BMCR 2021.03.52

A social and economic history of the theatre to 300 BC, vol. II. Theatre beyond Athens: documents with translation and commentary

, , A social and economic history of the theatre to 300 BC. Vol. II. Theatre beyond Athens: documents with translation and commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xix, 939. ISBN 9780521765572 $200.00.


Lockdown is a revealing time for a book about the theatre to be published, all the more so this expansive vision of theatrical culture spanning the ancient Greek world and filled with travelling playwrights and performers, even travelling audiences (p. 29). Of course, there is a long history of interaction between theatre and plague, from Oedipus Rex to Artaud. We stumble across one ancient portrayal of theatrical fervour as illness in this volume, Lucian’s description of the feverish excitement of the Abderans for Euripides’ Andromeda (pp. 597–9). The authors compare this use of the Andromeda with Dionysus’ reading of the same play in Frogs and make the important suggestion that Andromeda’s lovesickness in Euripides’ play is the linking feature. Yet in a discussion of the purportedly non-Athenian production of Andromeda, the authors avoid mention of another potentially relevant detail, namely that Dionysus reads this play while in transit, on board a ship.[1] Throughout this work, location is all-important: Csapo and Wilson trace the geographical boundaries of Greek drama down to 300 BCE not principally in terms of its participants or performances, although of course much is said about these, but through evidence for drama’s main performance venue, the theatre.

This is a major work of scholarship undertaken by two giants of theatre history, the product of twelve years’ labour (p. xvii). This volume is the second of three, which together replace previous general surveys of ancient Greek drama, most notably Pickard-Cambridge’s The Dramatic Festival of Athens (Oxford 21988, revised by Gould and Lewis), against whose Athenocentrism the authors position themselves conceptually (pp. xv-xvi). Dramatic Festivals of Athens has a mere fourteen pages on deme theatre, and, as its title indicates, theatre outside Athens is not even on the menu. Here just shy of three-hundred pages are given to deme theatre and over five-hundred pages to theatres beyond Attica, subdivided into sections treating individual geographical ranges: we begin in Sicily and Magna Graecia before moving from West to East through the Peloponnese and Megara to central Greece, the Aegean islands, and Asia Minor; we end in the Black Sea region, with a concluding word on Libya and Egypt.

The volume thus adds to a substantial number of recent studies of theatre beyond Athens.[2] Despite important precedents, Csapo and Wilson have given us the first comprehensive treatment, looking at all dramatic genres and forms of evidence for theatre outside Athens. The major aim of the volume is to discount the long-standing assumption that theatre in the Attic demes, Sicily, Megara, and elsewhere was second-rate in either quality or importance to the better-studied festivals at Athens. A substantial difference from both histories of theatre à la longue durée and more recent work on theatre outside Athens is the presentation of evidence in the form of a sourcebook with commentary. This is an approach which, as the authors note (p. xvi), allows readers to form views of their own, independent of the commentary, on the basis of the primary sources. Yet the range of evidence collected and the authors’ even handling of it position this to be a work of reference for decades to come.

Arguments are rooted in documentary evidence, especially theatre records. This is particularly true of theatre cultures based on the Athenian model and which reproduce its epigraphic habit, including the deme Dionysia (origins and implications of the rubric ‘rural Dionysia’ discussed pp. 3, 4–5), member-cities of the Delian League, and other cities under Athenian influence (p. 611 for a list of locations beyond the Aegean). In general, the discussion of drama in the Attic demes and Athenian colonies gives the impression of a highly bureaucratic and administrative ‘concern over finance’ (p. 157). One wonders if the abundant metatheatrical references to stage properties and theatrical processes in Attic comedy have a basis in this highly-developed language of theatre bureaucracy and its use in official publications. The present state of archaeological knowledge for each site is surveyed. This indicates just how much remains to be uncovered, and, for the early-career archaeologist, where best to look. Archaeological study of theatres across Asia Minor is a particular desideratum (p. 727). Some key South Italian vases are mentioned, and the important point is made that their artists have illustrated performances not texts (pp. 423–4). Poetic sources are regularly deployed as evidence where they explicitly refer to the location of their own performance (e.g. pp. 577–8), as are historical and literary sources where they imply that author and audience considered the existence of a theatre reasonable within a given historical or (realist) fictional setting (e.g. pp. 586–8, 597–602).

A few old chestnuts get cracked: a rollcall for tragic choreutes helps establish the usual size of a tragic chorus as fifteen (pp. 76–9), and we are informed in passing that the normal order of events at a Dionysia was lyric, comedy, tragedy, although we must wait for another volume to learn the evidence in support of this position (p. 655). Some of the most satisfying discussions relate evidence for the theatre to political motives. For example, the authors suggest that surviving origin stories about tragedy and comedy derive from propagandistic myth-making by ‘historians and publicists’ (p. 34) in the fourth and third centuries (e.g. pp. 453–4). They note that the Dionysia was often a tool of Athenian governance and empire (p. 607). Political instability on Chios is said to account for a particularly rowdy Dionysian procession on that island (pp. 630–1). By contrast, some of the literary evidence might have been pushed further. For example, to this reader at least, the suggestion that a rural Dionysia environment in Acharnians is strictly limited to Dikaiopolis’ interrupted phallic procession rings untrue (p. 24), especially in view of the authors’ own claim that every deme Dionysia appears to have had theatrical performances (pp. 13–14). It is at least suggestive that a partial reperformance, namely the adapted speech from Euripides’ Telephus, drawing on material from Euripides’ own private theatre archive, soon follows the phallic parade, and that international visitors are suddenly present at Dikaiopolis’ newly-opened market.

Among the major new positions argued for, we learn that individual demes performed mainly tragedy and comedy and tended to specialise in specific genres (p. 14), presumably to capture different market segments among travelling audiences during the busy month of Poseidon. Deme choregoi operated in various configurations, as single individuals or groups of two or three (p. 39), although this may not imply that performances were uncompetitive (pp. 14–15, cf. 642–3). It remains unclear whether new plays were written for original productions at the demes, yet as the authors interestingly suggest, preperformances of plays intended for the Athenian stage are just as likely as reperformances thereafter (pp. 17–18). The evidence of the choregic monument at Halai Aixonides (pp. 122–6), which lists an otherwise unknown play by Ecphantides, is also suggestive. According to the authors, ‘the fact that Cratinus was apparently (?) initially refused a chorus for the Cowherds cannot be used as evidence of a first production in a deme theatre’ (p. 126), but it appears noteworthy that Cratinus chose to produce a play which pointedly referred to Sophocles also having been passed over for a chorus (Cratin. fr. 17) at a festival competition in which Sophocles was physically present (as recorded on the same stele, IG II3 4 498). In addition to premier dramatists and actors operating outside Athens, the authors present us with a whole new cast of characters, such as, in the case of the Halai Aixonides monument, an otherwise unknown tragedian Timotheos.

Theatres beyond Attica are more heterogeneous, and the evidence for them is less predominantly epigraphic. One of the more significant advances is the suggestion that Megarian theatre offered a dramatic tradition that was contemporary with and rivalled that of Athens. Precisely how it differed remains uncertain because of so many shared features between the two traditions, apparently the result of interaction between them (pp. 438–45). A similar prominence is attached to Pliasian satyr-play (pp. 474–82), whose main exponents Pratinas and Aristias also competed at Athens, suggesting some sort of basic parity in play shape and structure, if not necessarily tone or style. The differences between Sicilian and Athenian comedy are more pronounced, and one comes away with a clear sense of the philosophically-attuned and playfully self-conscious quality not only of Epicharmus’ works but also those of his compatriots Aristoxenos and Phormis. It is attractive to imagine Sicilian comedy having (to some degree) a constitutive effect on Athenian drama, a thesis advanced by Andreas Willi,[3] which the authors follow (p. 327). One major stumbling block for this theory however is Aristotle’s apparently schematic association of universality in comic plots with a reduction in the personal abuse, features Aristotle elsewhere associates with comedy of his own day (Poet. 9.1451b11–14), rather than that of the fifth century. By contrast to comic traditions in Megara and Sicily, Spartan comedy is recognised as a sub-dramatic form enjoyed at the Spartan equivalent of symposia (syssitia), rather than in theatres. Similarly, the authors lean towards the view that the Cabiric wares do not represent theatrical performances at the sanctuary, but literary and poetic motifs (pp. 549–52; the unspoken implication is that they could conceivably represent material from plays, just not ones produced at the sanctuary). Some of the differences in performance traditions have to do with the differing aims of theatre in autocracies and democracies, an association reinforced by the apparent corresponding absence of theatres from ancient oligarchies.

The volume has been produced to a remarkably high finish. Typographical errors are exceedingly rare: I counted fewer than a dozen, all of them trivial. The digital copy of the book, with which I was originally provided, would have benefitted significantly from hyperlinked cross-references, a problem compounded in my copy by a mismatch between the actual and digitally-registered pagination.

‘Theatre’ is a potentially ambiguous term in that it can refer to both dramatic performances and the performance venue. This volume plays down such a distinction even as it provides regular examples of theatres used for events other than dramatic performances, such as public announcements, political gatherings, and trials (e.g. pp. 277, 378–80). The volume’s conflation of drama and theatre can also be stressed by pointing to legitimate forms of exposure to drama beyond the theatre space in this period: sympotic performances of songs from drama are sometimes marked as the playwright’s highest accolade (Ar. Eq. 529–30), and some enthusiasts at least appear to have felt that the most authentic form of drama was its written version (Arist. Poet. 26.1462a10–13). Yet while the notion of drama as an exclusively theatrical event must be qualified, the centrality of live theatre performances is undeniable. The intensity of participants’ personal investment in the theatrical competition is given particularly rare and striking testimony by the Gela curse tablet (pp. 346–52), aimed at competing choregoi. Of the many services this book renders, not least is that it brings us closer to the day of performance. The rich detail and quality of analysis in this volume powerfully evoke the variety of environments for dramatic entertainment on offer across the ancient Mediterranean in the fifth and fourth centuries. Every library with a Classics component should acquire a copy of this book, as scholars working on ancient drama in all its forms will want in-depth familiarity with and continual access to its contents.


[1] Dionysus on board a ship does not necessarily refer to travel abroad; it might instead be an allusion to Dionysus’ appearance as a sailor in training in Eupolis’ Taxiarchoi (Schol. Ar. Pax 348, Eup. fr. 268.48–55).

[2] There is a good review of previous scholarship in E. Csapo and P. Wilson, ‘Drama Outside Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC’, in A. Lamari (ed.), Trends in Classics 7.2. Reperformances of Drama in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC: Authors and Contexts (Berlin 2015), 316–95, at 317–18; titles since 2015 are given in the volume under review, pp. xv–xvi.

[3] A. Willi, ’Epicharmus, the Pseudepicharmeia, and the Origins of Attic Drama’, in S. Chronopoulos and C. Orth (eds.), Fragmente einer Geschichte der griechischen Komödie. Studia Comica 5 (Heidelberg 2015), 109–45.