This article was originally published in The Attic Theatre. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898. pp. 9-21.
The City Dionysia, the feast of Dionysus Eleuthereus, was far the most splendid of the Bacchic festivals, and was therefore also called the Great Dionysia, or simply the Dionysia, without any additional epithet. It was held from the first within the precincts of the city, in the sacred enclosure of Eleuthereus on the south of the Acropolis, where the remains of the great Athenian theatre are still to be seen. Hence the origin of the name City Dionysia, to distinguish it from the Anthesteria and the Lenaea, which were celebrated, at any rate during the earliest period, in a district outside the walls. For the same reason a victory at the City Dionysia was described as a victory "in the city." The date of the festival can be fixed with a fair amount of certainty. It took place in Elaphebolion, a month which answers to the last half of March and the first half of April. It must have terminated on the 15th, and begun on the 10th or 11th. It could hardly have lasted less than five days. The long series of performances and celebrations which had to be gone through could not have been packed into a smaller space of time. Whether it extended to six days is a point that cannot be determined.
Before proceeding to describe the dramatic part of the performances at the City Dionysia it may be as well first of all to collect together such information as is attainable concerning the general character of the festival. It was held at a time of year when the spring was just commencing, and the sea had again become navigable. Occasionally stormy weather interfered with the proceedings. In the time of Demetrius the procession through the city was prevented by a heavy fall of snow. But the winter was generally at an end. The city was full of visitors from all parts of Greece. During the period of Athenian supremacy it was at this season of the year that the allies came to Athens to pay the annual tribute. Ambassadors frequently chose this time for the transaction of public business. There were also the crowds of visitors who were attracted to Athens merely from a desire to see the splendours of the festival. The consequence was that the streets were thronged with strangers, and the city presented an animated appearance in marked contrast to the quietness of the winter festival of the Lenaea. The Athenians were glad of the opportunity of displaying the magnificence of their city before such a vast concourse of foreign Greeks. The various religious ceremonials, the sacrifices to the gods, the dithyrambs, the tragedies, and the comedies were all calculated to impress strangers with the wealth and public spirit and literary taste of the Athenians. In addition to the ordinary proceedings of the festival one or two ceremonies of a striking character were introduced for the express purpose of emphasising the power of Athens in the eyes of the visitors. As the commencement of the performances in the theatre the tribute collected from the allies was solemnly deposited in the orchestra in the presence of the assembled multitude. On the same occasion the herald made an announcement concerning the crowns which had been bestowed by foreign states upon Athens or upon Athenian citizens, and the crowns themselves were brought forward and laid in the orchestra beside the tribute. By scenes of this kind the festival was made an occasion for glorifying Athens in the presence of foreign Greeks. In the fourth century, after the fall of the Athenian Empire, the political splendour of the City Dionysia came to an end. But the magnificence of the spectacle and the vastness of the gathering do not seem to have been in any way diminished. Visitors were attracted from all parts of Greece, not by political business, but by the celebrity of the dramatic exhibitions. Demosthenes speeks of the "multitudes of strangers" who were present, and Aeschines describes the audience at the City Dionysia as consisting of "the whole Greek nation." Though Athens was shorn of her political power, the crowds which continued to attend the festival testified to her unimpaired supremacy in art and literature.
On the first day of the festival there was a grand religious procession, in which the ancient statue of Dionysus Eleuthereus was carried through the streets with great pomp and ceremony. This statue, according to tradition, belonged originally to the people of Eleutherae, a border town between Attica and Boeotia; but had been afterwards transferred to Athens, and placed in the sanctuary at the foot of the Acropolis. The procession was instituted to commemorate this sacred event, and to symbolise the introduction of the new cult. Every year, at the commencement of the festival, the image was taken out of its shrine, and carried solemnly along the road to Eleutherae as far as a certain temple near the Academy. On its return it followed the same road which it had formerly traversed, when making its first entrance into Athens. The procession was one of the most brilliant spectacles at the City Dionysia. Athenians of every class, men, women, and even girls, made a point of being present to witness or take part in it. Vast crowds filled the streets; and the casual encounters which took place on these occasions often served as a foundation to the plots of the New Comedy. The members of the procession wore brilliantly-coloured garments and ornaments of gold. Many of them had their faces covered with masks. Some were in chariots; others walked on foot. Conspicuous among the train of people were the canephori, young virgins bearing upon their heads the baskets containing the sacrificial implements; and the ephebi, with their shields and lances, who acted as an escort to the statue. The choregi to the different choruses were also expected to attend. Demosthenes, when he was choregus, had a golden crown and mantle made specially for use at the procession; and Alcibiades on a similar occasion was dressed in purple, and excited much admiration by his beauty. It is not improbable that the performers in the various lyric and dramatic competitions likewise joined in the ceremony. Part of the show consisted of the train of victims which were to be sacrificed to Dionysus. Many of these were publicly provided by the state, and many others were offered by individuals, or by different classes of the population. The long succession of varied groups and figures, the brilliant colours, the vast crowds of spectators, and the splendid public buildings of Athens in the background, must have combined to form a spectacle of great magnificence. The route followed by the procession led through the market-place, where a halt was made, and a chorus danced and sung in front of the statues of the twelve gods. Then came the march through the city gates along the road to the Academy. When the temple was reached, the statue of the god was placed upon a pedestal, and the various victims were sacrificed. The rest of the day was spent in feasting and rejoicing. At night-fall the procession returned to Athens by torchlight. But the sacred image, instead of being restored to its sanctuary, was conveyed to the theatre by the ephebi, and placed in the orchestra, in full view of the stage. Here it remained during the rest of the festival, so that the god might enjoy the approaching exhibitions as well as his worshippers. This curious ceremony, of which the existence has been discovered from inscriptions, throws an interesting light on many passages in ancient authors. It gives an additional point to the selection of Dionysus in the Frogs as the most experienced and representative of dramatic critics. It explains the proposal of Aristophanes, that his rival Cratinus should not attempt authorship any longer, but should turn spectator, and sit comfortably in the theatre "by the side of Dionysus." And, finally, it enables us to understand the denunciations of those later writers who, referring to the gladiatorial combats in the Athenian theatre, protest against the practice of shedding human blood in the very orchestra which the god Dionysus occasionally visits.
The entertainments provided in the theatre during the City Dionysia were of two kinds. In the first place there were the dramatic competitions, at which tragedies, comedies, and satyric dramas were exhibited. In the second place there were the choral competitions, which consisted of performances of dithyrambs to the accompaniment of the flute. It is important not to confuse together the details of these two classes of contest. Even in recent works upon the Greek drama many mistakes have been caused by filling out the description of the dramatic performances with facts and circumstances which had really nothing to do with them, but applied solely to the choral competitions. At the City Dionysia there were two of these choral competitions, one between choruses of boys, and the other between choruses of men. The choruses were called cyclic choruses, because of the circular form in which they stood. Each of them was composed of fifty members. There were five choruses of boys and five choruses of men, and each chorus was supplied by one of the ten tribes of Attica. In this way all ten tribes took part in one or other of the two competitions. The important point to remember in regard to these dithyrambic choruses is that the contest in which they were engaged was essentially a tribal one. In the dramatic competitions the rivalry was confined to individual poets and choregi. Both choruses and choregi were selected indiscriminately from the whole population. But each dithyrambic chorus represented one of the ten tribes. Its choregus was a member of that tribe. The singers were exclusively chosen from the same tribe. The victory of the chorus was a victory for the tribe to which it belonged. The prize of victory, the tripod, though presented to the choregus, and erected in some public place at his expense, was regarded as appertaining equally to the tribe. In the records of victories with dithyrambic choruses, preserved on inscriptions and elsewhere, the name of the tribe to which the chorus belonged is always given in a prominent position. On the other hand the records of dramatic victories give merely the names of the choregus, the poet, and the principal actor. There is no mention of any tribe. It follows that the tribes had nothing to do with the dramatic contests.
We now come to the dramatic performances at the City Dionysia. Of these the tragic were far the most important. The City Dionysia was the principal home of the tragic drama, and it was here that the earliest public competitions in tragedy were established. The first contest was held in the year 535 (B.C.), when Thespis, then an old man, took part in the performance, and won the crown of victory. Shortly before this period Peisistratus had returned once more from exile, and begun his third and final tyranny. The regulation of tragic contests must therefore have been carried out under his auspices. Some critics, relying on the fact that the City Dionysia is known to have been of comparatively late date, have gone so far as to conjecture that the entire festival was first instituted by Peisistratus. But it seems more reasonable to suppose that it was already in existence, and was merely reorganised by him, and amplified by the addition of the tragic competitions. As to the character of these early contests very little can be ascertained. It would be interesting to know whether they were regulated from the first on the same system which afterwards prevailed during the fifth century. But unfortunately the records which bear upon the subject are too slight to lead to any definite conclusion. Choerilus, who began to exhibit in 523, is credited with the composition of a hundred and sixty plays. If the number is correct, it would show that even in the sixth century it was customary for each poet to produce several tragedies at each individual festival. Again, Pratinus, the contemporary of Choerilus, is said to have written fifty plays, of which thirty-two were satyric dramas. From this statement we might infer that the relative proportion of tragedies and satyric plays exhibited during this early period was far less unequal than in later times. But the inference is rendered doubtful by the fact that the number of dramas ascribed to Pratinus may represent, not the total amount which he even wrote, but merely the number which happened to be preserved in the time of the grammarians.
When we turn to the fifth century, the information is more complete. Records have been preserved in sufficient quantity to enable us to determine with moderate certainty the regulations as to the number of tragedies and tragic poets at each celebration of the festival. The question, though apparently a mere matter of numbers, is really one of great interest, and deserves to be considered in detail, since it practically involves the whole subject of trilogies and tetralogies. The practice of writing plays in trilogies and tetralogies produced the most profound effect upon the art of Aeschylus. Any enquiry therefore into the origin and character of this practice will throw light upon one of the most interesting parts in the history of the Greek drama. It will be best in the first place to enumerate all the notices which can be utilised as evidence.
The earliest record is for the year 499 B.C., when Aeschylus made his first public appearance, and his competitors were Choerilus and Pratinus. Nothing is known as to the plays produced on this occasion. The next record refers to the year 472. In this year Aeschylus produced the Phineus, Persae, Glaucus, and Prometheus, and was successful in winning the first prize. The Prometheus here mentioned was of course not the Prometheus Vinctus, but a satyric play in which the same myth was treated humorously, and of which two or three fragments are preserved. For the year 467 there is a very complete record of the tragic competition. Aeschylus was again first, and his plays were the Laius, Oedipus, Septem versus Thebas, and satyric play Sphinx. Aristias was second with the Perseus, Tantalus, and satyric play Palaestae written by his father Pratinus. Polyphradmon was third with the Lycurgean tetralogy. According to this notice Aristias only exhibited three plays, while his competitors each exhibited four. But there can be little doubt that the name of one of his plays has dropped out accidentally, and that he produced four like the rest. This is proved by a comparison with the records of other tragic contests, of which a large number exist, referring to very different periods. In these records varieties are found both in the number of poets competing, and in the number of plays exhibited by each poet. But in one respect complete uniformity prevails. With the exception of the case before us there is no instance of poets competing in the same festival with a different number of plays. There can hardly then be any doubt that in the present instance the three poets each exhibited four plays. The next record is for the year 458. This was the year in which Aeschylus made his last appearance as a dramatic poet. He produced the Orestean tetralogy, consisting of the Agamemnon, Choephori, Eumenides, and satyric drama Proteus. The names of the other poets are not mentioned. In addition to the above notices it is also known that on one occasion Aeschylus competed with the four plays composing his Lycurgean tetralogy. The tetralogy dealt with the fate of Lycurgus, king of Edoni, and consisted of the Edoni, Bassarides, Neanisci, and satyric play Lycurgus. On another occasion he exhibited a trilogy dealing with the legend of Prometheus. This trilogy, of which the Prometheus Vinctus (Prometheus Bound) formed a part, no doubt concluded with a satyric drama; but there is no record of it among ancient writers. After the death of Aeschylus there is a gap in our information till the year 438, when Sophocles and Euripides were competitors. Sophocles was first; Euripides second with the Cressae, Alcmaeon in Psophis, Telephus, and Alcestis. In 431 they were again competitors, but this time the first place was taken by Euphorion, Sophocles was second; Euripides third with the Medea, Philoctetes, Dictys, and satyric play Theristae. In 428 the Hippolytus of Euripides was produced; but for this year only the names of the poets have been preserved. Euripides was first, Iophon second, Ion third. The year 415 was memorable for the defeat of Euripides by an obscure poet called Xenocles. On this occasion Xenocles was first with the Oedipus, Lycaon, Bacchae, and satyric play Athamas. Euripides was second with the Alexander, Palamedes, Troades, and satyric play Sisyphus. The only other record referring to the present subject is to the effect that after the death of Euripides, and therefore after 406 B.C., his Iphigenia in Aulis, Alcmaeon, and Bacchae were produced by his son at the City Dionysia.
In the above notices and records the name of the festival at which the contest took place, and the plays were produced, is usually not mentioned. An exception is made in one case. It is expressly stated that it was at the City Dionysia that the three posthumous tragedies of Euripides were exhibited. Otherwise nothing is said about the festival. But there is not the slightest doubt that all the above notices refer to the City Dionysia. In one instance there is positive proof of the fact. An inscription discovered in the Acropolis shows that it was at the City Dionysia that the Orestean tetralogy was produced. Various considerations make it practically certain that the other notices refer to the same festival. At the Lenaea the performances of tragedy were always comparatively unimportant. It is doubtful whether they existed at all during the earlier half of the fifth century. Even in later times they were never placed on a level with the performances of comedy. It is impossible to suppose that the three great masters of tragedy -- Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides -- during the height of their reputation, produced there plays at a festival of this kind. The omission of all mention of the festival in the notices about their tragedies is in itself a conclusive proof that there could be no doubt upon the subject, and that it was a matter of general knowledge that they were brought out at the City Dionysia. The case was very different in comedy. Comedy flourished with equal vigour at both festivals. Hence in the records about the plays of Aristophanes care is generally taken to notify the festival at which they were produced. In the case of tragedy it was felt that any such specification was unnecessary.
From the notices and records enumerated above two conclusions may be drawn concerning the tragic contests at the City Dionysia during the fifth century. In the first place it is evident that the number of poets who were allowed to take part in the competition was fixed at three. It used sometimes to be suggested that the records gave, not the names of all the competitors, but merely those of the three most successful ones. But this suggestion has been finally overthrown by the discovery of the Constitution of Athens. From this treatise we learn that in the time of the author the tragic poets who exhibited at the City Dionysia were three in number. But the tragic didascaliae of the period always give the names of three poets, together with their plays. In the same way the treatise puts the number of comic poets at five; and five is the number found in the later didascaliae. Clearly, then, it was the custom in these didascalic records to enumerate all the poets who shared in the competition. Nor is the fact remarkable, when we remember that it was a great distinction for a poet to be permitted to exhibit at all at one of the annual festivals, and that he only received this permission after being chosen by the archon from a long list of rival applicants.
In the second place the records show that each poet was expected to exhibit three tragedies and a satyric play. This inference is confirmed by a statement in Diogenes Laertius. The practice of terminating the tragic pieces with the boisterous licence of the satyric drama suggestion to Ion of Chios, the tragic poet of the fifth century, his well-known remark that virtue, like a tragic poet's group of plays, should always contain a satyric element. It is noticeable that on one occasion Euripides substituted the Alcestis, a short tragedy with a tinge of comedy about it, for the usual satyric drama. This may have been not infrequently the case, especially during the latter half of the fifth century. The statement in the last notice, that the Iphigenia, Alcmaeon, and Bacchae of Euripides were brought out by his son at the City Dionysia, does not necessarily imply that they were brought out by themselves, without any satyric play to make up the number four. It is possible indeed that at this late period the satyric play had begun to be occasionally dispensed with. But on the other hand it is very likely that the satyric play in this case was supplied by the younger Euripides. That no mention of it is made in the above statement is easily intelligible, since the writer does not profess to give a record of the tragic contest for the year, but is merely concerned with the biography of the elder Euripides.
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