Culture From the Counter-Culture: Dionysian Drama and Hellenism

Jeremy J. Baer


It has been said that Ancient Greece’s contribution to Western philosophy was Western philosophy. The same might be said about Ancient Greece and Western drama. From the obscure practices of an off-color religious cult developed one of the hallmarks of Hellenic civilization.

This essay shall explore the topic in four parts. First under study are the origins, beliefs and practices of the Dionysian cult from which theatre eventually emerged. The next section shall provide a survey of the history and structure of Greek theatre. The place of the theatre and its related societies in the broader spectrum of Hellenism shall then be discussed. The essay concludes with a brief note on Dionysus and drama in Roman culture.

The article exists as in an informative piece in its own right, but also serves to illustrate the extent to which religion, art and culture were an indivisible unity in pre-Christian Hellenic society.

Dionysus: The Counter-Culture God

If Homer knew of Dionysus, the blind bard did not see fit to sing his praises in The Iliad or The Odyssey. It has therefore been conjectured Dionysus is a late comer to the Olympic pantheon, originating possibly in Thrace or some other savage hinterland. Nonetheless the very name of Dionysus is thought by some linguists to suggest “the son of Zeus.” Furthermore, references to Dionysus have been found on Linear B tablets, and therefore a Minoan-Mycenaean origin is probable. Possibly, like many “Greek” deities, the cult had several cultural influences stemming not only from the proto-Hellenic civilizations of the Aegean, but also from the Near East and Egypt. For our purposes, whatever the ultimate origins of the cult, the form known to history was established sometime after the eighth century BCE.

Dionysus was in origin a rural god of vegetation, and most especially of the vine and grape. The cultivation of the aforementioned inspired the god’s other provinces: wine and its intoxicating effects; and belief in a blessed afterlife, no doubt based on the perennial resurrection of the vine and the consumption of its “blood.”

The inebriating powers of wine were manifest and incontrovertible. But from them arose a more complicated belief: a kind of madness that led to a divine transcendence. This “mania” was not simple delusion, but, according to Walter Burkert, an “intensified mental power.” Furthermore, it was experienced not as an individual but en masse by the assembled cultists. The throng of votaries were connected with the god and each other, becoming one.

The chief votaries of the cult were actually rural women, who would during ritual gatherings leave their assigned domestic duties of the household. These groups of ecstatic women frolicking in the wild were called Maenads. While in the presence of the god they supposedly experienced a mania that led them to uproot trees with their bare hands and eat raw animal flesh. Needless to say this was the complete inversion of the passive roles of motherhood expected of Greek women. Furthermore, Dionysus was himself often depicted in art as “womanly” or effeminate, and males involved in his processionals were known to cross dress.

Dionysus was thus a god who obliterated boundaries; the boundaries between individual and group, between man and god, between man and woman, between life and death. There was no other cult in Greece quite like it; it seemed to be a mockery of the central Greek ideals of reason, sobriety, moderation and clearly defined boundaries. Barely mentioned by Homer, and with its adherents largely rural and feminine, it always existed in some sense on the fringes in relation to the urban and masculine civil cults of the Greek city-states.

Yet the cult became widespread, probably for the very reason it offered an outlet for passions not sanctioned by patriarchal Greek civil society. Dionysus became one of the most popular gods in Greece, the one most often depicted in pottery paintings. Greek city-states came to institute festivals to the god based on the cultivation of the vine (which were more civil than the rural orgies).

Dionysus: a Tragic Birth and the Birth of Tragedy

It was however in the production of drama as a new art form that the Dionysian cult most effectively captured the cities. But the story of how this transpired is a complicated one.

Dionysus has two differing birth stories, but in both Zeus is the father, and Hera the jealous step wife. In one version Zeus seduces a mortal named Semele. The pregnant Semele, at the prompting of Hera, asks Zeus to reveal himself in all his glory. When he reveals himself as a divine thunderbolt, the mortal Semele is destroyed by his awesome energies. Zeus then takes the surviving fetus and sows it to his thigh, whence it is eventually born. If Athena was born from Zeus’ head, suggesting wisdom, the birth of Dionysus from Zeus’ thigh has sexual (possibly homo erotic) overtones.

In another version, it is Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, whom Zeus impregnates. A jealous Hera prompts the evil Titans to lure baby Dionysus with toys. They then dismember and devour the infant, save for the heart which is rescued by Athena. After destroying the Titans with his thunderbolt, Zeus feeds the heart of Dionysus to Semele, who later gives birth.

However it may be, this “twice born” god had a noteworthy nativity, which suggested that life could be resurrected from death. Its adherents saw fit to sing about the god’s birth and rebirth.

A processional to the god was called a dithyramb. It was a choral song and dance in honor of the god, his tragic birth and other myths, and his theology. It was composed of adherents who wore masks of satyrs. Satyrs were mythological beings of the wild, half-man and half-animal, who lived for music, wine and sex. They were the natural retinue of Dionysus. The wearing of the mask meant that the adherents of the cult took on the persona of Satyrs, a change in identity and blurring of boundaries which the mania of the god had come to inspire. The processional mask became another cultic icon of the god.

No less an authority than Aristotle claims that the dithyramb eventually formed a nascent theatre. In some ancient cities such as Athens and Corinth, competitions would be held for the best dithyramb. In time, the choral aspect was reduced. A speaker was introduced to deliver lines. (The Athenians claimed one of their own, Thespis, as the first actor). A second and third speaker were then introduced. A painted setting was erected in background. And finally the content eventually moved beyond Dionysian myth and theology to embrace other themes.

Because a goat was either sacrificed in these dithyrambs or given as a prize for competition, this new art form came to be called tragedy, a word based on the ancient Greek word for goat. Drama was born.

Drama echoes the Dionysian motif. The actors’ personalities are dissolved by assuming the roles they play, and the assembled audience is collectively subsumed into the pageantry before them.


Greek theatres were by modern standards quite large, sometimes able to seat up to 15,000 people. They were usually semi-circular rows of marble seats, one rising above the other, cut into the slopes of a hill. A wooden stage building in the rear served as the dressing room for actors, where they could change masks and costumes.

Because the theatre was so large, those in the back rows could not possibly see the actor’s facial expressions. The actors wore masks to denote a persona – and these masks were designed to reflect a stock character (old man, king, etc). Through voice and gesture an actor enlivened his persona. An actor could play several parts, including females.

By the end of the fifth century BCE, acting and poetry had become a profession, paid for by the city. Usually there were three for every play. There was also a chorus, usually positioned near the center of the stage, which embodied a collective identity (townspeople, for instance). They sang and danced their lines, which were often lengthy to give time for actors to change costumes. A leader of the chorus engaged in dialogue with the actors.

Finally, the chorus and its costumes were recruited and financed by a choregos, a private citizen who had personally bankrolled the enterprise. The city magistrates nominated a wealthy citizen as a choregos in a form of enlightened taxation. When prizes were awarded for the plays, the choregos shared the acclaim with the tragedians.

A conventional structure of the play was as follows:

1) a prologue that opened the play
2) parados: entry of the chorus’ song and dance
3) the central issue of the play presented in a series of scenes assumed by the actors and chorus, usually having two opposing sides. The plays had been written to give the leading actors a chance to employ eloquent speeches.
4) parabasis: the chorus addresses the audience directly on the central theme
5) another series of scenes
6) conclusion


Having divorced itself from an exclusively theological perspective linked to Dionysus, religious references nonetheless figured prominently in the surviving plays. Many times the actors would assume the roles of the gods and heroes themselves from mythology. Much like Homer, portraying the deities in a less than reverential light was not considered blasphemy by the standards of Greek religion.

Yet the plays do not concern themselves with deities per se, but with humans. The men and women of the tragedians are often very capable people who nonetheless find themselves trapped amidst overwhelming forces. It has been said many are victims of “fate,” but perhaps it is better to say there is a volatile synergy between the choices of the characters and the social or cosmic forces which constrain their choices.

Quite often the plot revolves around a tension between two opposing forces, such as free will versus “destiny”, or the private desires of the character versus social and divine mandate. The plot is the central focus of the play on which the characters find themselves. The modern age, by contrast, often writes plots merely as a background which serves as a vehicle for character growth.


Aeschylus. A veteran of Marathon and Salamis. Considered the father of Tragedy since he added a second actor to Thespis’s first, thus enlarging the scope of dialogue. His first production was in 499 BCE. Probably the most famous of his plays is The Oresteia, the only surviving trilogy from antiquity. It concerns the bloody deeds of the members of the house of Atreus, and a changing view of the gods’ views on divine retribution for human crimes.

Sophocles. Added the third actor. Sophocles was a general and a commissioner during the the Golden Age of Athens. His most famous surviving plays are termed the Three Theban Plays. They deal with Oedipus, a man doomed to murder his father and marry his mother. Aristotle among others considered it the finest play in antiquity, and centuries later Sigmund Freud would name a complex after it.

Euripides. Not especially well-liked in his own time, he became more influential after his death. Euripides wrote in a less formal manner than his predecessors, and greatly influenced modern European drama. Perhaps his most famous play is The Bacchants, a story of a king who resists the growing influence of Dionysus, and is torn apart by his own frenzied relatives who are adherents of the cult.

The above three tragedians are generally considered the classic Athenian dramatists.

Aristophanes. A tragedian who took the social commentary aspect inherent in tragedy to its logical conclusions. Lysistra and The Archanians are anti-establishment and anti-war plays, produced during the Athenian struggle with Sparta. The Clouds mocks Socrates and Athenian philosophy.

Classical Athens

Tragedy did not have its sole genesis in Athens (Corinth also being able to stake a claim), but it was in Attica that drama reached its definitive form.

The cult of Dionysus was first recognized in Athens by the anti-oligarchical tyrant Pisistratus in the sixth century BCE. From there the cult grew in tandem with an increasingly democratic Athens.

Of the many festivals to Dionysus, the one that most concerns us here is the Dionysia, presided over by the city magistrates. There was a Lesser and a Greater Dionysia, the former being celebrated by individual neighborhoods (demes), the latter by the city as a whole. The seats of honor in these presentations were in fact reserved for the priests of the god’s cult, the stated reservation being carved into the allotted marble seats. The cult statue of the god was also brought from his temple to watch the plays.

The Greater Dionysia was held in springtime between March and April for four days, stationed at the theatre on the south slope of the Acropolis. Business was suspended. Citizen, foreigner and slave were invited to attend, and prisoners could post bail to watch the plays.

Three playwrights competed, each with three tragedies and a satyr play (a more lighthearted production). Five comic poets each staged one play. And finally each of the ten tribes of Athens produced a dithyrambic chorus. The point of these productions was actually a competition, for a long standing practice of Greek religion was to honor a god on his festival day with athletic and musical contests. Ten judges were decided by lot, and they conferred 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes on the participants (1st prize was a crown of ivy, a plant sacred to Dionysus). It was the acclaim of one’s fellow citizens, rather than material prizes, that tragedians sought.

Those watching the plays were by and large the citizens and soldiers of the increasingly radical Athenian democracy. For that matter, many of the tragedians themselves had fought in Athens’ famous battles. The tragedians often presented contemporary political and social commentary to their fellow citizens through the medium of a play (sometimes veiling it with a mythological setting) As a part of the festival, the children of Athenian soldiers fallen in battle were also paraded before the people. It was also in the theatre that the tribute of Athens’s allies was presented, and it was there that honors were rendered to foreign heads of state. The theatre came to embody the democratic ideals of Athens as stated in Pericles’ famous panegyric.

The Hellenistic World

Democracy was no longer a motivating ideal in the world of god-kings and bureaucratic super states wrought by Alexander’s successors. Nonetheless drama and the cult of Dionysus not only endured but prospered.

Any Greek city-state of significant size, from the the colonies of Italy to the far reaches of the Seleucid East, was expected to have a theatre as a mark of local culture. Like the gymnasium or municipal government, it became one of the defining marks of Greekness in an expanded world where Greeks often lived in foreign lands.

Another defining mark of Greek culture was the social club. Members having some common end, usually a similar profession, banded together in private organizations. These clubs served both social and religious ends. One of the most successful of these clubs were the so-called Artisans of Dionysus. These organizations included actors and tragedians, poets and musicians dedicated to the god. The guild had its own assemblies, officers and ambassadors – and of course, priests to Dionysus. While performing plays at local theatres, the guilds also sought tax relief and exemption for military service for its members. Undoubtedly, like other guilds, members were expected to finance the funeral concerns of their brethren. The success of these guilds often owed to royal patronage; Hellenistic monarchs were interested in funding cultural artisans as a symbol of their wealth and power.

Finally, Dionysus was one of the patron gods of the Ptolemaic regime. For the Ptolemies, Dionysus represented the luxury and magnificence, tryphe, that both their Greco-Macedonian and Egyptian subjects expected of a ruler. The Ptolemies restricted the cult of its more counter-culture elements and instead promoted the god’s agricultural and artistic qualities. The capital city of Alexandria was designed to become the intellectual beacon of the Hellenistic world, and the dynasty bankrolled a theatre troupe dedicated to original productions. Apparently these enjoyed success nowhere outside Alexandria, the rest of the Greek world preferring the Athenian classics.


In an Italy traumatized by the Second Punic War, the Hellenistic cult of Dionysus (under the name Bacchus) was introduced by Greeks in the south and quickly gained currency. It offered Romans what it had originally offered rural Greeks: an escape from the restrictions of sanctioned society. During the night, the countryside of Italy became awash with the sounds of orgies.

The Roman establishment was famous for its religious tolerance, but was also highly conservative. The spread of the cult was tolerated until it became clear that members of the ruling class were pledging their lives and fortunes to women and foreigners serving as clergy of the cult. This was deemed an unacceptable threat to the established social order, and the Senate took quick action to severely restrict (but not outright ban) the cult. As a pre-text for the crackdown it was alleged, perhaps slanderously, that the cults were fronts for nocturnal crimes of all kinds.

The restrictions were so successful that the Italian cult became a shadow of itself for a century and a half. Then Caesar, apparently identifying himself with Hellenistic rulers and their legacies, deregulated the cult. His former lieutenant, Marc Antony, went one step further and imitated the god, much to the annoyance of social conservatives.

From there it became fashionable for upper class Romans to decorate their domiciles with Dionysian art and hold drinking symposiums. But the Dionysian cults had by then become connected with the imperial cult and the Pax Romana, echoing the tryphe of Ptolemaic patronage. Indeed, Hadrian the Hellenophile emperor funded and united the various Dionysian guilds across the Greek East. The cult thus lost all its revolutionary fervor.

Roman drama never had an auspicious beginning. The traditional Latin mos maiorum held many aspects of Greek culture in contempt. Actors were considered to be little better than prostitutes, another ailment of effiminate Greek culture (a scandal was caused when the seemingly conservative dictator Sulla was discovered to have been keeping an actor as a long time companion). Nonetheless tragedies and comedies were produced after increasing cultural contact with Greece. However, the first stone theatre was not built until the time of Pompei the Great, and even then it was disguised as a temple to Venus. Only two comedies from Rome survive intact, and by late antiquity there is not much evidence for enthusiasm or production aside from mime and pantomime.


This essay has attempted to provide a brief overview of how a once marginal religious cult almost accidently produced a new art form which revolutionized Hellenic culture, especially within democratic Athens. The cult and its new art form enjoyed much less success in the different cultural and political reality of the Roman West, but within the Greek East matters were different. It was there that Dionysus obliterated his final boundary: that between culture and counter-culture.

Sources Used and Suggested Reading

Hornblower, Simon and Spawforth, Antony. The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford, United Kingdom. 1999.

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1985.

Turcan, Robert. The Cults of the Roman Empire. Blackwell Publishing. Oxford, United Kingdom. 1996.

Chaveau, Michael. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society Under the Ptolemies. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York. 2000.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Translated by Robert Fagles with an introduction by Bernard Knox. Penguin Classics. New York, New York. 1984.

Euripides. Ten Plays. Translated and with an introduction by Moses Hadas. Bantam Classics. New York, New York. 2006

Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Translated by Robert Fagles with an introduction by W. B. Stanford. New York, New York. 1977.

Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Translated with an Introduction by Alan. H. Sommerstein. Penguin Classics. New York, New York. 2002.


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