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Sicily's Lost Theater

Archaeologists resume the search for the home of drama in a majestic Greek sanctuary

March/April 2019

Agrigento Theater Excavation

Going to the theater was an essential part of ancient Greek civic and religious life. Plays such as the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides, the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander, and likely numerous other works that have not survived, were regularly staged at religious festivals. Masked actors and a chorus whose role was to comment on the play’s action in song, dance, and verse entertained festivalgoers and paid honor to the gods. “Since the very beginning of Greek civilization, a theater was always a religious building housed in a sanctuary,” says archaeologist Luigi Maria Caliò of the University of Catania. “In the Greek world, everything was related to holiness, and theaters were built in sacred areas.”


At first, theaters were likely just open areas or hillsides with no cavea, or tiered seating area. From about the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C., says Caliò, Greek theaters were built of wood. Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Electra, for example, were performed in wooden theaters. Beginning in the fourth century B.C., theaters were often built in stone. “When theaters were monumentalized, they became a crucial part of cities around the Greek world,” Caliò says. Though nearly all traces of the wooden structures have been lost, remains of ancient Greek stone theaters—almost 150 have been discovered to date—still stand from Italy to the Black Sea, at sites such as Epidaurus in the Greek Peloponnese, the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and Taormina in Sicily. As one of the most important cities in the ancient Mediterranean during the classical era and home to one of its grandest sanctuaries, Akragas (now Agrigento), on Sicily’s southern coast, must have had a theater as well. But no ancient sources mention one there and, until recently, no archaeological evidence of such a structure had ever been found.


The city-state of Akragas was founded in 582 B.C. by Greeks from Gela, a flourishing Sicilian colony some 40 miles away that had been established a century earlier. Akragas reached its zenith under the tyrant Theron, who ruled from about 489 to 472 B.C. In 480 B.C., Theron and his ally and brother-in-law Gelon, ruler of the powerful colony of Syracuse, were part of a coalition that defeated the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera, ending, temporarily at least, the Carthaginians’ threat to take over Sicily. To celebrate their victories, Akragas’ rulers launched a series of monumental building projects, including construction of the immense temple dedicated to Olympian Zeus, which, at 340 by 160 feet, was the largest Doric temple in the Greek world. Akragas was razed by the Carthaginians in 406 B.C. and then left largely abandoned until 338 B.C., when the Carthaginians were defeated and the city was rebuilt.


Agrigento Crab Coin A century later, Akragas was the site of the first pitched land battle of the Punic War, which pitted the resurgent Carthaginians against the newly expanding power of Rome. The Roman victory in 262 B.C. signified the beginning of Roman influence in Sicily. Later, Akragas became Roman Agrigentum. Throughout its history, when the city thrived, building projects and religion did, too. Temples were regularly constructed and dedicated to gods and demigods including Hercules, Zeus, Hera, Athena, Concordia, Hephaestus, Castor and Pollux, Demeter and Persephone, and Isis.


The search for Akragas’ theater began almost a century ago when archaeologist Pirro Marconi directed a large archaeological campaign funded by his English patron, Alexander Hardcastle. Hardcastle was a captain in the British Navy who became fascinated with the site while living in a home known as the Villa Aurea, located between two of Agrigento’s still-standing temples. Until the Englishman died in 1933, he sponsored Marconi’s work. The only written source available to guide Marconi in his search for the theater was De Rebus Siculis Decades Duae, the first printed book on the history of Sicily, written in the middle of the sixteenth century by Dominican monk Tommaso Fazello. Fazello had located what was left of the theater “not very far from San Nicolò church,” adding, “I barely recognize its foundations.” Marconi, however, failed to uncover significant evidence of the structure, ending the pursuit of Akragas’ theater for the next eight decades.

Beyond the Temples