On Greek theatres

l. In Graecorum theatris non omnia isdem rationibus sunt facienda, quod primum in ima circinatione, ut in latino trigonorum IIII, in eo quadratorum trium anguli circinationis lineam tangunt, et cuius quadrati latus est proximum scaenae praeciditque curvaturam circinationis, ea regione designatur finitio proscaenii. Et ab ea regione ad extremam circinationem curvaturae parallelos linea designatur, in qua constituitur frons scaenae, per centrumque orchestrae proscaenii regione parallelos linea describitur, et qua secat circinationis lineas dextra ac sinistra, in cornibus hemicycli centra signantur. Et circino collocato in dextra ab intervallo sinistro circumagatur circinatio ad proscaenii sinistram partem; item centro conlocato in sinistro cornu ab intervallo dextro circumagitur ad proscaenii dextram partem.


1. In the Greek theatres some things are done differently. Firtsly, in the orchestra, the angles of three squares touch the circumference, whereas in the Roman theatre we have the angles of four triangles. in the Greek the line of the proscenium (or stage) is drawn along the side of the square which is nearest to the scenery, where it cuts the circumference. On the same side, parallel to this a line is drawn to touch the outside of the cirele, and on this the front of the scenery is marked out. Through the centre of the orchestra a line is described parallel to the proscenium; where it cuts the circumference right and left, centres are marked at the ends of the semicircle. Fixing the centre of the compasses on the right, with a radius equal to the distance of the left point, a circle is drawn to the left side of the proscenium. in the same way, the centre is fixed on the left and with a radius equal to the distance of the right, a cirele is drawn to intersect the right side of ihe proscenium.

2. Ita tribus centris hac descriptione ampliorem habent orchestram Graeci et scaenam recessiorem minoreque latitudine pulpitum, quod logeion appellant, ideo quod (apud) eos tragici et comici actores in scaena peragunt, reliqui autem artifices suas per orchestram praestant actiones; itaque ex eo scaenici et thymelici graece separatim nominantur. Eius loci altitudo non minus debet esse pedum x, non plus duodecim. Gradationes scalarum inter cuneos et sedes contra quadratorum angulos dirigantur ad primam praecinctionem, a praecinctione inter eas iterum mediae dirigantur, et ad summam quotiens praecinguntur, altero tanto semper amplificantur.


2. Thus the Greeks have a wider orchestra, drawn from these three centres. The scenery is more recessed. The stage is narrower: this they call logeion (speaking-place), for the reason that the tragic and comic actors deliver their speeches on the stage. The other artists carry on their action in the orchestra. Hence the Greek gives them separate names: stage players and chorus (scaenici et thymelici). The height of the stage is not to be less than ten feet, nor more than twelve. The staircases between the lowest blocks of seats are to be arranged opposite the several angles of the squares up to the first horizontal gangway; between the tops of the first staircases, higher flights are to be put at halfway intervals along the gangway. And generally speaking, they are to be doubled in number when a gangway is reached.


In this chapter Vitruvius describes the layout of Greek theatres in contrast to the Roman or Latin theatre as described in the previous chapter. Once again he starts from the inner circle of the orchestra which is quite normal for a Greek theatre because these theatres are usually installed against a hillside and they need no outer façade. Maybe Vitruvius used for this description an existing writing of a Greek architect and adapting this model he made his account of the Latin theatre. This is possibly the reason why he ommits there the description of an outer façade.
Where for the Latin theatre Vitruvius based his description on four inscribed triangles in the inner circle, the Greek theatre is based on three inscribed squares. The result in both cases is a dodecagon but, as is shown in the plan, the final layout differs completely. In the first place the two dodecagons don't show the same orientation. In the Greek theatre the dodecagon shifts 15° by comparison with the Latin theatre. This has consequences for the placement of the staircases between the seating blocks. According to the location of the angles of the three squares on the circumference of the circle, there must be eight staircases in the lower part of the Greek theatre (the Latin theatre has seven staircases).
Another consequence of the inscribed squares is the location of the stage. This is also related to the way in wich in both the Latin and the Greek theatre the orchestra was used. The orchestra of the Latin theatre is restricted to the hemycircle in front of the stage. Since the plays were completely performed on the stage, the orchestra could be used for the placing of additional seats for magistrates and other high ranked persons. On the other hand in the Greek theatre the orchestra was used for the chorus that played an important part in Greek acting. Moreover the Greek theatre has a slight horseshoe shape which is the result of the extension of the seating blocks towards the stage. These extensions show a slight curvature which is produced by the circle with radius E - F. These are the intersecting points of the diameter parallel to the stagefront with the circle of the orchestra. From this points a circle is drawn of which the radius equals the length of the diameter. The front of the stage is situated on the line C - D which is the baseline of the square parallel to the stage building while the closing wall of the stage is formed by the line A - B which is the tangent of the circle parallel to line C - D. The result of this layout is a rather shallow stage.

Theatre of Priene

In contrast to the previous chapter Vitruvius gives no description of a stage wall. This is quite obvious because at the very beginning of Greek theatre performances the action took place on a circular ground at the foot of a hillslope around which seatings were arranged. In this arragement an elaborated stagewall, like is the case in Roman theatres, was not necessary. Later, in hellenistic times, a separate stage was built. First as a proscenium, a colonnaded wall between 2,40 and 4 meter high behind wich storage rooms for theatre props were organised and which at the same time functionned as circulation room for the actors. The action took place in front of the proscenium. Later, when the action moved to the top of the proscenium, the only method of obtaining a background was to carry the scene building up into a second storey. Examples of this evolution are the theatres of Priene and Oropos. This is the end of the evolution in Greek theatre building. Where we find more elaborate stage walls, they are the result of later Roman alterations.

Theatre of Oropos


F.Granger, Vitruvius, On Architecture, Cambridge, 1962.
C.Perrault, Vitruve, Les dix livres d'Architecture, Paris, 1673.
T.Peters, Vitruvius, Handboek Bouwkunde, Amsterdam, 1999.
H.Knell, Vitruv Architekturtheorie, Darmstadt, 1985.
P.Gros, Le schéma Vitruvien du théâtre Latin, Revue Archéologique, 1994, pp. 57-80.
H.P.Isler, Vitruvs Regeln und die erhaltenen Theaterbauten, in Geertman-De Jong, Munus non ingratum, Leiden, 1989, pp. 141-153.
W.B.Dinsmoor, The Architecture of Ancient Greece, London, New York, Toronto, Sydney, 1950.

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