Overview: The Dionysian Festival

The Greek festival honoring the god Dionysus was the most important arts festival in the ancient world. Combining theater, music, dance and community, the six-day Spring event in Athens was attended by people from all over Greece.

The opening of the festival featured a procession to the Theater of Dionysus bearing a wooden statue of the god. As the first day progressed, choruses of men and boys representing the ten political tribes of Athens held dithyrambic competitions. The day concluded with the sacrifice of a bull and a communal feast.

The most respected playwrights would present their works over the next three days: each would present three tragedies and one satyr play (works that could be, but often weren't interrelated). In 487 BCE, an additional day of competition was added, with five playwrights presenting one comedy each.

The judges, one from each of the tribes, voted on the best performance in each competition, with prizes awarded to producers, directors, and/or playwrights of the winning productions. In 534 BCE, the festival's first award was given to the actor and playwright Thespis. His prize? A goat (the word "tragedy" translates literally as "goat-song").

The award for best actor in a tragedy wasn't introduced until 449 BCE; the award for best actor in a comedy was first given between 328 and 312 BCE. On the final day of the festival, judges announced the winners and awarded prizes—an ivy wreath for first place.

The festival was also an opportunity for a meeting of the Athenian legislative body. As part of the meeting, Athenian citizens evaluated the festival, the performances, and began planning next year's event.