Thorikos – The oldest surviving theatre in the world


Thorikos ancient theatre

It may be hard to believe, but the oldest surviving theatre in the world is located in Thorikos, not in one of the famous cities of the ancient Greek world.

Almost 40 kilometres from the centre of Athens, on a hill outside the town of Lavrio, are the ruins of the ancient city of Thorikos (or Thoricus).

The town of Thorikos

The path leading to the theatre of Thorikos
The path leading to the theatre

A settlement related to the mining of the rich lead and silver deposits of the region developed in Thorikos in the Neolithic era. The settlement became a town and flourished under the Athenian Republic. It was one of the 12 Athenian municipalities from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC.

From the ancient city of Thorikos, what has survived to this day are the theatre, parts of the settlement, the mining galleries, and related metallurgical facilities. Also in the area are the temple of Dionysus, a square tower from the 4th century BC, cemeteries, and the sanctuary of Demeter and her daughter. Apart from the mines, there was also a marble quarry that was used in the construction of the ancient theatre. This quarry operated until the early Byzantine era. In general, the mines and the settlement probably remained active until the 7th century AD.

The theatre of Thorikos and other buildings in the background
The theatre and other buildings in the background

According to the Belgian archaeologists who excavated the area, Thorikos is one of the oldest industrial zones in Europe. In the centre of the town, the theatre was the meeting place and the decision-making centre for the townspeople. On several occasions, it was also used for artistic events and theatrical performances.

The theatre of Thorikos

The orchestra of Thorikos theatre
The orchestra of the theatre

The construction of the theatre is estimated to have occurred in the second half of the 6th century BC, making it the oldest surviving ancient theatre in Greece and therefore in the world. In contrast to known later theatres, its shape is ellipsoidal and its orchestra is rectangular. Although the fact that its orchestra is not circular is surprising, it was characteristic of all early Greek theatres (like those of Rhamnous and Trachones).

The bleachers of Thorikos theatre
The bleachers of the theatre

Except for its southern side, where it is supported by a retaining wall about 24 metres long with its ends founded on natural rock, the theatre is constructed entirely within the natural rock. A small Dionysus temple, of which just the foundations remain, also occupies a portion of the orchestra towards the west. At the same time, there are signs of a cult altar on its eastern side. Last but not least, the western arched gate is well intact on its upper side.

The southern retaining wall of Thorikos theatre
The southern retaining wall

The theatre must have been expanded at the end of the 6th century. This was an effect of the needs that arose for the gathering of the townspeople after the state reform of Cleisthenes in 507 BC. It was essential for the purpose of the organisation and functioning of the democratic state. During that period, its capacity must have reached 3000 people.

The western gate of Thorikos theatre
The western gate

The theatre today

The view from Thorikos theatre
The view from the theatre

The theatre was excavated by the American School of Classical Studies in 1886. The rest of the area has been systematically excavated by the Belgian Archaeological School since 1963 and for three decades. During the 1960s and 1970s, the theatre was used for several artistic performances. But then the lack of maintenance made its use impossible. Today, the theatre as well as the archaeological site unfortunately remain underutilised and unprotected. There is no entrance ticket and no other organisation or infrastructure.

However, the ancient theatre of Thorikos is a magical place that is definitely worth visiting. From its stands, the view towards the sea is breathtaking, while the place exudes a calming peace and tranquilly. Especially at sunset, when the orange colours of the sun embrace the ancient stones, you feel as if a performance of an ancient drama will suddenly begin. The sensation that this place was one of the places where democracy was formed and the art of theatre was created is awe-inspiring.

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