James Silk Buckingham.

Travels in Palestine, through the countries of Bashan and Cilead, east of the River Jordan; including a visit to the cities of Geraza and Gamala, in the Decapolis (Volume 2) online

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one hundred and twenty feet; and from the
lowest seat of the semicircle, across the arena
and stage, to the central door of the scene, just
eighty feet. The seats are arranged in two
divisions, now visible above ground, and those
contain each fifteen rows of benches; but there

* No. 5. of the General Plan, shows the position of this


is great reason to believe, from the accumula-
tion of rubbish in the arena, that another similar
division of seats is now hidden beneath it.
These divisions were separated by a space for
walking, formed by an interval equal to the
breadth of two ranges of seats, and this space
facilitated the passage of the spectators from
one part of the theatre to the other. The
lowermost of the two divisions now visible, was
intersected by three flights of steps, in the form
of rays, and placed at equal distances, the
central one running up the whole height of
both divisions, with a break at the passage
between them ; and the two others ending at
that passage, without being continued in the
same line above it. The upper division had,
however, seven such flights of cunei, as they were
called ; the central one forming a continuation
of that below, and being wider than the others,
with a low balustrade on each side ; and the
other flights similar to the two smaller ones in
the lower division, and placed three on each
side at equal intervals.

Entering upon this platform of separation be-
tween the two divisions of benches described,
which platform is just four feet in breadth, there
are four door-ways, about equidistant from the
ends of the semicircle, from the central flight of
steps, and from each other. These doors were


the terminations of arched passages running
through the theatre, and going beneath the upper
seats, as they led inward from the outer part of
the semicircular wall. It was by these passages
that the audience entered from without ; and on
coming upon this platform they could walk con-
veniently along it, until they were opposite to
any particular part of the theatre desired, and
either ascend to the higher or descend on the
lower division of seats by the flights of steps al-
ready mentioned, For the ascent there were,
as will be seen in the plan, seven distinct flights,
while for the descent there were but three. The
audience had, therefore, never occasion to pass
through the arena, or open central space below,
nor in any way to approach near to the stage.

The interior of the closed front, or scene, pre-
sented a great richness of effect, from the lavish
decoration and profusion of architectural orna-
ment which was displayed there. The order
observed throughout was Corinthian. The ac-
cumulation of rubbish, added to the fallen frag-
ments of its own ruins, has occasioned the
pavement of the stage to be entirely covered ;
and even the door-ways are some of them buried
nearly up to their architraves. But still enough
is seen to trace the design of the whole.

In this scene there are three doors, placed at
about equal distances from each other, and from


the angles of the building in front. The central
door is square at the head, and is the largest of
the three ; the two others, one on each side of
it, are arched. There are four niches placed,
one between, and one on the sides of each of the
three doors. The two nearest the angles of the
building have triangular pediments, and are
highly ornamented.

A range of columns extends along the interior
of the front, or facing toward the audience ;
and, with reference to them, behind the stage,
or between the stage and the scene. The inter-
columniation of these is irregular, from their
being made to leave the interval, opposite the
front doors, clear. They are, therefore, disposed
in four divisions, of four pillars each. These
cover the space of wail in which the niches are ;
the niches being seen through the intercolumni-
ation of the two central pillars of each. Behind
each of these rows of four pillars, are four pilas-
ters, corresponding in order, size, and position,
and placed, like the columns, two beside each
niche. In addition to this, there is, on both
sides of each of the three front doors, a smaller
Corinthian column, standing in a sort of recess.
Some of these columns do not want much of
their full proportion of height, as measured by
their diameters ; though the doors beside which
they stand are, as was before said, buried nearly


up to their architraves. These, at first sight,
produced the impression that -the architect had
observed, in this scene, what is called order upon
order, or the erection of a story of one order of
architecture over another of a different one.
There were no other appearances that corrobo-
rated or confirmed this suspicion, however, so
that the pedestals on which these columns stood
must either have been unusually high, or they
rose from a surbasement, or something similar,
beneath. Tt would have been an interesting
task, had we possessed the means and time to
effect it, to have cleared away the whole of the
rubbish down to the very pavement of the stage.
It occurred to Mr. Bankes, that, notwithstand-
ing the ruin of some parts of this edifice, it was,
perhaps, on the whole, the most perfect Roman
theatre now remaining in the world. He had
himself seen all those of Italy ; and in Greece
we know how much they are destroyed ; and he
remembered none so perfect as this, more parti-
cularly as to these most interesting parts, its
stage and scene. The complete examination of
this would, therefore, have thrown much light
on the nature of such structures among the
Romans, and would have helped us to under-
stand more, perhaps, of their stage management,
of scenery, entrance, exit, &c. than we now
know. We even thought it probable, that some


of the statues which once filled the niches above,
might be found in a tolerably perfect state on
clearing away this rubbish ; as if we sought out
causes to encrease our regret, at not being able
to put our desires into execution. We drew back
often to look upon the whole, admiring the rich
decorations of the Corinthian order, displayed
in all its pomp on this small, but highly finished

Besides the doors of the front, there were also
two larger side-doors, that led directly upon the
stage from without ; used, probably, for the
entrance and exit of the actors, during the ex-
hibition of the play. These doors were more
spacious, and coarser in their construction than
the others, and the passages over them were
arched. There were yet two other doors, which
led from an arched passage that went round
under the lower seats of the theatre, into the
open central space, or arena ; and we conceived
that it was here the actors themselves made their
first entry, coming by this arched passage from
some general room of preparation on each side
and passing immediately on the stage. The
musicians, and others concerned in the shows,
might, perhaps, have entered here : for it is
observed of ancient theatres, that there were
two kinds of doors ; the one led to the open air,
the other was for going into or coming out of


the cloisters, that those within the theatres might
not be thereby disturbed ; but out of one gallery
there went an inward passage, divided into par-
titions, also, which led into another gallery, to
give room to the combatants and to the musicians
to go out, as occasion required. *

The theatre was entirely open above, nor
were there any appearances of its ever having
been roofed. It faced towards the north, pro-
bably that the audience might be thus shaded
from a southern sun, and might receive the cool
breezes which usually blow from that quarter ;
two luxuries worthy of being obtained by every
possible means, in a climate so warm as this is
during the greater part of the year.

So little appears to remain of any ancient de-
scriptions of these edifices, that one may be
forgiven for an attempt to supply that deficiency,
by minute details of such features of them as we
find in their ruins, and by a comparison of what
we observed here, with the accounts given us
of similar structures in other places. In this
task it may be permitted to use the information
contained in an obscure, but highly interesting,
and, we may say, learned paper, inserted origi-
nally in the Gentleman's Magazine, but without

* Josephus, in his account' of the assassination of Caius, at
a theatre in Rome. Ant. Jud. 1. xix. c. 1. s. 13.


a name. * This ingenious writer observes, that
ancient authors have treated of the construction
of theatres but obscurely and imperfectly. Vitru-
vius has given us no account, either of their
dimensions, or of the number of their principal
and constituting parts, presuming, I suppose,
that they had been well enough known, or could
never have perished. Among the more modern
writers, the learned Scaliger has omitted the
most essential parts ; and the citations of Bul-
lingerus from Hesychius, Eustathius, Suidas,
and others, throw but an imperfect light on the
real construction of ancient theatres. In the
description of the first Athenian theatre, dedi-
cated to Bacchus, and built by the famous
architect, Philos, in the time of Pericles, it is
said that the diameter was just one hundred
Athenian feet, and that from thence it derived
its name of Hecatompedon.

We see, therefore, that this theatre of Geraza
was of larger dimensions than that of Bacchus
at Athens, notwithstanding that this last, the
ruins of which, upwards of two centuries ago,
were measured by Mons. de la Guilatiere, was
then considered to be a monument of ancient

* See the selection of curious articles from this work, as
recommended to the editor originally by the celebrated Gibbon,
and since published in four volumes, octavo, vol. i. p. 201.



magnificence worthy of being preserved. In
the theatre at Athens, there was a part of the
area, which comprehended fourteen feet of the
diameter, that did not belong precisely to the
theatre, being behind the scene j whereas, in
this at Geraza, the breadth of the scene itself is
a hundred and twenty feet from east to west,
without any deduction ; and the distance between
the lowest range of seats, now above the rub-
bish, and the central door of that scene, is
eighty feet ; the remaining part of the seats, in
thickness, making more than the remaining
twenty feet; so that there is, therefore, one
hundred feet full and complete within the scene,
whichever way its diameter be taken.

Of the Athenian edifice it is said, the theatre
itself was separated into two principal divisions,
one for the spectators, and the other for the
representations. The parts designed for the
spectators were the conistra, which the Romans
called arena ; the rows or benches, the little
stairs, and the gallery, called circys. The parts
appropriated to the actors, were, the orchestra,
the logeon, or thymele, the proscenion, and the
scene. In that part of the edifice allotted to
the spectators, were twenty-four rows of seats,
or benches, ascending gradually one above the
other, and proceeding round the conistra, or
arena, in an arch of a circle to the stage, which


the Greeks called proscenion. These benches
were distinguished, eight and eight, by three
corridors, or passages, which were called dia-
zoma. They were of the same figure with the
rows of seats, and were contrived for the passage
of the spectators from one story to another,
without incommoding those who were already
placed. For the same convenience, there were
stairs that passed from one corridor to another,
across the several rows ; and near those stairs
there were doors, by which the people entered
from the galleries on the outside, and took their
places according to their rank and distinction.
The best places were in the middle division,
containing eight rows of seats, between the
eighth and seventeenth ; this division was called
bouleuticon, and designed for the magistrates ;
the other rows were called ephebicon, and were
for the citizens after they were eighteen years
of age.

This description would have answered, with
scarcely any variation, for the theatre at Geraza,
as well as for that of Bacchus at Athens ; and this
being the first that was erected in that cradle of
fine architecture, it will follow that the Romans,
whose country of the Decapolis was a colony of
their empire, had as yet made no deviation from
the pure taste and chaste proportion of their

n 2


primitive Greek models, in the construction of
their theatres at least.

The conistra, or arena, the benches, the stairs,
and the gallery, called the circys, which was
the upper range of all, still remained perfect
here ; but the orchestra, the logeon, or thymele,
and the proscenion, or stage, were hidden beneath
the fallen fragments of the upper part of the
scene, in which, as before described, even its
own doors were nearly buried. We see here,
however, that as there were appearances of a
third division of benches being also buried be-
neath these fallen fragments, the number of
these divisions would then be three, as in the
theatre of Bacchus ; and as the doors from
without all led into the corridor, or diazoma,
just above the central division, it was equally
probable that this division formed the bouleuticon
for the people of rank and distinction ; and that
the upper and lower divisions, which were not
so easy of access, were the ephebicon for the
citizens generally.

In the theatre of Bacchus, the whole number
of the benches contained only twenty-four rows,
in three divisions of eight each. At Geraza
there were thirty rows, in two of fifteen each,
now visible above the rubbish, which, as it co-
vered the arena and the doors of the scene


nearly up to their architraves, no doubt hid
beneath it another division of probably several
ranges of seats, so that the number of such
ranges was greater considerably than in that at

The height of those rows of benches in the
theatre of Bacchus is said to have been thirteen
inches ; and their breadth about twenty-two
inches ; the lowest bench was near four feet
high from the level of the floor ; the height and
breadth of the corridors and passages was double
the height and breadth of the benches. The
sides of the stairs passing from the body of the
edifice towards the stage, were not parallel, for
the space betwixt them grew sharper as they
came near the co?iistra f or arena, and ended in
the figure of a wedge, whence the Romans called
them cunei. To prevent the falling down of the
rain upon those steps, there were penthouses set
up to carry off the water.

The height of each of the rows of benches in
the theatre here, was just three spans, or about
two feet, nearly double the height of those in
the theatre of Bacchus. As we sat on them
ourselves for trial, we found this, however, a
very convenient height, particularly as the back
was not supported. Our feet had just sufficient
repose to keep the body at ease, when in an erect
posture, without lounging. The height of thir-
n 3


teen inches, if that was the standard used by
Philos, seems too low, as this of twenty-four
may be may be thought perhaps too high, for
comfort. Those of the great Roman Amphi-
theatre at Nismes, constructed in the age of
Antoninus Pius, and capable of holding twenty
thousand spectators, are said to have been from
eighteen to twenty-two inches high, which is a
medium between those of Athens and of Geraza,
and the lowest of those numbers is about the
standard at present given to our chairs and do-
mestic seats ; though I think the seats of our
theatres are nearer the Athenian measure, but
even these are still above it. The breadth of
the seats at Geraza was exactly the same as their
height, or three spans ; and each row was neatly
finished in front by a rounded moulding, cut
out of the same stone as formed the benches,
and adding both to the beauty of the edifice and
to the comfort of the audience in sitting. The
ranges of seats continued all around the semi-
circle, without being interrupted by any species
of division throughout their whole length, gave
a simple grandeur to the effect produced by
these unbroken sweeps of the circle, rising in
continued succession one above another. The
blocks of the benches were much longer than
the breadth necessary for one person, so that
the space for one individual seat was in no way


defined, Mr. Bankes thought that he had seen
Greek letters engraved on them, and conjectured
that they might have served as numbers ; but
after a very careful examination this did not
appear to me to be the case, and it is most probable
that they might have been some of the arbitrary
signs of the workmen for their guidance in the
succession of the blocks, as such signs are very
commonly seen in ancient Roman masonry.

The height and breadth of the corridors or
diazoma were greater also at Geraza than at
Athens, as those were exactly double the height
and breadth of the benches ; but these were four
paces, or about eight feet broad, and of a suffi-
cient height to admit of the doors of entrance
being at least six feet high, which ought to have
been the case too at Athens, one would think,
as these doors occupied exactly the same place
there. The flights of stairs descended here
from the body of the theatre towards the stage
in exactly the same way as in the theatre of
Bacchus, the space between them growing nar-
rower as they approached the conistra or arena,
and ending in the figure of a wedge, which gave
to them their Roman name of cunei. But there
were no appearances of there ever having been
a penthouse over these to carry off the rain,
though this is nearly as wet a climate as that of
Greece, in its seasons of the early and the latter

n 4


rains. The only thing we remarked in these
was, that the central flight was broader than the
others, and went in a straight line from the bottom
of the benches to the top ; and that the others
were all very narrow, but easy of ascent, the
height of each step seeming to be not above a
span or eight inches.

Above the upper corridor, in the theatre of
Bacchus, there was a gallery, called circys, for
the women, where those who were infamous or
irregular in their lives were not permitted to
enter. At the very top of the theatre here, or
above the uppermost row of benches, was a
broad walk, which might rather be called the
upper corridor itself than a gallery above it ;
so that it was not quite evident that there was
a circys here for the exclusive accommodation
of women, under the salutary regulations men-

The Athenian theatre, it is said, was not so
capacious as that which was built in Rome by
Marcus Scaurus, the ^Edile ; for, in that, there
was room for seventy-nine thousand persons j
in this, there was room for six thousand only.

It is observed, that it could not contain less ;
for the suffrages of the people were taken in it,
and by the Athenian laws six thousand suffrages
were requisite to make a decree of the people
authentic. As the dimensions of the theatre of


Geraza, as well as the number of its rows of
seats, is greater than that of Bacchus, it follows
that it would accommodate a greater number of

An author of character, who wrote a book
descriptive of the remains of ancient art at
Nismes, in calculating the number of possible
spectators that the amphitheatre of Antoninus
Pius, at that place, was capable of holding,
allowed a space of twenty inches to each
person. Seventeen, however, were thought
sufficient by the gentleman who furnishes this
information * ; and he suggests, I think with
great plausibility, that in crowded assemblies
fourteen inches is as much space as each person,
on an average, separately occupies. Those who
are curious in such matters, might easily make
the calculation to a nicety, having the dimen-
sions of the building and the space for an indi-
vidual already given. From a rough estimate
of my own, the two divisions, or thirty rows of
seats now above the rubbish, would hold six
thousand seven hundred and fifty ; so that, on
the whole, eight thousand might be within the
number it would contain when perfect. Even
this is, I believe, a much greater number than

* Anonymous. вАФ In a letter descriptive of the amphi-
theatre at Nismes, following the description of the first Athe-
nian theatre, in the selections from the Gentleman's Magazine.


the largest theatre now existing would hold ;
as it was said, when this account of the amphi-
theatre at Nismes was written, that the largest
theatre in Europe, which was then the Opera
House at Paris, did not contain even three

Of all that part of the theatre which belonged
to the actors, and its arrangement into the
orchestra, the logeon or thymele, and the pro-
scenion or stage, we could observe nothing here
to assist a comparison, as all this part which
occupied the arena was now covered with ruins.
The scene, however, which is defined to be
" the columns and ornaments in architecture,
raised from the foundation and upon the sides
of the proscenion for its beauty and decora-
tion," was here very lavishly ornamented with
all the richness of the Corinthian order. Aga-
tarchus, it is said, was the first architect who
found out the way of adorning scenes by the
rules of perspective, and ^Eschylus assisted
him ; but we observed nothing of such a use of
artificial perspective here.

The theatre of Regilla, not far from the tem-
ple of Theseus at Athens, was covered by a mag-
nificent roof of cedar. The Odeon, or theatre
for music, was covered likewise ; but no part of
the theatre of Bacchus was covered, except the
proscenion or stage for the security of the


actors, and the circys for the shelter of the
females, to whom this place was peculiarly
assigned. From the appearance of the upper
part of the scene here, compared with the fallen
fragments and large blocks of stone which
rilled the arena, it did not appear that
sufficient of the scene could have been
destroyed to furnish so great a quantity of
fragments. It is therefore probable, that the
proscenion might have been roofed, and that
the masses now lying on the ground might be
portions of its fallen masonry ; but with regard
to the circys, as before remarked, it was not
certain that any such division of the theatre

The Athenians, in visiting their theatres,
which were mostly exposed to the air, came
usually, it is said, with great cloaks to secure
them from the rain or the cold ; and for defence
against the sun they had the sciadion> a kind of
parasol, which the Romans used also in their
theatres by the name of umlrrellce, but when a
sudden storm arose, the play was interrupted,
and the spectators dispersed. This must have
been the case here also, unless temporary awn-
ings or tent-roofs were used, which is perhaps
the more probable, from the very obvious ad-
vantage and convenience of such a shelter,
without its being made permanent enough to


intrude upon the harmony, the beauty, or the
simple grandeur of the edifice, as a piece of
noble architecture.

In Athens, the scene of the temple of Bacchus
looked toward the Acropolis ; the Cynosages,
a suburb of Athens, was behind it ; the Musaeon,
a hill so called from the poet Musasus, was on
the right hand j and the public road, leading to
the Piraeum, or the harbour of Athens, was on
the other side.

The choice of a commanding eminence and
an extensive and beautiful prospect had been
judiciously made for the site of this theatre of
Geraza, Also to the spectators, as they faced
its stage and scene, the whole range of their
public buildings was open, and their temples,
palaces, squares, and baths, might all be proudly
enumerated as they sat. On their right, was
the magnificent circus, formed by the Ionic
colonnade, with the peripteral temple near it,
and the city-gate close by. Behind them, the

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Online LibraryJames Silk BuckinghamTravels in Palestine, through the countries of Bashan and Cilead, east of the River Jordan; including a visit to the cities of Geraza and Gamala, in the Decapolis (Volume 2) → online text (page 10 of 26)