If you came to this page directly, you might wish to read a page on the sanctuaries of Delos first.
View of the Theatre's Quarter from the commercial harbour and in the background Mt. Cynthus
(August 1675) Near the Western shore of the Island, we came to the Ruins of a wonderful Portico of Marble; whose vast Architraves, Pillars, and other the beautiful parts Bury each other in as great confusion as time and bad Fortune could reduce them to. (..)
Not far from the South end of this Portique, and on the West side of a little rocky Mountain, which undoubtedly was the Mount Cynthus, is a Theater.
A journey into Greece by George Wheler, Esq., in company of Dr. Spon of Lyons - 1682
Delos had a period of great growth in the second half of the IInd century BC when the Romans promoted its development as a trade centre and in particular as a slave market; many merchants established their permanent residence on the island; their houses and some public monuments were built near an existing theatre in an area south of the commercial harbour.
The Theater is something more than a Semicircle, whose Diameter comprehending the seats, and utmost wall is about two hundred Foot; on each side without its Circumference, are the Foundations of a Tower Thirty Foot long, and Eighteen broad: Before the Scene are eight, or nine Vaults in a row, answering Parallel to the Diameter of the Theater; separated from each other by a wall, in which is a little Arch, serving for a passage from one to another. These some of us took for Cisterns to hold water; and others for Caves, to keep wild Beasts in, used to be baited in the Theaters of the Ancients, somewhat resembling our Bear-gardens: The whole Fabrick is of white Marble. (..) In the place of the Spectators there are some seats still remaining: The whole Theater leaneth on a hill, part of which seemeth to be dug away to make room for it. Wheler
October 17, 1809. The theatre stood at the western foot of Mount Cynthus, facing Rheneia, and not far from the stoa of Philip. Its extremities were supported by walls of white marble of the finest masonry, but of a singular form, having had two projections adjacent to the orchestra, by which means the lower seats were in this part prolonged beyond the semicircle, and thus afforded additional accommodation to spectators in the situation most desirable. The diameter including only the projections is 187 feet. The marble seats have all been carried away, but many of the stones which formed their substruction remain.
William Martin Leake - Travels in northern Greece - 1835
Inscriptions found at the sanctuaries of Apollo and detailing the activities of the priests indicate that in origin the theatre had a wooden structure; its construction started in ca 275 BC and it was completed during that century.
(left) Theatre seen from the stage with some seats which were reserved to priests/magistrates; (right) a relief showing a laurel wreath
In devotion to Apollo the circumjacent Islands, (therefore called the Cyclades) to make it the more famous, sent thither by publick order Priests, Sacrifices, and Quires of Virgins, instituting there great and publick Solemnities in the praise and honour of him. Wheler
The theatre was reserved perhaps for the periodical festivals, which attracted visitors from every part of Greece. Leake
A stone proscenium, which restricted the circular area of the orchestra (typical of Greek theatres) was built in the second century BC; it is thought that the theatre could seat an audience of some 5,500; initially performances were strictly associated with religious ceremonies, but starting from ca 150 BC ordinary plays were staged.
House of Cleopatra
From the Theater Eastwards, passing over a world of Ruins, we began to ascend the high Rock, called anciently Mount Cynthus. Wheler
In a small valley which leads to the summit of Mount Cynthus, leaving the theatre on the left, many ruins of ancient houses are observable. Leake
In 1906 French archaeologists (to whom we owe all the excavation of Delos) discovered a group of large houses on the slope below the theatre; in one of them they found the headless statues of the owners, Dioskourides and his wife Cleopatra, a couple from Athens; they were erected in 138 BC by Cleopatra after the death of her husband; French archaeologists chose to name the house after her, a decision which fascinates visitors who associate it connection with Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt at the time of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Cleopatra is a Greek name meaning "glory of her father".
(left) House of Dionysus; (right) House of the Trident
The houses of Delos, at least the main and most interesting ones, followed the type common in Hellenistic times and they were designed around a central court frequently surrounded by a peristyle, a columned portico. In some cases the columns were embellished by decorated consoles; in the House of the Trident the consoles support lion and bull heads, thought to be due to Phoenician or Syrian influence. The image used as background for this page shows the lion heads of a console of this house.
House of the Dolphins: mosaic portraying a flute player and Silenus
Characteristic of the Delian houses was the oikos, or broad room, opening off the peristyle; it was certainly used for the reception and entertainment of guests; the more richly decorated floors were usually found in these rooms and in the section of the peristyle through which guests would pass to reach them. The commonest design of the mosaics consists of a square or rectangular central tessellated area while the rest of the floor was decorated in a simpler technique. This section had a central scene (emblema) surrounded by multiple frames, usually showing geometric motifs (see similar mosaics from Roman villas near Antioch).
The mosaic depicts the god with outstretched wings and ivy wreath, mounted on a panther (a term used by the Greeks to generically refer to a big cat, see a mosaic in Tunisia showing Dionysus on a chariot drawn by four panthers) with a wreath of vine branches and
grapes around its neck. In his right hand the god grasps a thyrsus, a staff crowned with ivy, as if it was a spear. On the ground, between plants, a kantharos, a wine vessel, another attribute of the god of wine.
The wings suggest a Dionysiac daimon, a supernatural being acting as an intermediate between gods and men, rather than the god himself; the term does not have any connotations of evil or malevolence. The artist exploited to the full the colouristic possibilities of the technique with minute tesserae; the materials used included not only natural stone and terracotta, but also artificial materials such as glass and faience.
House of the Dolphins: courtyard
The mosaic which embellished this house has a circular format, unusual for Delo; in the corners between the square frame and the central section showing a complex rosette are pairs of dolphins ridden by tiny winged figures carrying emblems of various gods: the mosaic is signed by Asklepiades, a Phoenician from Arados (Arwad). In many mosaics having a circular central section the corners were filled with depictions of the Four Seasons, e.g. in Tunisia.
House of the Dolphins: detail of the mosaic in the courtyard
The development of mosaics made with with coloured tesserae is generally set in the IInd century BC; prior to that period black and white pebble mosaics were employed for the decoration of floors; the mosaics of the houses of the Theatre's Quarter are therefore of great importance to understand the early development of this new form of art.
In the area above the Theatre archaeologists found a second house decorated with a mosaic portraying Dionysus; they called it House of the Masks or of the Comedians because of some mosaics showing theatrical masks.
The size and decoration of the House of the Masks suggest that it was not an ordinary dwelling.
The mosaic shown above is relatively small and it is located inside a room and not in the courtyard; similar to Apollo, also Dionysus was often portrayed almost as a woman; it is known that it was not unusual for Dionysian priests to wear female attire.
Mosaics portraying dolphins: (left) House of the Trident; (right) House of the Masks
Dolphins were one of the preferred subject for the decoration of floor mosaics as well as in reliefs and statues throughout the Roman Empire. A dolphin rescued Arion, a famous chitarist who was kidnapped by pirates and threw himself into the sea.
Sacred cave on Mt. Cynthus
Mt. Cynthus can be called high only in respect of the other hills in this Island, and not in respect of the circumjacent Isles, which are beyond proportion higher. It is very craggy and steep, and consists of a Granate Marble, of several colours; some reddish mixed with black, others lighter; other some yellowish, with black spots, and some a light grey. Wheler
This structure (a gate), which bears an appearance of remote antiquity, was probably the entrance of a subterraneous chamber, perhaps the treasury of Delus, which may still exist, as the passage is buried in ruins to within a few feet of the roof, and is quite obstructed at the end of 15 feet. (..) From this ruin, the ascent is short to the summit of Mount Cynthus, which is a mere rock of coarse granite, and seems anciently to have been inclosed by a wall. Leake
Mt. Cynthus lies behind the Theatre's Quarter and today it is a barren rock; according to the Greek myth however Leto bore Apollo on this site between an olive-tree and a date-palm.
A sacred cave near the top of the hill was probably where oracles were delivered (although by far the most famous oracle of Apollo was that of Delphi).
Temple to Isis
This side of the hill hath ascents one above another, distinguished by Walls on each side of the place, supposed to have been the way up: Which have been wonderfully Beautified with Porticoes, or Cloysters, and other Buildings; as the abundance of Pillars, Pedestals, Architraves, and other Fragments of excellent Marble, ranging streight and Parallel to each other, do sufficiently testifie: (..) Among these ruins we found an Altar dedicated to Serapis, Isis, Anubis, Harpocrates and the Dioscouri; who perhaps had a Temple there. Wheler
Above the houses in a level, at the foot of the peak, there is a wall of white marble, which appears to have been the cell of a temple. Here lies an altar, which is inscribed with a dedication to Isis by one of her priests. (..) Another fragment of an inscription mentions Sarapis, and as both these were nearly in the same place where Spon and Wheler found another in which Isis, Anubis, Harpocrates and the Dioscuri were all named, it is very probable that the remains of white marble belonged to a temple of Isis. Leake
The area between the Theatre's Quarter and the top of Mt. Cynthus was regarded as a holy place and temples were erected there by the cosmopolitan population of Delos on the so-called Terrace of the Foreign Gods. Archaeologists have reconstructed the fašade of a small temple to Isis. Other temples were dedicated to Phoenician deities and to the Great Gods of Samothrace, so almost all the Eastern Mediterranean pantheon was worshipped at Delos.
Christian symbols in the Theatre's Quarter
It is utterly disinhabited now, and called Little Delos. Wheler
Whatever population still resided at Delos and provided services to the rare visitors of the sanctuaries, left the island after 392 AD when Emperor Theodosius ordered the closure of all pagan temples.
Stellions (Laudakia Stellio) today's inhabitants of Delos; according to Ovid these lizards originate from a boy who derided Ceres and for this was turned by the goddess into a lizard
In the evening we return'd to our Boat, purposing to get to our Vessel that Night; but we found the Sea so rough, that it was impossible to be done. (..) Thus pensive, and melancholy we separated, and went several ways to entertain our selves with solitary Contemplations. (..) Some went a hunting with the Flemmish Gentleman, which brought his Gun and Dog with him; and found good sport with the Hares, and Rabbets, in which this Island yet abounds. (..) This done, we laid our selves down as the Night before; but with no great mind to rest: Before day we found the wind much abated, and in effect a calm. So we took the opportunity, and put out to Sea; and although it ran high, yet the wind being low, by great providence we passed safe the Chanel, about four miles over, to the Port and Town of Micone. Wheler
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