Background Information on the

City Dionysia

(Great Dionysia)

Bruce MacLennan


These notes are intended to put classical Greek drama in its religious context, the religious festival called the Great or City Dionysia, at which it was performed originally. There is scholarly disagreement about some aspects of the festival, but this description will give an idea of what it was like and what it may have meant to the ancient Greeks.

The City Dionysia was held in Athens on the 9th to 13th days of Elaphêboliôn (c. Mar. 24-28), which would have been between the first quarter and full moon of the month; it followed by two or three months the less formal Country Dionysia, which was celebrated at different times in different villages. The City Dionysia concluded the Dionysian part of the year (the winter) and honored Dionysos Eleuthereus (the Free) in an image of him that was brought from Eleutherai, a country village, and was kept in the old temple of Dionysos in the theater district. When Dionysos first appeared to the daughters of Eleuther, he was dressed in a black goat-skin (melanaigis), but they rejected him, and he therefore made them mad. To be cured, they had to worship him as Melanaigis, lord of the dead, which is why he was offered tragedies (trag-ôidia = goat-song) at this festival. (Therefore also this was the month of the he-goat.)

Since the City Dionysia was not so old as the other Dionysian festivals, it was under the control of the Arkhôn (chief) rather than the sacred "king." He supervised the procession and the contests, with the help of his two assistants. In addition, the ten curators assisted in the procession.

On the day before the Dionysia (8 Elaphêboliôn) a feast for Asklepios was held, comprising a sacrifice and communal banquet. The "contest preliminary" (proagôn) was also held, which was a prelude to the contests (agônes). Each poet stood with his actors, all wearing garlands but no masks or costumes, on a temporary platform and announced the subjects of his plays. This gave everyone a chance to see each play's actors (at most four, all men) and chorus (15 for tragedy, 24 for comedy). The wearing of masks was essential, for change of identity was an important part of Dionysian worship (he was the "mask god"), which from earliest times involved masks and elaborate costumes (especially for the chorus) and might represent satyrs and other creatures. (Thus we have choruses of satyrs, birds, frogs, Furies, etc.)

The Bringing-In

The festival proper began on the evening of the 9th of Elaphêboliôn by celebrating the arrival of Dionysos in Athens. First the ancient wooden image of Dionysos Eleuthereus was taken from the temple in the theater district, back along the path by which he arrived, and it was placed at the hearth of the Dionysian temple near the Academy. (This hearth was a low altar with a hollow surface for burnt offerings.) There sacrifices were made to the god and hymns were sung to him.

Next was the "Bringing In from the Hearth" (eisagôgê apo tês eskharas): The image was escorted back to the city by the young men in a torch-light procession. Many of the rest of the people also accompanied the god. He would be brought to the theater to witness the contests (and he would be present on each day of the contests).

[ship chariot] The image was carried in his ship-chariot, with its mule-head prow, for this is the way Dionysos came across the sea to Eleutherai. The mule was considered lusty and was said to be dear to Dionysos because it knows the value of pleasure, even when it serves no purpose. (Also, the ship-chariot is a reminder that this festival marked the beginning of the sailing season.)

In a secret ritual in the sacred precint of the theater, the priests of Dionysos sacrificed a black he-goat (tragos) on the sacrificial table in the theater. This altar was called Eleos, which sounds like the Greek word for pity and evokes the spirit of tragedy. The he-goat was pitied because he was to be punished for a crime he didn't understand; the leafless stalks of the vine would drink his blood during the festival, although the tender leaves he ate would sprout later in the year. The heroic goat was considered a friend of shepherds, but an enemy of the vineyards. Therefore he was venerated and sacrificed.

Later in the evening the sacred image was returned to Dionysos' temple in the theater district.


On the morning of the following day (10 Elaphêboliôn) there was a procession to the god's temple in the theater district. This procession marked the official beginning of the festival.

The procession was led by a man sounding an Etruscan trumpet to call the god and herald his arrival. Next came an aristocratic maiden who carried on her head a golden basket filled with sacrificial offerings, especially grapes. The Arkhôn was also at the head of the procession. Then there were people in pairs, each pair carrying a four-foot-long loaf on a spit; they were followed by people bearing offering trays, water jugs, and leather wine-skins on their shoulders; a young man carried an incense burner containing the sacred fire.

The young men led the "Worthy Bull," destined for sacrifice at the temple, though there was no joy in this killing, for Dionysos himself was called "Worthy Bull." In addition to the bull, many men and women carried bloodless offerings for the god.

Many of the people wore beautiful robes, especially the chorus leaders, who directed (and financed) the dramatic performances. Robes of scarlet and royal purple with gold embroidery were common, and some wore golden crowns.

Some men carried erect phalli, especially those who came to represent other cities at the festival. In this way the god was honored as prescribed in early times, for, as Varro ( Augustine, De Civ. D. 7.21) explained, Dionysos, as lord of moist nature (kurios hugras phuseos), had sovereignty not only over the vital sap of plants (of which wine is the highest essence), but also over the fertile sperm of animals.

[dithyramb singers] Along the way the procession paused at many altars, including the Altar of the Twelve Gods, for choral performances, especially of dithyrambs (choral songs in honor of Dionysos, out of which tragedy developed); in the earliest days, the dithyrambs were performed by men disguised as horse-like silenoi and satyrs. In the procession there were also ribald songs and vulgar shouts to drive off the enemies of life. Indeed, the procession was a joyous efflorescence of irrepressible life, and many pleasant contacts were made or renewed within the happy crowd.

After the procession, a sacrifice was made to Dionysos at his temple. Besides the bull, there were many bloodless offerings. Then more dithyrambs were performed for Dionysos, which celebrated him as lord of indestructible life (zôê):

Who is this one?
  What is his name?
A wanderer from
  exotic lands?
Of iron heart,
  who checks the strength
of every foe.
Bright flames leap from
  his shining eyes
like Lemnos-fire.
  With hunting boots
and dearskin clad,
  his staff held high,
he comes to us.
He marches through
  our noble town.
A god has come,
  who forges laws
to rid the land
  of monstrous things.
  Every outrage
will be answered!
The flow of time
  ends everything.

(adapted from a dithyramb by Bacchylides, Campbell 18 [Perseus], ll.31-45, 54-60)

Finally, there was a banquet including a feast on beef from the sacrifices, washed down with much wine from the god.
[image of Satyrs]


Once evening had arrived, the Revel (cômos) began, in which men lit torches and went around the city, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of reed-pipes and harps.


Contests (athletic, equestrian, musical, poetic) were an ubiquitous part of Greek religious festivals, a way of giving one's best to the gods. In particular, the City Dionysia incorporated dithyrambic and dramatic contests, three "teams" competing on each of three days. Therefore, on each of the remaining days of the festival (i.e. beginning 11 Elaphêboliôn), there were sacred performances - mystery plays - typically three tragedies and a satyr play in the morning, and a comedy in the late afternoon (after a leisurely lunch). At daybreak the officials offered a sucking-pig to purify the theater and the commanders poured libations to the god. Awards were announced for whomever the city owed thanks. Each dramatic performance was preceded by a trumpet blast; the actors donned naturalistic masks and the play began. The audience was more than ten thousand; the theater could hold fifteen thousand. (See
The Theater of Dionysos for the arrangement of the theater.)

Usually Dionysos was offered new plays, but sometimes the best ones from earlier years, or revisions of them, were performed. Some time previous to the festival, the Arkhôn had decided which poets would be allowed to compete and had assigned a chorus leader and chorus to each of them. By the time of the festival they were ready for the competition. Often the poets acted in their own plays (as did Thespis, the legendary inventer of drama).

[actor image]


In the tragedies, or goat-songs, the audience saw some hero suffering in the way the hero must, as the goat was sacrificed for his crime, which he could not avoid. (Early goat-dances for local heroes were eventually transferred to Dionysos as heroic god.)

After the trumpet blast, the chorus of 15 marched in from the right-hand side in a rectangular formation (3X5 or 5X3); they were preceded by the chorus leader and followed by the reed-flute player. After reaching the dancing floor, they turned to face the audience and began their choral ode. The tragedy included choral and solo song, chant, recitative and speech (see Typical Structure of Greek Play). At the end of the tragedy, the chorus left in the same rectangular formation.

Many of the dances in tragedy were serious and noble, involving elaborate, conventional hand-gestures, which were said to be able to tell an entire story, and yet were intelligible even to foreigners. The chorus often moved in rectangular formation, marching and counter-marching to the strophes and antistrophes of the ode (see Typ. Struc. Greek Play for these terms), but sometimes they danced in circular formation.

Although many of the dances were dignified, some were very lively. For example, the "figures" included the "fire tongs" (leaping with rapid leg-crossing), the "sword thrust," and the whirling "basket dance," which might have imitated the basket carrying in religious processions or the basket-dances of maenads and satyrs in the worship of Dionysos. There was also tumbling, dances imitating searching and flying, victory dances and fragments of religious processions.

The actors and chorus also might slap themselves to express grief, anger or joy. Further, the chorus often carried the tall staffs commonly born by Athenian citizens, and might use them to threaten violence or pretend to beat the actors or each other. Such ritual beating is a common way to drive away evil and ensure fertility, both appropriate for a Dionysian festival (see also on theft dances and Comedy below).

Satyr Play

In the satyr play the chorus members (who belonged to a Dionysian society) dressed up as the god's companions to celebrate his vital power. Its subject was related to that of the tragedies, but brought the hero down a peg by its earthy humor. Some of them hinted at initiation into a Dionysian society through riddles or stories concerning release from the underworld, the capture and escape of the satyrs, or the care of divine children. In many ways the satyr play revealed deeper mysteries than the tragedies or comedies; it was the most ancient mystery play (predating the tragedies and comedies, which developed from it).

There were two or three actors, a reed-flute player, and a chorus of twelve, who were dressed as tipsy silenoi (horse-men), satyrs (goat-men) or various blends of the two. Thus they wore short pants to which a large phallus and a horse's tail were attached; they also wore soft dancing shoes that resembled hooves. The chorus leader played Silenos, the traditional drunken attendant of Dionysus; he wore a shaggy costume resembling an animal skin and over his shoulder a panther hide (a traditional attribute of Dionysos). Wine and dance were proverbially connected, for one must dance on the grapes to make wine, and the wine in turn makes you dance!

The overall structure of a satyr play was similar to the structure of a tragedy, but with some differences. For example, the chorus did not enter or exit in rectangular formation. Also, the overall impression was boisterous and bawdy, and the actors often acted like circus clowns engaging in acrobatics, bufoonery and horse-play.

Although the satyr play might borrow or parody any of the dances of tragedy, comedy or ritual, its characteristic dance was the sikinnis, whose original function was probably protective and fertility promoting. It has been described as "lively, rapid, vigorous and lewd" and had much in common with the kordax and other dances of comedy (see below). As in tragedy, the dances involved expressive gestures, but in the satyr plays they were often bawdy. In addition to whirling, leaping, kicking and slapping dances, there was "the itch" and the konisalos, a spirited leap intended to expose the genitals. Other dances involved sexually suggestive shaking or trembling, which is commonly found in fertility dances. Also typical were "theft and gobbling dances" representing the stealing and eating of food, often with consequent beatings (see above); such dances were associated with rites of purification.

More common in the satyr play than in tragedy was the dance figure known as "peering" or the "owl dance," in which the chorus looked around as though searching for something - part of the message of the satyr play. This especially associated the satyrs with the divine shepherd Pan "Beholding from Afar." Thus Dionysian routs often included pans, satyrs and silenoi indiscriminately.


In the comedies the high-and-mighty, whether god or mortal, were often lampooned. Comedy (côm-ôidia = cômos-song) echoed the less formal vintage revel (cômos), both of which celebrated the resurgence of indestructible life. The comic actors wore grotesque masks and over-stuffed body-suits with padded buttocks and stomach and a large leather phallus - even if the actor were playing a female character! This is because comedy also derived from rural phallic processions to invoke the powers of fertility and to drive off pestilence. These processions included "contests" (agones) in which the bystanders and members of the procession hurled verbal abuse and invective at each other (a magical act in many cultures). So also, comedy incorporated such contests, between the actors, between the chorus and an actor, and between two hostile semichoruses (see Typical Structure of a Greek Play).

The comic chorus was larger than the tragic, 24, often in rectangular formation (4X6 or 6X4). They might wear elaborate robes representing animals, clouds, cities, etc., which might be removed for part of the performance. The chorus members engaged in both solo and ensemble song and dance. Many dance forms occurred in comedy, including parodies of those used in tragedy and religious ritual. As in the tragedies there might be ritualized slapping and beating to stimulate life, promote fertility and drive out evil, as well as spinning, leaping, high kicking and hopping.

The kordax was the most characteristic dance of comedy; its function seems to have been to promote fertility, like the "courtesan's dance" to which it was probably related. The kordax has been called "lascivious, ignoble and obscene," and it was said that no respectable citizen would perform it without wearing a mask. It could take many forms and could include sexually suggestive rotation of the abdomen and buttocks - sometimes with the body bent over - as well as stirring or grinding motions of the hips and shoulders. The dancers were said to wriggle like a lizard or snake, and "flicking the tail" was one of the dance's "figures." Indeed the kordax may have begun as a fluid snake dance, which devloped into a rope dance of ass-masked worshippers to draw in the spirit of moisture and fertility. (It is worth recalling that, at the beginning of the festival, Dionysos, "lord of moist nature," was drawn into the city on a mule-headed ship-chariot.) In these dances, especially in the comedies, the rope might be replaced by intermeshed arms.

The typical finale of a comedy was a spirited dance in which the actor led the chorus out. Often it took the form of a victory or nuptial dance, sometimes both together.


On some days the comedies were preceded by dithyrambic contests, rather than by the tragedies and the satyr play. At the festivals of the preceding year, each clan chose their two chorus leaders, one for the mens' chorus, one for the boys'. Each chorus leader drew lots to see who would get first choice of a poet and piper for his chorus. Each also picked his chorus of 50 from the members of his clan (the chorus leaders for the plays were not restricted in this way).

For these contests Pindar and Bacchylides composed their memorable dithyrambs. The dithyramb was a sort of hymn in honor of Dionysos as god of fertility, grapes and wine; it told the story of his birth, rebirth and further adventures. Originally it was a frenzied dance involving animal mummery (satyrs, silenoi etc.), but by classical times it had become quite dignified and made use of the same expressive hand-gestures used in tragedy and comedy.

After the trumpet signal, the chorus entered single-file from the right; their leader came first and they were followed by the piper, all wearing magnificent costumes: shining crowns or wreaths and colorful embroidered robes. The piper took a position near the center of the dancing area, perhaps on the steps of the altar of Dionysos, and the chorus circled around him. While he played the double reed-pipe (aulos) in the Phrygian mode, the chorus danced in a circular formation around the altar of the god. This seems to have been a typical magical encircling dance intended to consecrate, protect and worship the central object (the altar of Dionysos).

Like many choral odes, the dithyramb was organized into strophes, antistrophes and epodes (see Typ. Str. Greek Play for these terms). While the chorus sang the strophe they moved to the right (counter-clockwise), which was said to represent the east-to-west motion of the stars; during the antistrophe they moved left (clockwise), representing the west-to-east motion of the planets; and during the epode they stood still, representing the stationary earth. Thus the chorus performed a "cosmic dance," for indeed the Greeks said that the heavenly bodies "dance" in the sky.

After a final circle dance, the chorus exited single-file as they had entered.

During all the performances wine was poured for the audience and sweetmeats were passed among them (either for free or for a price). During the comedies, the chorus might throw nuts and raisins to entertain the spectators. Although the performances were sacred and consecrated to the god, the audience made their opinions known, by either applauding or hissing and hooting. The plays were also a focus for political and social debate; the plays (especially the comedies) were laced with allusions to contemporary issues and were a stimulus for discussion following the festival.

The Arkhôn had chosen by lot ten judges (one from each clan) to decide the contests. At the end of the festival the herald announced the victor in the theater, and the Arkhôn placed the ivy-crown on his head. The victorious chorus leader received a tripod, which he would dedicate to the god, and his poet would be crowned with ivy and gay ribbons for his homeward procession. After the contests were over, each chorus leader treated his chorus to a sumptuous banquet.


On the day after the Dionysia there was an assembly, at which the conduct of the festivals was reviewed and at which any complaints were addressed. Honors were given to those who had helped to make the festival a success. On the full moon following the Dionysia (which was on the same day as the assembly unless the Dionysia was short), the people celebrated the Pandia, which was a simple festival for Zeus, the father.

Sample Texts

Aeschylus' Oresteia (comprising the Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides) [Perseus]; also available from [Internet Classics archive]

Satyr play:
Euripides' Cyclops (one of the few surviving satyr plays) from [Perseus] or [Internet Classics archive]

Aristophanes' plays from [Perseus] or [Internet Classics archive]

Bacchylides' Dithyramb 3 (Bacch. 17) and Dithyramb 4 (Bacch. 18) [Perseus] (see also Barnstone, Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets ##429, 431; Knox, Norton Book of Classical Lit., pp. 264-6).


  1. Kerényi, Carl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Princeton, 1976), pp. 163-5, 172-4, 296, 317, 319-21, 323-5, 380-1.
  2. Lawler, Lillian B. The Dance of the Ancient Greek Theatre (Univ. of Iowa Press, 1964), pp. 2-14, 23-46, 58, 64-89, 92, 94, 103-4, 106, 108, 110, 114-5, 117-20.
  3. Oxford Classical Dict. (3rd ed., Oxford 1996), s.vv. agônes; comedy, Greek, origins of; comedy (Greek), Old; dithyramb; satyric drama; tragedy, Greek.
  4. Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult (Indiana, 1965), p. 164.
  5. Parke, H. W. Festivals of the Athenians (Cornell, 1977), pp. 126-8, 130-1, 134-6.
  6. Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur. Dramatic Festivals of Athens (2nd ed., Oxford, 1968), pp. 57-70, 75-7, 84, 86, 89-90, 93, 96-9, 213.
  7. Simon, E. Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary (Wisconsin, 1983), p. 103.
  8. Taplin, O., Greek Tragedy in Action (California 1978), pp. 3, 10, 14.

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Last updated: Tue Sep 14 14:21:28 EDT 1999