The Great Dionysia of Ancient Athens

Ancient Athenians welcomed spring with hard drinking and the latest offerings of their favorite entertainers. The Great Dionysia, also known as the City Dionysia (as opposed to the Country Dionysia in the winter) was a major festival held around the vernal equinox beginning in the 7th century BCE. Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, theater and wild abandon was the fitting honoree.

The 5-day(ish) festival evolved over the centuries but here’s more or less how it went:

The festival opened with a grand parade through the streets of the city to the Theater of Dionysus on the slopes of the acropolis. Thousands joined the procession, including Athenians and visitors, who came to town for the occasion. The procession ushered a statue of Dionysus and sacrificial animals to the theater and marchers waved phalloi on poles to symbolize the fertility of the season.

Theater of Dionysus, Athens

Theater of Dionysus, Athens

After the procession, revelers settled into the theater to enjoy competitions between choruses from the different tribes of Attica, who performed poetry and songs in honor of Dionysus.Then there were the sacrifices, followed by feasting and prodigious wine drinking (and associated behaviors).

The next three or four days were dedicated to theatrical competitions. Playwrights would introduce their new works here. Winners were awarded an ivy wreath, but the real prize was the glory and prestige of victory. Most of the ancient Greek drama that we know today was first performed at this festival. Initially only tragedies and satyr plays (satire) were included in the competition, but from the early 5th century, comedies were also allowed. Prizes went not only to writers but also to producers, directors and actors.

 

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