A visit to the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus provides an opportunity to reflect on the contribution of theatre to ancient Greek culture. It also helps us to understand the history and evolution of tragedy and comedy in Athens, and how the content of the famous tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides helped shape ancient Athenian values, morality and commitment to the state.
Take time during your visit to the Theatre of Dionysus to consider its design and construction, and look for clues as to how the ancient theatre was used. Reflect on the theatre’s origins, the content of the tragedy and comedy it hosted, and how the actors may have presented the plays. Consider how the dramas of the ancient tragedians became a moral compass for the Athenians.
- A Description of the Theatre of Dionysus
- The Origin and Growth of the Theatre of Dionysus
- Ancient Performances at the Theatre of Dionysus
- Dramatic Content at the Theatre of Dionysus
- The Role of the Great Tragedians at the Theatre of Dionysus
The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens
The Design of the Theatre of Dionysus
The 15,000+ capacity limestone Theatre of Dionysus was opened in 534 BC by Peisistratus, a 6th Century Athenian Tyrant. It is the oldest of the Greek theatres and was modified over the centuries. The Theatre of Dionysus was similar in design to other theatres which were constructed in principal cities across ancient Greece from about the fifth century BC (the theatres at Epidaurus and Delphi are excellent examples). The theatre had a semi-circular geometry and was built into the surrounding hillside, the south-western slope of the Acropolis. The earliest seats of the ancient theatre were in the form of wooden benches. Additional tiers were added later and the seating, although made from stone, was more comfortable. The use of stone for seating also promoted better acoustics. This development was credited to Pericles and is said to have occurred circa 430 BC. The most comfortable seats, those closest to the orchestra, were reserved for the literary jury. Behind the jury there was a public gallery which eventually reached 67 tiers.
The orchestra formed the lowest level of the theatre and was a circular area with a radius of about 25 metres. The orchestra was reserved for performance, the space allocated for song and dance and where the chorus moved and chanted. The original background to the orchestra was a stone wall, but tradition persists that after the Persian defeat of 479 BC, Xerxes’ tent was used to provide a 60 metre-wide background. It is understood that at some time a wooden skene was built behind the orchestra to which background scenery could be attached. A colonnaded stoa was also added to the theatre during the 4th Century BC.
The Theatre of Dionysus was substantially damaged by the Romans when they invaded Athens in 86 BC. The theatre was later restored as part of the Roman reconstruction of Athens. A double-storied skene was erected behind the theatre’s orchestra and stage. The skene provided space where players could change costumes and was used as a background for a performance.
Actors performed on the Theatre of Dionysius’ high stage, or proscenion, which was situated in front of the skene.
Image courtesy Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China
The façade of the proscenion features a sculptured frieze provided by the Romans, which depicted the progress of Dionysus in his personification as the God of Wine.
Image courtesy of Borgil
The Romans also constructed a marble railing around the orchestra so the theatre could host Gladiatorial contests. This use of the Theatre of Dionysus resulted in criticism from the respected first century philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius rebuked the Athenians, not only for their acceptance of the gladiatorial contests, but also for their enthusiasm for public crudeness.
The Origin of the Theatre of Dionysus
The Theatre of Dionysus grew out of the introduction of drama to Athens and its subsequent popularity. Prior to its reaching Athens, ancient drama during the 5th Century BC was primarily either tragedy or comedy, along with Satyr plays.
Tragedy focused on subjects who were idealised, the presentations being supported by the singing of hymns by choruses.
Comedy, with different origins, was expressed at alternative venues where laughter was encouraged by derision and emphasizing human flaws. This type of comedy was common within pastoral communities where raucous processions celebrated the harvest and the vintage. The processions were attended by revellers who honoured Dionysus, the God of Wine and Fertility. Dionysus, it is thought, was a Thracian god and fertility cults emerged among Dionysus’ devotees to honour him. The Satyrs in mythology were the attendants of Dionysus. These were the deities of the woods and countryside – men with horns and legs of goats. The Satyr plays were set in the countryside where the chorus populated by the ‘satyrs’ were free to exhibit their insatiable carnal appetites.
Drama arrived in Athens about the time when pastoral performances associated with the Cult of Dionysus were introduced to the Agora. Athens’ acceptance of Dionysus was predictable because having been subjected to the city’s bridled morality, Athenians were now offered the raw and the passionate. These first tragedies were performed around carts in open spaces. The performances not only praised Dionysus and other mythical gods of the Agora but often included stories from which the three forms of storytelling developed: tragedy, comedy, and satire.
The quality of the performances was undoubtedly prejudiced by their being presented in unsuitable outdoor settings. The performers may have needed to address an audience who had either arranged themselves in a circle around the temporary stage, or who had loosely assembled in front of it. It would have been necessary for the actor to have spoken in different directions. The changes in direction with varying distances resulting in a decrease in volume and articulation. Therefore, not everyone in the audience would have heard the full content of the play. The audience, for full enjoyment, needed to be able to hear not only every word of the narrative, but also the actor’s subtle uses of language, nuance and volume.
The limitations associated with open-air performances and the increasing popularity of drama drove the need for a large theatre, the construction of which would require a high level of skill. The Theatre of Dionysus became the first theatre built for such a purpose and embedded drama into Athenian culture. Interestingly, the Theatre of Dionysus hosted drama that was uncommonly associated with religion, the worship of a god, and the observances of the rites and ceremonies that it entails.
Ancient Performances of Drama at the Theatre of Dionysus
The major use for the Theatre of Dionysus, introduced by Pisistratus in 534 BC, was the annual spring time Dionysia, a festival of drama in Athens that was embedded in civic pride and religious ritual. The festival typically lasted about five days and the population of Athens was swelled by large numbers of visiting strangers. The dramatic performances at the Theatre of Dionysus were therefore usually before an audience that far exceeded the capacity of the theatre. Excess capacity was gained by some of the audience sitting on the south-western slopes of the Acropolis that surrounded the theatre.
The distribution of the audience at the theatre and their distance from the proscenion made it necessary for the actors to develop strategies so they could be more easily heard and seen. The actors at the Theatre of Dionysus made themselves appear taller by wearing boots with thick soles. They made themselves look bigger by using padding. The actors also wore masks that were symbolic of the character being portrayed. But the masks were also fitted with tubes. The resonance that resulted assisted the voice to carry over longer distances. All of these reinforcements further accentuated the persona of the individual being portrayed.
The sheer scale of the Dionysia over time placed a large responsibility on the quality of performance. Any tragedy which was to be performed could do so only if it met the criteria imposed by a selection committee. Acceptance therefore represented significant status for the author. The authors at the Theatre of Dionysus during fifth century Athens produced a wealth of imaginative drama. There were already thirty tragedies written by Aeschylus (7), Sophocles (7) and Euripides (16), and comedies of Aristophanes (11). The dramatists were like athletes at the games; three dramatists would compete against each other for a prize, each having to present four new plays at each festival. The plays were made up of a trilogy of tragedies and a satyr play. The judges occupied the front rows of the theatre and no doubt their adjudication would have been influenced by the response of the audience.
We can appreciate how the number of new plays that were performed at each festival and the frequency with which they were performed expanded the catalogue of new drama in fifth-century Athens.
Dramatic Content at the Theatre of Dionysus
Some of the early tragedies, comedies and satyr plays performed at the ancient theatre which emphasised Dionysian themes were in the form of dances, musicals and drama. The old comedies that came later in the 5th Century BC were intentionally bawdy, satirical and political with a bite that was meant to be noticed. The farcical dramas in the form of satyr plays were, predictably, openly crude.
Early tragedies borrowed heavily on justice themes from Homer, leading Aeschylus to comment that,
‘we are all eating crumbs from the great table of Homer.’
Athenian plays at the Theatre of Dionysus over time became more relevant to the lives that Athenians were experiencing. The mythology that had been central to the Dionysian plays was replaced by fiction, and the former religious elements were shared with the secular. During the spring festivals of the Dionysia, the audience listened to the works of famous Greek playwrights such as Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The audiences were familiar with the situations and events portrayed in the plays. The audience could therefore apply their knowledge of the situation to their judgement of every speech. This helped the audience to believe in the plays’ credibility, resulting in the association of tragedy with the teaching of morality.
Aristophanes, famous primarily for his Old Comedy and who used personal criticism, obscenity, and topical themes to attack men and policies which he believed harmful to Athens, claimed that the dramatic poet was indeed the moral teacher of the adult citizen.
‘It befits the holy chorus to counsel and teach the city what is good.’
But it was the great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides who made the greatest contribution to the refreshment of Greek religious tradition. What these playwrights provided bore no resemblance to our characterisation of modern theatre – a night out for a laugh or the presentation of resolved fiction. Their contributions in Athenian theatre penetrated to the deepest consciousness of their audience.
The Great Tragedians and the Moral Role of the Theatre of Dionysus
It could be argued in our modern times, when such large numbers have withdrawn from formal religion, that many receive their moral and social lessons from the media, particularly the visual media. The media, it has been said, both set and reflect our ‘community standards’. It wasn’t any different in 5th Century BC. Athens was without a holy book, written moral code or moral gods. Even the beautiful temples that adorned Athens were less influential on Athenians than the theatre. The theatre therefore became an integral part of the life of Athens. The theatre became the medium of their day and through it Athenians could absorb and reflect on issues that affected them.
Aeschylus, a veteran of the Battle of Marathon, invented dramatic dialogue and changed the traditional form and staging of drama. He differed from Sophocles and Euripides who followed him in that he was less inclined to make the personality and circumstances of the individual central to the tragedy’s theme. Aeschylus’ plays at the Theatre of Dionysus dealt with;
- man’s destiny and the government of the universe within which Zeus is the supreme ruler;
‘Zeus, first cause, prime mover;
for what thing without Zeus is done among mortals?’
The Oresteia: Agamemnon
- the relationship between man and the state and the consequences of civil war;
‘They came back
To fatherless children,
To screams, to sobbing.
The men came back
As little clay jars
Full of sharp cinders’
The Oresteia: Agamemnon
- and that the road to understanding and wisdom is through suffering.
Has to be melted out of our stubborn lives
Nothing speaks the truth,
Nothing tells us how things really are,
Nothing forces us to know
What we do not want to know
And this is how the gods declare their love.’
The Oresteia: Agamemnon
‘He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.’
The Oresteia: Agamemnon
The theatre introduced the powerful and subtle weapon of ‘dramatic irony’ and Sophocles used it with special skill. He carefully defined his characters and addressed diverse themes such as;
- the role of conscience in the governance of the world by divine laws;
‘Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
And she who sits enthroned with gods below,
Justice, enacted not these human laws.
Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
Could’st by a breath annul and override
The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.
They were not born today nor yesterday;
They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.’
‘conflicting claims of the secular government and religion,
Gods of our fathers, my city, my home,
Rulers of Thebes! Time stays no longet,
Last daughter of your royal house
Go I, his prisoner, because I honoured
Those things to which honour truly belongs.’
- and personal conflict.
‘All men make mistakes,
But a good man yields
When he knows his course is wrong,
And repairs the evil.
The only crime is pride.’
Sophocles used the chorus extensively to connect the themes of his coupled tragedies. He also used his chorus to focus the dramatic action and reinforce its realism and religious elements. The chorus clarified what had already been presented so the audience could make its own interpretation and judgement of events and any construction placed on them by Sophocles.
‘Sons and daughers of Thebes, was Oedipus,
Greatest of men; he held the key to the deepest mysteries;
Was envied by all his fellow-men for his great prosperity;
Behold, what a fill tide of misfortune swept over his head.
Then learn that mortal man must always look to his ending,
And none can be called happy until that day he carries
His happiness down to the grave in peace.’
Euripides explored the human suffering that results from being abandoned by the gods. Whereas Sophocles did not question the pre-eminence and wisdom of Zeus, Euripides challenged the existence of divine approval, and instead;
- sought to expose the gods and goddesses as evil;
‘Today we will see the will of heaven, blow after blow,
Bring down on Jason justice and calamity.’
- Euripides encouraged the intelligent man to pursue his own self-worth and be the measure of his own moral goodness;
‘Then why should mortals thank the gods,
Who add to their load, already grievous,
This one more grief, for their children’s sake,
Most grievous of all?’
- and to avoid the mistake of looking to the gods for guidance on what constitutes acceptable moral behaviour;
‘Many are the Fates which Zeus in Olympus dispenses;
Many matters the gods bring to surprising ends.
The things we thought would happen do not happen;
The unexpected God makes possible; …’’
‘Do we, holding that the gods exist,
Deceive ourselves with insubstantial dreams and lies,
While random careless chance and change alone control the world?’
It is little wonder that the regular attendance at the Theatre of Dionysus and the repetition of moral themes became, in a period when there weren’t any books or a single book of religion, a source of moral education of significance to the Athenians.
Final Thoughts of the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens
The Theatre of Dionysus, now an ancient site located on the south-western slope of the Acropolis, became embedded into Athenian culture due to the emergence and popularity of drama. The ancient theatre is not only interesting physically as an archaeological site, but also because of the drama it hosted. The Theatre of Dionysus was important to Athenian entertainment and also was allocated a role in the moral education of Athenians.
Site Information provided by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism
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