Whoosh! Issue 29 - February 1999


IAXS project #129
By Carolyn Bremer
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
This edition copyright © 1999 held by WHOOSH
4904 words

Introduction (01-03)
Drama and Poetry (04-40)
     Tragedy, Comedy and the Big Four (07-13)
     The Tragedians (14-32)
          Aeschylus (15-17)
          Sophocles (18-21)
          Euripides (22-27)
          Aristophanes and the Comedy (28-32)
     Other Literature (33-36)
     Philosophy (37-39)
     Later Poetry (40)
Music and Dance (41-48)
Architecture (49-53)
Visual Arts, Pottery (54-62)
Conclusion (63-64)

Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography
Part III: The Ancient Greek Arts


The party only began to hop after Gabrielle passed out the henbane bread.

Gabrielle gets in touch with her artistic dancing side in HOOVES AND HARLOTS.

[01] The ancient Greeks were remarkable in many ways, not the least of which were their forays into the artistic side of humanity. From very early in their history, Greek artists defined styles and techniques that formed the basis of western art. Many of their innovations remain influential today.

[02] Greek artists were concerned with interpreting human experience and behavior. Much of the work after about 700 BCE is "naturalistic" in the sense that it imitates and incorporates nature and natural elements. In tandem with this aesthetic purpose is the function of utility in the Greek arts. Works of art often doubled as serviceable tools or gifts to the gods. The Greeks made no distinction between "art" and "craft".

[03] This article will briefly examine individual disciplines beginning with perhaps Greece's most significant contribution: the art of literature -- particularly poetry and drama. A short history of music and dance will be followed by architecture and finally with the visual arts.

Drama and Poetry

[04] Literature, especially the subsets of drama and poetry, was an important and beloved part of the lives of ancient Greeks. As far back as anyone can venture a guess, and at least as far back as 1,000 BCE, poetry was composed and sung or recited in Greece. Among the early poems are Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey (see my previous Whoosh! article "The Intersection Of Myth and History" for a discussion of the oral tradition and Homer). These great epic narratives established many of the literary conventions passed down through the ensuing centuries.

[05] The term 'lyric poetry' is used to describe many types of poems that are distinct from the narrative epics of Homer. Some of them have musical accompaniment. The earliest known lyric poet was Archilochus of Paros who lived in the 7th century BCE. Two of the greatest poets to compose in the lyric genre hailed from Lesbos. Alcaeus and Sappho wrote deeply personal poems.

[06] The lyre and flute usually accompanied lyric poetry. Poets invented new rhyme schemes and meters for each poem and the resulting structures are sometimes quite complicated. The two most highly regarded choral lyric poets were Pindar and Bacchylides.

Tragedy, Comedy and The Big Four

[07] There were two main types of plays written and performed in Greek drama's heyday: comedies and tragedies. A tragedy explores the role of man in ancient Greece, his experiences, and how he fits within the cosmos and the universe. Its subjects were the heroes of legend and myth, most often characters derived from Homer's epics.

[08] Comedies were contemporary fantasies, often raw and crude, lacking in a single direct plot. Loosely connected and strange, unrelated episodes poked fun at serious political situations, and became a warped mirror of Athenian life. Their witty dialogue has survived the centuries and is still ribald and funny when produced today.

No, we don't know where the soap is either.


[09] Ancient Greece produced four great playwrights. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides [ATHENS CITY ACADEMY OF THE PERFORMING BARDS (13/113)] wrote tragedies. Aristophanes specialized in comedies.

[10] In the fourth and fifth centuries BCE, Greek dramas reached their apex with huge festivals, particularly in Athens, but also across much of Greece. Archaeologists have determined that the Theatron in Athens held as many as 14,000 audience members! Keep in mind that these were outdoor theaters without the benefit of discrete amplification.

[11] As far as anyone can determine, these audiences included people from all lifestyles: the adult male citizens and women (who were otherwise normally excluded from public life). Even the "metics", residents who were not of Athenian descent and therefore not afforded the full rights of citizenship. The atmosphere at these performances was more akin to a religious ceremony than entertainment. Theater was serious business.

[12] Festivals sprouted up to present and award prizes to new plays. These festivals were associated with Dionysus and the "City Dionysus" became Athens' and indeed all of Greece's most famous competition for plays. The festival took place four times each year.

[13] The City Dionysus chose just three tragic playwrights and either three or five comic writers to enter the competition each year. Each tragic playwright presented a group of four plays -- three plays and a satyr play, a ritualized drama which included a half-human / half-beast satyr as a character. The comedic playwrights were allowed only one entry. To win the City Dionysus festival was the greatest prize a playwright could receive.

The Tragedians

[14] The word tragedy comes from an unlikely source. "Tragiodia" is a combination of 'tragos' (goat) and 'aeidein' (song), so in a sense, tragedy means 'goat song'. It could have referred to the prize awarded the winning playwright -- a goat -- or to the dress of the performers, who wore goatskins. It might also hearken back to old rituals to Dionysus in which goats were sacrificed and rituals were performed which involved singing, dancing, and possibly recitation -- precursors to drama.

Aeschylus (525-456 BCE)
[15] Though some say that Aeschylus "invented" the tragedy, no historical verification can assure him of that honor. It is believed that he is responsible for one of the most significant developments in drama: the addition of a second speaker. Before Aeschylus, a Greek drama consisted of a speaker who could assume several different roles over the course of a play, though only one at a time, and the "chorus". The Greek chorus is a group of singers and dancers, 15 for tragedy and 24 for comedy. They are an integral part of the play with substantial roles particularly in the works of Aeschylus, though that role would diminish toward the end of the century. The chorus acted as sort of a moral compass. They often spoke directly to the audience and commented on the action or interpreted the symbolic meaning of the play.

[16] Aeschylus grew up in Athens, or perhaps in nearby Eleusis, and was known to have fought in the Battle of Marathon. Little else is known about his life. He wrote perhaps 90 plays, only 7 of which survive. He won first prize in the City Dionysus on 13 occasions, marking about half of his entries as winners. He was said to have visited Sicily to present his play "Persians", notable for there are few accounts of these ancient playwrights travelling to present their plays outside of Athens.

[17] When Aeschylus added a second speaker to his tragedies, he opened huge windows for dramatic action. No longer was the single speaker confined to a dialogue with the chorus. Now two actors could truly "act out" the dialogue. Aeschylus also made good use of stage machinery and special effects, designed innovative costumes, trained the choruses in song and dance, and acted in his own plays.

Sophocles (496-406 BCE)
[18] Sophocles was the wonder-child of Athens. He was born to wealthy parents, well educated, endowed with a handsome and athletic body, and a fine musician. He was a treasurer for the city of Athens, a high-ranking elected public official (one of a group of ten who commanded the Athens Military), and a commissioner who helped Athens recover financially from a particularly costly defeat at Syracuse.

[19] As a newcomer, he defeated the elder and prominent Aeschylus in the 468 BCE festival (though this feat was not to be repeated for several years). Sophocles wrote about 123 plays, and doing the math for four entries in each festival (three tragedies and a satyr play), he likely entered the competition about 30 times. He is said to have taken first prize on 24 occasions. In short, his record is staggering.

[20] Sophocles is credited with adding a third actor to tragedy. This led to much more complex interactions on stage, and in turn, allowed Sophocles to produce powerful plays with strong, fluid plots. His characters would normally encounter a situation, which drew out their faults and amidst a suspenseful tale, took them toward a tragic fate. He exposed the frailties and weaknesses of humans, and how hasty conclusions and a belief in rumors can lead to terrible consequences.

[21] Sophocles' use of language was unparalleled. He shifted voice and tenor from character to character as the situation warranted. His dialogue painted a remarkable depth of characterization and he is particularly noted for his strong but tragic women, Electra and Antigone among them. Only seven of his plays survive. They are Ajax, Antigone, Trachinian Women, Oedipus The King, Oedipus At Colonus, Electra, Philoctetes, and Trackers (a satyr play).

Euripides (485-406 BCE)
[22] Little is known about the life of Euripides. It is said that his father was an herb seller, but there is also evidence that he came from a wealthy family. As an intellectual, Euripides owned his own library and chose to associate with Sophists and philosophers.

[23] He was much less successful at the competitions than Aeschylus or Sophocles. Though he wrote 92 plays and was accepted to participate in the City Dionysus some 20 times, he won only three during his lifetime and a fourth after his death for a play finished by his son. Only 19 of his plays survive today.

[24] Perhaps it was his new approach to religion that put him in disfavor with the judges. He was an iconoclast, one who attacked the popular beliefs surrounding the Greeks and their gods. He claimed the myths of gods merely to be nothing more than a collection of stories, not something in which to put one's faith. He even depicts Homer as irrational, an opinion not shared by many Greeks in ancient times or the present.

[25] Euripides' characters were more closely modeled on man than larger-than-life personae. He removed most divine intervention from the plans of his characters and made their fates a result of their own mistakes. Paradoxically, he conformed to some of the audience's demands and usually ended his plays with a deus ex machina, bringing in a god to produce a contrived resolution and inform the audience of the fortunes of the characters. He was, however, a true purveyor of psychological realism.

[26] Although not the most popular of the great tragedians during his own lifetime, Euripides' plays became the favored works in the Hellenistic Era, that period covering Alexander the Great until the interventions of Caesar and his successors.

[27] In 408 BCE, King Archelaus invited Euripides to Macedon, where the playwright would live out the remainder of his days. Some say Euripides chose to leave Athens because so few people appreciated him, but we will never know for sure. One account of his death states he was ripped apart by hunting dogs.

Aristophanes (450-385) and The Comedy

And these four plays are still playing off-Broadway waiting for their big chance.

Greek plays are still available in your bookshop classics section.

[28] Aristophanes is acknowledged as the greatest comedy writer of the ancient Greek theater, though he represents only one school. He was the last playwright to be considered a writer of "Old Comedy". This type of play has a loosely constructed plot, if at all. It can better be described as a series of boisterous, outrageous, and even licentious episodes with song, dance, parody, and buffoonery.

[29] Aristophanes' plays show he was a master of witty dialogue, no doubt, keeping his audiences roaring with approval. His plays are still produced today, and although the stylized dialogue does not have the same impact, it retains its hilarity and fun, even in translation.

[30] He wrote primarily about life in Athens, its politics, and social world, using public figures as his characters. Since he worked during the lengthy Peloponnesian War, several of his plays related directly to it. In them, Aristophanes poked fun at what he saw as quarrelsome politicians running Athens into ruins. The hero of the "Acharnians" makes a treaty with the Spartans (the enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War) so he can engage in trade with them. While Athenian officials try to stop our leading man, in the end, he lives in luxury with plenty of wine, food, and sex to entertain himself.

[31] Another of Aristophanes' favorite targets was the stodgy tragedian Euripides. In THE FROGS, Dionysus laments the death of Euripides and so, disguised as Heracles, goes to the underworld to bring him back. There is, however, a nasty competition between Aeschylus and Euripides as to which is really the best playwright, and in fact, Dionysus chooses Aeschylus to return to the land of the living with him. It is indicative, perhaps, of just what Aristophanes thought of Euripides and his healthy ego.

[32] By the 330's BCE, a new genre of comedic play, referred to as "New Comedy", and was presented on stages in Athens and throughout Greece. The main factor distinguishing it from the style of Aristophanes was that it moved from deriding public personages to the more private realm of fictional characters. New Comedy was much more concerned with a clear plot and many plays are examples of sophisticated intrigue. New Comedy used stock characters, as did Old Comedy. These include an old man, a young man, an old woman, a young woman, a doctor, a cook, a soldier, and a comic slave. Well-known writers of New Comedy are Menander (c.342-292 BCE), and the two Romans Plautus (c 254-184 BCE) and Terence (c.185-159 BCE).

Other Literature

[33] In the 5th Century, BCE, the art of writing prose matured. Philosophers such as Anaxagoras and Protagoras were among the earliest writers in a non-poetic style.

[34] Herodotus (484-425 BCE) was the first to write of historical events. He spent about 20 years writing his tome, History, and was well aware of its significance. The opening states that "this work belongs to Herodotus of Halikarnassos and its purpose is that the great and marvelous deeds, of Greeks and of non-Greeks alike, not be forgotten or lose their fame over time". He wanted to remembered alongside Homer, he was well-qualified to produce work which might afford him this honor. He traveled widely and played the part of an inquiring reporter learning his facts from witnesses and from physical evidence. Still, History is likely peppered with spurious stories (for instance, he claims that Xerxes brought almost two million men across the Hellespont, a number that is inconceivably high).

[35] Thucydides (460 - c.400 BCE) followed Herodotus' lead in the recording of historical events. He detailed events of the Great War between Athens and Sparta in The Peloponnesian War. He began writing his account in 431 BCE and he worked on it for the remained of his life (it breaks off in mid-sentence).

[36] Thucydides is regarded as fine thinker but is a source of frustration for modern researchers. For while he strove toward accuracy, he clearly reconstructed certain critical speeches which were given in the assembly in Athens at a time when Thucydides was in exile. His unfortunate exile came about during the Peloponnesian War when Thucydides was in charge of the Athenian troops battling Brasidias in Amphipolis. Under his command, Amphipolis fell to the Brasidias and the Spartans, resulting in Thucydides being exiled for twenty years. During this time, he spoke with people from both sides of the war gaining an unusual insight into the political machinations.


And then she uses my BGSB for a rope...can you believe that?

Gabrielle argues a point or two with a young Homer.

[37] Perhaps the most remarkable products of Greek culture are the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They formed the backbone of Western philosophy. Plato and Aristotle were not the first to write in the field -- Thales, Anaximander, Democritus, and Heracleitus preceded them -- but they were by far the most influential.

[38] Plato (c.428-347 BCE) wrote about the teachings of Socrates. While Socrates wrote nothing himself, his method of teaching in question and answer (the Socratic method) is still used in some classrooms, particularly in law schools today. Plato and Socrates were primarily concerned with ethics, and believed in the power of reason. Following in the wake of Socrates, his teacher, Plato founded the Academy, a school for the study of philosophical and scientific teaching and research in 387. Although he is most well known for the dialogues (as his records of Socrates' teachings are known), he regarded the Academy as his most important effort. Students at the Academy went on to become the finest mathematicians, mechanical and natural scientists, musical theorists, as well as philosophers. The Academy is regarded as the first university.

[39] Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was one of Plato's students at the Academy. His work charted a course for Western intellectual thought. In fact until the end of the 17th century, Western culture, including Christian and Islamic thought, was Aristotelian. He was a remarkable man whose work encompassed and enormous number of fields: physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, botany, psychology, political theory, ethics, logic metaphysics, history, literary theory, and rhetoric. His two most significant contributions--the formal study of logic and the study of zoology--remained virtually unmodified for centuries following his death. Aristotle spent much of his life in Athens but because he was born in Stagira [home of Xena's red dress (Destiny) and half way between Poteidaia and Amphipolis], he left for extended periods of time when anti-Macedonian sentiments rose in Athens.

Later Poetry

[40] Alexander the Great established an enormous library in Alexandria, Egypt. It became a center for intellectual life in the whole of the Mediterranean. The three great poets associated with Alexander's library are Theocritus (c. 310-250), Callimachus (flourished about 260), and Apollonius of Rhodes (born about 295).

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