Civic Dimension of Poetic Competition in Classical Athens

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Theatrical festivals in classical Athens — the City (Great) Dionysia and the Lenaia — annually gathered the Athenian public in a way that emphasized the civic importance of the poetic competition in these theatrical festivals. A major procession through the streets of Athens to the theatre of Dionysus initiated the festivities of the City Dionysia. The Lenaia may have taken place at a different theatre, but in a similar way. Participants in the procession to the theatre included groups of persons with specific ritual functions: carrier of the sacrificial basket, carriers of special breads, carriers of offerings on trays, carriers of water vessels, carriers of wineskins, and carriers of phalloi. Before the performances of the plays, the ten leading generals of the city poured libations to the Gods around the theatre. Proclamations of honors to deserving citizens were made, and tribute that cities within the Athenian Empire paid to Athens was displayed. Sons of men who died fighting for Athens were raised at the city’s expense. At city festivals, they were presented in full Hoplite armor and seated in a position of honor.^ ^ Seating in general had civic significance:

They {the public at the theatre of Dionysus} were seated in tribal order, one tribe per wedge, which was evidently the seating arrangement for the Athenian Assembly (Ekklesia) when it met in the Pnyx. The more prominent citizens sat toward the front, with a special section for the Council (Boule). The layout of the auditorium thus displayed the organization of the body politic in terms both of tribal equality and social hierarchy.^ ^

A Theoric or Festival Fund, probably established under Pericles’s leadership of Athens in the mid-fifth century, provide payment for a theatre ticket for any citizen who could not afford to buy one.^ ^ For the City Dionysia of 334/333, an estimated 106 to 240 cattle were slaughtered for the civic feast.^ A large civic feast, which was typical, emphasized the unity of the polity.

The seating capacity of the theatre of Dionysus in classical Athens has been a matter of considerable scholarly debate. The best analysis of currently available evidence concludes that the theatre held 4,000 to 7,000 persons.^ Another estimate is roughly 15,000 persons as spectators/audience.^ Aristophanes gives a figure of 10,000 (Frogs 677) and Plato, 30,000 (Symposium 175e). Between 338 and 324 BCE, Lycurgus rebuilt the theatre in stone. The rebuilt theatre is estimated to have held 14,000 to 17,000 persons.^

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