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Ancient Greek theater (Segesta).

Ancient Greek Theater and the Monumental Amphitheaters in Honor of Dionysus


To the Ancient Greeks, theater was a form of entertainment taken very seriously.  People would come from all across the Greek world to attend the popular theaters held in open air amphitheaters. In their glory days, some amphitheaters could hold crowds of up to 15,000 people, and some were so acoustically precise that a coin dropped at the center of the performance circle could be heard perfectly in the back row. The theater was a place where politics, religion, the human condition, popular figures, and legends were all discussed and performed with great enthusiasm.

The origin of the dramatic arts in Greece can be found in Athens, where ancient hymns were sung in honor of their gods. These hymns were later adapted into choral processions where participants would dress up in costumes and masks.  Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to take special roles within the procession, but they were not yet actors in the way we understand the term today.  That development would come in the 6th century B.C., when the tyrant Pisistratus, who, at the time, ruled the city of Athens, established a series of public festivals.

Greek Theatre, Taormina, Sicily

Greek Theatre, Taormina, Sicily (Wikimedia Commons)

The festival of Dionysus

One of these festivals was called the 'City Dionysia’.  It was a festival of entertainment held in honor of the god of wine and fertility Dionysus and featured competitions in music, singing, dance and poetry.  The revelry-filled event was led by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (goats were thought to be sexually potent).  Some scholars even believe the Greeks patterned their celebrations after the traditional Egyptian pageants honoring Osiris. 

In the 6th century B.C. a priest of Dionysus, named Thespis, introduced a new element that is considered to be the birth of theater.  He is considered to be the first Greek "actor" and the originator of ‘the Greek tragedy’.  Actors in the west, ever since, have been calling themselves Thespians.

Comedies and tragedies

The two most popular Greek plays were comedies and tragedies.  They were viewed as completely separate genres, and plays did not merge aspects of the two.  Tragedy plays told a story that was intended to teach religious lessons.  Most Greek tragedies are based on mythology or history and deal with a characters' search for meaning in life and the nature of the gods.  The earliest known Greek tragedy was Persians, produced in 472 B.C. by Aeschylus. 

Greek comedy consisted of two periods.  Old Comedy was represented by the poets Cratinus and Aristophanes. It used three actors, and a chorus that sung, danced, and sometime participated in the dialogue.  The second period, New Comedy, was represented by the Greek dramatist Menander and consisted of the use of mistaken identities, ironic situations, ordinary characters and wit.


The starting point of modern western theater is often credited to the Greeks. Highly decorated masks were worn during feasts and celebrations as well as during funeral rites and religious ceremonies.  These masks were constructed out of lightweight organic material, such as linen or cork, and copied from marble or bronze faceplates.  Sometimes a wig was attached to the top of the mask.  The mask was then painted; usually brown to represent a man and white for a woman.  There were two holes for the eyes, large enough for the actor to see the audience but small enough so as not to allow the audience to see him.  The shape of the masks amplified the actor’s voice, making his words easier for the audience to hear.

Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy.

Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. (Wikimedia Commons)

There were several practical reasons for using masks in the theater. Due to the sheer size of the amphitheaters they were performing in, exaggerated costumes and masks with bright colors were much more visible to a distant member of the crowd than a regular face.  Masks were also worn for transformation into character.  There were only two or three actors present in each production, so masks allowed for quick character changes between scenes. Masks were tools for the audience to learn something about the character, whether it be a huge beard and roaring mouth to represent the conquering hero, or curved nose and sunken eyes to represent the trickster.  Tragic masks carried mournful or pained expressions, comic masks were seen smiling or leering.  

Masks allowed gender, class, and age to be easily conveyed.  Men would often wear female masks, along with a wooden attachment that represented female breasts.

The performance stage

For a stage, the Greeks used the existing landscape around them.  They found hillsides with large open spaces to construct stone amphitheaters with open sides and staggered rows of seats.  Theater buildings were called “theatrons” or “seeing places”, and consisted of three main elements: the orchestra, the skene, and the audience.  The centerpiece of the theater, called the orchestra, was a large circular or rectangular area where the play, dance, religious rites and acting took place.  The orchestra was placed on a level terrace at the base of a hill.  Adjacent to it were doorways for actors and chorus members called paodio.  These were tall arches that opened onto the orchestra in which the performers entered.

Ancient Greek theater in Delos

Ancient Greek theater in Delos (Wikimedia Commons)

Situated behind the orchestra was the skene: a large rectangular building used as a backstage.  In the beginning, the skene was a tent or hut but later it became a permanent stone structure.  Here, actors would change their costumes and masks and  these structures were sometimes painted to serve as backdrops.  Rising from the circle of the orchestra was the audience.

Layout of ancient Greek theater.

Layout of ancient Greek theater. (Wikimedia Commons)

Because of the theater’s close connection with religion, they were often located in or near sanctuaries.  For example, the Theater of Dionysus in Athens was situated in the sacred precinct of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis. 

One particular theater, built to honor the god Dionysus, was called Epidaurus. It was the greatest theater in the western world and is considered a feat of engineering by today’s standards.  Fifty five semi-circular rows of seats were built into the hillside with such precision that the theater has perfect acoustics.  Named after the god of medicine, Asklepios, in ancient times, it was believed that Epidaurus (and theaters in general) had beneficial effects on mental and physical health.  It was viewed as an important healing center and is considered to be the cradle of medicinal arts.  Two and a half thousand years later, it is still in use and is the largest of the surviving Greek theaters.

For example, in 2018 the theater is set to host a series of modern presentations of ancient comedies and dramas. Some of the plays presented this year include: The Acharnians by Aristophanes (29 – 30 June), Agamemnon by Aeschylus (6 – 7July), The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus (6 – 7July), Electra by Sophocles (20 – 21 July), Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes (27 -28 July), Orestes by Euripides (3 – 4 August), Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (3 -4 August), The Frogs by Aristophanes, (10 & 11 August), and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (17 – 18 August).

The theater of Epidaurus

The theater of Epidaurus (Wikimedia Commons)

Featured image: Ancient Greek theater (Segesta). Wikimedia Commons.

By Bryan Hill


"Ancient Greek Theater." Greek Theater.

"Greek Theater." Crystalinks.

"Theater and Drama in Ancient Greece."

"The Origins of Theater - The First Actor." PBS.

"Epidaurus Archaeological Site." Ancient



Strange that in English you still use the Latin version of Dionysos name: Dionysus.
Dionysos wasn't a Roman but a Greek god. So his name should be Greek and end with -os.

Bryan Hill's picture


Bryan graduated with a Bachelor of Art in History from Suffolk University and has a background in museum volunteering and as well as working with children’s groups at the Museum of Science and the National Park Service.  He has traveled... Read More

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