What is the oldest theater in the world?

It’s impossible to say when exactly humans began enjoying performing arts or when the first stage was erected, but the first permanent theater was in Ancient Greece.

The outdoor Theater of Dionysus dates all the way back to the 6th century B.C., and while best known as a home for performances, it was also a site of religious significance.

theatre of dionysus oldest theatre in the world
A reconstruction of the Theater of Dionysus

In Ancient Greece, Dionysus (known as Bacchus to Romans) was the god of a good time – wine, fertility, festivity, ecstasy, fruitfulness, theater and abandon. He was in charge of revelry, of celebration, but make no mistake, this was a serious matter. 

It is therefore unsurprising that Ancient Greece’s pre-eminent theater was named after Dionysus, and that the plays, festivals and performances it hosted were originally of spiritual significance. As the art form developed with the theater itself, it also became the birthplace and home of the Greek tragedy, displaying the works of famous early tragedians like Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes.

theatre of dionysus oldest theatre in the world
(Getty Images)

Nowadays, it is a world-renowned tourist attraction, sitting in the shadow of the Acropolis, but it was not always this way. The theater fell into disrepair around the 4th century AD, and by the time the Byzantine Empire ruled over Athens, the theater was largely destroyed. 

It was not, in fact, until 1765 that the Theater of Dionysus was rediscovered, and not until the 19th century that archaeologists excavated the site, with it then undergoing significant restoration so we have a better understanding of the the theater now. 

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By the mid-14th century, the theater could hold up to 17,000 people with inclined rows of seating staggered away from the stage, rising with the Acropolis hill. These seats were originally made from wood, however during the Hellenistic period marble thrones and seating were added. When the Romans took control of the area, a second stage was constructed and the seating expanded further.

While a sight of spiritual and cultural significance, the architectural influence of the Theater of Dionysus is evident throughout the structures that followed. It served as a prototype of theaters, the first home and the pinnacle setting of classical Greek plays, and one that was replicated throughout Greek and Roman society in the buildings that followed.

theatre of dionysus oldest theatre in the world
(Getty Images)

It might not be as preserved or famous as other ruins within a few hundred feet, given its central location, but the Theater of Dionysus is one of the most important cultural sites in the world. 

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