The Theatre at Epidaurus And Why Its Sound Is So Good

The Theatre at Epidaurus is recognised as the finest example of an ancient Greek theatre and the meticulous attention that was paid to its design and acoustics delivered sound quality that we would consider unimaginable for the period.

The Theatre of Epidaurus and its exceptional sound and acoustics has hosted over a span of 2,500 years the worship of Asclepius, the production of Greek tragedies and the enjoyment of modern concerts.

When you visit the Theatre of Epidaurus, plan to be equipped with a little knowledge of its history, a sense of its design and architecture, familiarity with its uses, and be particularly prepared to think about the reasons as to why the theatre’s sound is so outstanding.

  • The Great Theatre of Epidaurus
    • Where is the Theatre of Epidaurus Located?
    • Arriving at the Theatre of Epidaurus by Car
    • Visiting Times at the Theatre of Epidaurus Pre Covid
  • History of the Theatre of Epidaurus
    • Who Built the Theatre of Epidaurus and When?
    • What Was the Theatre of Epidaurus Used For?
    • The Architecture of the Greek Theatre at Epidaurus
  • Why is the Sound of the Theatre of Epidaurus so Good?
    • How The Circular Seating of the Epidaurus Theatre Enhances Acoustics
    • How The Circular Seating of the Epidaurus Theatre Aligns Posture
    • How The Gradient of the Theatre of Epidaurus Enhances Acoustics
    • How The Distance Between the Rows of the Epidaurus Theatre Enhances Acoustics
    • How Reflection and Interference at the Epidaurus Theatre Enhance Acoustics
    • How Suppressing Background Noise at the Theatre of Epidaurus Enhances Sound
  • Our Final Thoughts on the Theatre of Epidaurus

The Great Theatre of Epidaurus

Where is the Theatre of Epidaurus Located?

The Great Theatre of Epidaurus is located approximately 40 kms east of Napflion and approximately 10 kms west of Palaia Epidaurus. It is within the grounds of The Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus.

Arriving at the Theatre of Epidaurus by Car

Should you arrive by car you will find plenty of parking on open fields adjacent to the site.

There is plenty of field parking space for visitors to the Theatre at Epidaurus
Parking at the site of the Theatre of Epidaurus

The parking space is necessary because the 13,000 capacity Theatre of Epidaurus is still in use. You will see the administration buildings from the car park. Take the longish walk along a narrow, sealed lane that leads to the ticket office. It is easy to find the Theatre at Epidaurus, the major attraction – just follow the crowd.

The Entrance Fee is 13.euros.

Visiting Times at the Theatre of Epidaurus Pre Covid

Entrance Fee: 13 euros

Period Visiting Hours Closed Free Entry
Nov-Feb 08:00 to 17:00 25-26 Dec, 1 Jan First Sunday
March 08:00 to 18:00 25 Mar 6 Mar, First Sunday
April 08:00 to 19:00 Sundays: 09:30 – 17:00 18 April
May-Aug 08:00 to 20:00 1 May 18 May
Sept 08:00 to 19:00 n/a Last WE
Oct 8:00 to 18:00 n/a 28 Oct
Easter Good Fri 12.00-19.00, Sat 8.00-15.00 Easter Sun 28 Oct

History of the Theatre of Epidaurus

Who Built the Theatre of Epidaurus and When?

Pausanius, an itinerant second Century AD geographer born in modern-day Turkey, identifies Polyclitus the Younger from Argos as the designer and builder of the Epidaurus theatre with the work completed about 330 B.C.

The Epidaurians have a theater within the sanctuary, in my opinion very well worth seeing.
For while the Roman theaters are far superior to those anywhere else in their splendor,
and the Arcadian theater at Megalopolis is unequalled for size,
what architect could seriously rival Polycleitus in symmetry and beauty?
For it was Polycleitus who built both this theater and…
— Pausanius
Description of Greece Book 2:27.5

This is an interesting date. The history of the Peloponnese is a narrative of long term antagonism and military conflict between Argos and Sparta, with Sparta often victorious. Sparta finally fell in 371 BC to Thebes who was supported by Argos. The rapid ascension of the Macedon Alexander the Great and his subjugation of the Peloponnesian city-states occurred at about the same time as the start of the theatre’s construction. Did these events contribute to the history of the Theatre at Epidaurus?

A prominent 19th century Greek archaeologist, Panagís Kavadías, was intrigued by Pausanias’ quotation and revealed the Theatre at Epidaurus in 1881 following six years of excavation. The excellent condition of the structure is due to its being protected over the years by more than 6 metres of soil. This has provided researchers extremely valuable archaeological information about the insight of ancient Greeks had in respect of construction design and architecture, materials, geometry and acoustics.

The monumental entrance into the Theatre of Epidaurus demonstrates its excellent condition following excavation
The excellent condition of the limestone and marble Theatre of Epidaurus

What was the Theatre of Epidaurus Used For?

The Theatre of Epidaurus was used predominantly to support the healing goals of the Sanctuary of Asclepius. Ancient Greek medicine was holistic. The consumption of medicines was integrated within a religious environment that accentuated the beseeching of gods for cures of body and mind. In this respect the Theatre of Epidaurus offered music and plays to offer calming and distracting experiences, hosting a celebration of ideas that were important to the reasons for its construction, ideas relating to death and regeneration.

The theatre also served as the centre for festivals of the cult of Asclepius in honour of their god. These festivals included athletic games and musical and drama contests. Ceremonies more deeply rooted within the cult also took place at the theatre.

The Theatre of Epidaurus through its production and presentation of drama, plays and recitals therefore became an important contributor to the progress of Greek arts.

Additional possible uses of the Theatre of Epidaurus at the Sanctuary may have been determined by the population of the nearby ancient city of Palaia Epidaurus. This coastal city, located just 16 kilometres to the east, had its own small theatre from the mid-4th Century BC. Paliai Epidaurus also had a temple to Dionysius and his worship was no doubt promoted at the city’s theatre. The Classical and Hellenistic depiction of Dionysius was as an effeminate youth holding a bunch of grapes, occasionally drunk. Earlier gatherings celebrated Dionysius, the God of Wine, Fertility, Theatre and Religious Ecstasy, and were associated with community festivities and feasts associated with the vine-gathering and fertility celebrations. The construction of the larger capacity theatre at the Sanctuary of Asclepius may have brought with it a different focus on celebration.

The Architecture  of the Greek Theatre at Epidaurus

Theatre of Epidaurus with the locations of the orchestra, altar, work shop, steps, seats and entrance clearly evident
The structural basics of the Theatre of Epidaurus are clearly evident

The physical condition of the Epidaurus Theatre is such that when you visit you will soon identify its structural basics.

The flat, circular floor space which is 20 metres in diameter as seen in the image is referred to as the orchestra. Greek tragedies and plays often featured a chorus of between 10 and 20 personnel and it occupied the orchestra along with other performers. When you visit you will see a flat strip of marble that decorates the orchestra’s perimeter. Can you see it? The orchestra’s floor isn’t limestone or marble, but compressed earth. Can you guess why it is used? You will also be able to locate the eroded marble or limestone remains of the altar base at the centre of the orchestra.

Behind the orchestra you will find the eroded foundations of the area set aside for scene building and storage. In front of the orchestra you will see the rows of seats, uniformly arranged and forming perpendicular intersections with the steps that take patrons to the upper tiers. And to the side you will see the monumental entrance ways through which the patrons made their entry. The design and arrangement of the seats is an important acoustical element of the theatre and therefore the sound it generates. Should you visit the Little Theatre at Palaia Epidaurus you will see the same design except less attention was shown to seat construction due to the smaller distance over which voices needed to be heard. Read about it at Palaia (Ancient) Epidaurus and its Little Theatre

Why is the Sound at the Theatre of Epidaurus So Good?

The beautiful Epidaurus Theatre is recognised globally for its acoustics and sound. Even today it hosts televised concerts and performances and promotes wonder as to how the ancients at the time of its construction understood the principles that we today consider modern. When you visit you will no doubt repeat what we all do – stand in the middle of the orchestra and sing, recite (usually something silly), or test the acoustics by whispering, gradually increasing your volume until your voice is recognised by your partner sitting in the top tiers. It is remarkable that these sounds in sotto voce can be so efficiently transmitted.

So here are a few basic design observations about the Theatre at Epidaurus that contribute to the acoustics. We are using no more than our own knowledge of the wave properties of sound for our unscraped explanations.

How The Circular Seating of the Epidaurus Theatre Enhances Acoustics

The circular geometry of Epidaurus Theatre is important to the distribution of sound
Circular Geometry of Theatre of Epidaurus

The image suggests a fundamental advantage. Sound emanates from a point source as spherical wave fronts. So what does that mean? We can model the effect simply by dropping a stone into a still pond. We’ve all done it and have seen the concentric water waves transfer energy away from where we dropped the stone – the source. You can almost imagine it happening above. We can apply this model to the theatre. Replace the dropping of the stone with a source of sound such as a player’s mouth and replace the water waves with sound waves. The ‘circular’ geometry of the sound will fit the circular geometry of the seating.  Every person in the audience seated in the same row will be the same distance from the source and will enjoy the same intensity of the sound.

Should you wish to be a little more imaginative, replace those ‘circular’ sound waves that moved away from the source with concentric spheres. Can you visualise it?

How the Circular Seating of the Epidaurus Theatre Aligns Posture

The seating geometry of the Epidaurus theatre also has important implications for the alignment of the patron, whether 2300 years ago or now. Should a patron sit directly facing the centre of the orchestra then the patron will be correctly aligned for hearing. Try it. Sit on a seat squarely facing the centre of the orchestra. Assess the sound. Now change your posture so that your head no longer faces the orchestra. Could you detect a change in your hearing?

How the Gradient of the Theatre of Epidaurus Enhances Acoustics

The gradient of the seating at the Theatre in Epidaurus reduces the distance the sound has to travel to the top rows
The Gradient of the seating at the Theatre of Epidaurus

Another feature of the design of the Theatre of Epidaurus is the steepness of the steps as you make your way up to the top rows. It’s hard to miss this one! This aspect of design is to reduce the tyranny of distance. The intensity of sound falls off with distance from the source by the inverse square law. That’s pretty rapid. The steepness of the seating would limit the loss of intensity at the top tier by reducing the distance the sound would have to travel compared to the situation if the structure were flat. And if the speaker raised his head when he spoke, then there would be every likelihood that the sound would reach the patron in the upper rows without its being physically impeded. Give it a go! Speak down into the front rows and then left your head up and speak to the top tier. Can your partner discern an appreciable difference in volume and quality?

How the Distance Between the Rows of the Epidaurus Theatre Enhances Acoustics

We performed a quick and dirty calculation when at the Theatre at Epidaurus and the interesting result was that the distance between the rows of seats is about the average wavelength of a spoken monotone! It seems that the dimensions of the inter-row distance were designed to match what was intended to happen there. Did they know? Had they tested it? Or were the acoustics a fluke? Of course, a spoken performance consists of many wavelengths but it could be argued that as the performance would have been achieved over a reasonably narrow bandwidth the relationship between wavelength and seating distance would be maintained. What do you think?

How Reflection and Interference of Sound at the Epidaurus Theatre Enhances Acoustics

Reflection of sound off solid limestone seat backs promote better sound for patrons at the Theatre of Epidaurus
Limestone and marble seat backs promote reflection at Theatre of Epidaurus

You will see in the photographs some very hard vertical limestone and marble surfaces behind each seat. Mechanical waves reflect in phase off fixed boundaries and so the incident sound and the sound being reflected back towards the source would likely interfere constructively within the listener’s space. And this would be occurring right across the theatre. Can you visualise why this would be an advantage to the listeners?

How Suppressing Background Noise at the Theatre of Epidaurus Enhances Sound

The open Epidaurus theatre limits background noise from reflection
An Open Theatre at Epidaurus limits reinforcement of background noise

Any theatre is going to produce a distraction in the form of noise but the Theatre at Epidaurus has some design features to reduce its nuisance. The theatre is not enclosed and so some background noise will escape without reflection. Secondly, noise and sound coming from every possible direction that patrons are temporarily facing may tend to interfere destructively resulting in a loss of intensity. Thirdly, background noise from voices tends to sum to a lower frequency than the signal of choice and our hearing is very proficient at selecting out the required frequencies. We also tend to unconsciously predict conversation that will follow which enables us to fill in the gaps if the signal temporarily disappears.

And don’t forget the direction of the evening breeze. How would this impact on the sound coming from the orchestra and our hearing? This would not have been overlooked in the design and orientation of the theatre.

These factors are pretty self-evident so have some fun testing them. There are sure to be other factors. Audiologists could certainly add to the explanation by considering the overall complexity of hearing.

But whether ‘Highway to Hell’ or ‘Nessun Dorma’, the sound is exceptional.

Our Final Thoughts on the Theatre of Epidaurus

We couldn’t help but admire and respect the skills of those who constructed such a beautiful edifice. How much of the design of the Theatre at Epidaurus was due to intelligence and how much was fortuitous may never be answered. But, for now, we are more than happy to come away with a deeper respect for the skills of those who lived in antiquity and who delivered acoustics beyond what could be expected of an open-air stone theatre.

References:

Pausanias 2. 27,5
Description of Greece Book 2:27.5, Translated by W. H. S. Jones