Looking at the altar now overgrown with weeds in the theater of Dionysus, one cannot but reflect on how the theater evolved from a rural troop expressing primitive desires into an expression of the mind. There was a sanctuary of Dionysus on this side of the Acropolis since the time when his cult began to spread.
Pausanias spoke of a Delphic oracle which compelled the reluctant Athenians to accept this foreign god and that it was a zealous priest from Erythres who brought in the first cult statue. Erythres was situated at the point where one crossed from Boeotia into Attica, at the foot of Mt Cithaeron, in present day Kaza. Knowing that the Dionysiac cult reached its peak haytheatre in Thebes with orgiastic rituals, we can understand the reason why this sacred idol came from there. It is very likely that there was a circular area with an altar situated beside a 6th century temple and used for some early type of performance.
There was also a large round orchestra in the Agora area where, in about 495 BC, during a theatrical contest between Choirilos, Pratinas and Aeschylus, the wooden benches collapsed, killing many spectators. It was then decided to build a more permanent structure. Scholars still disagree about when the theater of Dionysus was built, because whatever has survived up to our time belongs to various ages. Construction of some kind continued on this site for many centuries. Excavations have shown that the 6th century orchestra was added to an auditorium with lateral retaining walls, which show 5th century construction details. But no trace of permanent seats have been found from that period.
A Doric temple was built in the 4th century to house the gold and ivory statue of Dionysus that Pausanias later saw. The remains of this temple with its magnificent masonry is the first thing we see upon entering the present archaeological site. There was also a wall supporting the earth on the side of the orchestra, which together with the natural slope of the round, created an extended Doric portico near the older archaic temple. In 430 BC, the Athenian orator Lykourgos built the stone seats, saw to the drainage of the rain water and planned the construction of a square building, behind the circular orchestra and higher than it, which had small porticoes near the side entrances: it was the lodgeio, the first speaking place for the actors.
Later, during the rule of Nero, the stage was raised even higher, and the wall of the lodgeio was ornamented with statues which can still be seen today. It was then that the orchestra took on its present shape, i.e. 2/3 of the initial circle, with a diameter of almost 20 m, and was paved with marble slabs. Also, during the years of Roman rule, a low stone dividing wall was built over the drainage gutter. Even later, in the 3rd century AD, a certain Phaedros built a new stage, since the theater was used for various assemblies, as indicated by an inscription on the speaker’s podium.
The theater could hold about 20,000 spectators. In its final form, the lower section had 13 wedge-shaped sections separated by stairways, steps, and 32 rows of seats radiating out around the orchestra. The upper diazoma had another 32 rows of seats, which covered only the centre, since on one side, the Odeion of Pericles abutted onto it and on the other, the natural rock restricted the extent of the auditorium. Later a third section was added, especially for foreigners, increasing the number of rows to a total of 78. Today only 25 of them have been preserved. The material used to build them was Piraeus limestone, with the exception of the 67 officials’ thrones in the first row, which were built of white Pentelic marble.
The inscriptions inform us that 45 of these thrones belong to the elected priests. The others were intended for distinguished citizens, benefactors, local archons, and even orphaned children whose fathers had fallen in war and whom the state wished to honour. Somewhere in the first rows must have been the seats of the critics for the tragedy contests during the Dionysian feasts. During the years of Roman rule, thrones were added for officials of the conquerors, with a special place for the throne of the Hellenist Hadrian in a prominent position.
The most impressive seat was certainly the one bearing the inscription PRIEST OF DIONYSUS ELEFTHERIOS which we can still see facing the altar. This marble throne rests on lion’s feet and has bas relief sculpture on its back which depicts two strong satyrs carrying an enormous bunch of grapes, the sacred symbol of the god. While all the other seats have a simple rounded line, this one is an imposing throne with arm rests and sculptured decoration of winged human forms. The front of the seat shows griffins and men wearing Eastern dress, perhaps an allusion to the origin of the god.
All this luxury showed how important was the priest of Dionysus Eleutherios who, seated in a place of honour, would watch the perf.