Western drama was an Athenian invention which developed late in the 6th century B.C. out of the festivals celebrated in honor of the god Dionysos. Originally held in the Agora, the plays were soon transferred to the South Slope of the Acropolis, where a theater holding close to 15,000 people was constructed. In a characteristic attempt to ensure full participation by the citizens, those eligible were paid to attend the dramatic performances.

In addition to several dozen surviving tragedies by Aeschylos, Sophokles, and Euripides and comedies by Aristophanes and Menander, our knowledge of Athenian theater is enhanced by the dozens of small terracotta figurines and masks depicting the numerous stock characters who appeared in the plays.

Terracotta statuettes and molds for statuettes of actors. Four of these terracottas date to the 4th century B.C. and can be associated with the so-called Middle Comedy represented by Aristophanes' last two plays, Assemblywomen (Ekklesiazusae) and Wealth (Ploutos), and the various fragments from plays that are not preserved in their entirety. The statuettes represented add new types to those known from the literary sources and enrich our picture of the Athenian theater during the 4th century.

The large numbers of surviving examples indicate how important theater was in the life of an Athenian citizen. As today, it must have been a powerful force for the molding of public opinion, particularly since it was state-sponsored. Before large audiences comic poets such as Aristophanes filled their plays with stinging criticism of all the leading politicians of 5th-century Athens, as well as the assemblymen and jurors:

They encourage personal attacks if anyone wished, knowing that the butts of comedy are not for the most part of the common people nor from the masses, but rich or noble or powerful; only a few of the poor, ordinary citizens are attacked in comedy, and they only because they meddle in everything or try to become too influential; therefore the people do not object even to the ridiculing of such men. ("Xenophon," Constitution of the Athenians 2.18)
Terracotta mask of the Leading Slave, about 250 B.C. H.: 0.27 m. Athens, Agora Museum T 478. The mask is characterized by the slightly twisted, trumpet-shaped mouth typical of slave masks. The hair has been combed back from the forehead, and a short beard frames the mouth. The mask is life-size but was probably not used as a mask but as a votive gift to be hung on a wall.

Many of the comedies satirizing democracy and its practitioners were awarded prizes for excellence in dramas such as Aristophanes' Knights, produced in 424 B.C.:

We have a master, boorish, angry, a beaneater, irascible: Demos of the Pnyx, a difficult old man and rather deaf. (lines 40-43)

An inscribed base set up by the King Archon Onesippos on the steps of the Royal Stoa (19.2) records the results of the dramatic festivals he administered in his year in office. In the ancient counterpart of our Academy Awards, we can read the names of the winning producers and playwrights in both comedy and tragedy in a year around 400 B.C. The winning comic poet, Nikochares, was a contemporary and rival of Aristophanes.

Photograph of a statue base set up to commemorate Onesippos' term as king archon, about 400 B.C. Athens, Agora excavations. Listed are the names of the winning producers and playwrights for both comedy and tragedy.
Fragmentary mold with a relief scene, A.D. 25O-267. L.: 0.08 m. Athens, Agora Museum T 2404. The mold shows a masked woman lying on a couch, a wreath in her right hand. A male figure wearing the mask of a slave sits at the foot of the couch. The Latin inscription, "Comedia Pylades," may refer to the names of the two actors represented. Pylades, whose name suggests his Greek origin, takes the part of a slave. Comedia may be the name of an actress. Women were unknown on the Greek stage, where female roles were always taken by male actors, but by the time this mold was made, there is evidence that women performed publicly and may well have acted on the stage. This mold might commemorate two actors in a Roman troupe who performed in Athens in the second half of the 3rd century of our era.
Mold for a statuette of a seated slave, about 35O B.C. H.: 0.067 m. Athens, Agora Museum T 2059. This fragmentary mold represents a slave seated with his legs crossed. He may be part of a set for a mythological comedy that parodied the story of Herakles and Auge.
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).