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Nine curiosities about Ancient Greek drama

The International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama held annually in Cyprus during the month of July. Since its beginning in 1996, the festival has reimagined performances from the great Ancient Greek playwrights, so we dug into J.C. McKeown’s A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities for some of the lesser known facts about Ancient Greek theatre. Here are nine weird and wonderful facts about the plays, playwrights, and spectators of the time.

  1.  Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is regarded by many as the greatest surviving tragedy, but the trilogy in which it appears was beaten into second place by Aeschylus’s nephew, Philocles, of whose hundred or so plays almost nothing survives. Alexander wanted to have a stage made of bronze for his theatre in Pella, but the architect refused to follow his instructions since that would ruin the actor’s voices.
  2. Sophocles Pushkin MuseumThere were officials in the theatre who carried canes to ensure good order among the spectators.
  3. Anaxandrides was rather sour tempered. If ever his comedies failed to win, he did not revise them as most dramatists do; instead he let them be cut up and used as wrappers in the perfume market.
  4. Sophocles used to criticize Aeschylus for writing his plays while drunk, saying that “Even though he composes as he should, he does so without being aware of what he is doing.”
  5. At the festival in honour of Dionysius, there was a keen competition for the seats, involving some of the citizens in violence and injury. So the people decided that admission should no longer be free. A charge for seating was imposed, but the poor were disadvantaged because the rich could easily afford to pay for this. A decree was then passed limiting the charge to one drachma, and they called it “the price for plays”.
  6. A story about the unusual nature of Aeschylus’s death made it worth recording. He went outside the walls of the Sicilian city in which he was staying and sat down in a sunny spot. An eagle flying over with a tortoise in its talons mistook his shiny head for a stone. It dropped the tortoise on Aeschylus’s head so that it could break its shell and eat its flesh.
  7. The story of Euripides death has tragic overtones. Euripides was returning from dinner with King Archelaus of Macedon, when he was torn to pieces by dogs set on him by some jealous rival. In the Bacchae, one of the plays in Euripides’s final trilogy, Pentheus is torn apart by his female kinsfolk.
  8. Tragedy: the original meaning is generally agreed to be “goat song” (from tragos and ode), either because the actors originally dressed up as goats, or because the prize for victory in dramatic competitions was a goat.
  9. Avenging the murder of Agamemnon is the only story treated by all three great tragedians in extant plays.

J.C. McKeown is Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin Madison, co-editor of the Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature, and author of Classical Latin: An Introductory Course and A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities. He is the author of A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities published by OUP in July 2013.

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Image credit: Sophocles. Cast of a bust of the Farnese Collection (now in Naples) in the Pushkin Museum. Photo by Shako. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

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