“There is a land with rich meadows, and rich in flocks and shambling kine,” writes the ancient poet Hesiod, “and Zeus loved it and appointed it to be his oracle.” Thus, Dodona became the earthly residence of the great god, second only to his palace on Mt Olympus. The worship of Zeus in Dodona was linked to divination. His priestesses and priests “interpreted” the rustling of the sacred oak and answered the queries of mortals.
Mortals held games to honor the gods at all the great sanctuaries. The Naia games to honor Zeus had possibly been held in Dodona for a long time, but it took the most famous leader of Epirus for them rise to renown befitting them. Pyrrhus of Epirus, king of the Greek tribe of Molossians, a relative and admirer of Alexander the Great, renewed or, in another version, established the games at the beginning of the 3rd century BC and “armed” the sanctuary with all the necessary buildings, including a Theater.
The Theater of Dodona was built on a grandiose scale to match King Pyrrhus’ ambitions. In any case, it had to be large enough to accommodate vast crowds, as the sanctuary and the games by then enjoyed panhellenic renown. Even Pyrrhus’… in-laws came from Egypt: his mother in-law Berenice and his father in-law, Ptolemy I, the founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, who distinguished himself in the chariot race.
The grand Theater of Dodona changed with the passage of time. The specialists studying the theater can distinguish the alterations, damage, additions. The greatest change, or rather, alteration is the one that occurred during Roman times, possibly at the time of Emperor Augustus. Complying with the mores and interests of the Romans, the theater’s orchestra was turned into an arena hosting wild animal fights.
When Emperor Hadrian visited Dodona in AD 132, the city was already in decline. A short while later, the ancient religion and its Theater would be abandoned for centuries. In the middle of the 20th century, the theater’s seats looked like stones scattered by nature on the hillside; the orchestra and the scaenae were buried under farmland. Then, the situation was reversed. Excavations, studies and very recently new conservation and restorations works have restored the Theater’s form and the capacity to host spectators and performances once again.
“A festive atmosphere would reign over the Naia festival. People would gather at the sanctuary since dawn to reserve their seats for the games and performances at the grand Theatre. Their acclamations – or jeering if the performances were not to their liking—would ring out across the land.
In later years, during Roman times, other sounds would also be heard: the screams of the gladiators and the wild beasts shedding their blood in the arena”