Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Men Who Built the Theaters

The ἀρχιτέκτων in ancient Greece was more like a general contractor than an architect in our sense of the word, but it also developed the sense of theater manager in Athens. It is often used synonymously with θεατροπώλης and θεατρώνης, but Eric Csapo, in his article "The Men Who Built the Theatres" (2007), attempts to tease out the differences in these terms.

The change in the term ἀρχιτέκτων from a builder to a manager, according to Csapo, is related to the change in theater seating at Athens from wooden benches to stone. Originally the seating at the Theater of Dionysus was comprised of wooden benches. These benches were installed and removed each year at the festival by men who were contracted by the state. What remains of the leases makes clear that the contractor (the ἀρχιτέκτων) paid for the installation, and in return was given permission to charge entrance fees, which covered his costs and made him profit.

Charging admission might seem natural to us, but it was in fact quite revolutionary. It was the first time that fees were charged for a religious festival (see Sommerstein 1997 and Wilson 1997). It is disputed whether fees were seen as the cause of, or the solution to, the conflict created by competition for seats at the festival. Perikles is credited with taking state money and distributing it so that poorer citizens could afford seats. The terms θεατρώνης and θεατροπώλης both refer to the same function but from different points of view. The θεατρώνης, or theatron-buyer, is the state perspective: the man who buys the rights to charge admission. The θεατροπώλης, or theatron-seller, is the audience perspective: the man who sells them admission.

At some point in the fourth-century, the city decided to invest in permanent stone seating for the theater. This eliminated the need to install and remove the wooden benches each year, and it increased greatly the amount of seating available. With this one-time investment, the city eliminated the need to lease out the job to the ἀρχιτέκτων. Now the city could collect admission directly for itself. At this point the term ἀρχιτέκτων came to refer to a new position, which was a salaried position with the state, elected by popular assembly, as evidenced by the Athenian Constitution and inscriptions beginning around 333 BCE. This position was something like a public works director and building inspector, involved in the management of the theater for the state.


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