Throughout the history of ancient Rome and Greece drama remained a reflection of the nature of their contemporary society.


“The function of the poet is to imitate, through the media appropriate to the given art (drama), not particular historical events, characters, emotions, but the universal aspects of life impressed on his mind by observations of real life. It is closer to reality than the concrete situation, since the universal is truer than the particular.”–Aristotle. Aristotles poetics. Chapter 1.


Greek drama originated in the 6th century b.c. in Attica, a region of Greece centred on Athens. It developed from worship rituals of the god Dionysus, youngest of the gods of the Greek pantheon. Dionysus was the god of wine, sex, song and general revelry but also represented fertility and the creative forces in life.- fig1- Thus he became very important to the common people who relied on the fertility of there livestock, crops etc.. and also loved to relish in the festivities of the harvest.


The cult began to spread throughout Greece around 700 b.c. and with it spread the ritual worship called a Dithyramb. A Dithyramb a choral lyric sung in praise of Dionysus in a circular “dancing place” named an Orchestra, around a Dionysian shrine. It was performed by a chorus of 50 men in animal dress, often goats as they were sacred to Dionysus. They represented Satyrs, companions of Dionysus –fig 2- (no women were allowed to participate in religious activities. Or much else for that matter).These rituals often entailed animal sacrifices (sometimes human) and ritualised orgies.


Although information from this period is sketchy, it is apparent that a poet named Thespis -“Father of Drama”- (550-500 b.c.) created an adaptation of the Dithyramb. In this adaptation of the performance the poet would impersonate a character and engage in dialogue with the Chorus of singers, creating the first actor (hipokrites –literally- answerer). His idea was apparently very successful as many other poets adapted this style and it became known as tragedy. Derived from tragoedia (meaning “goat-song”). It is presumed by many sources to have been named thus because of the goat skins used by the chorus.


In 534 the tragedy was officially recognised by the state cult of Dionysus, and an annual contest in tragedy was instituted at the Athenian festival of Dionysus. Gradually these plays became more and more apart of popular Athenian culture, and began to incorporate myths not related to Dionysus (in these cases the chorus was changed from satyrs to whatever fitted the context).


The next century, (5th b.c.) was known as the golden age of Athens. The Persians had recently been defeated at Salamis and Boetia, Asia Minor was free and the Greeks were confident in their superiority. Greece experienced a massive surge of development in philosophy, mathematics, science and art. It boasted philosophers like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus and Democritus, the first known historians Thucydides and Herodotus, scientists and mathematicians like Thales, Hippocrates, Archimedes, and later Euclid (Euclidean geometry), Pythagoras (the Pythagorean theorem), Eratosthenes, Hero (the steam engine!), Hipparchus and Ptolemy. Much of this development was centred around Athens, who after the Persian wars ended up with a massive fleet of war ships, with which they forged an empire, and for a time, dominated the other Greek states.


Drama during this time also experienced a massive surge in development, centred around Athens. The three main innovators in drama were, Sophocles –Fig 4-, Aeschylus -Fig 3- and Euripides –Fig5-. All three were Athenians. The fact that our primary written sources are Athenian and that the drama contest was Athenian may account for there being no other playwrights given credit. Only 32 plays by survive completely intact, all by these three.


Although it retained strong links with the Dionysian cult and festivals popular drama began to develop new meaning. The dramas reflected the social upheaval caused by the development of new ways of thinking and behaving, which sometimes clashed with the old ways. Dramatists of comedy and tragedy began integrating strong philosophical, political and moral messages into their drama. The tragedies were always based on the same ancient legends with the same Greek heroes festival after festival eg: Antigone (414bc Sophocles) Oresteia (458bc Aeschylus) Oedipus (441bc Sophocles). Each new drama simply reassessed the meaning of the legend and came up with new moralphilosophical thought