Ancient Theatres Of The Epirus Cultural Route, Greece

Dodona
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The highlight of my recent trip to Epirus was undoubtedly the ancient theatres that form the basis of the Epirus Cultural Route. But I was to discover that, impressive as they are, the theatres are just a part of the rich archaeological heritage of the region. I also saw cities, temples and even the site of an oracle, the remains of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation.

The Theatres Of Epirus

The Cultural Route of Epirus links five classical theatres, including the largest and smallest theatres of ancient Greece. It is a tour around antiquity, taking in everything the region has to offer, old and new. In the longer term it is hoped that the theatres of northern Epirus (across the border in Albania) will also be developed for tourists to enjoy.

The classical theatres were vast arenas, with semi-circular banks of seats set into a hillside looking down on the stage. Despite their size the carefully designed acoustics ensured that even those furthest away could hear what was going on.

Semi circular stone seats built into the hillside with stone stage scenery at the front
The ancient theatre of Dodona

Theatres were at the centre of civic life. Although the actors were all men, women and slaves were able to attend performances, which were intended to be instructive as well as entertaining. However, I was informed that women were not allowed to watch the (usually bawdy) comedies!

The theatres were also places for meetings and debate. They would be associated with temples and other public buildings, and there would be a stadium for formal games. However, it was not until the Romans arrived that they were used for more violent activities such as animal fights.

Dodona: Theatre And Oracle

Dodona was the largest theatre in ancient Greece. It was built in the 3rd century BCE to reflect the grandeur and ambition of King Pyrrhus and could seat 15 to 17 thousand people. It had to be large enough to accommodate vast crowds, as the sanctuary and the games instituted by Pyrrhus attracted visitors from all over Greece.

Today the theatre has been substantially excavated and restored. An interesting feature is the skene, a stone structure that formed part of the stage scenery.

The theatre and archaeological site are open to visitors. Live performances occasionally take place here.

Pinnable image of the Epirus Cultural Route, showing archaeological remains at Dodona with trees and mountains in the background
Pinnable image of the archaeological site of Dodona

The Oracle Of Dodona

As you walk around the site you will see remains of several other buildings, including temples and a later (5th century) Christian church. Dodona was said to be the earthly residence of the great god Zeus, second only to his palace on Mount Olympus. There are sanctuaries to Zeus and his wife Dione here, making it a sacred place.

This was the home of the Oracle of Dodona, one of the most important oracles of the ancient world. The oracle was a priest who would listen to “rumours” – perhaps the twittering of birds, or the rustling of leaves – and give an answer to whatever question had been posed. This answer would normally be cryptic and ambiguous!

The oracle was not in a particular building, but in a particular space – perhaps beneath a big oak tree – so we don’t know exactly where the consultations took place. However, archaeologists have determined the approximate location, close to the remains of the Byzantine church.

The use of oracles was stopped when Christianity arrived in the 4th century. However many visitors still feel a spiritual connection to the place. I spotted a woman walking barefoot – apparently this is common, a way of connecting to the sacred ground.

Gitana, A Fortified Town

Gitana was a walled city with a strategic hilltop location. Unusually the theatre was just outside the town as there was no suitable slope inside the walls. It could accommodate between three and four thousand people, and was divided into upper and lower levels.

Banks of seats built into the hillside and an old wall at the top of the hill
The theatre of Gitana

A particular feature of the Gitana theatre is the inscriptions on some of the steps. These are believed to be the names of people who freed slaves.

Both the theatre and the other ruins are currently open to the public. However, archaeological work is ongoing and you may need to check in advance in case some areas are closed.

The Prytaneion

A paved road leads uphill from the theatre to the Prytaneion. The countryside and views here are lovely, and I detected a strong smell of mint and oregano growing among the ruins. The Greeks certainly knew how to choose a spot for a town!

The Prytaneion was the administrative area of the town where the courts of justice and other public buildings were located. While exploring this area look out for a mosaic on the ground showing a sun with 16 rays. This is a traditional Macedonian symbol, and acts as a reminder of the close historical ties between Epirus and Macedonia.

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Roman Nikopolis

Nikopolis is not Greek, but Roman. It was built by the Emperor Octavian (later known as Augustus) to celebrate his naval victory against Antony and Cleopatra at nearby Aktion in 31 BCE.

The theatre, and the nearby stadium, were used by the Romans for around two centuries before falling into disuse. The theatre is still in the process of restoration but it is hoped that it will be open to visitors in 2022.

In the meantime there is a very extensive archaeological park to explore. Note that the ruins are widespread and you may wish to travel by car or bike if you are visiting all of the sites.

Victory Monument Of Aktion

On the hill above the theatre was a massive monument to Octavian’s victory. This was once a magnificent building with huge pillars and ornate carvings. However all that remains now is a part of the front retaining wall with an inscription celebrating the victory.

Hillside with old stones inscribed in Latin
Inscribed stones of the Victory Monument

Above the monument was a formal Roman garden, with plants selected for their relationship to the god Apollo (who was supposedly an ancestor of Octavian). The site is also notable for its extensive views of the mountains and the sea.

The Town Of Nikopolis

The town of Nikopolis was created at the same time as part of the victory celebrations (its name literally means “victory city”). Much of the town is now beneath private land and has not yet been excavated. However substantial parts have been restored, and this was one of the most impressive archaeological sites I visited in Epirus.

Rman road with ruined buildings on either side and trees at the end
The Roman town of Nikopolis

There is a large domus and the remains of some basilicas with mosaic floors. You can clearly see the Roman roads, the remains of the plumbing and the town wall. (The wall was rebuilt in the 5th century, as more protection was necessary once the Romans had departed.)

Part of a mosaic floor with images of animals and plants
Roman mosaics at Nikopolis

Nearby is the Odeon, which was a sort of smaller theatre. There is no agreement as to the precise difference between an odeon and a theatre, but it is likely that this one was used as a council chamber as well as for public performances.

Archaeological Museum Of Nikopolis

The Archaeological Museum Of Nikopolis is just north of the town of Preveza. It is full of information about the Battle of Aktion and about life in Nikopolis. The museum also contains statues, mosaics and other artefacts recovered during excavation.

The Theatre Of Kassope

Kassope was built in the 4th century BCE and abandoned when its citizens were ordered to relocate to the new town of Nikopolis in 31 BCE.

The theatre was built on the highest hill, allowing spectators to enjoy the views across the Ionian Sea while watching the performances. I didn’t manage to see this site myself (I need to plan a return visit…) but the location looks stunning.

Large stone theatre set into the hillside looking over a valley and mountains
The theatre of Cassope

Arta And The Theatre Of Amvrakia

Amvrakia was the smallest of the Greek theatres. Much of it remains buried beneath the modern buildings of the city of Arta and there is little to see today. However, Arta is also worth visiting for its medieval castle, historic stone bridge and magnificent Byzantine churches.

My visit to Epirus was sponsored by the Programme of Tourism Promotion of Epirus.

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Karen Warren

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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