The Dionysia was a large festival in ancient Athens in honor of the god Dionysus, the central event of which was the performance of tragedies and, from 487 BC, comedies. It was the second-most important festival after the Panathenaia. The Dionysia actually comprised two related festivals, the Rural Dionysia and the City Dionysia, which took place in different parts of the year. They were also an essential part of the Dionysian Mysteries.


Rural Dionysia

The Dionysia was originally a rural festival in Eleutherae, Attica (Greek: Dionysia ta kat' agrous - Διονύσια τὰ κατ' ἀγρούς), probably celebrating the cultivation of vines. It was probably a very ancient festival perhaps not originally associated with Dionysus. This "rural Dionysia" was held during the winter in the month of Poseideon (roughly corresponding to December). The central event was the pompe - πομπή, the procession, in which phalloi - φαλλοί were carried by phallophoroi - φαλλοφόροι. Also participating in the pompe were kanephoroi - κανηφόροι (young girls carrying baskets), obeliaphoroi - ὀβελιαφόροι (who carried long loaves of bread), skaphephoroi - σκαφηφόροι (who carried other offerings), hydriaphoroi - ὑδριαφόροι (who carried jars of water), and askophoroi - ἀσκοφόροι (who carried jars of wine).

After the pompe, there were contests of dancing and singing, and choruses (led by a choregos) would perform dithyrambs. Some festivals may have included dramatic performances, possibly of the tragedies and comedies that had been produced at the City Dionysia the previous year. This was more common in the larger towns such as Piraeus and Eleusis.

Because the various towns in Attica held their festivals on different days, it was possible for spectators to visit more than one festival per season. It was also an opportunity for Athenian citizens to travel outside the city if they did not have the opportunity to do so during the rest of the year. This also allowed travelling companies of actors to perform in more than one town during the period of the festival.[1]

The comic playwright Aristophanes parodied the Rural Dionysia in his play The Acharnians.

City Dionysia


The City Dionysia (Dionysia ta en Astei - Διονύσια τὰ ἐν Ἄστει, also known as the Great Dionysia, Dionysia ta Megala - Διονύσια τὰ Μεγάλα) was the urban part of the festival, possibly established during the tyranny of Pisistratus in the 6th century BC. This festival was held about three months after the rural Dionysia, during the month of Elaphebolion (corresponding to the end of March and the beginning of April), probably to celebrate the end of winter and the harvesting of the year's crops. According to tradition the festival was established after Eleutherae, a town on the border between Attica and Boeotia, chose to become part of Attica. The Eleuthereans brought a statue of Dionysus to Athens, which was initially rejected by the Athenians. Dionysus then punished the Athenians with a plague affecting the male genitalia that was cured when the Athenians accepted the cult of Dionysus. This was recalled each year by a procession of citizens carrying phalloi.

The urban festival was a relatively recent invention, and fell under the auspices of the eponymous archon rather than the basileus, to whom religious festivals were given when the office of archon was created in the 7th century BC.

Pompe and Proagon

The archon prepared for the City Dionysia as soon as he was elected, by choosing two paredroi - πάρεδροι and ten epimeletai - ἐπιμεληταί to help organize the festival. On the first day of the festival the pompe was held, in which citizens, metics, and representatives from Athenian colonies marched to the Theatre of Dionysus on the southern slope of the Acropolis, carrying the wooden statue of Dionysus Eleutherus (the "leading" or the eisagoge - εἰσαγωγή). As with the Rural Dionysia, they also carried phalloi, made of wood or bronze aloft on poles, and a cart pulled a much larger phallus. Basket-carriers and water and wine-carriers participated in the pompe here as in the Rural Dionysia.

During the height of the Athenian Empire in the mid-5th century BC, various gifts and weapons showcasing Athens' strength were carried as well. Also included in the procession were bulls to be sacrificed in the theatre. The most conspicuous members of the procession were the choregoi, who were dressed in the most expensive and ornate clothing. After the pompe - πομπή the choregoi - χορηγοί) led their choruses in the dithyrambic competitions. These were extremely competitive, and the best flute players and poets (such as Simonides and Pindar) offered their musical and lyrical services. After these competitions, the bulls were sacrificed, and a feast was held for all the citizens of Athens. A second procession, the komos - κῶμος, occurred afterwards, which was most likely a drunken revelry through the streets.

The next day, the playwrights announced the titles of the plays to be performed, and judges were selected by lot (the proagon - προάγων). It is unknown where the proagon originally took place, but after the mid-5th century BC it was held in the Odeon of Pericles on the Acropolis. The proagon was also used to give praise to notable citizens, or often foreigners, who had served Athens in some beneficial way during the year. During the Peloponnesian War, orphaned children of those who had been killed in battle were also paraded in the Odeon, possibly to honour their fathers. The proagon could be used for other announcements as well; in 406 BC the death of the playwright Euripides was announced there.

Dramatic performances

Following the pompe, the Theatre of Dionysus was purified by the sacrifice of a bull. According to tradition, the first performance of tragedy at the Dionysia was by the playwright and actor Thespis (from whom we take the word "thespian") in 534 BC. His award was reportedly a goat, a common symbol for Dionysus, and this "prize" possibly suggests the origin of the word "tragedy," which means "goat-song."

During the fifth century, five days of the festival were set aside for performance, though scholars disagree exactly what was presented each day. At least three full days were devoted to tragic plays, and each of three playwrights presented his set of three tragedies and one satyr play on the successive days.[2] Most of the extant Greek tragedies, including those of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, were performed at the Theatre of Dionysus. The archons, epimeletai, and judges (agonothetai - ἀγωνοθἐται) watched from the front row.

The other two days of the festival were likely devoted to dithyrambic contests until 487/6 BC, when comic poets were officially admitted to the agons and eligible for their own prizes.[3] Each of five comic writers presented a single play (except during the Peloponnesian War, when only three plays were performed), though it is unknown whether they were performed continuously on one day, or over the course of the five-day festival. Until 449 BC, only dramatic works were awarded prizes in the agon, but after that time, actors also became eligible for recognition. It was considered a great honour to win the comedic prize at the City Dionysia, despite the belief that comedies were of secondary importance. The Lenaia festival, held earlier in the year, featured comedy more prominently and officially recognized comic performances with prizes in 442 BC.[4]

Impressive tragic output continued without pause though the first three quarters fourth century, and some scholars consider this time a continuation of the classical period. Though much of the work of this period is either lost or forgotten, it is considered to owe a great debt to the playwright Euripides. His plays, along with other fifth century writers, were often re-staged during this period. At least one revival presented each year at City Dionysia. It has been suggested that audiences may have preferred to see well-known plays re-staged, rather than financially support new plays of questionable quality; or alternately, that revivals represented a nostalgia for the glory of Athens before the devastation of the Peloponnesian War. Nevertheless, plays continued to be written and performed until the 2nd century BC, when new works of both comedy and tragedy seem to have been eliminated. After that point drama continued to be produced, but prizes were award to wealthy producers and famous actors rather than the long-dead playwrights whose work was being performed.[5]

Another procession and celebration was held on the final day, when the judges chose the winners of the tragedy and comedy performances. The winning playwrights were awarded a wreath of ivy.


Dionysus was often seen as the god of everything uncivilized, of the innate wildness of humanity that the Athenians had tried to control. The Dionysia was probably a time to let out their inhibitions through highly emotional tragedies or irreverent comedies. During the pompe there was also an element of role-reversal - lower-class citizens could mock and jeer the upper classes, or women could insult their male relatives. This was known as aischrologia - αἰσχρολογία or tothasmos - τωθασμός, a concept also found in the Eleusinian Mysteries, on the second day of the Thesmophoria, and perhaps during the chariot procession on the first day of the Anthesteria, another festival of Dionysus.

The plays themselves could highlight ideas that would not normally be spoken or shared in everyday life. Aeschylus' The Persians, for example, while patriotic to Athens, showed sympathy towards the Persians, which may have been politically unwise under normal circumstances. The parodies of Aristophanes mocked the politicians and other celebrities of Athens, even going so far as producing an anti-war play (Lysistrata) at the height of the Peloponnesian War. The circumstances of the Dionysia allowed him to get away with criticisms he would not normally be allowed to voice.

Notable winners of the City Dionysia



See also


  1. ^ Brockett, Oscar Gross (1968). History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. pp. 18–26. 
  2. ^ Brockett, Oscar Gross (1968). History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. pp. 18–25. 
  3. ^ Mastromarco, Giuseppe: (1994) Introduzione a Aristofane (Sesta edizione: Roma-Bari 2004). ISBN 88-420-4448-2 p.3
  4. ^ Brockett, Oscar Gross (1968). History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. pp. 18–25. 
  5. ^ Brockett, Oscar Gross (1968). History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. pp. 18–25. 


  • Aristophanes, The Acharnians.
  • Simon Goldhill, The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology, in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, eds. John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-691-06814-3
  • Susan Guettel Cole, Procession and Celebration at the Dionysia, in Theater and Society in the Classical World, ed. Ruth Scodel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. ISBN 0-472-10281-8
  • Jeffrey M. Hurwit. The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology From the Neolithic Era to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-42834-3
  • Sir Arthur Pickard-Cambridge. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953 (2nd ed. 1968). ISBN 0-19-814258-7
  • Robert Parker. Athenian religion: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-19-814979-4
  • Carl A. P. Ruck. IG II 2323: The List of the Victors in Comedies at the Dionysia. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967.

Further reading

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