Theatre for rent in Piraeus

In this post I will focus on a challenging inscription I have been pondering over for a long time. I came across it during my research on Athenian syngraphai (Carusi 2006), but I soon realized that the document allowed for further research in different directions. A few weeks ago I presented a preview of this study at the APA meeting in Philadelphia and I am now writing a longer article on the same topic.

The inscription – a deme decree concerning the lease of the Piraeus theatre in 324/3 (Stroud 1974; Agora XIX L13) – is one of the few documents dealing with the management of an ancient theatre and has recently been the object of much scholarly debate (e.g. Csapo 2007, Slater 2011). As the debate concentrates on whether or not leases were a common and widespread form of management for theatres, scholars have frequently discussed the nature and purpose of the Piraeus agreement and its alleged exceptionality. In my opinion, however, the non-univocal terminology employed in the text and the complexity of its structure have diverted the attention from the correct interpretation of the document.

While the agreement under which the Piraeus deme rents out the theatre is called a lease (misthosis, ll. 8-9), the four men signing the agreement are not called lessees (misthosamenoi), as we might expect, but purchasers (priamenoi and onetai, ll. 22, 28). This seems to conflict with the common Attic usage (e.g. Xenoph., Vect. 4.19), where one usually rents (misthousthai) public properties, such as plots of lands, houses, etc., but buys (oneisthai, priasthai) the right to collect public revenues, work mines, etc. As there are some exceptions to this usage in the sources, some scholars have concluded that the two terminologies were completely interchangeable or indifferently employed (e.g. Harrison 1968, Csapo 2007).

Even though the analysis of these exceptions shows that the two terminologies can be applied to the same object (e.g. quarries in SEG 28.103, mines in Dion. Hal., Din. 13), it is clear, in my opinion, that each of them refers to a different aspect of the action involved. The sale terminology underlines the fact that a private individual, as a purchaser, buys the right to receive income from the property; the lease terminology points to the conditions of acquisition and enjoyment of the property by the individual, as a lessee. The difference between the two terminologies is also proved by their not completely overlapping usage: in Attic sources the renting of such properties as lands, quarries, and mines can be described as the purchase of the right to receive income from them, but, in contrast, the purchase of the right to collect taxes cannot be defined as «renting» the collection of taxes.

In the light of these considerations, the terminology employed in the decree does not retain any ambiguity and can be easily explained: the four men are described as the purchasers of the theatre, because at the cost of 3,300 dr. (ll. 29-31), they bought the right to receive income from the theatre, i.e. the right to collect the admission fees paid by the spectators (ll. 9-11); the agreement, however, can be correctly described also as a lease, which granted them the enjoyment of a property under certain conditions.

These conditions (synthekai, ll. 20, 26), which were (at least partially) listed in the text of the decree, are completely in line with the terms usually attached to lease agreements. Moreover, as the Piraeus agreement included some building works the four men were bound to perform in the theatre (ll. 20-23), a careful analysis of the text reveals that some elements of the building specifications were included in the decree as well (a fine parallel to this structure are the Attic decrees IG I³ 79 and 84).

This complex structure and the presence of building works do not qualify the Piraeus contract as a different form of agreement, e.g. a contract for services (Papazarkadas 2007), or a kind of liturgy, where the purchasers were unlikely to be recompensed by the admission fees (Walbank 1991).

Construction works could be an integral part of lease contracts without alterations to the nature of the agreement; there is no reason to infer that these particular works were beyond the routine maintenance of a theatre, or that they were the main reason why the deme decided to rent out the theatre. In the same way, there is no need to consider this agreement a sort of liturgy. The decree highlights – as expected – that the lease contract provided the deme with a settled income, while at the same time ensuring the upkeep of the theatre. This does not exclude that admission fees were a satisfying source of income for the purchasers and that profit was a strong motive behind their actions.

Selected Bibliography

C. Carusi, “Alcune considerazioni sulle syngraphai ateniesi del V e del IV secolo a.C.”, ASAA, s. III, 6/I (2006), 11-36.

E.Csapo, “The Men Who Built the Theatres: Theatropolai, Theatronai, and Arkhitektones”, in P. Wilson (ed.), The Greek Theatre and Festivals, Oxford 2007, 87-115.

A.R.W. Harrison, The Law of Athens, I, Oxford 1968.

N. Papazarkadas, “Four Attic Deme Documents Revisited”, ZPE 159 (2007), 155-177.

W. Slater, “Theatres for Hire”, Philologus 155 (2011), 279-291.

R. Stroud, “Three Attic Decrees”, CSCA 7 (1974), 290-298.

M.B. Walbank, Agora XIX. Leases of Public Lands, Princeton 1991, 145-207.