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THE EXTENSION OF GREEK TRAGEDY BEYOND ATHENS

The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 434-43.

The group of Athenian tragic poets who flourished at the close of the fourth century were the last representatives of their class to attain to wide distinction, and with their disappearance the supremacy of Athens in the domain of serious drama came to an end. In order therefore to complete the account of Greek tragedy, all that remains is to trace the course of its fortunes among the various other nations of the Hellenic world. This latter part of its history possesses little importance from the dramatic point of view, and is concerned, not so much with literary achievements, as with theatrical records. The tragic drama, after it had passed out of the hands of the Athenians, and been transformed into a cosmopolitan institution, though it advanced to the highest pitch of external splendour, steadily declined in real significance. Its inventive powers were exhausted, and it ceased from this time forward to produce anything in the way of original work which could claim to be of real and permanent value. The glory which it now acquired was derived, not so much from its own creations, as from its constant reproductions of the great tragedies of the past. Still, in spite of this increasing degeneracy, the record of its progress among the various Greek races is not without a certain interest of the historical kind; and its importance, even during this period of infecundity and literary decay, may easily be underrated. As a humanizing influence it still continued to render conspicuous service to the cause of the Greek civilization. By perpetuating the memory of the great Greek poets among the masses of the people, and by familiarizing distant regions with the masterpieces of the ancient drama, it contributed in no small degree to the general dissemination of Hellenistic culture among the nations of antiquity.

The extension of Greek tragedy beyond its original home was facilitated, in the first instance, by its close association with the worship of Dionysus. All Greek towns of any importance had their annual Dionysia, which were the source of much local pride and rivalry, each district endeavouring to surpass its neighbours in the splendour and costliness of the celebration. When, therefore, the tragic drama had come to be the chief glory of the great Athenian festivals, the spirit of emulation soon caused it to be adopted by the inhabitants of other cities. Already, before the close of the fifth century [B.C.], it had been introduced into many of the Attic demes, as well as into various neighbouring countries, such as Locris, Sicily, and even Macedonia. In the fourth century its progress was much more rapid, and it began to be regarded as an essential feature in every Dionysiac gathering; so much so, that by the time of Alexander it may be said to have become practically co-extensive with the Bacchic worship, and to have penetrated into every region of the world in which the Greek language was spoken.

During the early period of its progress throughout Greece it continued to be confined, in most cases, to these festivals of Dionysus. But as time went on, it advanced to such a height of fame and popularity, that, in order to satisfy the universal demand, its introduction was permitted at various other festal gatherings, with which Dionysus had no connection. The example, when once set, became contagious; the old limitations were gradually abolished; and when we come to the second century, there appear to have been very few religious festivals, provided they were of a mustical and artistic character, in which exhibitions of tragedy were not included.

These musical and literary contests, held in honour of the various deities, were extremely common throughout Greece; and their general character, during the later ages of Greek civilization, is fairly well known from various inscriptions. Records have been preserved of no less than six such meetings in Boeotia alone. There was a festival of Serapis at Tanagra, of the Muses at Thespiae, and of Zeus Soter at Acraephiae; Orchomenus had its Homoloia and Charitesia, Oropus its Amphiaraia. Copious notices also remain of similar celebrations at Delphi, Aphrodisias, and Magnesia. The competitions at these local gatherings were of the most diverse character. The proceedings usually began with a contest between two trumpeters, and another between heralds. Then came hymns in honour of the god of the festival, and panegyrics, both in prose and verse, on the prince or governor of the district. These were followed by recitations of epic poetry, some original, some from the ancient poets. Then there were instrumental performances on flute and harp, songs in various styles of music, dithyrambic choruses of boys and men, and finally the dramatic entertainments. These latter consisted usually of original satyric plays, followed by old tragedies and old comedies. The regular presence of theatrical exhibitions at so many of these non-Dionysiac assemblies is a proof of the enormous popularity which the drama had by this time attained.

Up to this point in our description of its progress tragedy still appears in its old character of a religious institution, and though no longer peculiar to Dionysus, is nevertheless confined to sacred gatherings in honour of the gods. In this respect it bears a striking resemblance to the Miracle Plays of medieval Europe, which were also performed under priestly direction at the great feast-days of the Church. But the ancient drama, like its modern counterpart, began in course of time to show signs of secularization. The process, however, was never carried out with anything like the same completeness. The modern theatre, dissociated from religious worship and official control, soon passed into the hands of private enterprise, and became a part of the everyday amusements of the people. The drama of the Greeks, on the other hand, continued throughout its history to be mainly restricted to the great religious festivals, and though sometimes performed at secular gatherings, was never entrusted even then to private individuals, or allowed to become a daily form of entertainment. Dramataic exhibitions were reserved for great occasions of public rejoicing or of national triumph, and the right to produce them remained in the hands of princes, generals, and other persons of distinguished rank.

One of the earliest of these secular performances is that which was given by Philip of Macedon in honour of his daughter's marriage, and which was rendered memorable by his assassination. His son, Alexander the Great, also took the keenest delight in the theatre, and was accustomed to celebrate the close of his campaigns with theatrical exhibitions on a scale of unapproachable splendour. Pavilions of silver and gold were erected, at such times, for the reception of the guests; the best actors were hired from every city of Greece; and subject kings were often compelled to fill the office of choregi. On one occasion no less than three thousand performers were collected together to take part in the various musical and dramatic competitions. From this time forward gorgeous dramatic spectacles became a favourite amusement with the famous princes of the time. Antiochus the Great is said to have surpassed all previous monarchs in the splendour of his shows; and Antony and Cleopatra, in the winter before the final campaign against Augustus, wasted their time at Samos in a long series of similar entertainments.

In these various ways, then, the tragic drama was rapidly popularized, and became a more or less familiar spectacle, during the Hellenistic period, in every part of the world where Greek colonists were settled. Its range now extended from France and Italy in the west to Syria and Phoenicia in the east. Even among barbarous nations it was not unknown. Tradition speaks of certain performances of Greek tragedy having been held in the remotest parts of Spain; and in the east, at the courts of princes who had acquired a tinge of Hellenic refinement, it was often cultivated with enthusiasm. When Lucullus captured Tigranocerta, he found it full of Greek actors, whom the king of Armenia had summoned from every quarter, to celebrate the opening of his new theatre. And after the slaughter of Crassus at Carrhae, when the two kings of Parthia and of Armenia were celebrating the marriage of their son and daughter at a nuptial banquet, the entertainment provided for the guests was a recitation from the Bacchae of Euripides; and it was on this occasion that one of the actors in the piece -- a certain Jason of Tralles -- roused his barbaric audience to enthusiasm, by declaiming the verses of Agave with the head of Crassus in his hands.

Though tragedy had now become the common heritage of all the Hellenic nations, and though its popularity was never more remarkable, still this external magnificence, as we have previously pointed out, was accompanied by an incurable inward debility; and the only place in which, during its latter days, it attained to any literary importance was Alexandria. Here, for a brief space of time, it seemed to make a final effort to recover its old position. Alexandria, under the wise administration of the first Ptolemy, had rapidly developed into the greatest commercial city of the age, and its wealth and prosperity were unrivalled. Under his son, Ptolemy the Second, who reigned from 285 to 247, it likewise became the most important center of literary and scientific culture in the ancient world. The lavish encouragement given to every kind of talent, and the munificent foundations of the Library and the Museum, attracted distinguished men from all parts of Greece. The court of Ptolemy was thronged with poets and scholars, philosophers and mathematicians, such as Theocritus, Euclid, and Callimachus. Nor were the arts less generously patronized. The leading painters and architects of the period found their time fully occupied either in painting the celebrities of the court, or in decorating the city with sumptuous buildings.

In this wealthy and magnificent capital the worship of Dionysus, the tutelary deity of the drama, was celebrated with extraordinary splendour. The great Bacchic processions, of which a minute account has been preserved, excelled all similar ceremonials in the gorgeous brilliancy of the spectacle. The same magnificence was also displayed in the management of the annual festivals of Dionysus, and no pains were spared to add to their attractiveness. The contests in tragedy, comedy, and satyric drama were exceptionally numerous; the best poets and actors were drawn to Alexandria by the liberality of the prizes; and the hospitality with which they were entertained on their arrival was of a princely character, special apartments being provided for their accommodation in the royal quarter of the city. As a result of this munificent patronage the Alexandrian theatre, during the reign of the second Ptolemy, became by far the most famous of all theatres in the world.

Among the various tragic poets who took part in the annual contests of this period, a group of seven were distinguished from the rest by the superior brilliance of their poetry, and hence acquired the name of "the Pleiad." One of them was Philiscus, the priest of Dionysus, and president of the Alexandrian Guild of Actors. A second was the grammarian Homer, whose exceptional name is apparently to be ascribed to the literary tastes of his mother, an epic poetess. Alexander, a third member, and also a grammarian, was chiefly famous as being the person who made the collection of tragedies and satyric plays for the Alexandrian Library. Lycophron, likewise a grammarian, and member of the Pleiad, was the author of that "dark poem," the Alexandra, which still survives, with its obscure mythological allusions. Among his lesser productions were certain complimentary anagrams on the names of the king and queen, by which he acquired great favour at the court, and was consequently entrusted with the task of collecting the comedies for the Library. Sositheus, also one of the Pleiad, is now chiefly known from the epigram in the Anthology, where he is praised for the antique vigour of his satyric dramas, in which he abandoned the "innovations of later art," and restored the "masculine Doric rhythm and bold language" of Pratinas. The other members who composed the seven are not known with certainty, the two vacant places being assigned to four different claimants, all equally obscure.

Concerning the tragedies of this once famous constellation of poets little has been recorded. Probably, if they survived, they would be found to possess the usual characteristics of Alexandrian poetry, and to be conspicuous for learning and scholarly finish rather than for dramatic genius. The authors themselves, as we see, were philologists and grammarians rather than poets; and of the nine whose names appear in the various lists, only two, Philiscus and Sosiphanes, devoted themselves to dramatic composition alone. The rest, in addition to their services in the Library, were employed in the compilation of various learned works; and the plays which they composed in their leisure hours are not likely to have risen to a high level of excellence.

With the close of Ptolemy the Second's reign, and the disappearance of the Pleiad, Alexandrian tragedy ceased to be distinguished by any superior qualities from that of other places. The drama was no doubt still cultivated with the usual splendour, but has left few traces of its course. Ptolemy the Fourth, who ascended the throne towards the end of the third century, wrote a tragedy called Adonis; and Tlepolemus, while regent of Egypt at the commencement of the next reign, is said to have squandered the resources of the kingdom upon theatrical shows. Later on we find the Guild of Actors at Paphos enrolled under the patronage of Ptolemy Euergetes; and we are told that in the time of Cicero and Varro all kinds of drama -- tragedy, comedy, and satyric plays -- were regularly exhibited at Alexandria. But with this piece of information the series of notices comes to an end.

After the decline of the Alexandrian theatre there is little to attract attention in the subsequent history of Greek tragedy, and the records of its career which have been preserved are so meagre and insignificant that detailed description becomes impossible.

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