Greek: 300 BCE, Roman: 133 BCE
Renovations / Excavations
Hellenistic Period (300-133 BC) / Roman Period (133 BC-395 AD)
- ca. 300 BC – first phase of Hellenistic theatre construction; skene constructed (possibly two stories with two doors in lower story) and two-tiered cavea constructed (twenty rows each) (Hellenistic)
- 300-250 BC – second phase of Hellenistic construction; skene lengthened, four doors in lower story of skene, three doors in upper story; possibly added skene façade with 16 columns (Hellenistic)
- ca. 150 BC – third phase of Hellenistic construction; skene was further widened by adding paraskenia on either side of skene; five thyromata (wide openings) in upper story of skene, central thyromata added to lower story; dramatic action moved from orchestra to roof of skene in accordance with the requirements of the Hellenistic New Comedy (Hellenistic). In the final phase of Hellenistic construction, the skene was widened further; single central thyromata in lower story of skene; lower story of skene now merely used as a support for performance space on roof above
- 133 BC – Miletus incorporated into Roman Empire
- Early Roman – theatre enlarged and adapted; theatre enlarged to seat 15,000 (added third diazomata and third tier to cavea); construction of logeion (stage) and access stairs, thyromata in second stage closed leaving only three openings in first story; orchestra lowered; third story added to skene and entire sceanae frons appointed with colonnades and sculpted decoration (Roman)
- 164 AD – columns and baldachin added to cavea for the visit of Roman Empress Faustina
- ca. 300 AD – construction of defensive city wall damages theatre skene and cavea; harbors become increasingly inaccessible due to silt deposits; marsh swamps surround the city and population diminishes (Byzantine)
- Late Byzantine – upper tier of theatre cavea removed and used as building material for castle Palati (Castro Palation)
- 1899-1914 – excavations of Miletus under Theodor Wiegand, Berlin Museum
- 1988-1939 – excavations of Miletus under Gerhard Kliener, Berlin Museum
- 1945-present – excavations of Miletus under Gerhard Kliener, Werner MüllerWiener, and Volkmar von Graeve successively,for the German Institute of Archaeology.
Cavea Width: 136 meters
Orchestra Width: 27 meters
Miletus (modern Balat, Turkey). Roman theatre built over Greek Hellenistic theatre. Cavea width: 139.80 m, orchestra width: 27.34 m; Hellenistic stage: L 34 m, W c.3 m; Roman stage: L 34 m. W 6.5, c.8.8 m; 3-story, scaenae frons (now missing) with 7 doors; capacity: 15,000/18,500 (F.S); Greek theatre: ca. 300-225 BCE. Roman theatre: ca. 98-117 CE.
The Roman theatre of Miletus was built during the reign of Emperor Trajan (98 -117 AD) over a much older (300 BC), 5,300-seat Hellenistic theatre. The remains of the 15,000-seat theatre we see today are the result of numerous Greek and Roman renovations over a 700-year period.
The city of Miletus dates from the 6th century BC. It was sited at the mouth of the Meander River, on the Aegean coast of present-day Turkey. Due to the silting up of the ancient harbor, Miletus now lies 9 kilometers inland from the coast.
The theatre was built on a hill, overlooking what is known as the Theater Harbor and had four construction phases in the Hellenistic period and was extensively remodeled and enlarged by the Romans. The one or two-story skene was built along the city wall and may have had a proscenium with Doric half-columns like the theatre at Priene. During the second Hellenistic construction phase, from c. 300-250 BC, the skene was lengthened and by this time definitely had two stories. Four doors were built in the lower story of the skene and three in the upper. At this point, the proscenium was probably longer than the stage and had sixteen columns. During the third stage, sometime before 150 BC, extensions to either side of the skene (paraskenia) were added. A central door was built in the lower story of the skene, and five thyromata were added to the upper story in order to accommodate the demands of the “New Comedy.”
The largest Hellenistic theatre seated approximately 5300 spectators. The Romans vastly enlarged the theatre, building three stories of seats that reached a height of forty meters and seated 15,000 to 18,500 spectators (F.S). In the Roman period, all but the central doorway in the lower story of the skene were bricked in, as they were below the stage and no longer needed. The Romans also built a podium (logeion or stage) in front of the proscenium in order to provide a raised performance space. Later, the orchestra was lowered so that it could better accommodate gladiatorial displays and animal hunts and baitings. In the Byzantine period, city walls ran over the proscenium and ruined the stage building. The construction of a Byzantine citadel also completely destroyed the upper rows of seats.
The surviving theatre is mostly Roman, with a high but deep stage. The cavea is semicircular, with two diazomata. The first two stories each have nineteen rows of seats. There were twenty in the third story, which was destroyed. Four columns, standing in place today in the center of the first story, held up a baldachin (ornate canopy) to shelter the Emperor and his family. The columns were erected in 164 AD for a visit of Empress Faustina, the wife of Marcus Aurelius. Barrel-vaulted passageways (præcinctiones) ran behind the second and third stories of seats, opening at each end of the diazomata. Regularly spaced exits (vomitoria) along the length of the praecinctiones allowing audience access to and from the various seating sections of the cavea. The praecinctiones ran parallel to and underneath the rows of seats and supported the upper levels of the cavea; the slope of the hillside supported the lower level. The western entrance has stairs, but stairs were not necessary at the eastern entrance due to the natural slope of the hillside.
After the Roman addition of the podium or logeion, the stage was only thirteen feet from the center of the orchestra. The Roman 3-story sceanae frons (stage house façade) intersects the Vitruvian “basic circle” of the orchestra by five and one-half feet, although this distance is mostly made up for by the reduction in orchestra diameter from the addition of a drain. The Roman scaenae frons had seven thyromata (doors) and were decorated with columns and statuary. Some decorative reliefs have survived from the scaenae frons, including a hunting scene with Eros. Several inscriptions from the theatre have also survived. One, from Emperor Claudius in 48 AD, dedicates the theatre “to the sacred visitors and performers dedicated to Dionysus.” Another from Commodus (161-192 AD) celebrates the victory of a lyre player at a contest in Didyma. The most unusual inscription records a dispute between workers and bosses during one phase of the construction of the theatre, which was resolved by the oracle of Apollo at Didyma. An inscription on the seats marks “the place of the goldsmiths of the Blues.” The Blues and Greens are the infamous rival factions of the Byzantine world.
The first excavations at Miletus were carried out under Theodore Weigand for the Berlin Museum. He was in charge of excavations until the First World War broke out. Excavations were resumed in 1938 and continued after the Second World War by G. Klieiner. He was succeeded by Wolfgang Muller-Weiner. The excavations are currently under the direction of Volkmar von Grave for the German Institute of Archaeology. The German excavators removed the Byzantine wall that previously obscured the stage.
Bibliography / Resources:
Akurgal, Ekrem. Ancient Civilization and Ruins of Turkey. 9th ed. Istanbul: Net Turistik Yayinlar, 2001.
Allsopp, Bruce. A History of Classical Architecture. London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1965.
Bean, George. Aegean Turkey: An Archaeological Guide. London: Earnest Benn Ltd., 1966.
Cormack, Sarah. “Miletus, Theater.” Perseus Digital Library Building Catalog. Accessed July 14, 2003. Available at: www.perseus.tufts.edu.
Dinsmoor, William Bell. The Architecture of Ancient Greece: An Account of its Historic Development. Reprint of 1950 rev. ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1975.
Milet Museum. “The Theater.” Accessed July 15, 2003. Available at: http://www.geocities.com/miletmuseum/theatre.htm.
Miletus, Theater (Building. Perseus Digital Library. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/artifact?name=Miletus%2C+Theater&object=Building. (accessed Sept. 19, 2023).
Sear, Frank. Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. (pp. 343-344)
Türkoğlu, Sabahattin. Pamukkale Hierapolis. 3rd ed. Istanbul: Net Turistik Yayinlar, 1996.