The Dionysia was a large religious festival in ancient Athens in honour of the god Dionysus, the central event of which was the performance of tragedies and comedies. It was the second-most important festival after the Panathenaia. The Dionysia was actually comprised of 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.
The Dionysia was originally a rural festival in Attica (Dionysia ta kat' agrous), 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, the procession, in which phalloi were carried by phallophoroi. Also participating in the pompe were kanephoroi (young girls carrying baskets), obeliaphoroi (who carried long loaves of bread), skaphephoroi (who carried other offerings), hydriaphoroi (who carried jars of water), and askophoroi (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. 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.
The comic playwright Aristophanes parodied the Rural Dionysia in his play The Acharnians.
The City Dionysia (Dionysia ta en Astei, also known as the Great Dionysia, Dionysia ta Megala) 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 arrival of the new growing season. 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 that was cured by a procession of citizens carrying phalloi.
Whatever the true origins of the Dionysia, 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 and ten epimeletai 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). As with the Rural Dionysia, they also carried phalloi, made out of wood or bronze, 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 the choregoi 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, 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). 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.
During the pompe, the Theatre of Dionysus was purified by the sacrifice of a young pig. According to tradition, the first performance of tragedy at the Dionysia was by the playwright and actor Thespis (from whom we have the word "thespian") in 534 BC. His prize was a goat, a common symbol of Dionysus, and possibly the origin of the word "tragedy" (which perhaps means "goat-song").
The next three days of the festival were devoted to the tragic plays. Three playwrights performed three tragedies and one satyr play each, one set of plays per day. 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) watched from the front row. On the sixth day of the festival, five comedies (such as those of Aristophanes) were performed. Comedies were of secondary importance at the Dionysia, and were instead more important to the Lenaia festival earlier in the year. Nevertheless, it was considered a greater honour to win the comedic prize at the Dionysia.
After the classical period in the 5th century BC, older plays could be performed again. It seems that audiences may have preferred this to the production of new plays of inferior quality. The number of plays performed also fluctuated; during the Peloponnesian War, there were usually only three comedies, and comedies were omitted altogether by the 2nd century BC. There do not seem to have been any new tragedies after the 2nd century AD, older plays being exclusively performed by that point.
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 won a wreath of ivy, although, when old plays were performed, the producer was awarded the prize rather than the long-dead playwright.
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 or tothasmos, a concept also found in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
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
484 BC - Aeschylus
486 BC - Chionides
Aristophanes, The Acharnians.
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