Ancient Greece and (Lesser) Rome
For a far more comprehensive overview of the ancient Greeks than the subjective one below, visit Dr Jack.
Of the thousands of plays produced in the thousand years between Thespis and the Roman Empire, only seventy survived the ravages of barbarian invasions and the Spanish Inquisition—the works of only eight iconic playwrights.
At least we have the best of the lot—they won a lot of contests, and Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, remains near the top of the list of the greatest of all time. Their plots are compelling, characters (though kings and gods) are human, language challenging but pleasing, and their themes still resonate today. Admittedly, the Romans copied the later (lesser) Greeks, but it was their plays that shaped the Renaissance; together, their works comprise the fundamental source of western drama—the Classics. Those who “know drama” will have read at least one play by each.
From first to last, with links to the prime examples:
- Aeschylus (525-456 BC E) wrote 70-90 tragedies, seven which survive. Among the best:
Oresteia (Agamemnon/Libation Bearers/Eumenides)
- Sophocles (495-406) seven of 123 tragedies
Oedipus Rex* Antigone * Electra
- Euripides (480-406) 18 of 90 tragedies
The Bacchae * Andromache *Electra * Trojan Women
- Aristophanes (448-380) 11/30 comedies (old)
Lysistrata * The Birds * The Clouds * The Frogs
- Menander (342-291) 1 of 100 comedies (new)
- Aeschylus (525-456 BC E) wrote 70-90 tragedies, seven which survive. Among the best:
English translations of all extant Greek plays are in the MIT Internet Classics Archive; Roman plays are harder to find, Links to a number of digital scripts are posted alphabetically by author in the Catalog.
This page examines the factors that influenced their evolution from primitive religious rites through the Golden Age, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Hellenist aftermath, to the imitating Roman Republic, and the Fall of the Empire, when everything stops.
Roots in Religious Ecstasy
Until late in the 6th Century BCE, the Greeks were scattered barbarian tribes descended from the victors of the 12th Century Trojan War, so loftily and brutally described by Homer (c. 800), and in the plays of the Golden Age to come. They worshipped their Olympian gods with week-long festivals that featured contests in a range of fields from track and field to music, dance, and poetry—the original Olympic Games.
Most popular by far were the Dionysia that celebrated Dionysus, god of wine, where tribes (later demes) presented dithyrambic odes, sung and danced by choruses of up to half a hundred men and boys, all trained and practiced, playing for First Prize.
Dionysus was the bastard son of the mortal virgin Semele and the great god Zeus who, on Hera’s orders, incinerated the mother and had her newborn son torn into shreds and boiled in a cauldron, then reconstituted and revived (like Jesus Christ)—“and from the soil where spilt his blood, there springs the vine.” Also known as Bacchus, the Goat God of grapes and fertility, inebriation—madness. His week-long festivals were celebrated with human (later goat) sacrifices, drunken orgies, and choral competitions—satyrs and maenads dancing around in a wild, lascivious frenzy, chanting hymns of praise:
Blessed are the Thyrsus-bearers,
those who wield in their hands
the holy wand of god!
Sort of like the Pentecost; but with a phallus.
You know what phalli are.
The First Actor/Dramatist
In 534 BCE, lyric poet Thespis, commissioned by the benevolent tyrant Peisistratus on the advice of Solon the Wise, won First Prize at the City Dionysia by stepping away from the dithyrambic chorus and pretending to be a legendary hero—a character—to become not only the world’s first actor, but its first dramatic poet.
He also, by rationally questioning the gods, detached dramatic art from religious belief.
This innovation profoundly affected the citizens of Athens (all of whom attended free of charge), who watched and heard the poet challenge fate and suffer irony, and walk away transformed. The effect was not lost on Peisistratus, who encouraged the new poetic genre, using it to promote his radical reforms—the humanitarian and aesthetic values that became and (until recently) remained the fundamental core of Western Civilization. So successful was his scheme that within two dozen years his successor, Cleisthenes, introduced the world to democratic government.
Everything that’s happened since is due, in part, to the Wholly Human Art.
Thespis was a one-man show with chorus—a sequence of appearances on stage between the song and dance of choral odes. He played all the “roles,” identified by masks and costumes, changing offstage while chorus sang and danced. There was no dramatic plot, no interactive conflict; rather, the “plays” were poetic arguments for social and political reform, presented as religion for the masses, and the masses loved them.
This first form of solo drama persisted for half a century, with festivals in towns all over Attic Greece at which traveling actor/poets played with local choruses for honor, glory, and First Prize—a goat! (The word “tragedy” translates literally as “goat-song.”)
Alas, no Thespian scripts survive, but scholars traditionally date his debut as the birth of dramatic art.
The Birth of Tragedy
In 499—just ten years into Greek democracy—King Darius of Persia challenged Athens in the first Greco-Persian War, which ended with his defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490. Ten years later his son, Xerxes, tried again, and was so badly beaten at the Battles of Salamis and Plataea that the playwright Aeschylus, who fought in all three battles, took pity on him in The Persians (472), for which he won his first of thirteen First Place honors at the City Dionysia and which, coincidentally, is the earliest extant example of an ancient play.
It was Aeschylus, according to Aristotle (writing more than a century later) who introduced a second actor to the stage, and with him interactive human conflict—the very heart and soul of drama. For this innovation, he is universally dubbed “The Father of Tragedy”—the original (and for half a century the only) major form of dramatic art.
He also reduced the size of the chorus from as many as fifty men and boys to twelve, and developed the structural form that, with occasional adaptions, was the model throughout all ancient tragedy.
Structure, Style, and Content
Tragedy evolved from dithyrambs that had themselves evolved from religious rites. Thespis and his solo followers appeared as secondary features in that tradition until Aeschylus introduced the second actor, at which point tragedy became the main event, with choral song and dance responding to its actions. The model that he created, therefore, incorporated both, its elements as follows:
- The Prologue, spoken by one or two characters before the chorus appears. It usually gives the mythological background necessary for understanding the events of the play.
- The Parados, sung by the chorus as it first enters the orchestra and dances.
- An Episode, the first of three to six, when the characters talk among themselves and with the chorus to unravel the plot.
- A Stasimon at the end of each episode, when the characters leave the stage and the chorus sings and dances an ode that reflects on the episode and puts it into a larger mythological framework.
- The Exodus concludes the play with a choral ode imparting words of wisdom related to the actions and outcome of the play—the moral—chanted as they leave the orchestra.
By the end of the 6th Century, festivals honoring Dionysus always—and exclusively—featured dramatic contests. Two a year were held in Athens: the Lenaia in January, and the City Dionysia in April—the latter second in importance only to the Panathenaic (all-Athens) Games, honoring Athena, in July.
The City Dionysia was a week-long religious event highlighted by a three-day contest among three dramatists, each of whom presented a trilogy of tragic plays and, beginning in 501 BC (most likely to appease the bacchantes), a burlesque satyr play that ridiculed the tragic theme. A fourth day, for five competing comedies, was added in 486.
The Golden Age
The defeat of Persia in 478 paved the way for Pericles, the populist leader who made Athens the center of art and culture throughout the Mediterranean world and furthered the cause of democracy, granting civil rights to common people and promoting humanitarian principles, most notably (and effectively) at the City Dionysia. It was he who produced The Persians, which makes the case for sympathy instead of tribal retribution.
Originally, all Greek plays were tragedies, defined in Aristotle’s Poetics as “the representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements separately in the parts and by people acting and not by narration, accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.”
In simpler terms, a tragedy is a dramatic representation, often in verse, involving a great person destined to experience a cataclysmic reversal of fortune resulting from a character flaw or conflict with society or fate, which evokes a strong emotional recognition among it audience,
That said, the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all differ in significant ways that epitomize the rise and fall of the Golden Age.
Aeschylus is said to to have written plays “of the gods,” their epic themes reflecting the confidence and vigor of a powerful, victorious state (478-454), while those of Socrates, thirty years his junior, are “of heroes,” cautioning the Athenian Empire (454-404), stressing heroic choice, civic duty, and personal responsibility; but Euripides, fifteen years younger still, wrote “of men” and human failure, exposing people as perverse, irrational, self-serving, and decadent in the context of the Peloponnesian War (431-404) that ended the Golden Age.
The Persians was the middle play of three, the first and last of which are lost. Indeed, while all Greek drama was originally three plays on a theme, only one trilogy exists intact. Of all the rest, we have just one. At least the one we have is monumentally profound.
The Oresteia (458) was Aeschylus’s last and best work, and serves well to illustrate the role of drama in the Golden Age.
In the first play, Agamemnon, the title role is the supreme commander of the Greeks at Troy and scion of the cursed House of Atreus. Having sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis to unfurl the sails of the Thousand Ships, he returns home in triumph, only to be slaughtered by his vengeful wife, Clytemnestra. The middle piece, Libation Bearers, has his adoring daughter, Electra, persuade her brother, Orestes, to kill their mother, at which point the ancient Furies—serpent-haired, dog-headed, bat-winged daughters of Mother Earth—attack and pursue him into the wild. The concluding play, Eumenides, brings Orestes to Athens, where he appeals to Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, and she puts the case to judgement before a panel of twelve citizen judges.
The question was the whether the murder of one’s father justified the murder of one’s mother—essentially, is a man worth more than a woman in the scheme of human life? The Furies claim vengeance, blood for blood, according to tradition. The argument for Orestes, made by Apollo, was that a woman is no more than the fertile furrow into which the husbandman casts his seed. When the jury locked at six to six, Athena cast the vote in favor of Orestes, and consoled the Furies by changing them into the kindly Eumenides, goddesses of hearth and home.
Two icons of the western world—Trial By Jury and Patriarchal Society—instilled in one fell swoop, endorsed by the goddess of wisdom, were demonstrated graphically through the course of three violent and disturbing plays. (When the chorus of Furies appeared “in wild disorder in the orchestra,” according to an ancient account, they “so terrified the crowd that children died and women suffered miscarriage.”)
Writing later than (and overlapping) Aeschylus, and earlier than (and overlapping) Euripides, Sophocles produced more than 120 plays in his 91 years, and for almost half a century was the most celebrated playwright of the age, winning 24 of 30 competitions and six seconds. (Aeschylus won 13, sometimes losing to Sophocles; Euripides won four.)
It was Sophocles who introduced a third actor to the stage, adding a further dimension to the dramatic universe, thereby reducing the role of the chorus in developing the plot. He also, according to Aristotle, introduced skenographia (painted scenery) and other aspects of production.
The most famous tragedies of Sophocles feature Oedipus and Antigone: they are generally known as the Theban plays, though each was part of a different tetralogy (the other members of which are now lost). Sophocles influenced the development of drama, most importantly by adding a third actor (attributed to Sophocles by Aristotle; to Aeschylus by Themistius), thereby reducing the importance of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He also developed his characters to a greater extent than earlier playwrights
The fourth playwright of the Golden Age, Aristophanes, was younger still by 35 years but competing in the same contests, and writing Old Comedy that ridiculed the war, among other things, and people—including Socrates, who knew all three.
The fifth, Menander (only one—The Grouch—of over 100), was born a half century after all the rest were dead. By then, Alexander the Great ruled Greece. The Golden Age was history, freedom of expression had been repressed, religion was a joke, and what theatre remained—although now secular, professional, and widespread—second-rate melodrama modeled on Euripides and New Comedy, innocuous and bland, sitcom. Typical plots revolve around stock characters (young lovers, lechers, miserly old men, clever wives and servants, concubines, clowns) and involve sex, greed, gluttony, and mistaken identity. These plays became the models for the scavenging Romans, who translated and adapted them and passed them on to the Renaissance, who passed them on through all the ages down to us, as musicals and sitcoms.
One line in particular, from a lost play by Menander, became a Greek, then a Roman proverb that influenced Petrarch, the father of Humanism in the 14th Century: “I am a human being: and I deem nothing pertaining to humanity is foreign to me.”
READER ALERT: From here I’m still constructing.
The Lesser Romans
By the time Rome conquered Greece (c. 240 BCE), the Golden Age was distant past, and drama had devolved into innocuous entertainments that Roman poets copied and performed at the Ludi Romani, to honor Jupiter. By the time of the Empire (27 BCE), dramatic performances had degenerated into cynical, lascivious, lurid parodies that lampooned ridiculous beliefs.
Form changed with Menander: five acts, additional actors, violence on stage? etc.
494 BC: The year Rome changed from an Aristocratic Republic to a Liberalized Republic.
The venues for these performances—always out-of-doors—also evolved, from an open area at the foot of a hill to elaborate amphitheaters that seated as many as 30,000 spectators, all noted for their remarkable acoustics. The audience looked down on a circular orchestra, where the chorus performed, and up to the skene, where the actors played, larger than life on elevated shoes, in elaborate costumes and exaggerated masks to project both sound and spectacle.
This triad of stage, audience, and orchestra are integral conventions to most spectator activities; elevated shoes and masks are obsolete.
Through structure of a tragic play developed byconditions continued to be used throughout the Golden Age.
The Golden Age of Greece
Literary conventions are as many and as arcane as the factors used to judge Olympic Games—as they were indeed. From the beginning dramatists wrote and produced plays in competition for First Prize
as hile the chorus, although still while continuing to performplay a major rolethe gan From a single actor to never more than three, who played multiple roles, wearing full-facial masks with megaphonic mouths,
The Golden Age
The earliest extant tragedy is first playwright whose works exist todayThe oldest extant Greek play is The Persians (472), by Aeschylus (c. 525-455), who introduced a second actor and became the Father of Drama
Aeschylus (524 – 455 BCE) wrote 70-90 plays, only seven of which survive today. Sophocles (497-405), seven of 120; Euripides (480 – 406), eighteen of 92; Aristophanes (446 – 386), eleven of 40; Menander (342 – 290 BC), one of 108; Plautus (254 – 184), twenty of thirty; Terence (190 – c. 159), six of 6, and Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE, nine of 9.
69 extant of their 375 plays they wrote.
* * *
Aeschylus was one of only five Greek playwrights whose works we know today; of his eighty plays, only ten (counting Achilles) remain. Writing in the early days of the Athenian Democracy, his tragedies are “of the gods,” while those of Sophocles (seven of 120, including Oedipus), thirty years his junior, are “of heroes,” and Euripides (19 of 90), fifteen years younger still, “of men”—perhaps because, during their overlapping lives, Athens first achieved the Golden Age and then, one year after the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides, lost the Peloponnesian Wars. All three told the same familiar stories (Electra, for example). Aeschylus, however, dealt with epic themes, reflecting the confidence and vigor of a powerful state; Sophocles, a young man when the wars began, focused on heroic choice, civic duty, responsibility. Euripides depicted human failure, exposing people as perverse, irrational, self-serving, decadent.
The fourth playwright was Aristophanes, younger even still by 35 years but competing in the same contests, writing Old Comedy that ridiculed the war, among other things, and people—including Socrates, who knew them all.
The fifth, Menander (only one—The Grouch—of over 100), was born a half century after all the rest were dead. By then, Alexander the Great ruled Greece. The Golden Age was history, freedom of expression had been repressed, religion was a joke, and what theatre remained—although now secular, professional, and widespread—second-rate melodrama modeled on Euripides and New Comedy, innocuous and bland, sitcom. Typical plots revolve around stock characters (young lovers, lechers, miserly old men, clever wives and servants, concubines, clowns) and involve sex, greed, gluttony, and mistaken identity.
* * *
So it was that when when Rome conquered the known world, its playwrights imitated not the greats, but Menander and his ilk. Seneca rewrote Greek myths with Roman gods; Plautus and Terence copied The Grouch. While their plays are trivial compared to the Big Four, they served to inspire the Renaissance, and deserve that credit.