Personification of Dithyrambus

The dithyramb (Dithyrambus, gr. Dithyrambos) was originally an ancient Greek hymn sung to the god Dionysus. Its wild and ecstatic character was often contrasted with that of the paean: just as Paean was both a hymn to and a title of Apollo, Dithyrambos was also a title of Dionysus as well as a song in his honor. According to Aristotle, the dithyramb was the origin of the Ancient Greek theatre. Richard Bentley writes that the Dithyramb was an old Bacchic Hymn and too old to be dated.1


Dithyrambs were sung by a Greek chorus of up to 50 men or boys dancing in circular formation (there is no certain evidence that they may have originally been dressed as satyrs) and probably accompanied by the aulos. They would normally relate some incident in the life of Dionysus. The leader of the chorus later became the solo protagonist, with lyrical interchanges taking place between him and the rest of the chorus.

Competitions between groups singing dithyrambs were an important part of festivals such as the Dionysia and Lenaia. Each tribe would enter two choruses, one of men and one of boys, each under the leadership of a choragos. The results of dithyrambic contests in Athens were recorded with the names of the winning teams and choregoi recorded but not the poets, most of whom remain unknown. The successful choregos would receive a statue which would be erected - at his own expense - on a public monument to commemorate his group's victory.


The first dithyrambs were composed in Athens around the 7th century BC. Their inspiration is unknown, although it was possibly non-Greek, as the word is of unknown but probably non-Greek derivation. The form soon spread to other Greek city-states, and dithyrambs were composed by the poets Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides (only the latter's works have survived in anything like their original form). Later examples were dedicated to other gods but the dithyramb subsequently was developed (traditionally by Arion) into a literary form. According to Aristotle, it evolved into the Greek tragedy, and dithyrambs continued to be developed alongside tragedies for some time, although by the 4th century BC the genre was in decline. However, the dithyrambic competitions did not come to an end until well after the Roman takeover of Greece.

Dithyrambic compositions have rarely been written in English, although one notable exception is Alexander's Feast by John Dryden (written 1697). A wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing is still occasionally described as dithyrambic.


1 Works of Richard Bentley, p.252


  • Bentley, Richard, Works of Richard Bentley, originally written in 1699, and collected by Alexander Dyce, 1836. v. 1-2. Dissertations upon the epistles of Phalaris, Themistocles, Socrates, Euripides, and upon the fables of Aesop ; also, Epistola ad Joannem Millium -- v. 3. Sermons preached at Boyle's lecture ; remarks upon a discourse of free-thinking ; proposals for an edition of the Greek testament.
  • Buckham, Philip Wentworth, Theatre of the Greeks, 1827.
  • Pickard-Cambridge, Sir Arthur Wallace
    • Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy , 1927.
    • The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, 1946.
    • The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 1953.
  • Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane, Tragedy and Athenian Religion, Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Wiles, David, The Masked Menander: Sign and Meaning in Greek and Roman Performance, 1991.

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