non sibi sed toti

Classics Teaching Resources

The City Dionysia

One of the festivals of Dionysus in Athens.

It was held in the Athenian month Elaphebolion, in March or April.

What happened?
  1. The statue of Dionysus
    Temple of Dionysus remains Ruins of the Temple of Dionysus seen from the top of the Acropolis
    The statue of Dionysus was carried in a procession to the Temple of Dionysus. This was near the Theatre on the slopes of the Acropolis. There people offered sacrifices to the god, and in the evening young men carried the statue by the light of flaming torches into the theatre. The statue stayed there while the plays were performed, and at the end of the festival it was taken back to a temple until the next City Dionysia.

    So Dionysus, or at least his statue, came to see all the plays every year. In the comedy 'Frogs,' the god Dionysus is one of the characters. When someone makes a bad joke, he says:

    I never miss a play; And every time I hear that sort of joke I go home twelve months older than I was!

  2. Armour for the orphans When the theatre was full of people, young men, whose fathers had been killed fighting for Athens, were given suits of armour.

  3. Music and Drama Choirs of men and boys sang songs, and the competition for the best tragedies and the best comedy began.

The audience listened and watched very carefully. Remember that they did not see drama on the television every day. This festival was a very special occasion. People remembered much of what they saw and heard. Here are two pieces of evidence for this:

  1. When thousands of Athenian soldiers were taken prisoner in Sicily, some of them were set free in return for singing some choruses from Euripides' plays.

    "Euripides' poetry was popular with the people of Sicily. When any traveller came and could tell them part of a play, they were delighted. Many of the prisoners who got back to Athens went and said thank you to Euripides. They told him how some of them had been set free by teaching what they could remember of his plays, and others had been given food and drink for repeating some of his poems." [Plutarch, Life of Nicias]

  2. In 'Frogs' Aristophanes makes jokes about the tragedies of Euripides and Aeschylus. The audience would not have laughed if they had not remembered the plays. One joke was about an actor in a play the year before, who had mixed up the words for 'calm' and 'weasel'. They sound very like each other in Greek. So he said:

    'I see a weasel on the sea!'

    The actor in Frogs only had to remind people of this, and they all laughed.

How were the plays judged?

Ten judges were chosen, one from each 'tribe' of Athens. When the plays were all over, the ten judges voted for the best tragedies and the best comedy. After all the judges had voted in secret, the votes were put into a pot, and five of them were drawn out. Only these five votes were counted.
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