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Did The Greeks Really Get to the Theatre before Dawn—Three Days Running?

  • Clifford Ashby (a1)


The spectators, thousands and thousands of them, begin arriving in the chill hours before the equinoctial dawn; a few torches cast huge shadows over the cavernous theatron as they move to their seats. Clutching woollen himations about them, they arrange the cushions that will soften the long sitting as well as insulate them from the night-chilled benches. They are hushed, almost reverential, speaking to each other in low tones. Not a people given to breakfasting, a few munch on olives and bread, while others tilt their wineskins for a dilute but still warming jolt of the grape. As the first streaks of light appear in the sky at the eastern-side of the theatre (near the Stage Right parodos), The Watchman appears on the roof, eerily lit by the flaming brazier he carries on. While the audience listens to an already familiar exposition they look to the southwest, awaiting the flare of a beacon fire on the nearby Pnyx that will signal the fall of Troy.



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1. SirPickard-Cambridge, Arthur, the Dramatic Festivals of Athens, Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, 1953, p. 61.

2. Quoted in Athenaeus, , The Deipnosophists, trans. Gulick, Charles Burton, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955, V, 26–7. Athenaeus of Naucratis in Egypt wrote his thirty volume The Learned Banquet around 200 a.d., half of which survives. The passage cited, in keeping with the symposium framework of the writing, is part of a lengthy disquisition on drinking habits through the ages.

During the fifth century the word ariston was in the process of changing meaning from ‘breakfast’ to ‘luncheon’. Given the leisurely pace with which events are unfolding, ‘luncheon’ or perhaps ‘brunch’ is a more probable translation.

Eric Csapo, in draft comments (25.8.90), adds the following caveat: ‘The Greek verb used by Philochorus, aristao, is very imprecise. Though in the fifth century it usually refers to a meal eaten at midday, its historical meaning, also present in its compounds, refers to a much earlier meal. In fact, so far as I can see the meal referred to can be any meal taken before the main evening meal, the deipnon. On a festive occasion one may well break the usual routine of stale crusts dipped in wine for breakfast, and actually consume a larger meal, which could be called ariston, despite the fact that it is taken early’.

3. Ashby, Clifford, ‘The Siting of Greek Theatres’, Theatre Research International, 16, 3 (1991): 181201.

4. Bieber, Margarete, The History of the Greek and Roman Theatre, rev. ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961, p. 53.

5. Nauck, Augustus, Euripidis Perditarum Tragoediarum Fragmenta, Lipsiae [Leipzig]: B. G. Teubner, 1892, p. 114. Translation supplied by Helen Bacon.

6. Euripides, , Rhesus, trans. Murray, Gilbert, in Dates, Whitney J. and O'Neill, Eugene Jr., eds., The Complete Greek Drama, New York: Random House, 1938, II, 351. Later scholarship has questioned Euripides' authorship of this play.

7. Plautus, , The Merchant, in The Complete Roman Drama, Duckworth, George E., ed., New York: Random House, 1942. I, 493.

8. Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 2nd ed., rev. by Gould, John and Lewis, D. M., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968, p. 67.

9. Ibid., p. 272.

10. Bywater, Ingram, Aristotle on the Art of Poetry, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 1451a and commentary.There is a second-century water clock in the theatre at Priene which is usually regarded as an indication that the theatre was also used for legal proceedings, the clock being used to limit debate times. This ignores the dedication of the clock to Dionysos, a god who has never been associated with justice.

11. Aeschines, , Speech Against Ctesiphon, (3.76), in The Speeches of Aeschines, trans. Adams, Charles Darwin, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 341.

12. Shakespeare states in two prologues, Henry VIII and Romeo and Juliet, that his plays needed around two hours for performance, but the published playscripts would require more than double the ‘two hours traffick of our stage’ that he specifies. Perhaps the Greek texts which have descended to our time are, like Shakespeare's, not the performing versions.

13. Although performance dating is very uncertain and dates of the three tragedians overlap considerably, a tabulation of script lines indicates that performances were lengthening during the fifth century. The average number of lines in Sophocles' seven plays is 13% longer than the seven of Aeschylus. Euripides' seventeen plays (omitting his brief satyr play) contain an average 21% more lines than those of Aeschylus.

14. As with all public gatherings, the announcement portion had a tendency to grow ever longer. A specific law of the fourth century forbade citizens using the occasion to proclaim the freedom of favoured household slaves.

15. No one has dealt with the problems posed by the elimination needs of almost twenty thousand wine-bloated spectators; unlike the Romans, the Greeks did not build public urinals.

16. Pickard-Cambridge, , 2nd ed., p. 65, n. 2.

17. Demosthenes, , Against Meidias (21.74), trans. Vince, J. H., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935, pp. 54–5.

18. Demosthenes, , Against Meidias, intro., trans. and commentary by MacDowell, Douglas M., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 133 & n. p. 291.

19. Aeschines, , Speech Against Ctesiphon (3.76), p. 369. The phrase, hama te hemerai, translates as ‘with dawn of day’ or ‘daybreak’.

20. Ibid., On the Embassy (2.111), p. 243.

21. Xenophon, , Oeconomicus, trans. Marchant, E. C., London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1938, pp. 384–5.Proi translates as ‘early in the day’, but it can also mean before daybreak.

‘See, for example, the beginning of Plato, 's Piotagoras where Hippokrates comes to Socrates' house at bathus orthros, which at the latest is the first glimmer of light. Then Socrates a little further on says; “Let's not go there yet, my friend, because it's proi, but let's go outside into the courtyard and wait there until it gets light”’. Eric Csapo, draft comments (25.8.90).

22. During Shakespeare's time, one observer saw, following a performance of Julius Caesar, a demonstration of London's latest dance crazes presented by the tragedians.

Did The Greeks Really Get to the Theatre before Dawn—Three Days Running?

  • Clifford Ashby (a1)


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