How the Greeks invented Drama

In the fifth century, the Greeks invented drama. They invented it in a big way, with three of the world’s greatest poets producing the first great tragedies, together with Aristophanes who produced the world’s first comedies.

There were three great tragedians. The first was Aeschylus, austere and very grand, who began with an early play on the Persians and their defeat by the Athenians, and then in his greatest play, Agamemnon he goes back into mythology of the Trojan War with the murder of the King Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra. He was followed by Sophocles, often considered the best poet of the lot, who wrote about Oedipus, King of Thebes, who mistakenly killed his father and married his Mother, not knowing that they were his parents.

The third and perhaps the best known was Euripides from whom 18 plays have survived – as against seven each from Aeschylus and Sophocles — sadly only a fragment of their total output. Euripides can perhaps be thought of as something of a subversive left-wing character: he tended to take classical plots but he then invented new stories which he attached to old mythical heroes, thereby confusing those who like to have their mythology neat and tidy.

And then there was Aristophanes the filthy minded comic poet who satirised the politicians of the day: in an early play he had a starving farmer bringing his young child to market dressed up as a pig for sale, because pigs were worth more than children and in a later play he satirised the philosopher Socrates as walking on clouds.

The scene for the fifth century revolution was set by the lyric poets, for drama grew out of lyric poetry. It began with the dithyramb, a form of poetry – perhaps call it entertainment – that is a little difficult to understand partly perhaps because only a few fragments of dithyrambic poetry have survived and partly too because one suspects that the performance was almost as important as the content. It took place at the Dionysia, the festival in honour of Dionysus, the God of wine and fertility, and one suspects that it was essentially the equivalent of the modern pop festival: we should remember that most of the great Greek dramas which are today occasionally performed with great solemnity, were originally performed at the Dionysia festival in an atmosphere of revelry and the consumption of considerable amounts of alcohol

The dithyramb was sung by a chorus of fifty or more men and boys dancing round in a circle – their dancing floor was referred to as the orchestra – think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or perhaps a performance by the Rolling Stones, but with rather more booze. Gradually it developed as a sort of duet between the chorus and the ‘actor’, who stood to one side and made comments.  According to Aristotle in his Poetics, the big development was made by Aeschylus, the first great dramatist who added a second actor: thus drama evolved on a stage, set on a higher level to the orchestra in the pits, with a dramatic story alternating with the chorus, with dancing and singing in the orchestra at the lower ground level. Sophocles, the next great dramatist, brought in a third actor, and drama was on its way.

Theatre 083

Looking down on the Theatre of Dionysus from the top of the Acropolis. The original small temple to Dionysus is hidden in the trees. The semi-circular dancing floor, or Orchestra was then constructed, and then the high stage between the Orchestra and the trees. The stone seats for the spectators were a later after thought.

At Athens the performances took place at the foot of the Acropolis, originally in front of the little temple of Dionysus, today hidden in the trees beyond the remains of the later theatre. Then a regular circular dancing floor was constructed at the foot of the Acropolis hill, and then rough rows of seats were constructed along the hill and a raised platform for the actors was constructed between the Orchestra and the now rather forgotten temple of Dionysus. Drama was on its way, although proper seating was not constructed until the fourth century, long after the glory days of the great tragedians.

How was all this financed? The provision of the theatre was the responsibility of the state, though this was little more than making open space available and later erecting rough wooden seating. The big cost was the cost of providing the chorus, around fifty strong who needed to be trained and paid – and the training lasted a month or more. The expense was considerable, and it was delegated to a rich man who was known as the choregos. The task of being a choregos and putting on a chorus was known as a Liturgy, the same word as the Christian service but with a rather different meaning. There were two major liturgies which both cost about the same. One was the naval liturgy when you are expected to pay the costs of maintaining a warship for a year. And the other major liturgy was that of being a choregos.

There is a fascinating speech by the orator Lysias delivered in 403/2 BC in which he lists all the expenses his client had incurred on behalf of the city. These amounted to 63,300 drachmas, spent over ten years. It is difficult to know how much a drachma is in modern terms, but a drachma was a day’s wage for a skilled workman which in modern terms must be something between £50 and £100. The big expense of the defendant was the 36,000 drachmas he had spent over seven years as a trierach covering the expenses of a warship, which comes to around 5,000 drachmas a year, – or in modern terms, somewhere between £½ m and £ ¼ m a year. He twice did a choral liturgy which again came to 5,000 drachmas a time, which means that the cost of putting on a play was something approaching £ ½ m. He also put on a comedy – but comedies are cheap – it came to only 1600 drachmas, i.e. not much more than £100,000.

The theatre at Epidauros is one of the largest Greek theatres. It was designed by Polykleitos the Younger and still has perfect acoustics.

The plays took place once a year, at the  Festival of Dionysus. Three contestants were chosen, each of whom put on three plays plus a comedy. The winning Choregos gained great prestige, but he was then expected to build a monument to celebrate his victory – which was yet a further expense.

One should perhaps compare these costs with modern costs. Today there seems to be lots of people who earn £1 m a year, but one should remember that half of this goes in taxes. There were no taxes as such in Athens – the biggest regular source of income to the state were probably the harbour dues – the import and export taxes. But if the modern millionaire pays £ ½ m in taxes, this makes the cost of the liturgy in Athens seem not unreasonable. Liturgies brought prestige and they continued to be sought after throughout the fifth century. It was not until the fourth century that they came to be seen to be a burden and people began avoiding them and evading them as much as possible, (as with modern taxes!).

There is perhaps a parallel with the situation in Roman Britain and the Roman provinces. In the golden age of Rome, in the first and second centuries AD, rich men vied with each other to become members of the curia and to adorn their city. It was not until the third century that the rot set in, membership of the curia declined and central government became a major source of funds and the major imposer of taxes. Can we possibly compare Britain in the 21st century?


But drama was not the only place where money played a big role in the arts. Poetry too flourished – supported by money.  For just as the advent of money had made possible the beginning of democracy, so the advent of money brought about a major revolution in the arts.

Let us begin with poetry and see how it developed. The scholars of Alexandria in the second century decided that there were nine classic lyric poets, starting with Alcman of Sparta in the seventh century going through Sappho of Lesbos in the sixth, and ending with Pindar (522 to 442) in the fifth century. Sadly the only one of these whose poetry has come down in a substantial quantity is Pindar, the latest and apparently the greatest. However from our point of view, the most interesting poet is his immediate predecessor and great rival Simonides, whom we have already met, for it was he who composed the famous epithet for the Spartans who died at Thermopylae:

 Go tell the Spartans, you that passes by,
That here, obedient to their commands, we lie.

Simonides came from Cos, the easternmost island of the Cyclades, and he spent much of his life wandering round the courts of the tyrants especially in Sicily and Italy, writing odes – and being paid for it. It was said that he was the first person to write poetry for money and he had the reputation for being a greedy miser. Pindar escaped the odium, but he was much the same, for the poems that have survived were his ‘Victory’ poems, written for victorious athletes in various games in an abstruse style that makes T S Eliot look straightforward. Only the rich and wealthy could afford to travel to Olympia to compete in the games and having been proclaimed a victor, they could then easily afford to pay Pindar to write an ode to celebrate their victory and pass down their names to posterity – which he successfully did. But it is clear that by this time in the early fifth century, poetry was something written for pay, and poets made their living by travelling round the courts composing odes and being paid for them – rather like Rabbie Burns in the 18th century, or the great German composers who went from court to court composing symphonies and concertos.

On to Pottery – and Drawing

20th January 2016