The Golden age of Greek Theatre

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The Golden age of Greek Theatre

By 600 B.C. Greece was divided into city-states, separate nations centered around major cities and regions. The most prominent city-state was Athens, where at least 150,000 people lived. It was here that the Rites of Dionysus evolved into what we know today as theatre. Since Athens was located in a region called Attica, Greek and Athenian theatre are sometimes referred to as Attic Theatre.


In 600 B.C., Arion of Mehtymna wrote down formal lyrics for the dithyramb. Some time during the next 75 years, Thespis of Attica added an actor who interacted with the chorus. This actor was called the protagonist, from which the modern word protagonist is derived, meaning the main character of drama. The word thespian, meaning actor, also derives from Thespis. Thespis is credited as well with inventing the touring acting troupe, since he toured Greece with a group of actors in a cart that doubled as a stage.

Athenian drama competitions

In 534 B.C., the ruler of Athens, Pisistratus, changed the Dionysian Festivals and instituted drama competitions. Thespis won the first competition in 534 B.C.

In the ensuing 50 years, the competitions became popular annual events. A government authority called the archon would choose the competitors and choregos, wealthy patrons who financed the productions. Even in ancient Greece, arts funding was a tax shelter: In return for funding a production, the choregos would pay no taxes that year.


During this time, major theatres were constructed, notably the theatre at Delphi, the Attic Theatre and the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The Theatre of Dionysus, built at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, could seat 17,000 people. During their heyday, the competitions drew as many as 30,000 spectators.

The words theatre and amphitheater derive from the Greek word theatron, which referred to the wooden spectator stands erected on those hillsides. Similarly, the word orchestra is derived from the Greek word for a platform between the raised stage and the audience on which the chorus was situated.

How plays were performed

The annual drama competitions in Athens took most of the day, and were spread out over several days. Plays were performed in the daytime. Actors probably wore little or no makeup. Instead they carried masks with exaggerated facial expressions. They also wore cothorni (singular: cothornos), or buskins, which were leather boots laced up to the knees. There was little or no scenery. Initially, most of the action took place in the orchestra. Later on, as the importance shifted from the chorus to the characters, the action moved to the stage.

The tragedy form

The traditional in Aeschylus’ time (circa 475 BC) consisted of the following parts:

– Prologue, which described the situation and set the scene

– Parados, an ode sung by the chorus as it made its entrance

– Five dramatic scenes, each followed by a Komos, an exchange of laments by the chorus and the protagonist

– Exodus, the climax and conclusion

Tragedies were often presented in trilogies. Interspersed between the three plays in the trilogy were satyr plays, in which satyrs (men dressed as half-goats) made fun of the characters in the surrounding tragedies. The word tragedy came to be derived from tragos (goat) + ode (poem). Satyr plays also spawned the word satire.

The philosopher Aristotle, in his study of the arts The Poetics, drew an analogy between tragic theatre and the heroic poetry of Homer (The Odyssey, The Iliad). In Homer’s day, poets wrote epic stories of noble people, or they wrote “invectives” about ignoble people. Epic poems required a nobler metre and were usually written in trochaic tetrameter, whereas invectives or “iambs” were written in a metre that sounded like ordinary speech, later called iambic.

Aristotle posited that this division continued as Greek literature evolved from poetry to drama. Tragedies, Aristotle said, were about noble people engaged in noble conflicts, just as epic poems were. Comedies and other forms were engaged in stories about ignoble people in ignoble conflicts. Tragedies did, however, adopt the iambic metre because it was the metre of everyday speech. By the time Shakespeare wrote his plays, iambic was still the metre of choice.

Aristotle theorized that tragedy’s main purpose was to arouse in the audience fear and emotion and by doing so purge the audience of those feeling. This process was called catharsis.


Ex. 2. Translate the text into English.


Александрия название ряда городов, основанных Александром Македонским. Наиболее известной была Александрия Египетская, основанная в 331 г. до н.э. в дельте Нила по плану архитектора Динократа. Александрия стала столицей египетского царства Птолемеев (305 – 30 до н.э.), превратившись в крупнейший центр экономической, политической и культурной жизни эллинистического мира. Здесь находился известный центр науки и культуры Мусейон с библиотекой; рядом, на о-ве Фарос, – маяк, одно из т. наз. семи чудес света. Вот как описывает город Аммиан Марцеллин: «Венец всех городов – Александрия. Славу ее возвышало многое: и великое имя основателя, и искусство архитектора Динокрита. При закладке огромных и великолепных ее стен Динократ, за недостатком в данный момент мела, наметил их линию мукою. Это случайное обстоятельство оказалось знамением будущего, а именно, что город этот будут изобиловать съестными припасами. Господствующие там воздушные течения благоприятны для здоровья, воздух мягок и приятен, и, как познано на опыте, не проходит почти ни одного дня, чтобы жители этого города не видели ясного солнца.

В городе есть высокие храмы. Выдается между ними Серапейон. Моя речь бессильна описать его. Обширные, окруженные колоннадами дворы, статуи, дышащие жизнью, и множество произведений искусства – все это украшает его в такой мере, что после Капитолия, которым увековечивает себя достославный Рим, ничего более великолепного не знает вселенная. В этом храме были помещены книжные сокровища неоценимого достоинства. Но древние писатели единогласно свидетельствуют, что когда во время Александрийской войны, при диктаторе Цезаре, город подвергся разграблению, сгорело семьсот тысяч томов, которые были собраны неусыпными трудами царей Птоломеев» (Деяния. ХХII, 16,7 – 18).

Захваченная римлянами, Александрия стала при Августе вторым по величине после Рима городом империи с населением около 1 млн. человек. Здесь находилась большая колония иудеев.



1. What religions believes and customs did all Greeks share?

2. Why were plays and sports competitions considered important religious events by the ancient Greeks?

3. What qualities do you think made Alexander a great leader?

4. How did Alexander the Great spread Greek culture throughout the ancient world?



Summarise the information from Unit II and get ready to speak on the following points.

1. Describe some of the Greek gods and their powers.

2. Sanctuaries to the gods.

3. The Rise of Macedonia.

4. Alexander’s Conquests.

5. The spread of Greek culture.

Unit IV





1. How was Rome founded?

2. What internal and external struggles occurred during the rise of the Roman Republic?

3. What were the differences between patricians and plebeians in the early republic?

4. How was the government of the Roman Republic organized?

5. What made the Romans successful conquerors?

6. What were the Punic Wars?

7. Who was Julius Caesar?

8. How strong was Greece’s influence on Rome?

9. The Roman people did not want a king or dictator.

10. Do you think Augustus and the emperors that follow him were different from kings or dictators? Explain your answer.

11. In what way was the Pax Romana a remarkable period in Rome’s history?

12. Can you compare the Roman system for seating people in the Colosseum with the way people are seated at sporting event today? Who gets the best seats, and why?

13. Do you know what important products of the Roman economy were and why they were important?


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