Ancient, History, Italy, Translated fiction, Travel

How We Got Tragedy and The Persians

Some of the greatest works of Greek literature are by-products of a big penis festival.  We tend to think of tragedy as something appalling and extremely serious, but the Greek name tragos-oide meant ‘goat song’ and it developed as part of a wild celebration devoted to the god of wine, frenzies and spiritual ecstasy.

Greek theater at Siracusa.

In Syracuse, Sicily, 470BCE, Aeschylus presented The Persians, the oldest surviving Greek tragedy and the only one about recent historical events. But before I tell you about that, let’s look at the festival of Dionysos, the context in which ancient Greeks viewed tragedy.

The Dionysian Mysteries were…mysteries! We don’t know much about them except that they involved getting into a trance (usually induced by alcohol, drugs, bull-roarers, whips and music etc.). There was a seasonal death-rebirth theme (common to agriculture-based cults) related to the fact that Dionysus is the only Olympian god to have died and then been brought back to life. Symbols associated with the cult and the god were ivy (which grows with grapes), figs (a purgative), pine (a wine preservative), the bull (whose horns were used as cups) and the goat (whose skin was used as a wine container).

The female initiates, the Maenads, were usually portrayed working themselves up into an ecstatic frenzy by dancing and drinking wine, wrapping snakes and animal skins over themselves and holding the distinctive thyrsos (a long stick with a pinecone at the top). Peter Hoyle describes the classic Maenad ritual:

“Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood’ [or ‘staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysus gait’]. ‘In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting ‘Euoi!’ [the god’s name] and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.” 

P. 76 of Delphi by Peter Hoyle London:  Cassell, 1967

Maenad careless about the way she’s holding that leopard on a white-ground kylix from 490-480 BCE Vulci (Etruria)


The original festival of Dionysos, ‘Rural Dionysia’ as the Athenians knew it, originated in a city called Eleutherea. It was celebrated in the month of the winter solstice. Plutarch’s description of the early Athenian version probably approximates the original event:

“Our traditional festival of the Dionysia was in the past a simple and merry procession. First came a jug of wine and an olive branch, then one celebrant dragged a he-goat along, another followed with a basket of dry figs, and the phallos-bearer came last.”  (Plut. De Cupid. Divit. p527D)

After this procession, bulls would be sacrificed, the celebrants would feast, and there would be competitions of dancing, poetry and singing, particularly choirs performing ‘dithyrambs’—hymns to Dionysos.

Sometime around the mid-sixth century, heaps of Attic vases started popping up showing scenes from the festival, and these suggest that this was when the festival started to be celebrated in Athens too, where it was called the ‘City Dionysia’ or the ‘Great Dionysia’.

Map of Attica
Eleutherae is up in the top left corner of Attica, to the right of Mt. Kithairon

They say that when Eleutherea chose to give up its independence to become part of Attica (mainly to spite the Thebans to the north), it presented a wooden statue of Dionysus to Athens. Athens rejected it and was subsequently hit by a plague that affected male genitalia. Eager to propitiate the god, Athens hastily accepted the cult of Dionysius and the plague disappeared.  Every year afterwards, Athenians held a procession in which citizens carried phalluses. Maybe this story is true, maybe it’s just an attempt to explain all the oversized phalluses. In any case, Athens adopted the Dionysia but celebrated it at a different time: mid- to late-March. 

The Athenian procession seems to have been pretty similar to the one Plutarch described, but on a much bigger, more magnificent scale.

The basket-bearer, the kanephoros, was a girl between the ages of 11 and 15 chosen from one of the city’s aristocratic families to carry a basket full of sacrificial food—in this case figs. Her purity (virginity) and youth were considered essential to ensure a successful sacrifice. Along the same line of reasoning, she was richly and beautifully dressed.

phallus bearers
Attic Black-figured cup from around 550BCE, Florence 3897

People carried small replicas of phalluses made of wood or bronze, but there were also really giant ones that needed to be carried on platforms. The phallus-bearers were men. Notice that in this picture they are carrying, in addition to the huge phallus, the statue of a giant satyr and a little guy riding the satyr. Note, too, that the phallus has eyes. The bearers all appear to have erections, which probably means they were wearing artificial ones. Herodotus has an interesting snippet here:

“Herodotus tells us that the Egyptians invented the phallic procession as well as phalloi that can be made to waggle up and down (2.48-49). These soon became customary in Greece, according to Herodotus and others. The moving phalloi came to be known as ‘string puppets’ (2.48)’ From “The Dionysian Parade and the Poetics of Plenitude” by Professor Eric Csapo

There was another group of men called ithyphalloi who were sort of like penis clowns. They wore costumes that made it seem like they were growing heaps of phalluses every which-where. There also seem to have been groups of men dressed as satyrs (a satyr is a mythical man with big eyes, an ass’s ears and tail and a permanently erect penis).

Attic black-figure amphora, Berlin Painter 1686, ca 540 BCE

Another recurring feature was a wheeled wagon, resembling a ship, containing the figure of Dionysus and satyrs – an ancient float.

do de doo

The retinue would have otherwise included men leading the bulls to the altars for sacrifice, foreigners (metics) carrying oversized loaves of bread to be cooked over the sacrificial fire, water-carriers, wine-carriers other-offering-carriers (honey cakes, fruit, oil etc.) and others.

Participants in the parade wore masks, wreaths, fancy dress and body paint. The young men were practically expected to be drunk and aggressive, intoxicated both by wine, mob participation and ritual frenzy. There were supervising forces hired by the city to make sure the rough stuff didn’t get out of hand, but the point was to let oneself go and it was common to see paraders threaten onlookers with fake penises, or to whip them with strips of leather.  

Wealth was on display, part of the sense of excess and superfluity. The orator Demosthenes, who became choregos (an official in charge of the expenses of civic theatrical productions) in 348BCE, ordered gold-spun gowns and golden crowns for every one of his choir members—a spectacle calculated to impress the public and enhance his reputation. This, too, was when Allies publicly paid ‘tribute’ to Athens—money meant to benefit the common good, and this was deposited in the orchestra of the theater.

Music was a big part of the festival. During the procession, songs were addressed to the giant phalluses, harps and lyres were played. There were probably drums, whistles, kazoos and all sorts. After this procession came competitions for singing and dancing, then a special competition in which dithyrambs (choral hymns to Dionysus) were performed by choirs of fifty men or boys.

Professor Eric Csapo suggests the City Dionysia was a kind of celebration of the end of forced Lent, since it coincided with the opening up of sailing season–sea communications were strictly closed for about four months over the winter period.

“Classical Athenians connected the sailing season with the Dionysia because the festival and its associated markets were designed to alleviate the want and tedium of a long winter: food, money, unusual privileges and dazzling entertainments.”

Kylix showing Dionysus on a ship between dolphins. 530BCE

The festival was not just an agricultural feast, but also a social and political congregation. People came from all over the Delian League not only to perform their religious duty, but also to socialize, to get news from abroad, to enjoy community riches and (probably) to conduct trade and make business connections. Representatives from other cities coming to celebrate the festival were required to bring a cow and a phallus. The cows—hundreds of them– were to be sacrificed to Dionysus, and the food and wine would be distributed among celebrants.

After the procession, the theatre of Dionysus was purified by the sacrifice of a bull. Then there were five days devoted to performances in the theater. Three playwrights each contributed a set of three tragedies and one short satyr play (The first day, the first playwright presented all his plays; the second day, the second playwright presented his, and the third day the third playwright showed his). The satyr play was a kind of burlesque full of jokes and prat-falls. It was often inserted between the second and third play just to provide some light relief in all the bone-harrowing gloom.  No one knows for sure what was performed on the other days, but it might have been more dithyrambs.

On the last day of Dionysia there was another procession and the winners of the competitions were announced. The victorious playwright would receive a wreath of ivy.

Aeschylus and The Persians

By 470, Aeschylus had been winning the ivy wreath pretty much every year for a decade. What’s more, he was a war hero. He’d participated in the Battle of Marathon, where his brother died heroically trying to prevent a Persian ship from retreating.  Then, at the Battle of Salamis, he lost one of his hands. In Athenian terms, it would be hard to be more of a celebrity.


Hiero I was tyrant of Syracuse at the time, a very busy ruler and an enthusiastic patron of the arts. He wanted Aeschylus to write a play about a new city he’d just founded. Aeschylus complied, and in 470 he presented The Women of Etna and restaged The Persians, which had first appeared in Athens in 472.

The Persians was a depiction of a very recent event—the Battle of Salamis in 480, the naval conflict where Aeschylus had lost one of his hands. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Greeks had won and Xerxes had gone home, leaving his generals to handle the conquest. The next spring, in 479, the Allies defeated the Persians again at the Battle of Plataea, effectively ending Persia’s interest in Greece for good.

Aeschylus’ play is a dramatization of total defeat—the moment when Athens crushes Persia. It is not set on the battlefield but back at home, in the royal city of Susa, at the exact moment when Xerxes’ mother Atossa, and the rest of the city, learns what happened. At the very end of the play, Xerxes, the ‘King of Kings’ who set such store by luxury, comes limping home in rags, to the accompaniment of shrieks of ritual mourning from a chorus of old men.

The play recalls the grief of Hektor’s parents when they learn of his death in The Iliad–it has the powerful pathos of war seen from the losing side. Then again, it’s not difficult to imagine Greeks gleaning some enjoyment from a blow-by-blow account of their enemy’s fall from glory to grief, and from the criticism of Xerxes’ foolish pride and mistakes. There must have been an element of gloating in the audience. 

The anxiety the Persian Threat caused the Athenians was unbelievable. In the first place, as the name suggests, the Second Persian Invasion was essentially a continuation of the First Persian Invasion, which began back in 492BCE as punishment to Athens and Eretria for aiding and abetting Ionian rebels in 499. By 480, there had already been two decades of tension. You only have to look at a map of the Achmaenid Empire to sympathize with mainland Greeks for worrying.

The stakes were high. As a punishment for assisting rebels, Persia demolished Eretria and took its people as slaves. Athens fought for all it was worth, had an amazing victory at Marathon in 490, and the Persians went home. Darius immediately started planning a re-match but he died in 486. In 480, Darius’ son Xerxes I was ready to try again, this time aiming to conquer the whole peninsula. He mustered a huge army and navy, manned by people from all over the Persian Empire—Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Jews, Macedonians, Thracians and Greeks. On the Greek side, 70 city-states joined the resistance, with Athens and Sparta in the lead. Even so, most Greek cities stayed neutral or submitted to Xerxes, believing the Persians were too big to fail.

No wonder it was such a popular subject with Greeks. Vase painters also went to town with the Persian-Aversion theme, stressing their strange garb, their archery, their smurf hats, pointy shoes and ludicrous pantaloons. 


Aeschylus must have enjoyed his visit to Sicily because he returned here several times. The last was a trip to Gela, where he died in 456. According to the legend, an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head.  Remarkably, his tombstone makes no explicit mention of his plays, preferring to praise his role in preventing Athens’ extinction:

Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
     who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
     and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

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