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  • The Odeon of PericlesA Tale of the First Athenian Music Hall, the Second Persian Invasion of Greece, Theatre Space in Fifth Century bce Athens, and the Artifacts of an Empire
  • Sebastian Trainor (bio)

Our story begins around the year 140 ce, on the day when the Roman-era travel writer Pausanias finally reached the Greek city of Athens. One of the items on his to-do list for this city was to take an architectural tour of its theatre district, the precinct of Dionysos. To get to this locale a traveler needed to walk east along the Athenian street of tripods, a road bordered by many small monuments, each of which commemorated a prizewinning theatre production of the past. Pausanias followed this path exactly. And as he came into the hub of the sacred precinct, the first structure of any significant size that he encountered—just before he found the famous Theatre of Dionysos—was a different sort of theatre: a music hall known to history as the Odeon of Pericles (see figure 1). Of it he wrote: “Near the sanctuary and the Theatre of Dionysos is a structure, which is said to be a copy of [the Persian emperor] Xerxes’ tent. . . . It has been rebuilt, for the original building was burnt by the Roman general Sulla when he took Athens [in 86 bce].”1

To modern eyes, this encounter is a bit surprising, particularly since, in the twenty-first century, the Odeon no longer exists in any noticeable way.2 In fact, we get the sense that even Pausanias, in the second century, was somewhat taken aback by the structure. One imagines the ancient tourist trying to puzzle out the historical circumstances that might, 600 years previously, have inspired the Athenians to construct a huge mock-Persian building in the heart of their theatre complex. The present essay attempts this same task of contemplation and interpretation. Its goals are [End Page 21] twofold: to uncover the circumstances of the Odeon’s construction; and also to illuminate the significance that the original Periclean theatre space would have held for its creators, the Athenians of the fifth century bce.

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Figure 1.

Plan showing the position of the Odeon in relation to the Dionysos Theatre and the Tripod Road. Image created by Todd Canedy based on an illustration in A. W. Pickard-Cambridge’s The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 2. (Modeled on a portion of the fold-out plan of “Old Athens” from Topographie van Athen by Walter Judeich [1905]).

Research into the matter suggests that there are three distinct streams of cultural history that commingle in the physical structure of this ancient music hall. This essay explicates each of these briefly, focusing on some startling connections between the (second) Persian invasion of Greece (480–479 bce) and the overall evolution of the fifth-century bce Athenian theatre complex. As I argue, the creation of the Odeon in the 440s bce3—a controversial project driven by the efforts of the statesman Pericles—usefully combined three glorious memories of Athenian victory over the Persians into a single architectural expression of the ascendancy of the new Athenian empire. It also, of course, brought into existence [End Page 22] a useful public building that was well suited for recitations of poetry accompanied by musical instruments.

The above makes for a fascinating tale, yet the most intriguing feature of this essay is not its central argument. To its author, this investigation creates the impression of a historiographic adventure story. I emphasize this story-ness deliberately, because some key ideas are quite speculative. They are theories from respected classics scholars, to be sure, and are upheld by reasonable probability. But since I am building on a foundation of speculation, the constructions that I offer here should not be mistaken for historical certainties. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that I have composed the essay in a modular fashion. Its various parts can be easily separated from one another so that the reader may pick and choose what to accept as persuasive. If all are embraced, though, the larger picture—the...


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