It’s a place of towering mountain ranges, luxuriant forests, and rushing rivers. Lying on the shores of the Ionian Sea in north-west Greece, Epirus is one of the lesser-known and more rugged regions of the country. Yet it was a fertile cradle of human life that gave rise to great cities whose remains now lie scattered across its mountain tops and woodlands. Theatres stood at the heart of their civic and spiritual lives, and while most of them were built in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, each is extraordinary in its own way. Now Epirus’ ancient theatres are being excavated and restored. Soon they’ll be admired again, near to their original splendour in their wild and enchanting surroundings.
Dodona makes an excellent start to a tour of the ancient theatres of Epirus. An easy drive 15km south-west of Epirus’ pretty, lakeside capital of Ioannina, Dodona lies cradled in a narrow valley on the emerald slopes of Mount Tomaros. This is truly ancient territory, first settled during the Bronze Age. Homer suggests that the area was occupied by the Hellopes or Helloi, a clan of priests whose name, judging by Aristotle, may well have given rise to the word ‘Hellene’. Grassy fields line the path that leads to the theatre, which appears quite suddenly as you round a bend. Bathed in the golden glow of the morning sun, it’s an awe-inspiring sight. Larger than the famed theatre at Epidaurus, with a capacity of 18,000, it fans out around a hillside, its 56 tiers soaring skywards some 24m high.
We have Pyrrhus (c.319-272 BC), the king of Epirus, to thank for the theatre. A renowned soldier and keen builder, Pyrrhus took a special interest in Dodona, which had long been hallowed ground. In its early days, Dodona gained fame for its oracle, which conveyed messages from Zeus. Homer has Odysseus report that he consulted the Dodona oracle on how best to return home after the Trojan War. The oracular message was communicated through a range of cryptic means: first through the flight of birds, then the rustling of the leaves of the sacred oak tree, and, later on, the sound of vibrating copper cauldrons. Later, and not surprisingly, more straightforward methods were used. Pilgrims posed questions to the oracle on lead tablets, and its answers were written on their reverse sides. Many of these tablets survive, presenting more than 4,000 inscriptions – some questions, some answers – that speak to concerns about business, magic, travel, health, and family between the 6th and 2nd century BC.
Zeus and the Titan goddess Dione were worshipped at Dodona, so the place attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek and wider world. Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, a native of Epirus and a princess of the Molossians who inhabited the region, was apparently particularly interested in the sanctuary. At the end of the 4th century BC, work on a range of buildings at Dodona started. These were possibly related to the political body – the Molossian Assembly – that met at the city. Pyrrhus continued the construction work in the 3rd century BC, not only adding the theatre but a stadium, civic buildings (the bouleuterion and prytaneum), and various temples. As well as being an enthusiastic builder, Pyrrhus also started the Naia Games, held at Dodona to honour Zeus and Dione.
But it is the theatre that is the captivating highlight of the site, and it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by its glorious proportions. Visitors can still pass through the remains of its monumental entrances on either side of its vast orchestra area. Parts of the rectangular stage survive, too. Once the stage had wings on each side, and a passageway with pillars on the outer side provided access to the storage space beneath. An altar where sacrifices were held stands in the middle of the orchestra. After the conquest of Greece in 167 BC, the Romans later altered the theatre and, with typical blood lust, used it as an arena for wild animal games. The lower tiers of seats were removed, and the high stone slabs put in place to protect spectators still stand.
Close by the theatre, the remains of Dodona’s other public and sacred buildings lie under shady trees, festooned with wildflowers in the spring. Just beside the theatre are the remnants of the bouleuterion – or assembly hall – and, opposite, the living quarters of the people who once worked there. Remains of the temples of Heracles and Aphrodite are here, too, among the long grasses.
This is a magical and mystical site, and it’s little wonder that Dodona attracted illustrious visitors, including the poet William Wordsworth who came here in 1832. Excavations at the theatre started in 1875, and some repair work was carried out on it in the 1960s. Festivals have been held at the site, but now the theatre is being restored to more modern standards and may well be hosting more events in future, so Dodona’s long life is far from over.
Travel 75km west from Dodona, through a lush landscape of oleanders and lemon groves, and you’ll discover a different place altogether. The remains of Gitana are surrounded by wooded hills near the River Kalamas, which still rushes through the country here as it did in antiquity. Founded in the middle of the 4th century BC, Gitana was the thriving capital of the Thesprotians, one of the tribes of Epirus, with a population of several thousand in its heyday. Today, birdsong is the only sound that greets you as you follow a gravel path that traces a hillside towards the theatre at the outer edge of the city.
While Gitana had been known about for some time, systematic excavations only began in the 1980s. Constructed mainly of white limestone in the 3rd century BC, the theatre is delightfully compact with its 28 rows of seats, which once held 4,000 to 5,000 people. You might try walking up one of the stairways that provide access to the seats, but a little care is needed as the small local snakes are drawn to the warm stones. Even in its semi-ruined state, the theatre makes a charming sight and parts of its main features still stand: the remnants of the columns that supported the stage are in place, as are the entrances for the chorus on either side.
Like other theatres, it had a sacred dimension. Offerings of wine and fruit were made at an engraved square of rock that still stands in the middle of the round orchestra. What is intriguing about the Gitana theatre, though, is the number of names engraved on some of the lower seats, which you can see quite clearly. About 100 have been identified. It has been suggested that they are the names of people who had freed slaves. The question of why they did so remains, but one suggestion is that enslaved men may have been granted their freedom so they could join the army.
The theatre lies on the banks of the river, by the port outside the city walls. Over the hill above the theatre are the remains of the city. Only a small part has been excavated, but it is clear that the city was planned on a grid or Hippodamian system and surrounded by sturdy walls. Broad roads were flanked by handsome public buildings, including a sizeable agora, and comfortable private homes. The city was an important political centre and, as well as the plays that were performed here, the theatre was used for meetings of the Thesprotian and the Epirote Assemblies. Recent excavations on the theatre were started in 2012 and its restoration is being carried out by archaeologists, whom you can see at work in a small building beside the theatre.
Orchards and olive groves line the road to Kassope which lies far to the south-east of Epirus. After a time, the road leaves the fertile plains and snakes up and around a mountainside carpeted with tall pine trees. Built in the 4th century BC, Kassope sits on a high, remote plateau beneath the rugged grey walls of the Zalongo mountain range. On top of one of these high cliff-faces, you’ll spot the statue of women of Souli, who danced off a cliff in 1803 to escape the invading Ottomans.
Of all the sites in Greece, few could be more entrancing than Kassope. From the entrance on the fringes of the forest, you’ll soon come across the spacious heart of this ancient city. The agora is bounded by a small theatre, which was probably used for musical and literary events and political meetings (some have described it as a bouleuterion rather than a theatre), and by two stoas. From the edge of the agora, truly panoramic views open up to the Acarnanian coast and the blue waters of the Ambracian Gulf and Ionian Sea, glittering in the distance far below. It’s not hard to imagine just how magnificent a place Kassope must have been in its prime, when it was home to around 8,000-10,000 people. Also planned on a grid layout, its two main roads run parallel to each other. On the fringes of the lower road are the ruins of the katagogion or hostel, which was clearly an impressive affair, with a colonnade and two shrines, so visitors were well taken care of.
A paved street, with a drainage channel on one side, leads up a hill and is flanked by what were once well-appointed, two-storeyed houses with large rooms, courtyards, and sewerage systems. The steep climb is worth the effort. As you reach the top of the street and make your way along the city’s other main road, you come across the truly dramatic sight of the large theatre, which stands resplendent, hewn into a hill facing the coast below. Erected in the 3rd century BC, it held around 6,000 spectators in its steeply sloped tiers. Only the lowest tiers have been restored so far, but work is being carried out here, too.
The life of this city, however, came to a rather poignant end in the late 1st century BC. When Octavian – later Augustus – built the city of Nikopolis to commemorate his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the naval battle off the cape of Actium in 31 BC, the citizens of Kassope were ordered to leave their home and settle there.
To discover where Kassope’s citizens found themselves, travel south to the tip of Epirus near the attractive seaside town of Preveza. Octavian built his new city on a fertile plain beside the Ionian Sea and the Ambracian Gulf, below the hill where he was headquartered during his fateful encounter with Antony and Cleopatra. Spread over some 375 acres, Nikopolis is one of the largest ancient cities Greece. The inhabitants of nearby cities, including Kassope, became – forcibly – its first residents, but no expense was spared on their new home. Nikopolis was constructed on a suitably lavish scale. It became the economic and cultural centre of Epirus during the Roman and early Christian periods, and was visited by Strabo, Germanicus, and Nero, and later, quite probably, the apostle Paul and the emperor Hadrian.
Naturally, a great theatre was part of Octavian’s grandiose building project. To the north of the city, he established a sacred precinct dedicated to Apollo, the area used for the Actian Games inaugurated in 27 BC. New structures here included the theatre, a stadium, a gymnasium, and baths, and Octavian’s showy victory monument.
Walk into the theatre along one of the original stone entrance passages and it suddenly rears up before you. This theatre, though, was something different. It was constructed with typical Roman features, with the stage, orchestra, and seating all connected as a single unit. Unlike Greek theatres, which were built into natural slopes, only the lower cavea – or seating section – made use of a hill, while the upper cavea was supported by a stone substructure, walls, and buttresses. A large portico ran along the top of the seating, parts of which still loom over the theatre. It must have been particularly comfortable, with awnings protecting the audience from the sun and rain.
On the hill above the theatre are the remains of the victory monument of Augustus, which should not be missed by any visitor. From the hill, Octavian had fine views of the surrounding area. It’s hardly surprising that he wanted to commemorate his victory over Mark Antony, which provided him with supreme power in the Roman world. An elaborate complex, it famously featured 36 bronze rams from ships captured from Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. The holes in which they were placed are still visible.
However magnificent it may have been, Nikopolis succumbed to the ravages of time and, like its other monuments, its theatre fell into ruin. During the Second World War, its orchestra was used by Italian forces for their anti-aircraft guns. When restoration work began in 2012, its lower tiers were covered with soil, its stones had been plundered, and parts were in danger of collapse. Nearby, the smaller Roman odeon has hosted performances and concerts, but soon the great theatre should also be in use again.
East of Nikopolis, along a road that takes you through lagoons and wetlands, lies Amvrakia, which was King Pyrrhus’ capital in the region and is today the busy town of Arta. In its centre you’ll find the Amvrakia theatre, a tiny gem that nestles deep below the city streets. Built in the late 4th to early 3rd centuries BC, it held 500 or so spectators, making it the smallest ancient theatre ever found in Greece. Elsewhere in the city there was a larger theatre and this small one may have been used for political meetings as well as for dramatic performances. With city buildings rising up high all around it, the theatre was a lucky find. Parts of it only came to light in 1976, then later, in 2011, more remains were found. Apart from its size, the theatre is a bit of a curiosity as it had no proedria – or special front row – for dignitaries. Workmen are still toiling on the site removing soil from around the theatre as part of its restoration. Like other theatres of Epirus, it should be in use again, happily linking the modern city with its ancient past.
Pause in any of these sites in Epirus, however diverse they may be, and it’s easy to imagine the rustle and whispers of the audience as they wait expectantly for the plays to unfold in the still air. Once they were a central unifying force in ancient life; now they form the focus of a new ‘cultural route’ of Epirus. The spirit and beauty of Epirus’ great theatres may have been dimmed for a time, but they are about to shine again. The results will be nothing short of thrilling.
FURTHER INFORMATION For more details about the Theatres of Ephesus cultural route, visit https://ancienttheatersofepirus.gr.