The theater in ancient Greece was a place where politics, religion, popular figures, and legends were all discussed and performed with great enthusiasm. People came from all across the Greek world to attend the popular theaters held in open-air amphitheaters. In the so-called 'glory days' some amphitheaters could accommodate 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 origin of the dramatic arts in Greece was in Athens, where ancient hymns were chanted in honor of the gods. These hymns were later adapted into choral processions where participants would dress up in costumes and enact the narratives. Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to carry out exceptional roles within the procession and, hence, Greek theater came to life.

Jamil Bakhtawar explains.

An ancient Roman painting from the House of Vettii in Pompeii, showing the death of Pentheus from Euripides’ Bacchae.

An ancient Roman painting from the House of Vettii in Pompeii, showing the death of Pentheus from Euripides’ Bacchae.

A festival for the gods

One of the Greek festivals was called the 'City Dionysia’. It was a festival of entertainment held in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and featured competitions in music, singing, dance, and poetry. The revelry-filled event was conducted by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (goats were thought to be sexually potent). The Greeks entertained large crowd gatherings during these festivals by dramatizing scripted plays, often with only one person acting and directing the transition of each scene. As the playwrights evolved, a handful of actors produced on-stage performances consisting of a live chorus and musical background.

One particular theater, built to honor Dionysus, was called Epidaurus. It was the greatest theater in the western world and is often considered a pioneer of engineering by today’s standards. Fifty-five semi-circular rows of seats were built into the hillside with such precision that the theater had perfect acoustics. Named after the god of medicine Asklepios, it was believed that the Epidaurus (and theaters in general) had beneficial effects on mental and physical health. It was regarded 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 among the largest of the surviving Greek theaters.

 

The Greek tragedy

Little is known about the origins of the Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 455 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is 'Persians', which was produced in 472 B.C. The roots of the Greek tragedy, however, are likely embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysus; which included processions, religious sacrifices, parades, and competitions. Early Greek theater focused on tragic themes that still resonate with contemporary audiences. The word “tragedy” translates from “goat song,” a phrase rooted in the Dionysus Festival of dancing around sacrificial goats for a prize. The original Greek tragedies centered on mythology or historical significance that portrayed the antagonist’s search for the meaning of life. Other times, playwrights focused the overall tragedy on the nature of the gods and goddesses.

Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus’ Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the objects of religious cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served as a didactic function, linking it to a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly.

Each surviving tragedy began with a prolog that explained the action in each corresponding scene. Subsequently, the chorus introduced the paradox; a transition whereby the audience becomes familiar with the characters, exposition, and overall mood of the setting. Finally, the exodus implies the departure of the chorus and characters derived through the play’s duration.

Some of the oldest surviving tragedies in the world were written by three renowned Greek playwrights. Aeschylus composed several notable tragedies, including “The Persians,” and the “Oresteia” trilogy. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium for transmitting ideas.

 

Ancient comedies

The exact beginnings of Greek comedic plays are not known. Some historians believe they could have started from the activity of actors mimicking one another as well as making jokes about current plays and more. During the 6th century BCE, the plays started to incorporate scenes involving actors dressed in exaggerated costumes mostly of animals. They would subsequently perform a dance much to the audience’s delight. Various poems involving humor as well as songs would be performed during plays.

Unlike the Greek tragedy, comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the 'Old Comedy', ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around the time of Aristophanes (450–ca. 387 B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus.

In the second half of the fourth century B.C., 'the New Comedy' of Menander (343–291 B.C.) and his contemporaries presented fresh interpretations to familiar material. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of the Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights’ modern style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of the New Comedy; which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts.

 

Major playwrights of the time

There were many Greek playwrights, but only the major works of three dramatists have survived: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They wrote plays for the City Dionysia, but the central idea of each of their plays were different.

The plays of Aeschylus explore the dangers of arrogance, the misuse of power and the bloody consequences of revenge. Aeschylus was the first to introduce a second actor during on-stage performances. His trilogy, the Oresteia, explores the chain of revenge set into motion by king Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter in return for a fair wind to take his ships to Troy. 

Sophocles wrote seven popular tragedies including “Antigone,” “Electra,” and “Oedipus Rex” to name a few. Sophocles' playwrights are focused around the redemptive power of suffering. A good example of this is the character of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. He portrayed Oedipus as a good-hearted but headstrong young man who kills his own father without knowing that he is his father, and marries his mother without realizing that she is his biological mother. When he discovers what he has done, he blinds himself in remorse. Sophocles introduced a third actor during on-stage performances and was the first dramatist to include painted backdrops.

Euripides, the last of the three, belongs to a somewhat later generation of Greek thought, and is a far more troubled, questioning and unsatisfied spirit. Euripides was thought of as the most direct of the three in his questioning of Athenian society and its established beliefs. He composed over ninety plays, with roughly eighteen surviving pieces studied and incorporated by contemporary playwrights; including “Medea,” “Hercules,” and “The Trojan Women.” Critics lambasted Euripedes’ questionable values presented during his on-stage performances, often depicting varying psychological archetypes not explored by previous playwrights. Many authors modeled Euripedes’ experimentalism centuries after his death. 

The Grecian playwrights also injected humor into certain aspects of theater. Popular comedians competed during the Athenian festivals, including Aristophanes, who authored more than forty plays. Among his eleven surviving plays included a controversial script entitled “Lysistrata,” a tale about a strong, independent woman who heads a female-based coalition against the war in Greece. 

Each of these playwrights introduced something new to Athenian drama when their plays were chosen as the best, and it is largely because of these writers that theater developed into the way it has now. Despite the limited number of surviving tragedies and comedies, the Greeks greatly influenced the development of drama in the Western world.

 

The art behind a mask

It was common practice for Greek actors to use masks. These theatre masks were thought to amplify the actor’s voice and contribute to the theatrical ambiance. They have since become icons of the ancient Greek culture and sought after collectors’ items. 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. Often, 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, causing his words to be easier for the audience to hear.

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 vivid colors were much more visible to a distant member of the crowd than a regular face. Masks were also worn for a 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. 

Many masks have survived, as well as literary descriptions of the masks and artistic recreations in frescoes and vase paintings. One can see the evidence of the importance of masks at almost any surviving ancient Greek theater. Statues depicting the grotesquely laughing, crying, or raging masks stare down at innocent viewers, their lips largely engorged and eyes so rounded and saucer-like, one would think the mask itself had a mind of its own.

 

Theatrics of the stage

The Greek theater stage consisted essentially of the orchestra, a flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the actual structure of the theater building known as the ‘theatron'. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around 330 B.C. Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this initial period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene(stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side or a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.

 

Athens

The city of theater was, indeed, Athens. Athens birthed drama, bred drama, and ultimately was responsible for cultivating it into the most important art of the Classical and Modern world. Greek theater has proven itself to be timeless as it continues to entertain audiences with its ability to portray universal themes. Although many of the plays have been lost through the ages, many of the originals from the 5th and 6th century BCE are regularly performed around the world and are still looked at as the top of their craft.

 

What do you think of ancient Greek theater? Let us know below.

When the term “Epicurean” is brought up in today’s world, it is mostly associated with hedonism and gorging oneself with copious amounts of food and drink. However, the philosopher on whom that phrase is based, Epicurus of Samos, evokes a far different image among religious Christians and Jews. They see him as an atheist, a man who denied the existence of God in favor of sin. Such a perception has persisted for thousands of years, having been propagated by theologians, priests, and academics in Jewish and Christian intellectual circles. This characterization has existed for so long that even the Hebrew word for “heretic” is apikoros. However, is this claim really true? Was Epicurus of Samos an atheist? The answer, it turns out, is much more surprising and interesting than one would think.

Seth Eislund explains.

Epicurus as depicted in the  Nuremberg Chronicle  (a late 15th-century book.

Epicurus as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle (a late 15th-century book.

The Three Basics of Epicurean Philosophy: Empiricism, Materialism, Atomism

Epicurus was born on the Athenian island-colony of Samos in 341 BCE. Both of his parents were born in Athens and he began studying philosophy at an early age under the Platonist thinker Pamphilus. Epicurus later served in the Athenian military from the ages of 18 to 20. Once Epicurus had completed his service, he settled in Athens between 307 and 306 BCE and founded his philosophical school there.1

Epicurus espoused a philosophy based on materialism and empiricism that was heavily influenced by the Greek thinkers Leucippus and Democritus. These two 5th-century BCE philosophers were the founders of atomic theory, which states that all matter is made up of tiny, indivisible particles, including gods and the human soul.2 Epicurus wholeheartedly believed in atomism, stating that nothing existed but atoms and the void, and originated due to random chance and the laws of nature.3 Therefore, like most scientists and atheists today, Epicurus held an empirical, evidence-based worldview. He believed that “sensations, together with the perception of pleasure and pain [were] the only infallible ways of determining reality.”4 However, does Epicurus’ empiricism, materialism and atomism make him an atheist? Not necessarily.

 

The Avoidance of Pain, the Pursuit of Pleasure, and the Formation of Ideas

To Epicurus, the ultimate good was to avoid pain and seek pleasure. He believed that fear of death and punishment (especially divine punishment) was the cause of humanity’s suffering.5 Therefore, he argued that if people lived without fear and without desire, they would be able to reach the ultimate goal: pleasure. Epicurus saw religion as a source of fear that should be banished from people's’ minds if they were to live peaceful lives.6 This meant that people should not put their faith in gods, nor expect them to intervene in human affairs, as such beliefs would inevitably lead to anxiety and unhappiness. Epicurus believed that human beings should rely upon physics and the sciences instead of religion. This would remove the fear of death and gods from a person’s mind.7 Epicurus claimed that physics offers a consistent, reassuring explanation of how the world works, while deities, whom he called “heavenly spies,”8 inspire fear in the hearts of god-fearing men. However, Epicurus never denied that the Greek gods existed. In fact, he defended their existence, stating that since they appeared in the dreams and visions of humans, and that so many cultures believed in gods, they must exist. However, Epicurus believed that gods lived in ataraxia, a state of tranquility in the heavens, and therefore did not intervene in human affairs.9 This meant that humans must rely on the sciences, on what they could empirically see, rather than transcendent, divine intervention that would never come.

According to historian David Konstan, Epicurus held that human beings perceive any entity or sensation, including the Greek pantheon, via “thin films emitted by objects that enter the appropriate sense organ.”10 Epicurus believed that some of these films were so minuscule that they were able to penetrate the human body and enter a person’s mind. According to Epicurus, this process forms our dreams, a vehicle through which people can interact with deities, and influences our ideas, beliefs, and even the conscious choices we make.11 Epicurus reasoned that the only way humans could use their imaginations was through their absorption of the films floating about in the air. Such absorption, he argued, would enable people to see entities beyond the mortal realm. Since the gods lived in a realm beyond human existence, Epicurus believed that human beings could see them through the film they emitted.

 

Judeo-Christian Interpretations of Epicureanism and Conclusion

Epicurus’ philosophy was not based on atheism, but rather on a deistic worldview. Deism posits that gods exist, but do not involve themselves with worldly affairs. By denying the presence of deities in human life, Epicurus wasn’t arguing for an atheistic worldview, but trying to remove the fear of gods, death, and pain that humans experienced.12

Unfortunately, ancient Christian and Jewish thinkers mistook Epicurus’ deism for an utter rejection of God and relentlessly attacked his philosophy. Tertullian, a Christian writer who lived in the 3rd century CE, called Epicureanism “frigid conceit.”13 Saint Augustine of Hippo exclaimed that Epicurus was a “pig” and a supporter of “depravity and gluttony.”14 The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the Oral Torah, proclaims: “All Israel has a share in the world to come. As Isaiah said: ‘All of your people who are righteous will merit eternity and inherit the land.’ And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: the ones who deny the resurrection of the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.”15 Thus, inaccurate and intolerant Christian and Jewish interpretations of Epicureanism greatly influenced the commonly-held belief that it is a philosophy of heresy and evil. Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher who lived in the 1st century BCE, gives us a more accurate depiction of Epicurus’ worldview. He states that Epicureanism is “unfearing of God, unsuspecting of death, the good easily obtained, suffering to be borne patiently.”16 Epicurus was no evil man, nor was he a heretic. He wanted humans to be free of fear, live bravely and kindly, and help themselves, as well as others, to feel true bliss.

 

What do you think about Epicurus? Let us know below…

References

1 "Epicureanism," ReligionFacts.com, October 28, 2016, accessed November 15, 2017, http://www.religionfacts.com/epicureanism.

2 Adam Lee, "Epicurus' World," Daylight Atheism, May 29, 2009, accessed November 19, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2009/05/epicurus-world/.

3 Ibid.

4 David Konstan, "Epicurus," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, January 10, 2005, accessed November 15, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/.

5 Ibid.

6 "Epicureanism," ReligionFacts.com, October 28, 2016, accessed November 15, 2017, http://www.religionfacts.com/epicureanism.

7 Georgios Papadogeorgos, Prominent Greeks of Antiquity: Their Lives and Work (Athena: Ed. M. Toubis, 2013), 70.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 David Konstan, "Epicurus," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, January 10, 2005, accessed November 15, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/.

11 Ibid.

12 Barry Loewer, Stephen Law, and Julian Baggini, 30-Second Philosophies: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Philosophies, Each Explained in Half a Minute (New York: Metro Books, 2009), 106.

13Adam Lee, "Epicurus' World," Daylight Atheism, May 29, 2009, accessed November 19, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2009/05/epicurus-world/.

14 Robert Hanrott, "Epicureanism after Epicurus – The influence of Epicurus on Western thought," Epicurus Blog, 2017, accessed November 19, 2017, http://hanrott.com/blog/epicureanism-after-epicurus-the-influence-of-epicurus-on-western-thought/.

15 Ibid.

16 Georgios Papadogeorgos, Prominent Greeks of Antiquity: Their Lives and Work (Athena: Ed. M. Toubis, 2013), 71.

 

Bibliography

-- "Epicureanism." ReligionFacts.com. October 28, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2017.

http://www.religionfacts.com/epicureanism.

 

Hanrott, Robert. "Epicureanism after Epicurus – The influence of Epicurus on Western

thought." Epicurus Blog. 2017. Accessed November 19, 2017. http://hanrott.com/blog/epicureanism-after-epicurus-the-influence-of-epicurus-on-western-thought/.

 

Konstan, David. "Epicurus." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. January 10, 2005.

Accessed November 15, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/.

 

 Lee, Adam. "Epicurus' World." Daylight Atheism. May 29, 2009. Accessed November

19, 2017. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2009/05/epicurus-world/.

 

Loewer, Barry, Stephen Law, and Julian Baggini. 30-Second Philosophies: The 50 Most

Thought-provoking Philosophies, Each Explained in Half a Minute. New York: Metro Books, 2009.

 

Papadogeorgos, Georgios. Prominent Greeks of Antiquity: Their Lives and Work. Athena:

Ed. M. Toubis, 2013.

 

 

About the Author

Seth Eislund is a currently a senior at Stuart Hall High School in San Francisco, California. He has always been interested in history, especially religious history and Jewish history. He blogs at https://medium.com/@seislund, and has a passion for writing short stories and poetry.

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