Ancient Greece and Foreigners

Ancient Greece and Foreigners: Dionysos and the Rise of Theatre Plays

This academic paper was presented by Sanford Holst at the University of Ghent, Belgium, on July 4, 2016.

Ancient Greece - Dionysos
Triumph of Dionysos and Ariadne by Annibale Carracci

 

Ancient Greece maintained a complex relationship with foreigners. That even included foreign deities such as Dionysos—the god of wine, fertility and theatre.[1],[2] Special laws and customs were applied to those foreign-born metics in ancient Athens which amply reflected their lower status in society. Even Pericles, the most powerful man in this Classical city, felt the sting of those laws when they were applied to his lover Aspasia. Understanding the impact of social changes and immigrant issues in early Athens can provide insights into events happening today—as attested by the societal elements in North America and Europe calling for the exclusion of foreign immigrants.

 

The Foreigner in Ancient Greece

 

The many city-states of ancient Greece largely regarded themselves as separate countries within the Greek world.[3] It was commonly held that a person remained a citizen of the city-state in which they were born, regardless of where they lived later in life. This could be overcome only if one applied for—and was granted—citizenship in a new city. That was often a difficult process and in Athens, for example, it required two separate votes of the people in that city to grant citizenship.[4] How difficult was this? The well-known historian Herodotus lived in Athens for many years but failed to win enough votes so he was not granted citizenship.[5]

In Athens, foreigners were referred to as metics, from the word métoikos which was the combined form of metá and oîkos—literally meaning “to change dwelling.”[6] Metics could not vote in elections, could not own property, and had to pay a special tax for the privilege of residing there.[7] But in return they were allowed to remain in the city, engage in commerce, work at a profession, and enjoy the free services of Athens, including the many public festivals.[8]

But not all metics were treated equally in terms of social status. There were slight differences in language and customs between Greeks who claimed Ionian heritage and those of Doric or other heritage.[9] The people of Athens and most of the Aegean islands prided themselves on their Ionian heritage, while Sparta and various other mainland states saw themselves as being of Doric origin.[10] This added fuel to the Athens-Sparta rivalry, and to rivalries between many other Greek cities as well. So metics who came to Athens from Doric Greek cities could encounter additional social barriers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were people from the city of Plataea—the only city that came to help Athens fight the extremely difficult Battle of Marathon.[11] When that almost-impossible victory was achieved at Marathon, the people of Plataea became enshrined in the hearts of the Athenians. As a result, metics from Plataea were honored by Athenians for many years thereafter.

Even though virtually all metics were free-born and clearly distinguished from the many foreign-born slaves prevalent in ancient Greece, their status certainly remained less than that of citizens in the city. For example, in the grand procession of the Panathenaia—Athens’ magnificent annual festival—metics were assigned subservient roles such as carrying trays and water. Then they were left out altogether when the members of the procession were immortalized in marble carvings on the frieze of the Parthenon.[12]

 

Dionysos the Foreign God

 

As the god of wine-making, ecstatic celebration, fertility and theatre, Dionysos was honored as the patron of devoted cults that celebrated his contributions to Greek society. Some of those cults professed that he came from the East as an Asiatic foreigner.[13] Others believed he came from the South, specifically from the region of Egypt and Ethiopia in Africa.[14] And in fact his exotic heritage as a foreigner seemed to be part of the mystique that attracted people to him.

Portrayals of Dionysos often showed him arriving from some distant place and wearing an unkempt beard typical of men from beyond the borders of the civilized world.[15],[16] He traditionally came in a chariot accompanied by dangerous animals such as lions or tigers which were native to foreign lands, and often wore a leopard skin.[17],[18] A procession of cavorting people were usually shown following him. These consisted mainly of wildly dancing women known as maenads accompanied by men portrayed as bearded satyrs with erect penises.[19] Arriving as an outsider, Dionysos was regarded as the protector of people who were outside of conventional society. He therefore represented all that was chaotic, dangerous and unexpected.[20]

Secret rituals known as the Dionysian Mysteries were practiced by his followers, and seem to have existed from pre-classical times.[21] In these rituals individuals were given an initiation in which they experienced a descent into the underworld and subsequent return—symbolizing death and the return to begin a new life.[22] During the course of these rituals, the various participants wore masks while playing their roles.[23] It came to be that a short column with a mask atop it became a recognized symbol for Dionysos.[24] That ritual was completed by drinking wine and other intoxicants to remove inhibitions and bring the individual to a joyful, natural state.

 

The Dionysia Festivals

 

Since grape harvests and wine-making took place in the countryside, it was natural that the annual festivals to celebrate the clearing of the wine be held there. These “Rural Dionysia” celebrations were held in each town and village on days of their choosing, but always in late December or early January.[25] They began by honoring Dionysos, the god of wine and fertility, in a joyful procession or pompe.

Participating in the highly ritualized procession were kanephoroi—young women carrying baskets; obeliaphoroi, carrying long loaves of bread; hydriaphoroi, carrying jars of water; askophoroi, carrying jars of wine; skaphephoroi, carrying other offerings; and phallophoroi, carrying aloft wooden replicas of phalluses.[26] After the pompe there were lively contests between skilled singers and dancers, followed by copious wine-drinking appropriate to the occasion.[27] Choruses also competed by performing dithyrambs, which were hymns sung and danced in honor of Dionysos.[28]

This became a welcome opportunity for the inhabitants of Athens to get out of the city and visit different towns in the countryside during these festivals. And sharing those happy occasions almost certainly strengthened the bonds across their city-state, which covered all of Attica.

Greek tradition tells us that the cult of Dionysos came to Athens when the town of Eleutherai became part of Attica.[29] In an effort to seal that relationship, the people of Eleutherai offered an ancient wooden image of Dionysos to Athens. This “disorderly” god apparently was first rejected by the leaders of the city but then accepted by the people. In commemoration of this, the wooden image was brought every year from Eleutherai to Athens as the opening event of the City Dionysia.[30]

This “City Dionysia” received a major boost during the reign of the tyrant Peisistratos.[31] Having come into office by force, he recognized the value of this festival in keeping the people of the city happy—and therefore accepting of his reign. So he built up the Dionysia by giving it city funding and placed it under the archon eponymous who was essentially the mayor of the city.[32] Although the office of archon had little power it was a prestigious position, so a measure of prestige was bestowed upon the festival by having him preside over it. In fact, those enhancements led to this city event sometimes being referred to as the “Great Dionysia.” It always took place three months after the Rural Dionysia, which is to say from the end of March to the beginning of April.[33]

Just like the rural festival, the City Dionysia began with a procession, but on a much grander scale. Representatives of Athens’ colonies took part, in addition to the large number of citizens and metics.[34] The status of choruses—which were evolving into full theatre—was recognized by giving a place of honor to the financial sponsors (choregoi) of that year’s plays.[35] Bulls were added to this procession through the city, and after that journey they were sacrificed to the gods. The meat from these bulls was then used for a great feast, accompanied by drunken revelry in keeping with Dionysian customs.

Old-style choruses then competed in the performance of dithyrambs, replete with musicians playing their aulos and poets reciting their verses.[36]

Then came the full theatre productions, with their choruses and actors. At first only one actor worked with the chorus,[37] and masks were worn to portray different characters. In 534 BC the first winning playwright on record—who also served as the actor—was a man named Thespis.[38] In his honor actors are still called “thespians” down to the present day. He was said to have been awarded a goat for his triumph since that animal was closely associated with Dionysos. That caused the theater play to be referred to as a goat-song or trágos-oidé, which became our word “tragedy.”[39]

The prestige from these theatre competitions was so great that a monument was set up each year in honor of the latest champion.[40] As a result, numerous people devoted their entire life to writing and presenting these plays. The names of the most celebrated playwrights are still known today, including Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BC), Sophocles (c. 495-406 BC), Euripides (c. 480-406 BC) and Aristophanes (c. 445-386 BC).[41] The quality of their work quickly rose to such a high standard that these plays were performed continuously for many centuries, and are still studied and sometimes performed today.

Originally, each playwright was required to present three short plays one after the other, which shared a common theme.[42] Over the centuries this evolved into a single play consisting of three acts, a form that is still widely used. A fourth short play was added in antiquity for comic relief, often involving satyrs and phalluses in the Dionysian tradition. These came to be known as satyr plays. Comical plays became so popular that they eventually gained equal standing with the tragedies and had their own competitions—with the resulting plays being called comedies.[43]

Similar to the Dionysian Mysteries, masks were used in the various collections of plays.[44] And a mask of tragedy combined with a mask of comedy came to symbolize the world of theater as a whole.

Throughout all these many evolutions, the Dionysia and theatre plays kept their same aspect of foreignness—in which people from other lands were expected to have unusual and sometimes outrageous customs which had to be tolerated. The strait-laced people of Athens first rejected this cult practice that included processions of people carrying wooden phalluses over their heads on jubilant marches through the city streets. Yet once that barrier fell, many forms of outlandish cavorting and play-acting seemed to creep into their society and become widely accepted.

 

Pericles and Aspasia

 

Pericles was one of the great men in Athenian history who became directly caught up in the conflicting mix of contributions and problems caused by foreigners in his city. One of Pericles’ first acts after his father died—leaving left him in charge of a wealthy and well-established household—was to sponsor the plays of Aeschylus in the Dionysian competitions of 472 BC.[45] These plays included the landmark “Persians” which examined those foreign people who were the adversaries of his city in the Battle of Marathon and other epic confrontations. The plays of Aeschylus won first prize that year and Pericles basked in the reflected glory.

Then in 451 BC, after he had become the leader of Athens, Pericles recognized the anti-immigrant sentiment that had taken hold among many citizens. This was reflected in the popular desire to stop allowing foreigners to marry into Athenian families, which was diluting the rights and privileges of Athenians by spreading them over more people. So he proposed and won passage of a law restricting marriages that involved foreigners.[46] It declared that any children of such marriages would not be citizens of Athens, and would never have those rights and privileges.[47]

As fortune would have it, one of the foreigners who came to Athens the following year was a beautiful and talented woman named Aspasia.[48] Born in the Greek city of Miletus on the east coast of the Aegean Sea,[49] she was a highly sought-after hetaira or companion for rich men who could afford to pay her to be with them at social events, and sometimes that could include having sex.[50],[51] Being well-educated, Aspasia was able to hold her own in conversations with men, including some of the best minds in Greece.[52] At a symposium in those days it was normal for men to meet without their wives to eat and drink, be entertained by hetaira, and have sex with prostitutes (porna).[53]

When Aspasia’s sister married a prominent man from Athens, she accompanied the two of them to begin a new life in that city which was at the center of the Greek world in those days.[54] There she attracted the attention of Pericles, and they soon became inseparable lovers.

“Twice a day, as they say, on going out and on coming in from the market-place, he would salute her with a loving kiss.”

Plutarch  Pericles 24:6

Their intimacy produced a son who was known as Pericles the Younger. [55] In those days, Pericles the Elder was still a single man as the result of a divorce that happened approximately ten years earlier.[56] So under normal circumstances the easiest way forward would have been for him to marry Aspasia. But these were not normal circumstances. He was the leader of Athens. And he had instituted a law to discourage, if not prevent, marriages between Athenian citizens and foreigners. For him to marry a foreigner was essentially a political and social impossibility. But she stood by him. And he stood by her as a devoted lover for the rest of his life.[57]

When a plague struck Athens in 430 BC many people died—including his two sons by that earlier marriage.[58] Pericles was struck with grief and left without an heir. Moved with pity, the people of Athens voted an exception to the law he had sponsored. They allowed his son by Aspasia to become a citizen and be his lawful heir.[59] That generous act came just in time, for Pericles died within a year.

 

In Greece Today

 

The descendants of those Classical Greeks live in a world that is still racked by debate over how to treat immigrants. Refugees from war-torn countries in the Near East and Africa have caused torrents of homeless people to flow into Greece and other parts of Europe in recent years.[60] But now people in some of those countries have started to rebel and are trying to stop or reverse the flow of these foreigners.[61]

An agreement was reached in 2016 to send some of these homeless people out of Greece to Turkey—the bridge country through which many of them had made their way into Europe.[62] But all these immigrant issues are still a long way from being resolved.

In the United States, a presidential candidate in 2016 made it a clear part of his platform that illegal Hispanic immigrants should be deported from the country.[63] And that helped him develop a committed group of followers.[64] But the USA and Greece are not alone in wrestling with these issues.

In many countries around the world, the pendulum has swung back and forth between welcoming immigrants, and the opposite position of expelling them. This has been going on since antiquity. And it happens even though many countries were shaped by successive waves of immigrants who gave that country the unique character which is loved by its people today. This is certainly true of the United States, which was formed by immigrants from England, Germany, Ireland, Italy and many other countries.[65] That fact is celebrated by Americans, and illustrated by the Statue of Liberty in New York.[66] Yet even so, each successive wave of immigration was met by some degree of opposition at first. This was amply illustrated by writings and pictures from those times, such as the poignant help-wanted signs in shop windows that read “No Irish need apply.”[67] But over the course of time each wave of immigration became accepted. No clearer example could be offered than to note that Saint Patrick’s Day is now a national holiday in the USA,[68] and even people who are not Irish can be seen “wearin’ the green” and having a beer with friends to celebrate.[69]

One of the lessons of history is that even great leaders such as Pericles could be stung by their own actions against immigration. That action was taken in highly cultured Athens, even though foreigners such as Dionysos had brought to Athens incomparable gifts such as play-acting and theatre.

Deciding how to interact with foreign immigrants is a serious issue faced by most countries in the world today to greater or lesser degree. And the pendulum continues to swing.

 

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Notes

[1] The Romans adopted Dionysos from the Greeks and changed his name to Dionysus in keeping with their language preference. But here we trace the Greek god, and he was known to his people as Διόνυσος — which in English is Dionysos.

[2] Grafton, Anthony (editor)  The Classical Tradition  (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 272.

[3] Flaceliere, Robert  Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles,  translated from French by Peter Green. (London: Phoenix, 1959/2002), p. xv.

[4] Billheimer, Albert  Naturalization in Athenian Law and Practice  (Gettysburg, PA: Princeton doctoral thesis, 1917), p. 12.

[5] Billheimer, Albert  Naturalization in Athenian Law and Practice  (Gettysburg, PA: Princeton doctoral thesis, 1917), pp. 110-128.

[6] Flexner, Stuart Berg et al (ed.)  The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition Unabridged.  (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 1210.

[7] Henry, Madeleine M.  Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 12.

[8] Gagarin, Michael  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), Vol. IV, p. 415.

[9] Hall, Jonathan M.  Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. xiii.

[10] Alty, John  “Dorians and Ionians”. The Journal of Hellenic Studies (London: 1982). 102: 1–14.

[11] Kagan, Donald  Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy  (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 16.

[12] Parke, H.W.  Festivals of the Athenians  (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), pp. 44-45.

[13] Otto, Walter F.  Dionysus: Myth and Cult,  translated by Robert B. Palmer (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1965/1973), p.52.

[14] Cornford, F.M.  Greek Religious Thought: From Homer to the Age of Alexander  (New York: AMS Press, 1969), pp. 53-54.

[15] Carpenter, Thomas H.  Dionysian Imagery in Fifty-Century Athens  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 93 and p. 108.

[16] Gagarin, Michael  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), Vol. II, p. 432.

[17] Haigh, A.E.  The Tragic Drama of the Greeks  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), p. 6.

[18] Carpenter, Thomas H.  Dionysian Imagery in Fifty-Century Athens  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 18.

[19] Guthrie, W.K.C.  The Greeks and Their Gods  (London: Methuen & CO, 1950), pp. 148-150.

[20] Daniélou, Alain  Gods of Love and Ecstasy  (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1992), p. 15

[21] Otto, Walter F.  Dionysus: Myth and Cult,  translated by Robert B. Palmer (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1965/1973), p. 53.

[22] Carpenter, Thomas H. and Christopher A. Faraone  Masks of Dionysus  (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 239-295.

[23] Mahr, August C. The Origin of the Greek Tragic Form  (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1938), p. 15.

[24] Carpenter, Thomas H.  Dionysian Imagery in Fifty-Century Athens  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 2 and p. 60.

[25] During the Attic Greek month of Poseidion. Simon, Erika  Festivals of Attica  (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), p. 101.

[26] Simon, Erika  Festivals of Attica  (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), p. 102.

[27] Haigh, A.E.  The Tragic Drama of the Greeks  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), p. 9.

[28] Norwood, Gilbert  Greek Tragedy  (London: Methuen & Co., 1920/1953), p. 1.

[29] A.C. Mahr acknowledged this source, but placed it later, during the time of Peisistratos. Mahr, August C. The Origin of the Greek Tragic Form  (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1938), pp. 14-15.

[30] Gagarin, Michael  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), Vol. II, p. 429.

[31] Mahr, August C. The Origin of the Greek Tragic Form  (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1938), p. 14.

[32] Norwood, Gilbert  Greek Tragedy  (London: Methuen & Co., 1920/1953), p. 60.

[33] During the Attic Greek month of Elaphebolion. Simon, Erika  Festivals of Attica  (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), p. 102.

[34] Gagarin, Michael  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), Vol. II, p. 430.

[35] Rehm, Rush  Greek Tragic Theatre  (London: Routeledge, 1992), p. 16.

[36] Rehm, Rush  Greek Tragic Theatre  (London: Routeledge, 1992), pp. 17-18.

[37] “Thus it was Aeschylus who first raised the number of the actors from one to two.”  Aristotle,  “Poetics”  Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 23, translated by W.H. Fyfe. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), Section 1449a.

[38] Mahr, August C. The Origin of the Greek Tragic Form  (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1938), p. 16.

[39] Flexner, Stuart Berg et al (ed.)  The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition Unabridged.  (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 2006.

[40] Norwood, Gilbert  Greek Tragedy  (London: Methuen & Co., 1920/1953), p. 62.

[41] Benton, William (publisher)  Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes  (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), pp. 1-455.

[42] Norwood, Gilbert  Greek Tragedy  (London: Methuen & Co., 1920/1953), p. 2.

[43] “from the prelude to the phallic songs which still survive as institutions in many cities.”  Aristotle,  “Poetics”  Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 23, translated by W.H. Fyfe. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), Section 1449a.

[44] Norwood, Gilbert  Greek Tragedy  (London: Methuen & Co., 1920/1953), p. 5.

[45] Rehm, Rush  Greek Tragic Theatre  (London: Routeledge, 1992), p. 22.

[46] Nails, Debra  The People of Plato  (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002), p. 59.

[47] Kagan, Donald  Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy  (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 47.

[48] Which is to say 450 BC.  See Nails, Debra  The People of Plato  (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002), p. 59.

[49] Plutarch  Plutarch’s Cimon and Pericles, translated by Bernadotte  Perrin.  (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1910), ch. 24.

[50] Pomeroy, Sarah B.  Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves  (New York: Schoken Books, 1995), p. 89.

[51] Davidson, James  Courtesans and Fishcakes.  (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 95.

[52] Kagan, Donald  Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy  (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 182.

[53] Davidson, James  Courtesans and Fishcakes.  (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), pp. 43-95.

[54] The man was Alcibiades, grandfather to the famous General Alcibiades. See Nails, Debra  The People of Plato  (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002), p. 59.

[55] Circa 445 BC. See Nails, Debra  The People of Plato  (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002), p. 59.

[56] Kagan, Donald  Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy  (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 177.

[57] In 432 BC, only three years before Pericles’ death, we are told by Plutarch that when Aspasia was put on trial, “Well then, Aspasia he begged off, by shedding copious tears at the trial.” Plutarch  Plutarch’s Cimon and Pericles, translated by Bernadotte  Perrin.  (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1910), ch. 32.

[58] Kagan, Donald  Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy  (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 247.

[59] Plutarch  Plutarch’s Cimon and Pericles, translated by Bernadotte  Perrin.  (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1910), ch. 37.

[60] Reilly, Katie  “Rate of Refugees arriving in Europe Increased in 2016”  Time Magazine, February 13, 2016. Retrieved on May 26, 2016 from time.com/4220455/migrant-crisis-refugees-arrival-europe-2016.

[61] Holehouse, Matthew  “EU to fine countries ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ for refusing to take refugees”  The Telegraph, May 3, 2016. Retrieved on May 26, 2016 from www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/03/eu-to-fine-countries-that-refuse-refugee-quota.

[62] Alderman, Liz  “Greece Starts Deporting Migrants to Turkey as R.U. Deal Takes Effect”  New York Times, April 4, 2016. Retrieved on May 26, 2016 from www.nytimes.com/2016/04/05/world/europe/greece-turkey-refugees.html?_r=0.

[63] Ross, Janell  “What does Donald Trump really believe about immigration?”  The Washington Post, May 20, 2016. Retrieved on May 26, 2016 from www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/05/20/what-does-donald-trump-really-believe-about-immigration/

[64] Linthicum, Kate  “Lawmakers build upon Trump wall: Emboldened by his rhetoric, more state and local officials are calling for tougher immigration measures.”  Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2016, page A1.

[65] “The Rush of Immigrants”  UShistory.org. Retrieved on May 26, 2016 from www.ushistory.org/us/38c.asp.

[66] As noted by the well-known words engraved on a plaque mounted on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

[67] Fried, Rebecca A.  “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs” Oxford Journal of Social History, July 4, 2015. Retrieved on May 14, 2016 from  jsh.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/07/03/jsh.shv066.abstract.

[68] Observed on March 17 each year.

[69] Kowalczyk, Liz and Astead W. Heardon  “South Boston a sea of green for St. Patrick’s Day parade”  The Boston Globe, March 20, 2016. Retrieved on May 26, 2016 from www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/03/20/parade/3gu0FN3f9kfOeIjgWnEVdJ/story.html

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