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.
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)
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.