previous next

The Development of Athenian Tragedy

The problematic relationship that Greeks believed existed between gods and humans formed the basis of classical Athens' most enduring cultural innovation: the tragic dramas performed over the course of three days at the major annual festival held in honor of the god Dionysus.1 These plays, still read, translated, and produced on stage today around the world, were presented in ancient Athens as part of a drama contest, in keeping with the competitive spirit characteristic of many events held in the gods' honor. The earliest tragedies were composed in the late sixth century, but Athenian tragedy reached its peak as a dramatic form in the fifth century.

The Nature of Tragedy

The term tragedy2—derived, for reasons now lost, from the Greek words for goat and song—referred to plays with plots that involved fierce conflict and characters that represented powerful forces, both divine and human. Tragedies were written in verse in elevated, solemn language and often based on stories about the violent consequences of the interaction between gods and humans and of conflict among human beings. Tragic plots frequently were mainly constructed from myths, although a few tragedies dealt with contemporary historical events3. The plot of a tragedy often ended with a resolution to the trouble, but only after considerable suffering.

The Performance of Tragedy

The most important presentations of tragedy at Athens took place once a year as part of a competition at the city's main festival4 in honor of the god Dionysus.5 For this festival, one of Athens' magistrates chose three playwrights to present four plays each. Three were tragedies and one a satyr play6, the latter so named because it featured actors portraying the half-human, half-animal (horse or goat) creatures called satyrs7. Satyr plays presented versions of the solemn stories of tragedy that were infused with humor and even farce. A board of citizen judges8 awarded first, second, and third prizes to the competing playwrights at the end of the festival. The performance of Athenian tragedies bore little resemblance to conventional modern theater productions. They took place during the daytime in an outdoor theater sacred to Dionysus,9built into the slope of the southern hillside of Athens' acropolis. This theater of Dionysus held around 14,000 spectators overlooking an open, circular area in front of a slightly raised stage platform. To ensure fairness in the competition, all tragedies were required to have the same size cast, all of whom were men: three actors to play the speaking roles of all male and female characters and fifteen chorus members. Although the chorus' leader sometimes engaged in dialogue with the actors, the chorus primarily performed songs and dances in the circular area in front of the stage, called the orchestra (“dancing area”). Since all the actors' lines were in verse with special rhythms, the musical aspect of the chorus' role enhanced the overall poetic nature of Athenian tragedy.

The Spectacle of Tragedy

Even though scenery on the stage was sparse, a good tragedy presented a vivid spectacle10. The chorus wore elaborate, decorative costumes and trained hard to perform intricate dance routines11. The actors, who wore masks12, used broad gestures and booming voices to reach the upper tier of seats.13 A powerful voice was crucial to a tragic actor because words represented the heart of a tragedy, in which dialogue and long speeches were far more common than physical action. Special effects were, however, part of the spectacle. For example, a crane allowed actors playing the roles of gods to fly suddenly onto stage, like superheroes in a modern movie. The actors playing the lead roles, called the protagonists14 (“first competitors”), were also competing against each other for the designation of best actor. So important was it to have a first-rate lead actor to provide a successful tragedy that protagonists were assigned by lot to the competing playwrights of the year to give all three of them an equal chance to have the finest cast. Great protagonists, who had to have prodigious vocal skills, became enormously popular figures, although, unlike many playwrights, they were not usually aristocrats and generally did not move in upper-class social circles, or, if they did have aristocratic friends, they were not on an equal footing with them in terms of social status.


The author of a slate of tragedies in the festival of Dionysus also served as director, producer, musical composer, choreographer, and sometimes even one of the actors. Only men of some wealth could afford the prodigious amounts of time such work demanded because the prizes in the tragedy competition were probably modest. As citizens, playwrights also fulfilled the normal military and political obligations of an Athenian man. The best known Athenian tragedians—Aeschylus15 (525-456 B.C.), Sophocles16 (c. 496-406 B.C.), and Euripides 17 (c. 485-406 B.C.)—all either served in the army, held public office at some point in their careers, or they did both. Aeschylus fought at Marathon and Salamis; the epitaph on his tombstone, which says nothing of his great success as a playwright, reveals how highly he valued his contribution to his city-state as a citizen-soldier: “Under this stone lies Aeschylus the Athenian, son of Euphorion ... the grove at Marathon and the Persians who landed there were witnesses to his courage.”18

Tragedy and the Polis

Aeschylus' pride in his military service to his homeland points to a fundamental characteristic of Athenian tragedy: it was at its base a public art form, an expression of the city-state (polis), that explored the ethical quandaries of human beings in conflict with gods and with one another in the context of a polis-like community. Even though variations on stories from the pre-polis past, such as tales of the Trojan War19, supplied the plots of most tragedies, the moral issues they illuminated were always presented in the context of the society and obligations of citizens in a polis.

Sophocles' Success

Sophocles' tragedies20 were overwhelmingly popular. In a sixty-year career as a playwright, he competed with a series of tragedies about thirty times, winning at least twenty times and never finishing worse than second. Since winning plays were selected by a panel of ordinary male citizens who were influenced by the audience's reaction21, Sophocles' record clearly means his works appealed to the large number of men who attended the drama competition of the festival of Dionysus. The evidence on whether women attended is contradictory, but they probably were allowed to see dramas. That Sophocles' plays concerned difficult ethical problems in the context of the polis is significant for understanding the function of Athenian tragedy. We cannot know precisely how the ancient audience interpreted tragedies in general or those of Sophocles in particular, but the spectators can hardly have been unaware that the central characters of the plays were figures who fell into disaster from positions of power and prestige. Their reversals of fortune22 come about not because they are villains, but because, as human beings, they are susceptible to a lethal mixture of error, ignorance, and hubris (aggressive arrogance).

Sophoclean Tragedies and Athenian Empire

The Athenian empire was at its height when audiences at Athens were seeing the plays of Sophocles. Indeed, the presentation of the plays at the festival of Dionysus was preceded by a procession in the theater 23 to display the revenues of Athens received from the dues of the allies. Thoughtful spectators would have perhaps reflected on the possibility that Athens' current power and prestige, managed as it was by human beings, remained hostage to the same forces which, the playwrights taught, controlled the fates of the heroes and heroines of tragedy. Tragedies certainly had appeal because they were engrossing purely as entertainment; but they also had an educative function: to remind its male citizens, those who in the assembly made policy for the polis, that success by its nature engendered problems of a moral complexity too formidable to be fathomed casually or arrogantly.


The relevance that the themes of tragedy could have to issues affecting the city-state even in plays whose plots had ostensibly nothing to do with life in a polis shows up clearly in Sophocles' play entitled Ajax 24, presented in the early 440s B.C. The play bore the name of the second-best warrior (Achilles had been preeminent) in the Greek army that besieged Troy in the Trojan War. When his fellow Greek soldiers voted to award the armor of the dead Achilles25 to the wily Odysseus instead of himself, Ajax went on a berserk rampage against his former friends which the goddess Athena26 thwarted because Ajax had once rejected her help in battle. Disgraced by his failure to secure revengeAjax committed suicide.27 Odysseus then stepped in to convince the Greek chiefs to bury Ajax despite his attempted treachery because the future security of the army and the obligations of friendship demanded that they obey the divine injunction always to bury the dead. Odysseus' arguments 28in favor of burying Ajax anachronistically treat the army as if it were a polis, and his use of persuasive speech to achieve accommodation of conflicting individual interests to the benefit of the community corresponds to the way in which disputes in the polis were supposed to be resolved.


In his powerful play of 441 B.C. entitled Antigone 29, Sophocles presented a drama of harsh conflict between the family's moral obligation to bury its dead in obedience to divine command and the male-dominated city-state's need to preserve its order and defend its values. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus30, the now-deceased former king of Thebes31, comes into conflict with her uncle, the new ruler, when he forbids the burial of one of Antigone's two brothers on the grounds he had been a traitor. This brother had attacked Thebes after the other brother had broken an agreement to share the kingship.32 Both brothers died in the ensuing battle, but Antigone's uncle had allowed the burial only of the brother who had remained in power. When Antigone brazenly defies her uncle33 by symbolically burying the allegedly traitorous brother, her uncle condemns her to die. He only realizes his error when sacrifices to the gods go wrong. His decision to punish Antigone ends in personal disaster when his son and then his wife kill themselves in despair. In this horrifying story of anger and death, Sophocles deliberately exposes the right and wrong on each side of the conflict. Although Antigone's uncle eventually acknowledges a leader's responsibility to listen to his people, the play offers no easy resolution of the competing interests of divinely-sanctioned moral tradition expressed by a woman and the political rules of the state enforced by a man.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: