Historical Analysis Through Architecture: Determining Cultural Values of Ancient Greece and Rome Through The Study of The Theater at Epidauros and The Theater of Pompey In many ancient cultures, before written languages were created, the primary form of historical documentation was through story telling, which later developed into the art of theater. The origins of this art form can be traced back to Ancient Greece, which proved to be greatly influential on the culture of Ancient Rome. The theatrical arts serve as an exemplary source in understanding the culture of a civilization.
Many would say that Architecture, if explored to its maximum potential, is also capable of weaving stories of its own. When carefully studied and analyzed, surviving buildings of significance reveal a plethora of historical knowledge, including cultural values and technological capabilities of the civilization of whence it was created. The designs of Roman and Greek theatres, specifically the theater at Epidauros and the Theater of Pompey, reveal a difference in cultural values of Ancient Greece and Rome. Greek theatre originates with the inebriated merriments of followers of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine.
Dancing, singing, and stories of Greek mythology began to take a choral form. In 6th century B. C. , a priest of Dionysus engaged in a dialogue with the “chorus”, an element that marks the birth of theatre as its known today. Theatrical contests emerged and became a regular event within the annual festivities honoring Dionysus. Through the performances, the semblance of a theater begins to emerge. The chorus and actors would perform in a circular area called the orchestra, derived from orchester or dancer, with an altar in the center and a wooden structure (scene) behind it.
Large masks were used for the purposes of costume and projection. Large amounts of citizens would gather and sit along the slope of the Athenian hillside overlooking the “stage”, setting precedence to a raked auditorium, an exclusive contribution to architecture from the Greeks. Over time the layout of a typical Greek theater developed into three main parts, the theatron or cavea (audience), the orchestra (stage) and the skene (stage building). Other components such as the orchestra pit were slowly added with time. The theater of Epidauros serves as the best example of a classical Greek theater.
It is known to surpass all others in harmony and beauty. Epidauros was the birthplace of Apollo’s son, Asclepius, also known as the healer. The asclepieion, a healing temple, became the most popular healing center in the classical world and its success brought upon the construction of civic monuments, most notably the theater, designed by Polykleitos the Younger in 4th century B. C. The seats, arranged in 55 semi-circular rows, lay nicely along the natural curve and slope of Mount Kynortion. The orchestra is perfectly circular (See Figure 1).
A water canal that collects and drains rain water runs between the last two wedges of the curves of the auditorium. The auditorium covers more than a semi-circle around the orchestra. Usually this arouses the problem of people at the ends facing away from the stage and more towards the orchestra pit. Awkward walls jut out near the entrances and exits, like in the theater at Delos. Instead of solving this by cutting a straight line through the diameter of the orchestra pit, Polykleitos widened the circle without seemingly changing the radius. He also designed the upper band of seats with a steeper slant.
With a consistent regular slant, heads of spectators will limit the vision of those that sit behind them. This now commonly used principle of a steeper slope higher up allows all spectators to see comfortably. One of the extraordinary features of the theater at Epidauros is the acoustics of the amphitheater. Spectators as far as the last row have been able to hear actors and musician clearly without the use of microphones or amps. Researches at the Georgia Institute of Technology discovered that the cause of this is in the material used in the theatron, limestone.
The limestone offers a filtering effect that suppresses frequencies lower than 500 hertz, minimizing background and crowd noises, while reflecting higher frequencies back into the audience, undiminished. Unfortunately, it did not seem that Greek architects in the past have fully understood the science behind this effect because later attempts of duplication were not as successful with acoustics as Epidauros was. Looking out towards the stage is a breathtaking view of the landscape that frames and serves as a natural backdrop behind the orchestra and low skene. The continued use of having he seating nestled into the hillside shows integration with nature, of which has not diminished since the birth of Greek theatre. This emphasizes the importance and respect for nature within Greek culture. Culturally the Romans were greatly influence by the Greeks, especially in theatre. Like the Greeks, Roman theatre derives from religious festivals. The Romans adopted the basic layout of the Greek theater with the addition of a major element, the scaenae frons, an elaborately decorated background to the stage. They preferred construction of their own foundations instead of earthen works or a hillside.
Roman theaters are completely closed on all sides and sometimes covered by an awning all of which exudes an enclosed and protective ambiance rather than an open and natural one provided by Greek theaters. Permanent theaters were banned until Pompey was inspired to build his theater in 55 B. C. after seeing the Greek theater in Mytilene. The Theater of Pompey was the first permanent Roman theater, the first one to be constructed with stone and concrete and one of the most monumental theaters in ancient Rome. As a result, subsequent theaters used it as a template with minor alterations and changes in measurements.
The characteristics of the Theater of Pompey are similar to that of the theater at Epidauros; however, there are specific aesthetic and functional differences. On top of the cavea, or audience seating, sits the Temple of Venus Victrix. This allowed Pompey to avoid censorial objections by stating that the cavea were stairs leading to the temple. On the opposite side across the cavea and orchestra, Roman theaters introduced the crypta, or area behind the stage (See Figure 2). The crypta of this theater, also known as Porticus Pompey, was the largest of any roman theater.
Fully enclosed was a decorated garden with sculptures and fountains surrounded by long columned porticoes. This served as a gathering place or for people to leisurely walk about. Unlike the Greeks, the stage is connected to the auditorium creating an enclosed space. This provided better acoustics, except in the case of Epidauros, and crowd control. The Romans preferred to build their own foundation using concrete, instead of earthen works, allowing the creation of vaulted corridors under the seating, which provided easier, safer and faster access to different sections of the auditorium.
This transformed the theater into a structure within itself. The foundation allowed the theater to be built within the city limits and on completely flat ground. These differences in design provide insight within each culture. The integration of the theater within the landscape tells us that the Greeks embraced nature more so than the Romans. The Romans enclosed and shaped nature. From the beginning, Romans wanted to control and shape their rituals while ancient Greeks reveled in a drunken frenzy. Greece’s annual theatrical festivals exhibits the preservation and importance of tradition and respect for their history, religion and culture.
Vincent Scully concludes, “Roman architecture both pursues its own ancient objectives and adapts those developed by post-Classic Greece… Rome changes the Greek relationship to nature by enclosing it within a hollow shell”. The complexity of Pompey’s design prompted changes in the theater’s function. In Roman society, uses of the theater expanded from a performance venue to a gallery and meeting place (the crypta). The enclosure of the theater and the added circulation space under the seats provided crowd control and structure. The religious importance was more lavishly displayed through the Temple of Venus sitting at the top of the cavae.
On the other hand, at Epidauros, a large stone with a hole in the middle lies in the center of the orchestra or the ideal center of the theater, representative of where the altar used to be. Ancient Roman society has a complexity about it that seems to be resulted from a need for control and enclosure of nature. Ancient Greek society finds complacency and inspiration from nature. “They put their instinctive trust in the abstract, geometric works of man”. The interesting notion about ancient Greek civilization is that they combined nature’s fact with human’s desire very eloquently, thus, achieving balance and harmony.
In analyzing the architecture of the theater at Epidauros and the Theater of Pompey, differences in cultural values in Ancient Greek and Roman society became evident. Vitruvius states that, “The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to test. ” The study and practice of Architecture requires many different kinds of knowledge to be exercised; knowledge of proportion, knowledge of nature, knowledge of theory, knowledge of history, knowledge of philosophy, knowledge of culture and arts.
Architects that are well educated in theory and practice have the potential to tell timeless stories through their buildings, potentially leaving a lasting remembrance of everything the building embodies from its era. Bibliography Berve, Helmut and Gottfried Gruben. Greek Temples, Theatres, and Shrines. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. , 1963. Chao, Tom. “Mystery of Greek Amphitheater’s Amazing Sound Finally Solved. ” Live Science. http://www. livescience. com/7269-mystery-greek-amphitheater-amazing-sound-finally-solved. html (accessed 10/4, 2011). Fossum, Andrew. “Harmony in the Theatre at Epidauros. American Journal of Archaeology 30, no. 1 (1926): 70-75. Packer, James. “The Theatre in Antiquity – I. ” King’s College in London. http://www. pompey. cch. kcl. ac. uk/Historyofthe_Theater. htm (accessed 9/20, 2011). Polster, Joshua. “The Theater of the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus ” Whitman College. http://www. whitman. edu/theatre/theatretour/epidaurus/commentary/epidaurus. commentary. htm (accessed 9/20, 2011). Richardson, L. Jr. “A Note on the Architecture of the Theatrum Pompei in Rome. ” American Journal of Archaeology 91, no. 1 (1987): 123-126, http://www. jstor. org/stable/505461 (accessed September 15, 2011).
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