Theater and Drama in Ancient Greece

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Roman mosaic of Greek drama
The Greeks are regarded as the inventors of drama. The Egyptians produced simple plays about the pharaoh’s birth at his crowning and plays about resurrection at the pharaoh’s funeral. The Greeks produced complex dramas, with developed characters, themes and plots that are still present in drama today. With its elaborate masks and costumes and rigidly formalized music, Greek drama has been described as a cross between Japanese Noh theater and grand opera.

The word “drama” is derived from Greek words meaning “to do” or “to act.” There have traditionally been two types of plays: 1) tragedies (plays with a tragic ending) and comedies (plays that are funny). Explaining why comedies exist is easy: people like to be entertained and amused. Understanding why tragedies exist is more difficult to grasp. Aristotle explains that at least part of the attraction is the purging effect of releasing emotion while watching a play.

Greek dramas never had more than three actors on stage at one time. Action in the plays was held to a minimum and violence occurred only offstage. Music was supplied by a flutist who led the chorus. The chorus ceremoniously entered and exited at the opening and closing of a play.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The fact that every Greek city of any size had a theatre and sometimes more than one (Attica had several) is an indication of their importance to the community. The theatre offered an experience which brought together elements of myth, ritual, religion, dance, music and literature. It provided a forum for the exchange of ideas, an opportunity to escape from the sometimes harsh realities of everyday life and an occasion to see and be seen. It also had some of the hallmarks of an endurance contest since someone who attended a full festival of plays, and many did, listened to perhaps 20,000 lines of poetry while seated on hard wooden or stone benches. [Source: Canadian Museum of History ]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Our interest in the theater connects us intimately with the ancient Greeks and Romans.Nearly every Greek and Roman city of note had an open-air theater, the seats arranged in tiers with a lovely view of the surrounding landscape. Here the Greeks sat and watched the plays first of Aeschylus, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, and of Menander and the later playwrights.” [Source: Colette Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004,]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Origins of Ancient Greek Drama

Dionysus and an actor

Ironically, the early forms of the Greek dramatic arts, which puts so many of us to sleep, sprung up out orgiastic Dionysian rites. The first phase of the metamorphosis began in the 7th century B.C. when the frantic dances of the maenads evolved into choral songs called dithyrambs. Dithyrambs were performed by a "circular chorus" of 50 men and boys who sang and danced around an altar in the orchestra area of a theater.

Tribal choruses competed against one another in festivals sponsored by wealthy citizens. The first prize was a bull and a tripod dedicated to Dionysus, second prize was an amphora of wine, and third prize was a goat. At this point in time music, poetry and drama were essentially the same thing and the subjects of the poem-songs were the Greek myths and episodes from the “ Iliad” and “ Odyssey “. Fertility festivals started dying out around this time because the harvests and rains they promised to deliver failed to arrive. See Wild Dionysian Festivals Above [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Greek theatre had its origins in religious ritual. The god Dionysus, often associated in modern minds only with wine and revelry, was also an agrarian deity, with aspects reminiscent of the Egyptian god, Osiris. Like Osiris, he was twice-born, the second time from the thigh of Zeus, father of gods and men. Celebrations linked to planting and harvesting began in ancient times right on the floor where the grain would be separated from its stalk. It was an opportunity to exhibit the Greek love of dance and music, to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and perhaps to partake of the beverage with which Dionysus is most associated. Some of the nomenclature used in the theatre clearly had its origins on the threshing floor. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“Greek plays were presented within the context of a Dionysian festival structured along the lines of athletic festivals held at Olympia, Nemea and Delphi, and were of a similar duration. Civic authorities were responsible for organizing the event and it was presided over by the priest of Dionysus. The play itself took place in the open air and, most often, at the base of a sloping hillside which provided each tier of seats with an unimpeded view. In earlier times plain, wooden benches were simply aligned in a semi-circular fashion surrounding the circular orchestra space, at the centre of which stood the altar of Dionysus. In later years, the theatre architecture became much more sophisticated culminating in structures such as the magnificent theatre of Epidaurus, whose acoustics (and those of other Greek theatres) was so much admired. Even a whisper on stage can be clearly heard in the highest row of seats. But it was not in the splendour of these stone theatres however that rapt audiences were first enthralled by the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, These theatres weren’t built until much later. |

“In Athens, the Greater Dionysia festival took place in March (There were several other festivals of Dionysus throughout the year.), celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring. During this festival four days of plays were presented, each with no breaks or intermissions. The first day was devoted to comedies submitted by five different playwrights; the next three days to tragedies- with a daily satyr play thrown in for light relief. The winners got prizes- a plain ivy wreath- as well as undisclosed honoraria. |

“Seating was on a first-come, first-serve basis, although there was a centre row block of seats reserved for V.I.P’s, including the priests of Dionysus. In the early days admission was free. Later on, there was an admission charge (and some bronze tickets have survived), although that was waived for the poor. There were some large theatres capable of accommodating 15,000 or so spectators but most theatres were considerably smaller than that. Lines were delivered on stage, in the orchestra area, although most action (murders and such) took place off-stage, out of sight of the audience. There were very few props, scenery or backdrops; audiences were expected to use their imagination. |

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Dedication to Bacchus

Wild Dionysus Festivals

To pay their respect to Dionysus, the citizens of Athens, and other city-states, held a winter-time festival in which a large phallus was erected and displayed. After competitions were held to see who could empty their jug of wine the quickest, a procession from the sea to the city was held with flute players, garland bearers and honored citizens dressed as satyrs and maenads (nymphs), which were often paired together. At the end of the procession a bull was sacrificed symbolizing the fertility god's marriage to the queen of the city. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

The word “maenad” is derived from the same root that gave us the words “manic” and “madness”. Maenads were subjects of numerous vase paintings. Like Dionysus himself they often depicted with a crown of iv and fawn skins draped over one shoulder. To express the speed and wildness of their movement the figures in the vase images had flying tresses and cocked back head. Their limbs were often in awkward positions, suggesting drunkenness.

The main purveyors of the Dionysus fertility cult "These drunken devotees of Dionysus," wrote Boorstin, "filled with their god, felt no pain or fatigue, for they possessed the powers of the god himself. And they enjoyed one another to the rhythm of drum and pipe. At the climax of their mad dances the maenads, with their bare hands would tear apart some little animal that they had nourished at their breast. Then, as Euripides observed, they would enjoy 'the banquet of raw flesh.' On some occasions, it was said, they tore apart a tender child as if it were a fawn'"μ

One time the maenads got so involved in what they were doing they had to be rescued from a snow storm in which they were found dancing in clothes frozen solid. On another occasion a government official that forbade the worship of Dionysus was bewitched into dressing up like a maenad and enticed into one of their orgies. When the maenads discovered him, he was torn to pieces until only a severed head remained.μ

It is not totally clear whether the maenad dances were based purely on mythology and were acted out by festival goers or whether there were really episodes of mass hysteria, triggered perhaps by disease and pent up frustration by women living in a male-dominate society. On at least one occasion these dances were banned and an effort was made to chancel the energy into something else such as poetry reading contests.

See Separate Article on Festivals

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Vintage Festival

Other Ancient Greek Festivals

There were two major festival for Athenian women every year: The Thesmophoria promoted fertility and honored Persephone with piglet sacrifices and the offering of mass-produced statues of the goddess to receive her blessing. The Adonia honored Aphrodite's lover Adonis. It was a riotous festival in which lovers had openly licentious affairs and seeds were planting to mark the beginning of the planting season.

During Thesmophoria, an annual Athenian event to honor Demeter and Persephone, women and men who required to abstain from sex and fast for three days. Women erected bowers made of branches and sat there during their fast. On the third day they carried serpent-shaped images thought to have magical powers and entered caves to claim decayed bodied of piglets left the previous years. Pigs were sacred animals to Demeter. The piglet remains were laid on an Thesmphoria altar with offerings, launching a party with feasting, dancing and praying. This rite also featured little girls dressed up as bears.

Ancient Greek Theaters

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Greek theater consisted essentially of the orchestra, the flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the theatron, the actual structure of the theater building. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little clear evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to the Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around 330 B.C.” [Source: Colette Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004,]

“Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene (stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side and from a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A mechane, or crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists surely made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.” \^/

At the 8000-seat marble amphitheater in Aphrodisias in Asia Minor, audiences watched masked and robed actors perform dramas about conspiring slaves and two-timing wives. When the show was over the audience was discouraged out of a gate called the vomitorium .

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Epidaurus Theater

The Epidaurus Theater in Epidaurus (70 kilometers south of Corinth) is the most famous and best preserved ancient amphitheater theater in Greece. Built into a hillside surrounded by trees in the 4th century B.C., the theater has a circular stage. The acoustics are so good it is said an actor's whisper can be heard in the back row — a tribute to the the theater’s famous architect Polykleitos, the Younger. Plays are still regularly performed there. Its fifty-five rows of seats could accommodate up to 12,000 people, considerably more than can squeeze into an average city theater which, typically, has seating for 5000 people. |

How is it possible for music and voices to be heard with such clarity in the back rows? Limestone seats form an acoustics filler that hushes low-frequency background noises such as the murmur of the crowd and reflects high-frequency noises of the performers on stage off the seats and back towards the seated audience members. The theater is also very steeply sloped (30 to 34 degrees). This is creates a shorter path for direct sound with few interferences in that direct path. [Source: MCT, Georgia Institute of Technology]

Early Greek Theaters

To accommodate large crowds at festivals, open theaters were built in the 5th century B.C. The first Greek theaters were probably nothing more than wooden benches placed around the outside of an agora where dramas were acted out. Greece and Asia Minor were blessed with a hilly landscape and the Greek theaters that replaced the makeshift market stages were usually carved into the sides of hills.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “In the fourth century B.C. cities began to build stone theatres. In fact one of the most characteristic buildings found in any ancient Greek city of any importance was a quality theatre. Audiences in Athens who had attended presentations by the masters of the Greek stage- Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides- had been seated on wooden benches lining the south slope of the Acropolis. Their descendants had a better environment. The typical Greek theatre was built into the slope of a hillside which provided support for the curving banks of stone seats that faced the stage. Most patrons brought their own seat cushions to these open air structures since watching plays during a festival period was somewhat of an endurance contest. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

At first wooden benches were set up, but later they were replaced by stone or marble seats. The first theaters had a circular orchestra for singers and dancers. This followed the tradition of the early Dionysus festivals when the merrymakers danced around a maypole, altar or image of a god. Theaters built later on had a “ vomitorium”, so named because it discouraged the audience after a performance. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]**

There are 120 ancient theater scattered around Greece. Most have curved rows of concentric seats. In back of the orchestra was a hall-like building with changing rooms and support for the scenery.

Greek theater

Theater in Athens

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “In the theater the Athenians have portrait statues of poets, both tragic and comic, but they are mostly of undistinguished persons. With the exception of Menander no poet of comedy represented here won a reputation, but tragedy has two illustrious representatives, Euripides and Sophocles. There is a legend that after the death of Sophocles the Lacedaemonians invaded Attica, and their commander saw in a vision Dionysus, who bade him honor, with all the customary honors of the dead, the new Siren. He interpreted the dream as referring to Sophocles and his poetry, and down to the present day men are wont to liken to a Siren whatever is charming in both poetry and prose. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“The likeness of Aeschylus is, I think, much later than his death and than the painting which depicts the action at Marathon Aeschylus himself said that when a youth he slept while watching grapes in a field, and that Dionysus appeared and bade him write tragedy. When day came, in obedience to the vision, he made an attempt and hereafter found composing quite easy. Such were his words. On the South wall, as it is called, of the Acropolis, which faces the theater, there is dedicated a gilded head of Medusa the Gorgon, and round it is wrought an aegis. At the top of the theater is a cave in the rocks under the Acropolis. This also has a tripod over it, wherein are Apollo and Artemis slaying the children of Niobe. This Niobe I myself saw when I had gone up to Mount Sipylus. When you are near it is a beetling crag, with not the slightest resemblance to a woman, mourning or otherwise; but if you go further away you will think you see a woman in tears, with head bowed down.”

Development of Ancient Greek Drama

The development of drama took place on two fronts. First was the introduction of an audience. At a Dionysus festival most everyone was a participant in the events. A choral music festival, in contrast, was entertainment, with large numbers of people watching the events and not dancing or singing themselves. The next important step was the introduction of "actors" — people who stepped out of the chorus, bringing the singing to a halt, and acting out a skit.

This dramatic innovation paved the way for Sophocles, Shakespeare, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Steven Spielberg. It enabled the audience too look upon actors and believe, for moments at a time, that they were different individuals than the people they really were, and they were acting out events that could be taking place in a different time. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Some scholars credit the success and influence of Greek drama to “ The Capture of Miletus” , a forgotten play by a forgotten playwright named Phyrnichus that was produced for the Dionysian festival in 492 B.C. The play was about a famous battle between Greeks and Persians lost by the Greeks that took place two year earlier. The play made audiences so depressed that laws were passed forbidding plays based on real life events. With a few exceptions, dramas after that were largely based on a rich supply of myths and famous stories.

Plutarch wrote in “The Life of Solon”, 29 (A.D. 110): “Thespis, at this time [c. 560 B.C.], beginning to act tragedies, and the thing, because it was new, taking very much with the multitude, though it was not yet made a matter of competition, Solon, being by nature fond of hearing and learning something new, and now, in his old age, living idly, and enjoying himself, indeed, with music and with wine, went to see Thespis himself, as the ancient custom was, act: and after the play was done, he addressed him, and asked him if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people; and Thespis replying that it was no harm to say or do so in play, Solon vehemently struck his staff against the ground: "Ah," said he, "if we honor and commend such play as this, we shall find it some day in our business."” [Source: Plutarch, “Plutarch's Lives,” (The "Dryden Plutarch"), (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910)]

Demosthenes wrote in “Against Midias”, '21.16-18 (c. 360 B.C.): “The sacred apparel — for all apparel provided for use at a festival I regard as being sacred until after it has been used — and the golden crowns, which I ordered for the decoration of the chorus, he plotted to destroy, men of Athens, by a nocturnal raid on the premises of my goldsmith. But not content with this, men of Athens, he actually corrupted the trainer of my chorus; and if Telephanes, the flute-player, had not proved the staunchest friend to me, if he had not seen through the fellow's game and sent him about his business, if he had not felt it his duty to train the chorus and weld them into shape himself, we could not have taken part in the competition, Athenians; the chorus would have come in untrained and we should have been covered with ignominy....he bribed the crowned Archon himself; he banded the choristers against me; he bawled and threatened, standing beside the umpires as they took the oath, he blocked the gangways from the wings.” [Source: Demosthenes, “The Orations of Demosthenes Against Leptines, Midias, Androtion, and Aristocrates,” Charles Rann Kennedy, trans., (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1889)]

Aristotle wrote in “Poetics,” 1449b (340 B.C.): “Indeed it is only quite late in its history that the archon granted a chorus for a comic poet; before that they were volunteers. Comedy had already taken certain forms before there is any mention of those who are called its poets. Who introduced masks or prologues, the number of actors, and so on, is not known. Plot-making originally came from Sicily, and of the Athenian poets Crates was the first to give up the lampooning form and to generalize his dialogue and plots. Epic poetry agreed with tragedy only in so far as it was a metrical representation of heroic action...And then as regards length, tragedy tends to fall within a single revolution of the sun...although originally the practice was the same in tragedy as in epic poetry. Consequently, any one who knows about tragedy, good and bad, knows about epics too, since tragedy has all the elements of epic poetry, though the elements of tragedy are not all present in the epic. Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude--by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.” [Source: Aristotle, “The Poetics of Aristotle,” 4th Ed., Samuel Henry Butcher, trans., (London: Macmillan, 1917)]

Ancient Greek Actors

In Greek plays, there were no actresses; all roles were played by men wearing masks made of wood or cork. Actors worked long hours. Some trilogies were written to be performed in their entirety in one day.

Actors routinely wore conspicuously short costumes with massive woolen phalluses hanging out the bottom. The first actor was a man named Hyprocites (the word hypocrite was first used around Chaucer's time).

Actors wore heavy wooden-soled boots and elaborate and expensive costumes paid for by wealthy citizens who tried to outdo each other in outrageousness and extravagance. After the performance was over the wealthy patrons got to keep the costume.μ

Masks and Drama Contests in Ancient Greece

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drama competition
According to the Canadian Museum of History: Masks "were carved and painted to depict exaggerated expressions of anger, fear, despair, etc. and were switched as the themes of the play required. The masks may have helped in the projection of voices to the uppermost rows. The costuming, for the most part, was comprised of typical clothing although the colours may have been brighter than usual. Thick soles were sometimes worn to give the actors additional height. Comedy clothing was often padded and fitted, by the end of the 5 th century B.C. with huge, red leather phalluses, suggestive of the ribald nature of some comedies. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

In 534 B.C. the idea of masks were introduced to help define the persona of the actor by an actor named Thespis who painted his face with white lead and hung flowers from his ears. Masks allowed actors to play many different characters. Chorus members of all dramatic genres wore masks and costumes of characters depicted.

Playwrights competed in fairly frequent contests, meaning they had to be prolific as well as talented. For each competition dramatists were required to write a play about three-fourths of the length of Hamlet. Awards were given out based on the decision of a panel of ten judges. At the Greater Dionysian Festival awards were given in three categories: 1) tragedy, 2) comedy and dithyramb.

As the competitions evolved dithyrambs were replaced with theatrical dramas and there were separate categories for tragedy and comedy. The chorus was incorporated into the dramas and to entertain the audience between the acts. Later the chorus played increasingly insignificant roles and was essentially phased out. Early on many of the actors were amateurs. As time went on professionals began to dominate.

During the Gold Age of Greece, productions of dramas was often paid for by wealthy citizens; attendance was often required for religious reasons; and the state paid the price of admission for the poor.

Politics and Drama in Ancient Greece

20120222-masque_esclave.jpg Mary Beard wrote in the New Statesman, “In ancient Athens, politics and theatre went hand in hand. Art, literature and drama blended easily with Athenian imperialism and with the version of "democracy" that underpinned it. Sophocles - the 5th-century BC playwright whose tragedy Oedipus the King was part of the inspiration for Freud's "Oedipus complex" - is a nice example of how the blend worked.[Source: Mary Beard, New Statesman, October 14, 2010]

In 440BC, a few months after his Antigone won first prize at the Athenian drama festival, Sophocles served as one of the commanding officers of an Athenian task force that sailed off to put down a rebellion on the island of Samos. The inhabitants had decided to break away from Athens's empire - the network of Athenian satellite states spread all over the eastern Mediterranean - and they had to be brought back into the fold. The irony was that a few decades earlier, Athens had led Greece to victory against a vast Persian invasion; now, the Athenians had imposed their own tight control over their former allies (which may have left some wondering whether conquest by the Persians might have been the better option). More equal than others

The people of Samos got off lightly. They were brought back by force into "alliance" (as the euphemism was) with Athens but there was no mass enslavement, no massacre of the male population, no occupying garrison permanently stationed there, no confiscation of land, such as we find elsewhere in the Athenian orbit. The penalty paid by the Samians was modest - an imposed democracy, the removal of the island's independent naval deterrent and vast sums to pay in financial compensation over years to come.

All the same, it is hard to think that one month Sophocles was putting the finishing touches to his great Antigone - a play about ethical conflicts between the individual conscience and the dictates of the state - and the next month he was sailing off to force the Samians to toe the Athenian line once again. Yet, oddly, at the time, there was a common story that he was elected to his military command because of the popular success of Antigone, that celebration of individual liberty. Stage of empire

Or maybe it is not so odd. True, the great tragedies that were acted on the Athenian stage debated all kinds of moral and ethical issues, from incest and matricide to the workings of the divine will. But the festival at which those plays were first performed was one of the most jingoistic moments of Athenian culture - and became increasingly so over the second half of the 5th century, during the period of Sophocles's lifetime. The plays may have debated the rights and wrongs of the exercise of power, but the rituals that went on just before the performances showed no hesitation whatsoever about Athenian control in the world. The most dramatic of these was the presentation of the tribute in cash from Athens's subject states to the Athenian authorities - deposited, it seems, directly on to the theatre stage. This spectacle, however, was followed by a parade that would have fitted easily into the public ceremonials of Soviet Russia: war orphans, those whose fathers had died fighting for the Athenian empire, were trooped across the stage.

Ancient Greek Comedies

actor as donkey, 5th century BC
While tragedies told tales of unapproachable gods and noble heroes, comedies made fun of people from everyday life. Aristotle called comedy an "imitation of men worse than average...that excite laughter...without causing pain."

In the comedies chorus members sometimes dressed like clouds or wasps. The chorus generally did not interact with the actors but they sometimes taunted them, made lewd gestures directed at them and made jokes at their expense. Satyr plays burlesqued well known legends and often depicted major characters in gross and obscene manner. The chorus members were dressed like satyrs and responded to the orders of their fat drunken leader, Silenus. Comic playwrights had the most fun on the Day of Misrule, a holiday when nothing was sacred. Arcane philosophers were satirized, sexual morality was mocked, and even the gods were objects of ridicule.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Unlike the Greek tragedy, the comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the so-called Old Comedy, ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around and after the time of Aristophanes (?460/50–ca. 387 B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus. [Source: Colette Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Greek comedy is often difficult for us to fully appreciate based as it was on local events and incidents familiar primarily to the community. References that might have had Athenians rolling in the aisles leave most of us with a quizzical look. The stereotypes though are known to us- the crafty slave, the greedy entrepreneur, the lusty sailor, etc. Aristophanes, author of The Birds, The Frogs and The Clouds was from the Old Comedy Period (c.450 B.C.) and the titles of his plays reflect costumes that would have been worn by the chorus. No one escaped the acerbic wit of Aristophanes, especially politicians and philosophers, and there is little doubt that in modern times he would be charged with slander and libel. Even in those liberal times he did not always escape unscathed; his attacks on Athens while it was at war with Sparta provoked considerable anger. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“In the second half of the fourth century B.C., the so-called New Comedy of Menander (?344/43–292/91 B.C.) and his contemporaries gave fresh interpretations to familiar material. Menander is the only representative of the New Comedy Period (c. 350 B.C.) with any surviving works to his credit. He can be considered as one of the major founders of modern comedy. He wrote more than 100 plays but only one complete play survives. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights' new style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of New Comedy, which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts. \^/ |

Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote in “The Poetics”: “ In Comedy this is already apparent: for here the poet first constructs the plot on the lines of probability, and then inserts characteristic names- unlike the lampooners who write about particular individuals. But tragedians still keep to real names, the reason being that what is possible is credible: what has not happened we do not at once feel sure to be possible; but what has happened is manifestly possible: otherwise it would not have happened. Still there are even some tragedies in which there are only one or two well-known names, the rest being fictitious. In others, none are well known- as in Agathon's Antheus, where incidents and names alike are fictitious, and yet they give none the less pleasure. We must not, therefore, at all costs keep to the received legends, which are the usual subjects of Tragedy. Indeed, it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects that are known are known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all. It clearly follows that the poet or 'maker' should be the maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take a historical subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some events that have actually happened should not conform to the law of the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality in them he is their poet or maker.”



Aristophanes (c.445-c.385 B.C.) was the greatest comic playwrights, writing in a rough style later known as "old comedy". He wrote 54 comedies, of which only 11 survived. They including “The Acharnians” (425 B.C.); “The Birds” 414 B.C.); “The Clouds” (423 B.C.), which pokes fun at Socrates; The Ecclesiazusae (Women in Politics); “The Frogs” (405 B.C.); “The Knights” (424 B.C.); Lysistrata 411 B.C.), about a sex strike; and Plutus (408 B.C.), his last play.

The comic plays of Aristophanes (450-357 B.C.) are the only Greek comedies that have survived. For the most part they featured stereotyped characters we are familiar with today: hen-pecked husbands, nagging wives, boastful soldiers and vain and conniving seductresses. Aristophanes often wrote about issues that affected ordinary Greeks — war, women rights, low pay and sex. He could be viciously sarcastic but often stood up for the rights of the poor.

On the Day of Misrule, Aristophanes went as far as belittling Cleon the Terrible while he was still alive. This ruler was known as "the most violent man in Athens" with a "frown that made people vomit with fear." In one play Cleon was portrayed as a slave who brought trouble to his household. As a punishment he was forced to sell donkey sausages and dog meat on the streets while prostitutes hurled insults and dirty bath water at him. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Aristophanes hold the record for longest word ever used in the history of literature — Lopadotemach- oseelachogaleokranioleipsanodrimhypotrimmatosilphioparaomelitokatakenchymenokichlepikossyphophat- toperisteralektryonoptekephalliokigklopeleiolagoiosiraiobaphetraganopterygon. The word appeared in the comedy “Eccalziazusae” and had 182 letters. It meant a dish made with 17 sweet and sour ingredients, including brains, mullet, vinegar, bone marrow, honey, pickled vegetables and ouzo. [Source: People’s Almanac]

Aristophanes’s Plays, Women and Sex

comedic slave actor
Aristophanes plays often poked fun of his contemporaries. His most successful play, both then and now — “Frogs” — ridiculed Sophocles and Euripides, only a year after they died, with characters dressed in frog costumes. “The Wasps” satirized the Athenian legal system by portraying juries and lawyers as raking in money by prolonging trials. “The Clouds” ridiculed the Sophists for practicing "Thinkery," a philosophy in which the "Worse Cause appeared the Better." Once he was denied a drama prize for making too much fun of Solon. Aristophanes’s other plays are “Birds” , “Knights” , “Lysieria” and “Ecclesiazususae” .

The comedy “Lysistrata” features a heroine who tries to bring the war to an end by leading a sex strike. There is reason to believe that Lysistrata herself is drawn in part from a contemporary historical figure, Lysimache, the priestess of Athena Polias on the Acropolis.

Homosexuality popped in some of his plays. Relationships between older men and teenage boys was believed to be common. In “ Clouds” Aristophanes wrote: "How to be modest, sitting so as not to expose his crotch, smoothing out the sand when he arose so that the impress of his buttocks would not be visible, and how to be strong...The emphasis was on beauty...A beautiful boy is a good boy. Education is bound up with male love, an idea that is part of the pro-Spartan ideology of Athens...A youth who is inspired by his love of an older male will attempt to emulate him, the heart of educational experience. The older male in his desire of the beauty of the youth will do whatever he can improve it."

In Aristophanes's “ The Birds” , one older man says to another with disgust: "Well, this is a fine state of affairs, you demanded desperado! You meet my son just as he comes out of the gymnasium, all rise from the bath, and don't kiss him, you don't say a word to him, you don't hug him, you don't feel his balls! And you're supposed to be a friend of ours!"

Aristophanes’ Depiction of Socrates in the Clouds

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Aristophanes’ play “”The Clouds” depicts the tribulations of Strepsiades, an elderly Athenian citizen with significant debts. Deciding that the best way to discharge his debts is to defeat his creditors in court, he attends The Thinkery, an institute of higher education headed up by the sophist Socrates. When he fails to learn the art of speaking in The Thinkery, Strepsiades persuades his initially reluctant son, Pheidippides, to accompany him. Here they encounter two associates of Socrates, the Stronger and the Weaker Arguments, who represent lives of justice and self-discipline and injustice and self-indulgence respectively.

On the basis of a popular vote, the Weaker Argument prevails and leads Pheidippides into The Thinkery for an education in how to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. Strepsiades later revisits The Thinkery and finds that Socrates has turned his son into a pale and useless intellectual. When Pheidippides graduates, he subsequently prevails not only over Strepsiades’ creditors, but also beats his father and offers a persuasive rhetorical justification for the act. As Pheidippides prepares to beat his mother, Strepsiades’ indignation motivates him to lead a violent mob attack on The Thinkery. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) ]

“Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates the sophist is revealing on at least three levels. In the first instance, it demonstrates that the distinction between Socrates and his sophistic counterparts was far from clear to their contemporaries. Although Socrates did not charge fees and frequently asserted that all he knew was that he was ignorant of most matters, his association with the sophists reflects both the indeterminacy of the term sophist and the difficulty, at least for the everyday Athenian citizen, of distinguishing his methods from theirs. Secondly, Aristophanes’ depiction suggests that the sophistic education reflected a decline from the heroic Athens of earlier generations. Thirdly, the attribution to the sophists of intellectual deviousness and moral dubiousness predates Plato and Aristotle.”

Socrates Dialogue from the Clouds

Aristophanes wrote in “The Clouds”:
Strepsiades: Who is this man suspended up in a basket?
Disciple: That's himself.
Strepsiades: Who's himself?
Disciple: Socrates.
Strepsiades: Socrates! Oh! I pray you, call him right loudly for me.
Disciple: Call him yourself; I have no time to waste. (He departs. The machine swings in Socrates in a basket.)

Socrates in a basket

Strepsiades: Socrates! my little Socrates!
Socrates (loftily): Mortal, what do you want with me?
Strepsiades: First, what are you doing up there? Tell me, I beseech you.
Socrates (pompously): I am traversing the air and contemplating the sun.
Strepsiades: Thus it's not on the solid ground, but from the height of this basket, that you slight the gods, if indeed....

Socrates: I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above; for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself. It's just the same with the watercress.

Strepsiades: What? Does the mind attract the sap of the watercress? Ah! my dear little Socrates, come down to me! I have come to ask you for lessons.
Socrates (descending): And for what lessons?
Strepsiades: I want to learn how to speak. I have borrowed money, and my merciless creditors do not leave me a moment's peace; all my goods are at stake.
Socrates: And how was it you did not see that you were getting so much into debt?
Strepsiades: My ruin has been the madness for horses, a most rapacious evil; but teach me one of your two methods of reasoning, the one whose object is not to repay anything, and, may the gods bear witness, that I am ready to pay any fee you may name.

Socrates: By which gods will you swear? To begin with, the gods are not a coin current with us.
Strepsiades: But what do you swear by then? By the iron money of Byzantium?
Socrates: Do you really wish to know the truth of celestial matters?
Strepsiades: Why, yes, if it's possible.
Socrates: ....and to converse with the clouds, who are our genii?
Strepsiades: Without a doubt.
Socrates: Then be seated on this sacred couch.
Strepsiades (sitting down): I am seated.
Socrates: Now take this chaplet.
Strepsiades: Why a chaplet? Alas! Socrates, would you sacrifice me, like Athamas?
Socrates: No, these are the rites of initiation.
Strepsiades: And what is it I am to gain?
Socrates (pouring flour on Strepsiades): You will become a thorough rattle-pate, a hardened old stager, the fine flour of the talkers....But come, keep quiet.
Strepsiades: By Zeus! That's no lie! Soon I shall be nothing but wheat-flour, if you powder me in that fashion.

Socrates: Silence, old man, give heed to the prayers. (In an hierophantic tone) Oh! most mighty king, the boundless air, that keepest the earth suspended in space, thou bright Aether and ye venerable goddesses, the Clouds, who carry in your loins the thunder and the lightning, arise, ye sovereign powers and manifest yourselves in the celestial spheres to the eyes of your sage.
Strepsiades: Not yet! Wait a bit, till I fold my mantle double, so as not to get wet. And to think that I did not even bring my traveling cap! What a misfortune!
Socrates (ignoring this)
“Come, oh! Clouds, whom I adore, come and show yourselves to this man, whether you be resting on the sacred summits of Olympus, crowned with hoar-frost, or tarrying in the gardens of Ocean, your father, forming sacred choruses with the Nymphs; whether you be gathering the waves of the Nile in golden vases or dwelling in the Maeotic marsh or on the snowy rocks of Mimas, hearken to my prayer and accept my offering. May these sacrifices be pleasing to you.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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