Palaia (Ancient) Epidaurus and its Little Theatre

The modern town of Palaia Epidaurus has been built adjacent to the the site formerly occupied by the city-state of Ancient Epidaurus. Palaia Epidaurus is rich in history and also hosts an ancient theatre which is referred to as The Little Theatre of Palaia Epidaurus. The Little Theatre is sometimes confused with the more illustrious theatre located some 10 kms away at the Healing Sanctuary.

Palaia Epidaurus (“Ancient Epidaurus”) and its Little Theatre is located geographically on the shores of the Saronic Gulf, approximately 40 kms east of Nafplion and 60 kms south east of Corinth, and is administered within the Argolis prefecture. The town is small and lies within an undulating green zone that features citrus orchards and cultivated fields. Palaia Epidaurus draws interest principally due to its association with the Ancient Healing Sanctuary of Asclepius which is just 10 kms to the west. Palaia Epidaurus has also been referred to as Palaia Epidauros and Palaia Epidavros.

The Little Theatre at Palaia Epidaurus against a background of the Saronic Gulf
The Little Theatre at Palaia Epidaurus on the Saronic Gulf

History of Palaia (Ancient) Epidaurus

The historical ruins of Ancient Epidaurus are situated on an elevated peninsula which overlooks the modern town of Palaia Epidaurus. Ancient Epidaurus was considered to be a minor city-state which administered a region around it called Epidauria, but in the Iliad Homer places Ancient Epidaurus alongside some of the most powerful city-states of the Peloponnese.

In his Iliad Homer writes;

“My own three favourite cities,” answered Juno, “are Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae.”
— Homer
Iliad 800 BC

And in the same quotation Homer includes Epidaurus;

The men of Argos, again, and those who held the walls of Tiryns,
With Hermione, and Asine upon the gulf; Troezene, Eionae,
and the vineyard lands of Epidaurus … with these there came eighty ships.”
— Homer
Iliad 800 BC

Homer centred his Iliad on the Seige of Troy and he inferred that Ancient Epidaurus contributed ships to the conflict. The Siege of Troy has been dated to the 12th and 13th centuries BC. This places Ancient Epidaurus contemporaneous with the Mycenaean civilisation (including Tiryns) which collapsed in the 12th Century BC.

The city-state of Árgos was the capital of the Argolís, an easternmost region of the Peloponnesian peninsula, just north-west of Nafplion and approximately mid-way between Corinth and Sparta.

Árgos evolved as the dominant city-state of Argolís circa 1100 BC following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation. Argos continued as the foremost Peloponnesian city-state in the 7th Century BC, only to suffer later defeats by an emergent Sparta, the principal city-state that occupied Laconia in the southern Peloponnese. The enmity between the two city-states was set, and although in later history there were periods of convenient alliances, the truces were always uneasy – truces that were undesirabley on Ancient Epidaurus’ western doorstep.

Epidaurus was therefore never removed from the politics of Peloponnesian history and participated in its share of conflicts between the peninsula’s city-states. An example of Epidaurus’ involvement occurred during the Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC, a significant phase of the Great Peloponnesian War. The battle resulted in a Spartan victory over an alliance of Peloponnesian states led by Argos and supported by Athens. Corinth, Argos and Athens were uneasy about the treaty they had with Sparta following the battle and formed a new defensive alliance to reduce Sparta’s influence. War again erupted and the Epidaurians were attacked in 418 BC as allies of Sparta. Argos and its allies attempted to lay siege to Sparta at Ancient Epidaurus through a maritime blockade but were unsuccessful.

Another example of Epidaurus’ engagement in confrontation was as a participant in the push against the Macedonians following the death of Alexander the Great. Athens led a military response to the appointment of a Macedonian as king over Greece.

Epidaurus maintained guarded relations with nearby Argos and generally enjoyed better relations with Corinth and Athens. The city-state continued to prosper through the Hellenic and early Roman periods due to its port and proximity to the Asclepieion but the eventual decline of Epidaurus occurred towards the second century because Corinth, due to its commercial strength, attracted disproportionate numbers of settlers from neighbouring populations.

Southern Greece is in a region of active subduction with a tectonic plate close to its southern shores. Earthquakes will almost always be a threat because of plate movement and this was the fate of Ancient Epidaurus in the 6th Century AD when an earthquake consigned part of the city to the sea-bed.

Ancient Epidaurus Commerce and Culture

The commerce of Ancient Epidaurus would have benefited from its coastal location just as the Ancient Corinthians had benefited from theirs. The advantage enjoyed by Ancient Corinth is that the city was the port of choice of mariners who preferred to sail up the Gulf of Corinth to reach port rather than challenge the unpredictable seas off the coast of the southern Peloponnese. You can read more about this in our post Ancient Corinth: Rich in History, Culture and Religion

Ancient Epidaurus was also a port city and on the same trading route as richer cities such as Athens, Corinth and Aegina, the latter at one stage having a larger navy than Athens. This would have resulted in a constant stream of travellers seeking accommodation, meals and goods, as well as itinerant entertainers and maritime personnel. It would have provided Ancient Epidaurus with local trade and merchants would also have had their products sold to other cities. One of these products, important to both domestic consumption and trade, was wine. Homer’s quotation above … and the vineyard lands of Epidaurus … suggests wine was plentiful at Epidaurus.

The fact that Ancient Epidaurus had a port meant it was the maritime gateway to the Healing Sanctuary. The presence of the Sanctuary would have considerably increased the traffic through Ancient Epidaurus and afflicted persons would have actively sought transport to the Asclepieion. It would have also provided another commercial outlet for the sale of local produce and goods.

The culture of Ancient Epidaurus was embedded in the cults of the gods as was the case in all Greek city-states. The observations listed by Pausanias during his visit to Ancient Epidaurus included marble images of the god Asclepius and of his wife Epione which were displayed in the open; a Sanctuary of Aphrodite; a Temple of Artemis with the figure of the goddess in hunting posture; a Temple of Dionysius which is to be expected given the accent in Ancient Epidaurus on the consumption of wine; and a figure of Hera which was positioned in the harbour so that it was just visible above sea level. Pausanias was particularly taken with a wooden image of Athena that was located on the citadel.

Ancient Epidaurus Agriculture

The central region of the Peloponnese has been uplifted to a height of 2,400 metres and has resulted in arid and barren limestone highlands and plateaus. The soils of the Peloponnese are usually very thin over hard calcareous rocks, primarily limestone, which seriously reduce much of the peninsula’s usefulness for agriculture. Ancient Epidaurus was more kindly located within the eastern Peloponnese on the Argolis. It was one of the relatively few locations where the soil could have been considered to have had sufficient fertility for the cultivation of a range of crops.

The diet of the Epidaurians would have been determined by their coastal location, local geology and any produce imported from other city-states. The staples would have been seafood, olives, grapes and breads. A variety of fruit and vegetables would have grown due to a natural soil advantage. Whereas the lack of drainage and pH of soils typical of the Peloponnese would have discouraged the cultivation of some plants and trees, the local soils of Ancient Epidaurus may have been altered by sea-gravel and sand that improved the drainage. Local farmers would have been possible to cultivate a wider range of vegetables and tree fruits. These products would have been available for local consumption and export trade. We see evidence of this today in the flourishing orchards that grow in the green basin adjacent to Palaia Epidaurus.

Ancient Epidaurus was not always green and according to Epidaurian and Aeginetan tradition, Ancient Epidaurus suffered a major drought in the 6th Century BC that required consultation of the Oracle of Delphi for a solution.

The Ruins at Palaia Epidaurus

The core of the ruins of Ancient Epidaurus found at Palaia Epidaurus occupies a small, elevated peninsula immediately south of the small harbour. Adequate parking is available on an open, unsurfaced area.

Small but adequate open car park at Palaia Epiduaurus adjacent to the ruins of Ancient Epidaurus
Car Park at Palaia Epiduarus adjacent to ruins of Ancient Epidaurus

The Acropolis of Ancient Epidaurus

A path leads from the car park up the hill around to the Acropolis. The elevation of the path allows a very satisfactory view over Palaia Epidaurus.

View of Palaia Epidaurus from Acropolis
The Acropolis at Ancient Epidaurus provides views over Palaia Epidaurus

The Acropolis at Palaia Epidaurus is not to be compared with the Acropolis of Athens. It is much smaller and the remnants of its past exist in the form of ruins of stone steps, walls, and minor temple ruins such as columns. The remnants have to be observed among thick grasses and vegetation. The Acropolis, considering the age of Ancient Epidaurus, would be expected to have provided some excellent finds for archaeologists in the form of a range of jewellery such as broches, rings, bracelets, hair pins and robe pins, coins, icons, figurines, pottery and even minor weapons – each from any period.

Remnants of the Acropolis of Ancient Epidaurus poking out of long grasses when looking towards Palaia Epidaurus
Remnants found on Acropolis looking towards Palaia Epidaurus

The Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus

The Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus is unmissable to the right of the ascent up to the Acropolis and actually sits immediately below the Acropolis.

Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus and its location below the Acropolis
The Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus with the Acropolis in background

The Little Theatre is occasionally confused with the more sought after Great Theatre at the Healing Sanctuary od Asclepius. More than one traveller has called up Epidaurus on the car’s satnav only to land in Palaia Epidaurus!
The Little Theatre was constructed in mid-4th century BC and following its finding in 1970 was excavated in 1972. The images show 15 rows which provide sufficient seating for approximately 2000 patrons. The Little Theatre is located on private property and fenced off. A fee is required to enter and the property owner or representative offers a tour. We didn’t oblige and thought that studying the site through the cyclone fence was sufficient.

Cyclone fence around the Little Theatre at Epidaurus
Access to the Little Theatre is not freely available

The capacity of the Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus when compared to the 18,000 capacity of the Great Theatre of Epidaurus at the Sanctuary indicates its relative size. There are also other similarities and differences. The overall design is similar in terms of the materials that were used for its construction and its also has a circular geometry. The seating gradient is much less than that of the Great Theatre at the Sanctuary but this is because the speaker’s voice does not have to be projected so far due to the relative closeness of the patrons occupying the back row. A major difference is the height of the stone backing of the seating. The height is important to the acoustics of the theatre because it is enhanced by in-phase reflection of the speaker’s voice off the seating. Consequently, we couldn’t expect the acoustics of the Little Theatre to have the same quality as the Great Theatre. You can read more about our explanations about the acoustics which are relevant to both theatres at The Theatre of Epidaurus Including its Acoustics

The Little Theatre amidst the wider ruins of Ancient Epidaurus
The Little Theatre set within the ruins of Ancient Epidaurus

The image shows construction on both sides of the Little Theatre. These include Roman buildings that include a bath house and other structures that we couldn’t identify without a guide. Perhaps you will.

The use of the Little Theatre has been resurrected and in the warmer weather it hosts a season of music and entertainment.

The Little Theatre shown against the Acropolis is still in use today
The Little Theatre is still being used

Palaia Epidaurus Today

Palaia Epidaurus today is more broadly a vacation destination and should be considered, at least, either as a destination for the weekend or as a base for a tour of the closest archaeological sites. These include Cleonae, Troezen, Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos all the way up to Corinth. It doesn’t matter which direction you point the car, there will somewhere to visit. A short drive down the Saronic Gulf shoreline will take you to Milos, Methana and Poros, three highly sought areas that offer beauty, panoramas and hiking.
Should you stay in Palaia Epidaurus then you can enjoy the still-water beaches. The best beaches near Palaia Epidaurus are considered to be Kalamaki beach and Polemarcha beach. You can also enjoy the local restaurants, go hiking, scuba dive for the remnants of the sunken city of Ancient Epidaurus off Gialaki beach or take a quiet drive through villages in the region that have been unaffected by development or tourism. And don’t forget to notice the citrus trees – Palaia Epidaurus is still benefitting from the drainage offered by its coastal location.

Modern Epidaurus - Palaia Epidaurus
Palaia Epidaurus

Final Thoughts on Palaia Epidaurus

If you have some time to spare then Palaia Epidaurus is worth visiting. It is an historical region with sufficient ruins and reminders of its past to satisfy any explorer’s curiosity. Its proximity to many of the eastern Peloponnesian archaeological sites make it suitable to use as a base for touring and it has more than enough to offer if you wish to relax or wind down. A visit to Ancient Epidaurus is representative of archaic civilisation and customs and some time spent at the Little Theatre of Palaia (Ancient) Epidaurus provides insight into the excellent building skills and use of materials demonstrated by the Epiduarians.

References:

Pausanias 2. 15 – 28
Description of Greece 2. 15 – 28, Translated by W. H. S. Jones