus project.

Minister of Culture Pavlos Geroulanos praised these supportive actions in his statement in late November and emphasized that concern for Greece’s culture and cultural heritage extends beyond the responsible ministry to all Greeks, Greek citizens and other welcome like-minded allies. Geroulanos’s positive message, however, was overshadowed by the flurry of reaction to his unqualified use of the word ‘restoration’.

Sensitivity, some might say justified paranoia, on the part of specialists and the lay public concerning the restoration of ancient Greek sites should come as no surprise, given the vast number of ancient monuments that have been, are being or soon will be restored to some degree all over Greece.

Tourism, often perceived by archaeologists as more of a bane than a boon, has played a role in encouraging restoration, since the unspoken rule states that archaeological sites with no standing (or at least partially restored) architecture attract fewer visitors and consequently generate less revenue in ticket sales. Such revenue is important to the Ministry of Culture because it facilitates the ministry’s ability to operate, maintain and preserve archaeological sites.

Nevertheless, limits to restoration are advisable and frequently a subject of debate among bureaucrats, architects and archaeologists. Signs of restoration are already evident at the Theater of Dionysus. Since 2002, funds from the European Union’s 3rd Community Support Program have been tapped for the repair and partial restoration of the western flanking retaining wall that supports the theater’s cavea, the walls of the paradoi (southern corridors leading into the orchestra), several statue bases in the paradoi and about a dozen of the cavea?s lowest rows of seats. Above the cavea, the Monument of Thrasyllus is also currently being partly restored.

The recently funded upcoming program will focus on completion of works at the Thrasyllus Monument, repair and partial restoration of the theater’s eastern flanking retaining wall, erection of a statue of Menander, the 4th-century BC Athenian dramatist and most respected writer of New Comedy. In the western parados, partial restoration within rows 16-28 in the cavea’s central three cunei (wedge-shaped sections) and stabilization and conservation of the eroded upper area of the cavea, now without seating and overgrown with grass, that represents the ancient theater’s uppermost rows (30-68) (see below).

In addition, four staircases within the central three cunei now comprising deteriorating wooden steps ? will be reconstructed in stone to the level of the peripatos, the pathway circumjacent to the Acropolis that passes above the theater (ancient seating above the peripatos is conjectural).

The ‘restoration’ of the Theater of Dionysus, then, actually calls for a combination of partial restoration, reconstruction and preventative conservation of the ancient site. Upon completion of the 2010-15 program, Boletis asserts, in situ ancient seats will be stabilized, the cavea as a whole will be better fortified against collapse by the strengthening of its retaining walls, erosion will be reduced due to better water management, access between the theater and peripatos will be safer and easier and visitors? understanding of the important monument will be enhanced.

To have someone other than the Culture Ministry pick up the tab for all these improvements seems a gift not to be regarded lightly. And that tab, compared to the hundreds of millions of euros spent elsewhere in Greece on restoration and preservation of historic sites, seems relatively low.

Built in the second half of the 5th century BC and greatly renovated a century later, the Theater of Dionysus boasted 68 rows of seats (including VIP seats) extending from the orchestra to the peripatos. The cavea could hold an audience of almost 19,000 people. After the late 5th century AD, the theater was abandoned: Its orchestra became an enclosed courtyard for a Christian basilica built into the eastern parados, while its cavea served as a stone quarry. Nearly all seats between rows 29-68 have disappeared ? apparently reused as building material in neighborhoods around the Acropolis, especially in Plaka. Today, the highest seats preserved in situ lie in row 29, within the centermost cuneus of the cavea.

The Culture Ministry’s restorations of the theater will extend only to row 28, an area encompassing perhaps less than a fifth of the cavea’s total original area. An average of 80 percent of the seats in all restored areas will consist of ancient material. In the three central cunei to be restored during the 2010-15 program, 61 seats will be crafted entirely in new stone, 60 additions in new stone will be attached to fragmentary ancient seats and 180 new stone steps will be used to construct four staircases.