Competition for Acclaim in 5th-Century Athens

face of a prisoner

Symbolic competition in fifth-century Athens primarily involved educated men seeking to win acclaim in events that institutionally gathered an audience for them. Men largely did not need to compete for attention. The institutions of the city structured public attention. Men competed to have institutionally presented public attention make them the most praised among men.

Athenian city institutions such as assemblies, courts, and festivals presented the public to symbolic competitors. The public for symbolic competition in fifth-century Athens was primarily free men who were full citizens of Athens. Such men numbered roughly 50,000 in fifth-century Athens and 25,000 in fourth-century Athens. All of the Athenian public lived in Athens or its surrounding rural districts. The Athenian Assembly consisting of roughly 6,000 free adult male citizens. It gathered forty times a year for wide-ranging discussions. Any participant in the Assembly could speak. The Assembly generally decided matters through voting by show of hands.^ The Athenian Assembly thus frequently gathered 10-20% of the Athenian public for discussions and decisions.

In addition, men frequently pursued legal claims against each other in publicly adjudicated cases. Juries heard and decided cases. The juries were from 501 to 1500 free adult male citizens. Jurors were selected randomly from among a pool of persons willing to serve. Jurors were paid for serving.^ Speeches and Aristophanes’s comedies register concern about persons eager to serve on juries.^ Juries, like assemblies, made a large share of the Athenian public readily accessible to symbolic competitors.

Public attention in fifth-century Athens had much less potential range than public attention in other publics. For example, most books in the U.S. today sell fewer than 200 copies, but some sell more than 2 million copies. The potential range in public attention possible for book authors in the U.S. today is orders of magnitude greater than the potential range in public attention in fifth-century Athens. A free man in Athens could readily present a speech to 10% of the Athenian public. Having a book reach 10% of the U.S. public would be an extraordinary feat today.

The Athenian public also gathered for poetic competitions. The City (Great) Dionysia and the Lenaia were multi-day, multi-event festivals in which poetic competitors presented tragedies, comedies, and satyrs. The theatre was located at the foot of the Acropolis. Performances took place in daylight. Perhaps 4,000-7,000 persons, arranged by civic groups in the theatre, looked upon the performance and each other. They also looked out at buildings and places that surrounded the theatre of Dionysus to form the civic landscape of fifth-century Athens.^

Poetic competitors in fifth-century Athens largely competed for acclaim, not attention. Attendance at the theatre in fifth-century Athens appears to have been “a citizen’s duty, privilege, and requirement.”^ Each play was predominately performed at only one city festival. Texts of the plays probably weren’t circulated until the last decades of the fifth century. A poet who wrote an award-winning tragedy was publicly crowned with a garland at the conclusion of the festival. He won public acclaim. He did not win a larger public for his work than the one that attended to the work of his vanquished rival.

Authoring dramatic poetry for Athenian festivals would have been feasible for a considerable number of Athenians. Study of poetry, especially Homer’s epic poems the Odyssey and the Iliad, was central to education and moral instruction. Poetry featured prominently in civic events. Rhetorical skills were indispensable for public life. Theatrical experience was common:

the dramatic and dithyrambic choruses at the City Dionysia alone, in a peacetime year in the third quarter of the fifth century, comprised 665 men and 500 boys, all of citizen status, and on plausible assumptions about demography and behaviour it is not at all unlikely that a majority of the adult citizens who watched the performances in the Theatre of Dionysus had as some time taken part in them – quite apart from those whose fathers, brothers or sons had done so.^

Poets did not need to be rich to author a play for an Athenian festival. Chorus sponsors paid the poet and actors. Chorus sponsors also arranged financing for the training of the chorus and for the cost of costumes and other equipment. The poet who received a chorus had to provide only his time and poetic skill.

Poetic competition to participate in festivals apparently was much less intense than poetic competition among those who presented. A city magistrate (archon) in charge of the festival selected poets from among those who “asked for a chorus.” The criteria for this choice are not recorded in extant records:

The criteria of selection are not known; perhaps none were laid down and each magistrate chose any way he liked. He is unlikely to have read complete scripts; he may have been guided by the previous successes and reputations of the various authors.^

The appointment of festival drama judges, in contrast, involved intricate democratic formalities. Just before the start of the performances, one name was publicly selected at random from names in each of ten urns. There was one urn for each of the ten tribes constituting the Athenian polis. The urns contained names that the governing Council (Boule) had selected for inclusion. When selected, the person stepped forward from the assembled public, took a reserved seat at the front of the theatre, and swore an oath to judge rightly. Immediately after the performances, judges recorded their votes on tablets. These tablets were then immediately counted to reveal the winner.^ The stark contrast between the procedures for selecting participating poets and for selecting the winning poet points to much more intense poetic competitive within the festivals than in admittance to them.

Rejecting poets who asked for a chorus apparently wasn’t a common practice. One scholar has observed:

although we cannot be sure of precise figures, it seems fair to conclude that Euripides, like Sophocles, was rarely if ever refused a chorus.^

Aristophanes’ Peace (ll. 780-815), like Frogs (ll. 89-99), suggests that even bad tragic poets could manage to get a chorus. Desire to accommodate more poets and choruses may have partly motivated the addition of five comedies to the City Dionysia in 486, the start of comedic performances at the Lenaia about 441, and the addition of tragic performances at the Lenaia about 435.

Many tragic poets competed at multiple festivals in fifth-century Athens. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, participated as tragic poets in an estimated 19, 34, and 28 festivals across 41, 61, and 49 years of successful applications, respectively. Six less-noted tragic poets competed in at least eight festivals each. Names of roughly 45 fifth-century tragic poets have been preserved in extant records.^ If the total number of fifth-century tragic poets was about sixty, then tragic poets other than Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and the six other leading ones averaged about three festival participations each. The longevity of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and others as festival participants suggests that only incremental artistic innovation occurred in this competitive field.^

Factors other than competition among tragic poets were probably the most significant constraints on their entry into festivals. In 405 BCE, shortly after the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides at old ages, Aristophanes, a comic poet, suggested that young tragic poets lacked enduring merit:

Heracles: But don’t we have a whole horde of babies today
churning out tragedies and out-babbling Euripides
by the mile?

Dionysus: They’re nonentities, all,
like swallows twittering away
and murdering their art; and though they have the gall
to wangle themselves a Chorus,
after they’ve pissed all over Tragedy they’re never
heard of again.^

In 410, a chorus sponsor (choregos) spent ten times the average yearly wages of a building worker to equip and train a tragic chorus.^ ^ Producing the required, fixed number of tragic plays for festivals was expensive. Social networks, new social ambitions, and slowly changing social reputations were probably more important than poetic distinction for determining poets who participated in the festivals.^ Close kin of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides subsequently became tragic poets. This paternalism is consistent with the importance of social networks in determining festival participation.

Competition among tragic poets within the festivals was probably intense. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides did not always win in the festivals in which they participated. Estimated festival winning percentages for Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are 68%, 71%, and 14%, respectively. In some years none of those poets even appeared in a festival. Other poets scored 66% of the victories in the tragic poetry competitions across the span of years for which Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were active. In circumstances of broadly diffused poetic skills and slow poetic innovation, the victors in tragic competitions were probably only slightly better than their rivals. The continual crowning of winning tragic poets other than Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides probably heightened the public drama of victory and defeat.

Good opportunities to gain comparable public attention may have lessened competition to participate in festivals as a tragic poet. At the City Dionysia from 486 BCE, poets could offer three tragic plays and a satyr play, a comedy, or a dithyramb. A comedy or a dithyramb demanded much less pre-festival preparation than the work required from tragic poets. Moreover, comic poets had twice as many positions for participation in the City Dionysia and the Lenaia as tragic poets did (at both festivals in total, 10 positions for comic poets compared to 5 for tragic poets). These different poetic opportunities may have evolved partly as an effort-based selection mechanism among poets interested in participating in the festivals. In addition to the opportunities to participate as poets in the festivals, citizens had forty opportunities a year to speak at the 6000-citizen Assembly and many other opportunities for public speech. Being a tragic poet required a relatively large investment for a presentation to the public. Many other opportunities for public attention, although less prominent in the civic calendar, may have offered a similar over-all cost-benefit ratio for achieving public acclaim.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *