Acropolis: The greatest stage of them all
This was where the classics of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the satirical comedies of Aristophanes were first performed
It feels almost celebratory to be going up the Acropolis in Athens with visitors from all over the world to pay homage to the birth of theatre in the West. Just before we begin our climb, a group of teenage tourists break out into an energetic flash dance with their umbrellas. The impromptu performance sets the mood for the walk to the Theatre of Dionysus on the base of the Acropolis.
This was where the soul stirring tragedies of the ancient playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the satirical comedies of Aristophanes were first performed in the fifth century BC. Humans who lived out their darkest nightmares in the stranglehold of Fate, gods who extracted revenge through unbelievably sanguinary deeds and politicians who got their just desserts — the hillside witnessed them all.
Pedestal to god
We find ourselves in the once sacred performing space where Athenian citizens gathered during the Festival of Dionysia to witness the plays. We look, in a spirit bordering on worship, at the pedestal of the ancient temple to the god of wine, revelry and theatre. Tiers of seats rise from the ground, cut out against the hillside — a vast open air auditorium that seated 17,000 people. Down below is the semi-circular orchestra, and on the stage front, remnants of Roman Emperor Hadrian’s reliefs.
The theatre was remodelled many times in the past two and a half millennia. Also during Roman times was built another theatre — the Odeon — at the Acropolis by the aristocrat Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife. A little distance up the hill we find the bronze foundry which is thought to be where the colossal statue of Goddess Athena was cast by the great sculptor Phidias. She stood on this rocky outcrop and the gilded edges of her helmet and lance, it is said, could be sighted by far off ships. Competing with Poseidon to be the patron of the City State, she won the contest by planting an olive seed to outdo Poseidon who struck the ground with his trident and produced a (salty) spring of water! The legend reveals the Greeks’ love of olives, an essential part of every meal we have in Greece.
The climb up to the Partheneon, the temple to Goddess Athena Parthenos, is exhilarating. The wind from the Aegean sea almost seems to sweep us off our feet as we enter through the enormous columns that held up the Propylaea (monumental gateway). The Partheneon is being renovated and so we have to be content with viewing the magnificence of its marble columns. A gold clad statue of the Goddess also fashioned by Phidias once stood within the Parthenon.
We make our way to the Erechtheion, the temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, held aloft by the imposing Caryatid columns (female figures), and see the temple to Athena Nike. The Acropolis owes much of it splendour to the vision of the great Pericles, statesman and general, who rebuilt most of these structures between 460 and 430 BC.
During Byzantine times, the Acropolis became the site of a church and during the period of the Ottoman Empire, that of a mosque. Many of the buildings on the Acropolis were destroyed when an explosion ripped through it during the Venetian siege in the 17th century.
As we descend the hill, our feet involuntarily make their way to the Theatre of Dionysus. It is time, however, to say good bye to the Acropolis. But whenever we see a Greek play in translation — English or Tamil — we are transported back to the Theatre of Dionysus which first witnessed the grief of Antigone, the agony of Oedipus and the fiery anger of Medea.
This article by Kausalya Santhanam was from THE HINDU dated January 25, 2018