Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

 p410  Dionysia

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp410‑414 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

DIONY′SIA (Διονύσια), festivals celebrated in various parts of Greece in honour of Dionysus. We have to consider under this head several festivals of the same deity, although some of them bore different names; for here, as in other cases, the name of the festival was sometimes derived from that of the god, sometimes from the place where it was celebrated, and sometimes from some particular circumstance connected with its celebration. We shall, however, direct our attention chiefly to the Attic festivals of Dionysus, as, on account of their intimate connection with the origin and the development of dramatic literature, they are of greater importance to us than any other ancient festival.

The general character of the festivals of Dionysus was extravagant merriment and enthusiastic joy, which manifested themselves in various ways. The import of some of the apparently unmeaning and absurd practices in which the Greeks indulged during the celebration of the Dionysia, has been well explained by Müller (Hist. of the Lit. of Anc. Greece, I p289):— "The intense desire felt by every worshipper of Dionysus to fight, to conquer, to suffer in common with him, made them regard the subordinate beings (satyrs, panes, and nymphs, by whom the god himself was surrounded, and through whom life seemed to pass from him into vegetation, and branch off into a variety of beautiful or grotesque forms), who were ever present to the fancy of the Greeks, as a convenient step by which they could approach more nearly to the presence of their divinity. The customs so prevalent at the festivals of Dionysus, of taking the disguise of satyrs, doubtless originated in this feeling, and not in the mere desire of concealing excesses under the disguise of a mask, otherwise so serious and pathetic a spectacle as tragedy could never have originated in the choruses of these satyrs. The desire of escaping from self into something new and strange, of living in an imaginary world, breaks forth in a thousand instances in these festivals of Dionysus. It is seen in the colouring the body with plaster, soot, vermilion, and different sorts of green and red juices of plants, wearing  p411 goats and deer skins round the loins, covering the face with large leaves of different plants; and, lastly, in the wearing masks of wood, bark, and other materials, and of a complete costume belonging to the character." Drunkenness, and the boisterous music of flutes, cymbals, and drums, were likewise common to all Dionysiac festivals. In the processions called θίασοι (from θείαζω), with which they were celebrated, women also took part in the disguise of Bacchae, Lenae, Thyades, Naiades, Nymphs, &c., adorned with garlands of ivy, and bearing the thyrsus in their hands (hence the god was sometimes called Θηλύμορφος), so that the whole train represented a population inspired, and actuated by the powerful presence of the god. The choruses sung on the occasion were called dithyrambs, and were hymns addressed to the god in the freest metres and with the boldest imagery, in which his exploits and achievements were extolled [Chorus]. The phallus, the symbol of the fertility of nature, was also carried in these processions (Plut. De Cupid. Divit. p527D; Aristoph. Acharn. 229, with the Schol.; Herod. II.49), and men disguised as women, called ἰθύφαλλοιa (Hesych., s.v.; Athen. XIV p622), followed the phallus. A woman called λικνοφόρος carried the λίκνον, a long basket containing the image of the god. Maidens of noble birth (κανηφόροι) used to carry figs in buckets, which were sometimes of gold, and to wear garlands of figs round their necks (Aristoph. Acharn. l.c.; Lysistr. 647; Natal. Com. V.13). The indulgence in drinking was considered by the Greeks as a duty of gratitude which they owed to the giver of the vine; hence in some places it was thought a crime to remain sober at the Dionysia (Lucian, De Calumn. 16).

The Attic festivals of Dionysus were four in number: the Διονύσια κατ’ ἀγρούς, or the rural Dionysia, the Λήναια, the Ἀνθεστήρια, and the Διονύσια ἐν ἄστει. After Ruhnken (Auctar. ad Hesych. vol. I p199) and Spalding (Abhandl. der Berl. Acad. von 1804‑1811, p70, &c.) had declared the Anthesteria and the Lenaea to be only two names for one and the same festival, it was generally taken for granted that there could be no doubt as to the real identity of the two, until in 1817, A. Böckh read a paper to the Berlin Academy (Vom Unterschiede der Attischen Lenaeen, Anthesterien und ländl. Dionysien, published in 1819, in the Abhandl. d. Berl. Acad.), in which he established by the strongest arguments the difference between the Lenaea and Anthesteria. An abridgment of Böckh's essay, containing all that is necessary to form a clear idea of the whole question, is given in the Philological Museum, vol. II, p273, &c. A writer in the Classical Museum, Th. Dyer (vol. IV p70, &c.), has since endeavoured to support Ruhnken's view with some new arguments. The season of the year sacred to Dionysus was during the months nearest to the shortest day (Plut. De Εἰ ap. Delph. 9), and the Attic festivals were accordingly celebrated in the Poseideon, Gamelion (the Lenaeon of the Ionians), Anthesterion, and Elaphebolion.

The Διονύσια κατ’ ἀγρούς, or μικρά, the rural or lesser Dionysia, a vintage festival, were celebrated in the various demes of Attica in the month of Poseideon, and were under the superintendence of the several local magistrates, the demarchs. This was doubtless the most ancient of all, and was held with the highest degree of merriment and freedom; even slaves enjoyed full liberty during its celebration, and their boisterous shouts on the occasion were almost intolerable. It is here that we have to seek for the origin of comedy, in the jests and the scurrilous abuse which the peasants vented upon the bystanders from a waggon in which they rode about (κώμος ἐφ’ ἁμαξῶν). Aristophanes (Vesp. 620 and 1479) calls the comic poets τρυγῳδοί, lee-singers; and comedy, τρυγῳδία, lee-song (Acharn. 464, 834; Athen. II p40); from the custom of smearing the face with lees of wine, in which the merry country people indulged at the vintage. The Ascolia and other amusements, which were afterwards introduced into the city, seem also originally to have been peculiar to the rural Dionysia. The Dionysia in the Peiraeeus, as well as those of the other demes of Attica, belonged to the lesser Dionysia, as is acknowledged both by Spalding and Böckh. Those in the Peiraeeus were celebrated with as much splendour as those in the city; for we read of a procession, of the performance of comedies and tragedies, which at first may have been new as well as old pieces; but when the drama had attained a regular form, only old pieces were represented at the rural Dionysia. Their liberal and democratical character seems to have been the cause of the opposition which these festivals met with, when, in the time of Peisistratus, Thespis attempted to introduce the rural amusements of the Dionysia into the city of Athens (Plut. Sol. c. 29, 30; Diog. Laërt. Sol. c. 11). That in other places, also, the introduction of the worship of Dionysus met with great opposition, must be inferred from the legends of Orchomenos, Thebes, Argos, Ephesus, and other places. Something similar seems to be implied in the account of the restoration of tragic choruses to Dionysus at Sicyon (Herod. V.67).

The second festival, the Lenaea (from ληνός, the wine-press, from which also the month of Gamelion was called by the Ionians Lenaeon), was celebrated in the month of Gamelion; the place of its celebration was the ancient temple of Dionysus Limnaeus (from λίμνη, as the district was originally a swamp, whence the god was also called λιμναγενής). This temple, the Lenaeon, was situate south of the theatre of Dionysus, and close by it (Schol. ad Aristoph. Ran. 480). The Lenaea were celebrated with a procession and scenic contests in tragedy and comedy (Demosth. c. Mid. p517). The procession probably went to the Lenaeon, where a goat (τράγος, hence the chorus and tragedy which arose out of it were called τραγικὸς χορός, and τραγῳδία) was sacrificed, and a chorus standing around the altar sang the dithyrambic ode to the god. As the dithyramb was the element out of which, by the introduction of an actor, tragedy arose [Chorus], it is natural that, in the scenic contests of this festival, tragedy should have preceded comedy, as we see from the important documents in Demosthenes (l.c.) The poet who wished his play to be brought out at the Lenaea applied to the second archon, who had the superintendence of this festival as well as the Anthesteria, and who gave him the chorus if the piece was thought to deserve it.

The third Dionysiac festival, the Anthesteria, was celebrated on the 12th of the month of Anthesterion (Thucyd. II.15); that is to say, the second day fell on the 12th, for it lasted three  p412 days, and the first fell on the 11th (Suidas, s.v. Χόες),º and the third on the 13th (Philoch. ap. Suidam, s.v. Χύτροι). The second archon superintended the celebration of the Anthesteria, and distributed the prizes among the victors in the various games which were carried on during the season (Aristoph. Acharn. 1143, with the Schol.). The first day was called πιθοιγία: the second, χόες: and the third, χύτροι (Harpocrat. and Suidas, s.v.; Schol. ad Aristoph. Ran. 219; Athen. X p437, VII p276, and IV.129). The first day derived its name from the opening of the casks to taste the wine of the preceding year; the second from χοῦς, the cup, and seems to have been the day devoted to drinking. The ascolia seem to have been played on this day [Ascolia]. We read in Suidas (s.v. Ἀσκός) of another similar amusement peculiar to this day. The drinker placed himself upon a bag filled with air, trumpets were sounded, and he who emptied his cup quickest, or drank most, received as his prize a leather bag filled with wine, and a garland, or, according to Aelian (V. H. II.41), a golden crown (Aristoph. Acharn. 943, with the Schol.). The κώμος ἐφ’ ἁμαξῶν also took place on this day, and the jests and abuse which persons poured forth on this occasion were doubtless an imitation of the amusements customary at the rural Dionysia. Athenaeus (X p437) says that it was customary on the day of the Choës to send to the sophists their salaries and presents, that they too might enjoy themselves with their friends. The third day had its name from χύτρος, a pot, as on this day persons offered pots with flowers, seeds, or cooked vegetables, à sacrifice to Dionysus and Hermes Chthonius (Schol. ad Aristoph. Acharn. 1009; Suidas, s.v. Χύτροι). With this sacrifice were connected the ἀγῶνες χύτρινοι mentioned by the Scholiast on Aristophanes (Ran. 220), in which the second archon distributed the prizes. Slaves were permitted to take part in the general rejoicings of the Anthesteria; but at the close of the day, they were sent home with the words θύραζε, Κᾶρες, οὐκ ἔτ’ Ἀνθεστήριαb (Hesych. s.v. Θύραζε; Proclus, ad Hesiod. Op. et Dies).

It is uncertain whether dramas were performed at the Anthesteria; but Böckh supposes that comedies were represented, and that tragedies which were to be brought out at the great Dionysia were perhaps rehearsed at the Anthesteria. The mysteries connected with the celebration of the Anthesteria were held at night, in the ancient temple ἐν Λίμναις, which was opened only once a year, on the 12th of Anthesterion. They were likewise under the superintendence of the second archon and a certain number of ἐπιμεληταί. He appointed fourteen priestesses, called γεραιραί or γεραραί, the venerable, who conducted the ceremonies with the assistance of one other priestess (Pollux, VIII.9).º The wife of the second archon (βασίλισσα) offered a mysterious sacrifice for the welfare of the city; she was betrothed to the god in a secret solemnity, and also tendered the oath to the geraerae, which, according to Demosthenes (c. Neaer. p1371.22), ran thus:— "I am pure and unspotted by any thing that pollutes, and have never had intercourse with man. I will solemnize the Theognia and Iobakcheia at their proper time, according to the laws of my ancestors." The admission to the mysteries, from which men were excluded, took place after especial preparations, which seem to have consisted in purifications by air, water, or fire (Serv. ad Aen. VI.740; Paus. IX.20 § 4; Liv. XXXIX.13). The initiated persons wore skins of fawns, and sometimes those of panthers. Instead of ivy, which was worn in the public part of the Dionysia, the mystae wore myrtle (Schol. ad Aristoph. Ran. 330). The sacrifice offered to the god in these mysteries consisted of a sow, the usual sacrifice of Demeter, and in some places of a cow with calf. It is more than probable that the history of Dionysus was symbolically represented in these mysteries, as the history of Demeter was acted in those of Eleusis, which were in some respects connected with the former (Schol. ad Aristoph. Ran. 343).

The fourth Attic festival of Dionysus, Διονύσια ἐν ἄστει, ἀστικὰ or μεγάλα, was celebrated about the 12th of the month of Elaphebolion (Aesch. c. Ctesiph. p63); but we do not know whether they lasted more than one day or not. The order in which the solemnities took place was, according to the document in Demosthenes, as follows:— The great public procession, the chorus of boys, the κῶμος [Chorus], comedy, and lastly, tragedy. We possess in Athenaeus (V p197, 199) the description of a great Bacchic procession, held at Alexandria in the reign of Ptolemaeus Philadelphus, from which we may form some idea of the great Attic procession. It seems to have been customary to represent the god by a man in this procession. Plutarch (Nic. 3), at least, relates that on one occasion a beautiful slave of Nicias represented Dionysus (compare Athen. V p200). A ridiculous imitation of a Bacchic procession is described in Aristophanes (Eccles. 759, &c.). Of the dramas which were performed at the great Dionysia, the tragedies at least were generally new pieces; repetitions do not, however, seem to have been excluded from any Dionysiac festival. The first archon had the superintendence, and gave the chorus to the dramatic poet who wished to bring out his piece at this festival. The prize awarded to the dramatists for the best play consisted of a crown, and his name was proclaimed in the theatre of Dionysus (Demosth. De Coron. p267). Strangers were prohibited from taking part in the choruses of boys. During this and some other of the great Attic festivals, prisoners were set free, and nobody was allowed to seize the goods of a debtor; but a war was not interrupted by its celebration (Demosth. c. Boeot. de Nom. p999). As the great Dionysia were celebrated at the beginning of spring, when the navigation was re-opened, Athens was not only visited by numbers of country people, but also by strangers from other parts of Greece, and the various amusements and exhibitions on this occasion were not unlike those of a modern fair (Isocr. Areop. p203, ed. Bekker; Xen. Hiero, I.11; compare Becker, Charikles, II p237, &c.). Respecting the scrupulous regularity, and the enormous sums spent by the Athenians on the celebration of these and other festivals, see Demosthenes (Philip. I p50). As many circumstances connected with the celebration of the Dionysia cannot be made clear without entering into minute details, we must refer the reader to Böckh's essay.

The worship of Dionysus was almost universal among the Greeks in Asia as well as in Europe, and the character of his festivals was the same  p413 everywhere, only modified by the national differences of the various tribes of the Greeks. It is expressly stated that the Spartans did not indulge so much in drinking during the celebration of the Dionysia as other Greeks (Athen. IV p156; Plato, De Leg. I p637). The worship of Dionysus was in general, with the exception of Corinth, Sicyon, and the Doric colonies in southern Italy, less popular among the Doric states than in other parts of Greece (Müller, Dorians, II.10 § 6; Böttiger, Ideen z. Archaeol. der Malerei, p289, &c.) It was most enthusiastic in Boeotia in the orgies on Mount Cithaeron, as is well known from allusions and descriptions in several Roman poets. That the extravagant merriment, and the unrestrained conduct with which all festivals of this class were celebrated, did in the course of time lead to the grossest excesses, cannot be denied; but we must at the same time acknowledge, that such excesses did not occur until a comparatively late period. At a very early period of Grecian history, Bacchic festivals were solemnized with human sacrifices, and traces of this custom are discernible even until very late. In Chios this custom was superseded by another, according to which the Bacchae were obliged to eat the raw pieces of flesh of the victim which were distributed among them. This act was called ὠμοφαγία, and Dionysus derived from it the name of ὠμάδιος and ὠμηστής. There was a report that even Themistocles, after the battle of Salamis, sacrificed three noble Persians to this divinity (Plut. Themist. 13, Pelop. 21; compare Thirlwall, Hist. of Greece, II p310).º But Plutarch's account of this very instance, if true, shows that at this time such savage rites were looked upon with horror.

The worship of Dionysus, whom the Romans called Bacchus, or rather the Bacchic mysteries and orgies (Bacchanalia), are said to have been introduced from southern Italy into Etruria, and from thence into Rome (Liv. XXXIX.8), where for a time they were carried on in secret, and, during the latter period of their existence, at night. The initiated, according to Livy, did not only indulge in feasting and drinking at their meetings, but when their minds were heated with wine, they indulged in the coarsest excesses and the most unnatural vices. Young girls and youths were seduced, and all modesty was set aside; every kind of vice found here its full satisfaction. But crimes did not remain confined to these meetings; for false witnesses, forgeries, false wills, and denunciations proceeded from this focus of crime. Poison and assassination were carried on under the cover of the society; and the voices of those who had been fraudulently drawn into these orgies, and would cry out against the shameless practices, were drowned by the shouts of the Bacchantes, and the deafening sounds of drums and cymbals.

The time of initiation lasted ten days, during which a person was obliged to abstain from all sexual intercourse; on the tenth he took a solemn meal, underwent a purification by water, and was led into the sanctuary (Bacchanal). At first only women were initiated, and the orgies were celebrated every year during three days. Matrons alternately performed the functions of priests. But Pacula Annia, a Campanian matron, pretending to act under the direct influence of Bacchus, changed the whole method of celebration; she admitted men to the initiation, and transferred the solemnisation which had hitherto taken place during the daytime to the night. Instead of three days in the year, she ordered that the Bacchanalia should be held during five days in every month. It was from the time that these orgies were carried on after this new plan that, according to the statement of an eye-witness (Liv. XXXIX.13), licentiousness and crimes of every description were committed. Men as well as women indulged in the most unnatural appetites, and those who attempted to stop or to oppose such odious proceedings fell as victims. It was, as Livy says, a principle of the society to hold every ordinance of god and nature in contempt. Men, as if seized by fits of madness, and under great convulsions, gave oracles; and the matrons, dressed as Bacchae, with disheveled hair and burning torches in their hands, ran down to the Tiber and plunged their torches into the water; the torches, however, containing sulphur and chalk, were not extinguished. Men who refused to take part in the crimes of these orgies, were frequently thrown into dark caverns and despatched, while the perpetrators declared that they had been carried off by the gods. Among the number of the members of these mysteries, were, at the time when they were suppressed, persons of all classes; and during the last two years, nobody had been initiated who was above the age of twenty years, as this age was thought most fit for seduction and sensual pleasure.

In the year B.C. 186, the consuls Spurius Postumius Albinus and Q. Marcius Philippus were informed of the existence of these meetings; and after having ascertained the facts mentioned above, they made a report to the senate (Liv. XXXIX.14). The senate, alarmed by this singular discovery, and although dreading lest members of their own families might be involved, invested the consuls with extraordinary power, to inquire into the nature of these nocturnal meetings, to exert all their energy to secure the priests and priestesses, to issue a proclamation throughout Rome and Italy, forbidding any one to be initiated in the Bacchic mysteries, or to meet for the purpose of celebrating them; but above all things, to submit those individuals who had already been secured to a rigid trial. The consuls, after having given to the subordinate magistrates all the necessary instructions, held an assembly of the people, in which the facts just discovered were explained to the public, in order that the objects of the proceedings which were to take place might be known to every citizen. A reward was at the time offered to any one who might be able to give further information, or to name any one that belonged to the conspiracy, as it was called. Measures were also taken to prevent any one from leaving Italy. During the night following, a great number of persons were apprehended; many of them put an end to their own lives. The whole number of the initiated was said to be 7000. The trial of all those who were apprehended lasted thirty days. Rome was almost deserted, for the innocent as well as the guilty had reason to fear. The punishment inflicted on those who were convicted, varied according to the degree of their guilt; some were thrown into prison, others were put to death. The women were surrendered to  p414 their parents or husbands, that they might receive their punishment in private. The consuls then were ordered by the senate to destroy all Bacchanalia throughout Rome and Italy, with the exception of such altars or statues of the god as had existed there from ancient times. In order to prevent a restoration of the Bacchic orgies, the celebrated decree of the senate (Senatus auctoritas de Bacchanalibus)​c was issued, commanding that no Bacchanalia should be held either in Rome or in Italy; that if any one should think such ceremonies necessary, or if he could not neglect them without scruples or making atonements, he should apply to the praetor urbanus, who might then consult the senate. If the permission should be granted to him in an assembly of the senate, consisting of not less than one hundred members, he might solemnise the Bacchic sacra; but no more than five persons were to be present at the celebration; there should be no common fund, and no master of the sacra or priest (Liv. XXXIX.18). This decree is also mentioned by Cicero (De Legg. II.15). A brazen table containing this important document was discovered near Bari, in southern Italy, in the year 1640, and is at present in the imperial Museum of Vienna. A copy of it is given in Drakenborch's edition of Livy (vol. VII p197, &c.).

We have in our account of the Roman Bacchanalia closely followed the description given by Livy, which may, indeed, be somewhat exaggerated; but considering the difference of character between the Greeks and Romans, it cannot be surprising that a festival like the Dionysia, when once introduced among the Romans, should have immediately degenerated into the grossest and coarsest excesses. Similar consequences were seen immediately after the time when the Romans were made acquainted with the elegance and the luxuries of Greek life; for, like barbarians, they knew not where to stop, and became brutal in their enjoyments. But whether the account of Livy be exaggerated or not, this much is certain, that the Romans, ever since the time of the suppression of the Bacchanalia, considered these orgies as in the highest degree immoral and licentious, as we see from the manner in which they applied the words derived from Bacchus, e.g. bacchor, bacchans, bacchatio, bacchicus, and others. But the most surprising circumstance in the account of Livy is, that the Bacchanalis should have been celebrated for several years in the boisterous manner described by him, and by thousands of persons, without any of the magistrates appearing to have been aware of it.

While the Bacchanalia were thus suppressed, another more simple and innocent festival of Bacchus, the Liberalia (from Liber, or Liber Pater, a name of Bacchus), continued to be celebrated at Rome every year on the 16th of March (Ovid. Fast. III.713). A description of the ceremonies customary at this festival is given by Ovid (l.c.), with which may be compared Varro (Varr. De Ling. Lat. V.55, ed. Bipont.). Priests and aged priestesses, adorned with garlands of ivy, carried through the city wine, honey, cakes, and sweet-meats, together with an altar with a handle (ansata ara), in the middle of which there was a small fire-pan (foculus), in which from time to time sacrifices were burnt. On this day Roman youths who had attained their sixteenth year received the toga virilis (Cic. ad Att. VI.1). That the Liberalia were celebrated with various amusements and great merriment, might be inferred from the general character of Dionysiac festivals; but we may also see it from the name Ludi Liberales, which is sometimes used instead of Liberalia; and Naevius (ap. Fest.) expressly says that persons expressed themselves very freely at the Liberalia. St. Augustine (De Civ. DeiVII.21) even speaks of a high degree of licentiousness carried on at this festival.

Thayer's Notes:

a Those who like me have enough Greek to understand that ἰθύφαλλοι = "erect phalluses" can rightly wonder how good a female disguise this was; the Greeks were very odd. I haven't seen the passage in Hesychius, but Athenaeus 622 says nothing about men being disguised as women, although it leaves the door open: the male dancers wore heavy cloaks and the erect phalluses were in fact carved representations carried as poles.

b "Go away, Kares, it's not the Anthesteria any more!" where Kares is variously interpreted by modern scholars as "Carians", "spirits of the dead", etc.

b The text of the senatusconsultum is online at the Cycada site linked in the footer bar below.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 3 May 20