400 – 350 BCE
Renovations / Excavations
Renovations are unknown. The traveler Pausanias, who visited Elis in the latter half of the 2nd c. AD, found the theatre abandoned. A century later the whole area was turned into a cemetery. This destruction, also visible in other parts of the ancient city, is connected to the invasion of the Heruli (267 AD).
Elis was first excavated in 1910-1914 by the Austrian Archaeological Institute, whose director for the period 1911-1914 was Otto Walter. The Greek archaeologist Anastasios Orlandos participated in these early excavations. Nikolaos Gialouris resumed the excavations in 1960 for the Greek Archaeological Society.
Cavea Width: 100 meters
Orchestra Width: 16 meters
Elis Theatre (modern Archeas Ilidos, Greece). Cavea: D 104 m, facing North-North-West; earthen, terraced seating divided into 7 cunei by 6 ramps made from river-washed stones. Later, stone steps were placed on ramps; sides of cavea buttressed with rectilinear stone walls (analemmata); orchestra: D c. 21 m, surrounded by drain; proscaenium supported by Ionic columns; stage: L 22 m, W 2.8 m; scene building: L 22 m with wings at sides (overall L c. 46 m (wings were perhaps ramps for accessing high stage); seating capacity: 8000; date: 400 – 350 BCE. (Sear, p. 396)
The Ancient Theatre of Elis
The DIAZOMA Association (accessed 12/28/2022)
The ancient theatre is situated on the north of the ancient agora, on an old fluvial terrace of the River Peneus, appropriately landscaped for the purpose. The theatre was built in the 4th c. BC. Major damage, probably due to an earthquake during the Late Hellenistic period, led to the replacement of the west retaining wall with a new one. The theatre was also modified in Roman times.
The theatre boasts the somewhat rare feature of an earthen cavea. Only the access passageways to the upper cavea, the parodoi and a row of stone seats in the lower cavea were faced with stone. Six staircases, approximately one metre wide and paved with river pebbles, divided the cavea into seven cunei. Strong retaining walls supported the fill of the cavea, forming, together with the lateral compartments of the stage, the two parodoi of the theatre.
The permanent stone stage building is one of the earliest in Greece. It also preserved one of the oldest proscenia (early 3rd c. BC), its façade once decorated with half-columns. Large holes along the stylobate were used to set up the scenery. Behind the proscenium were the various spacious compartments of the stage, with the parascenia on either side. The originally circular orchestra was truncated by constructing an elongated cistern from which rainwater was channeled through an older duct into the River Peneus.
The traveler Pausanias, who visited Elis in the latter half of the 2nd c. AD, found the theatre abandoned. A century later the whole area was turned into a cemetery. This destruction, also visible in other parts of the ancient city, is connected to the invasion of the Heruli (267 AD).
The Greek Theatre at Elis
The Ministry of Culture Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities
From Elis Archeological Site Signage (accessed 4/8/2004)
The theatre of Elis was constructed in the late 4th century BC at the southeast edge of the city’s agora, in an appropriate and idyllic location. The site had in fact been used as a cemetery in the Early Bronze Age (early 3rd millennium BC) and the Sub-Mycenaean period (c. 1100 BC), but was inhabited in Geometric times (8th c. BC). Terracotta protomes [statue of head and upper torso] of a female deity of Classical times (5th-4th c. BC) were found inside the theatre, as well as indications of worship of Dionysos. This god was honoured especially by the Eleians, in a temple dedicated to him near the theatre as well as with the annual Thuia festival, celebrated in an area outside the city. The builders of the theatre cleverly exploited the natural slope, which they reinforced with earth fill and strong stone-built retaining walls so that the space acquired the desired gradient to form the cavea, which could accommodate some 8,000 spectators. The combination of the earth cavea with the circular orchestra and the stone skene constitutes an interesting whole, while the general impression is completed by the six radiate cobbled diadromoi of the cavea and the large stone drain in which rainwater from the cavea, the orchestra, and the skene was collected and carried off to the river. During Hellenistic and Roman times, the area between the skene of the theatre and the river bed was a residential and workshop quarter, while in Late Antiquity, when theatre was no longer functioning, it became a cemetery.