Dramatic performances, tragedies, comedies, dances, musical presentations and spectacles were staged in the structure to which the Greeks gave the name theʹa·tron. The theater was often the scene of immoral presentations, shunned by faithful Christians. (Eph. 5:3-5) But it also served as a place of public assembly for other purposes.
It was to the theater in Ephesus that Paul’s traveling companions were brought when Demetrius the silversmith stirred up a riot against these Christian missionaries. Though the apostle was willing to go before the people assembled in the theater, the disciples and some friendly commissioners of festivals and games dissuaded him.—Acts 19:23-31.
Theaters were constructed in Greece from about the fifth century B.C.E. onward, and in time they were built in various principal cities. Most Greek theaters were constructed in semicircular fashion on a hillside of concave formation. The seats might be made of wood or stone. Aisles separated them into sections and they were lined up in tiers on the hill’s gradual incline. At the center was the or·kheʹstra (a dancing or chorus area), behind which there was a raised stage backed by a ske·neʹ, or background.
Ruins of theaters have been found in such places as Ephesus, Athens and Corinth. The large theater excavated at Ephesus had sixty-six rows of seats, and could hold an audience of about 25,000 persons. The acoustics were, and still are, so good that even a low voice from the stage can be heard in the topmost row with ease.
The Romans frequently constructed theaters as individual buildings dependent upon no natural sloping ground formation. Sometimes their theaters had a roof over the stage and a portion of the seating area. Another type, the Roman amphitheater, was a roofless circular or oval structure that enclosed a large center space or arena, from which the seats radiated in tiers. The partially standing Colosseum in Rome, finished in 80 C.E., is a noted Roman amphitheater. Herod the Great constructed theaters in various cities, including Damascus and Caesarea. Josephus said that Herod “built a theatre at Jerusalem, as also a very great amphitheatre in the plain.”—Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV, chap. VIII, par. 1.
The Greek word theʹa·tron can denote either the place where a show is presented or the “theatrical spectacle” itself. Paul wrote: “For it seems to me that God has put us the apostles last on exhibition as men appointed to death, because we have become a theatrical spectacle [theʹa·tron] to the world, both to angels and to men.” (1 Cor. 4:9) Paul thus alluded to the customary closing event of Roman gladiatorial contests in the amphitheater arena when certain participants were brought out unclad and defenseless, being subjected to butchery and certain death.
The Greeks and Romans customarily led criminals condemned to death through the theater, where they were subjected to ridicule by the assembled throngs. Paul wrote to the Hebrew Christians, apparently referring to this practice. Though there is no record to the effect that these Christians had been subjected to that treatment, they had endured sufferings that were comparable. The apostle urged them: “Keep on remembering the former days in which, after you were enlightened, you endured a great contest under sufferings, sometimes while you were being exposed as in a theater both to reproaches and tribulations, and sometimes while you became sharers with those who were having such an experience.”—Heb. 10:32, 33.