Ancient Greek Tragedy

Detail of Roman mosaic depicting tragic mask with leaves and fruit

Corbis / Getty Images

Today, a trip to the theater is still a special event, but in Ancient Athens, it wasn't just a time for cultural enrichment or entertainment. It was a religious, competitive, and civic festival event, part of the annual City (or Greater) Dionysia:

"We might want to imagine the atmosphere of the ancient drama festivals as a combination of Mardi Gras, the gathering of the faithful in St Peter's Square on Easter Day, the crowds that throng the Mall on the Fourth of July, and the hype of Oscars night."
—Ian C. Storey

When Cleisthenes reformed Athens to make it more democratic, it is thought that he included competition between the groups of citizens in the form of dramatic, performing dithyrambic choruses.

"Be that as it may, Tragedy—as also Comedy—was at first mere improvisation. The one originated with the authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic songs, which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and there it stopped."
Aristotle Poetics

Taxes, A Civic Obligation

Well in advance of the Elaphebolion (an Athenian month that ran from late March to early April) event, the city magistrate selected 3 patrons of the arts (choregoi) to finance the performances. It was an onerous form of taxation (liturgy) the wealthy were required to perform—but not every year. And the wealthy had a choice: they could supply Athens with a performance or a battleship.

This obligation included:

  • Housing and feeding the chorus and actors.
  • Selecting chorus members (young men about to enter the military).
  • Hiring a chorus director (didaskalos) who trained the 12-15 non-professional dancers (choreuts), for a year, to perform, sing, and dance in the chorus.
  • Providing a place to train.
  • Paying for a dedication to Dionysus if he won.

Professionals and Amateur Actors

While the chorus was composed of (well-trained) non-professionals, the playwright and actors had, as Didaskalia puts it, "leisure with a passion for the theater." Some of the actors became such polished celebrities their participation would give an unfair advantage, so the lead actor, protagonist, was assigned by lot to a playwright who was expected to compose a tetralogy, direct, choreograph, and act in his own plays. A tetralogy consisted of three tragedies and a satyr play—like a dessert at the end of the heavy, serious drama. Partly humorous or farcical, satyr-plays featured the half human, half animal creatures known as satyrs.

Visual Aids for the Audience

By convention, the actors in tragedy appeared larger than life. Since there were about 17,000 open-air seats in the theater of Dionysus (on the south slope of the Acropolis), going more than halfway around the circular dance floor (orchestra), this exaggeration must have made the actors more recognizable. They wore long, colorful robes, high headdresses, cothurnoi (shoes), and masks with largemouth holes to facilitate ease of speech. Men played all the parts. One actor might play more than one role, since there were only 3 actors, even by Euripides' (c. 484-407/406) day. A century earlier, in the 6th century, when the first dramatic competition was held, there was only one actor whose role was to interact with the chorus. The semi-legendary playwright of the first play with an actor was Thespis (from whose name comes the word "thespian").

Stage Effects

In addition to the actors' accouterments, there were elaborate devices for special effects. For instance, cranes could whisk gods or people on and off stage. These cranes were called mechane or machina in Latin; hence, our term deus ex machina.

The skene (from which, scene) a building or tent at the back of the stage that was used from the time of Aeschylus (c. 525-456), could be painted to provide scenery. The skene was at the edge of the circular orchestra (dance floor of the chorus). The skene also provided a flat roof for action, a backstage for the actors' preparation, and a door. The ekkyklema was a contraption for rolling scenes or people onto the stage.

Dionysia and the Theater

At the City Dionysia, the tragedians each presented a tetralogy—four plays, consisting of three tragedies and a satyr play. The theater was in the temenos (sacred precinct) of Dionysus Eleuthereus.

The priest was seated in the center of the first row of the theatron. It may be that there were originally 10 wedges (kekrides) of seats to correspond with the 10 tribes of Attica, but the number was 13 by the 4th century B.C.

Tragedy Terms

Tragic Irony happens when the audience knows what is going to happen but the actor is still ignorant.

  • Hamartia: The downfall of the tragic hero is caused by hamartia. This isn't a willful act in violation of the laws of the gods, but a mistake or excess.
  • Hubris: Excessive pride can lead to the downfall of the tragic hero.
  • Peripeteia: A sudden reversal of fortune.
  • Catharsis: Ritual cleansing and emotional cleansing by the end of the tragedy.


Roger Dunkle's Introduction to Tragedy

"The Entrances and Exits of Actors and Chorus in Greek Plays," by Margarete Bieber. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 58, No. 4. (Oct. , 1954), pp. 277-284.

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Gill, N.S. "Ancient Greek Tragedy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). Ancient Greek Tragedy. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient Greek Tragedy." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).