Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
Our tour kicked off today with a walking tour of beautiful Taormina town. This town is so close to the site of the first Greek colonists who settled here (at Naxos just down the shore). That Greek influence flooded in over the centuries and Sicily became a cultural hub for the colonists who turned Southern Italy and the island of Sicily into a home from home that was dedicated to their old home’s culture; so much so that it would be called magna graecia (Great Greece).
And the scene was set for the mix of cultures that appear in the Roman theatre at Taormina; Sicily has been a medley of cultures throughout the millennia as virtualy every culture wanted a piece of this highly strategic and beautifully fertile island, fuelled as the soil is by the volcanic nature of the island. The architecture here revels in Arab decoration and Norman styles all mixed with multiple influences.
The ancient theatre is star in the list of ancient theatres around the Mediterranean. Huge in its (restored) bulk, the mastery of Rome is clear.
While the original Greek theatre was built into the curve of the hill and audiences gazed out of the sea and landscape, Rome closed in the theatre, created a world dominated by Roman brilliance in engineering of vaults and arches; three stories of niches (once filled with great works of art – booty from their conquests), lined with polished colourful columns that shone in the sun all closed in the theatre space – gone was the view, all eyes were on the stage and the orchestra arena. The front seats were removed and a wall built up to keep the audience apart from the performers, and that orchestra semicircle was covered in absorbant sand. For now it was rarely actors who strutted here; now wild beasts and armoured gladiators staged bloody and fatal attractions.
Great substructures beneath the central arena and below the seats organised the choreography of the ‘spectacula’ / shows by providing hidden access routes onto the theatre of bloodlust. Patrons poured money into amusing the citizens with these Games. The old Greek drama which had degenerated into farces with comical grotesque costumes fit to appear on local vase painting in the 300s BC had been replaced with a new theatre and a new, very Roman, world.