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Theater of the People

Theater of the People
Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens

The first comprehensive study of the diverse populations that attended Athenian dramatic festivals from the Classical to the Hellenistic periods.

June 2011
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302 pages | 6 x 9 | 11 b&w illus. |

Greek drama has been subject to ongoing textual and historical interpretation, but surprisingly little scholarship has examined the people who composed the theater audiences in Athens. Typically, scholars have presupposed an audience of Athenian male citizens viewing dramas created exclusively for themselves—a model that reduces theater to little more than a medium for propaganda. Women's theater attendance remains controversial, and little attention has been paid to the social class and ethnicity of the spectators. Whose theater was it?

Producing the first book-length work on the subject, David Kawalko Roselli draws on archaeological and epigraphic evidence, economic and social history, performance studies, and ancient stories about the theater to offer a wide-ranging study that addresses the contested authority of audiences and their historical constitution. Space, money, the rise of the theater industry, and broader social forces emerge as key factors in this analysis. In repopulating audiences with foreigners, slaves, women, and the poor, this book challenges the basis of orthodox interpretations of Greek drama and places the politically and socially marginal at the heart of the theater. Featuring an analysis of the audiences of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Menander, Theater of the People brings to life perhaps the most powerful influence on the most prominent dramatic poets of their day.

  • Conventions and Abbreviations Used
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Theater and People in Athens
  • Chapter 1. The Idea of the Audience and Its Role in the Theater
  • Chapter 2. Space and Spectators in the Theater
  • Chapter 3. The Economics of the Theater: Theoric Distributions and Class Divisions
  • Chapter 4. Noncitizens in the Theater
  • Chapter 5. Women and the Theater Audience
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

David Kawalko Roselli is Associate Professor of Classics at Scripps College. He is the author of several articles and essays on the drama, social history, and culture of ancient Greece.


The masses are always others. . . . There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.

Raymond Williams, Culture & Society


In the middle of the performance of Aristophanes' Peace in 421 BC at the City Dionysia, the comic characters, Hermes and Trygaeus, survey the spectators' faces. They single out the crest-maker, the sword-maker, sickle-maker, mattock-maker, and spear-maker along with the farmers (543–555). The passage provides valuable testimony to the increasing specialization of labor in Athens, but it also points to the presence of urban laborers—among other kinds of workers—as spectators at the dramatic festivals. In this passage, the urban laborers associated with the making of military equipment are not just specialized in terms of their production, they are also singled out for their relative poverty on account of the return of the goddess Peace to Greece. The war machine had previously kept them in business, but now makers of agricultural tools are in favor. Whereas traditional accounts of Athenian society favor a stereotypical view of the spectator as a hoplite farmer, laborers subject to market forces are here imagined as a constitutive part of the audience and—importantly—are deemed worthy of being singled out during the performance.


Unlike tragedy, satyr drama, and later forms of comedy—not to mention much modern drama—Old Comedy consistently drew attention to its performance context and often addressed spectators in terms of social and political categories. Compared with modern spectators, ancient audiences who attended dramatic festivals were also rowdier, more vocal, and frequently hailed as the true arbiters of dramatic competitions at which plays were performed. Their adjudicatory role in the theater was bitterly contested and often viewed in terms of the deleterious influence of democratic (i.e., lower class) "masses" on the state in critical discussions of Athenian politics.


In some respects, we are no longer accustomed to such carnivalesque participation at dramatic performances. This development has its roots partly in the emergence of a "bourgeois public sphere" in eighteenth-century England, when there was an effective displacement of the boisterous behavior of the "lower sort" by homogenizing the audience by "refining and domesticating its energy, sublimating its diverse physical pleasures into a purely contemplative force, replacing a dispersed heterodox, noisy participation in the event of theatre by silent specular intensity." This rise in middle-class values was facilitated by specific practices that deprived some lower-class spectators of their voice and their space in the English theater. Changes to financial and spatial organization in the theater had a direct effect on the role and composition of the audience. As I discuss here, the ancient theater underwent similar changes.


Starting with more conservative-minded critics in ancient Athens, the audience has often been assimilated to a "mass" group that often slipped all too easily into a more pejorative understanding of the people in the audience as a "mob." Despite the attempt by some ancient critics to represent the audience as the assembled "masses," the thousands of spectators in the theater did not make up a single "mass" audience in any straightforward fashion. Nevertheless, recent studies of ancient drama preserve this convenient formula of a "mass" audience broadly defined in terms of its generic diversity or its "mixed" status. The idea of festival audiences with distinct but overlapping social groups has not been the most common way of thinking about ancient theater in ancient or modern times.


Trygaeus' attention to certain kinds of urban laborers suggests that the people who made up the audience were capable of being perceived in terms of their social class, among other categories. But everyone in the theater, despite the reason(s) for attending, was a potential spectator. On the one hand, the audience comprised people categorized at times in specific ways according to some of the central fault lines in Attic society. On the other hand, drama could also address as a collective those gathered in the theater: this "hailing" of spectators generally functioned as a means to harness the collective energy and favor of the audience for a particular performance at the dramatic competition. Thus, a tension was built into drama's relationship with its spectators. While spectators could be constructed as a communal group/collective, plays could also solicit dominant or oppositional values shared by different groups in the audience.


Different kinds of spectators made for an audience that was complex and understood to be diverse in terms of a number of central categories. As Dennis Kennedy soberly puts it, "Almost anything one can say about a spectator is false on some level." One could postulate an infinite number of categories with which to define spectators in the ancient world. But the fault lines of society in ancient Athens privileged a limited number of categories focusing on class, ethnicity and social status, and gender. Since these categories involved hotly contested public and private issues, much energy was spent on patrolling their definitional boundaries. These categories not only were commonly used in Athenian culture as a means to conceptualize society and to frame discussion on the constitution of the community, they were commonly explored in ancient drama.


Thinking about the audience in terms of groups, variously defined in terms of a historical community's values, is to move away from conceptualizing the audience as a "mass" or as individual spectators. While a focused study on individuals is difficult even for modern audiences, for the ancient theater the evidence is not sufficient for such a project. More importantly, however, theater is a communal and social event, notwithstanding the influential emphasis on the individual's emotional responses to it in Aristotle's Poetics and subsequent attention to the tragic hero in modern discussions. The response and behavior of the isolated individual in the audience are influenced by the wider group(s) in which the spectator is but one member: there is a tendency towards integration and the subsuming of the individual into a broader group. Susan Bennett's conclusions on the necessity of assessing the social constitution of audiences are worth repeating:


The description of an individual response to a particular production may not be possible or, indeed, even desirable. But, because of the individual's participation in a given culture and the importance of his/her culturally constituted horizon of expectations, and selection of a particular social event, it is important to reposition the study of drama to reflect this.


There will always be a limitless number of isolated individual responses to a performance. But viewing audience members as individuals does not appear to have been the approach adopted by poets, performers, and officials involved in the city's oversight of the theater. The community's central ways of defining itself were not only conditions or determinants in the creation, selection, and performance of drama but also the most readily available ways of gauging a performance's effect on or appeal to the audience. Such definitional categories need to be assessed in our study of ancient drama. As Erika Fischer-Lichte has suggested, the "investigation of the meanings of theatrical signs is possible only if it is based on the investigation of the meanings created by the respective cultural systems."


Attention to the spectators' horizons of expectations foregrounds the role of the audience in the construction of meaning in the theater. In the commonly used semiotic model of theater, a performance conveys meaning through a system of signs (e.g., verbal, gestural, institutional, political), thus forging a relationship between the performance and the audience. While the "signs" produced by a performance are subject to interpretation by spectators, the social composition of the audience shapes the meaning of these "signs." As Keir Elam puts it, "The spectator, by virtue of his very patronage of the performance, can be said to initiate the communicative circuit." Audience expectations are on some level—particularly in the ancient theater—incorporated into the selection process of plays. Poets composed their plays, officials selected which plays would be performed, actors and musicians performed the plays—all with an eye on the audience. What an audience could see on stage was conditioned by (the commonly held ideas about) its expectations. The varying cultural and theatrical competence of spectators is an important component in understanding the makeup of the audience, both for ancient poets and performers and for modern scholars.


Although the semiotic model remains useful for the study of the theater, it is worth registering that for some spectators, attending—and attending to—a performance was not necessarily the same as attending a festival. There were other reasons to be present in theater besides viewing (and interpreting) a performance: socializing, celebrating, and being part of the city's main event, among other factors, were likely motivators for some spectators. Ancient sources in fact note that audiences enjoyed themselves and celebrated with friends in the theater. The pleasure of the spectator is notoriously difficult to evaluate. As the semiotic model suggests, elaborate wordplay and textual complexities were unlikely to be sufficient hooks to draw in these spectators: the on-stage performance in the theater encompassed a wider array of "signs." But the festival was larger than the dramatic performances taking place in the theater.


In addition to the prerequisite presence of the audience, its composition is a crucial component that shapes the dynamics and meaning of the performance. The need in nearly all recent work on Greek drama, particularly those studies engaged with its social and political aspects, to presuppose a model of the audience in the study of drama's social and political functions reveals the fundamental importance of defining the theater audience. Studies on the social function of drama, the connections between drama and society, and the historical conditions of performance necessarily posit a particular model of the theater audience, but these models are partial and inadequate. Such models (often tacit) impede the understanding of drama's relationship with its audience and its broader social and political functions—the very aim of many such studies. The absence of a clear picture of the historical constitution of audiences can also lead to the uncritical assessment of ancient drama in terms more relevant to our own social and political conditions, thereby obscuring the potential difference of ancient theater and the sociology of dramatic production.


Scholars have paid little attention to the theater audiences of ancient Athens. Whereas past studies have focused on select aspects (the question of women's attendance in particular), none provides a comprehensive treatment of all the evidence and thus a systematic study of audience composition. As a result of scholars' more restricted focus, many of their conclusions require qualification and need to be reframed within an expanded field of inquiry. Additionally, many of these discussions rely on standard reference works (e.g., Pickard-Cambridge's Dramatic Festivals of Athens), and nearly all their conclusions now need to be updated. Other problems persist: there has been relatively little attention paid to class differences within the citizen body, discussions of fifth-century theorika (i.e., state funds distributed to citizens to offset the price for seats in the theater) have hardened around a fundamental misconception in Athenian public finance, the substantial presence of metics and foreigners at the dramatic festivals in Attica (particularly at the Lenaia and the Rural Dionysia) has been subject to some doubt, and the important question of women in the audience has reached an impasse.


As I argue, we need also to understand how broader historical and political conditions change audiences over time. There is thus a need for a thorough reassessment of some basic questions: What evidence do we have? What kinds of questions can our evidence answer? What is the nature of the contribution of ancient audiences to performance? What different individuals/groups were in the audience? What spaces were available to watch the performances? What (if any) were the barriers to attending a dramatic festival?


This book is an interdisciplinary study that analyzes the audiences of ancient Athens through a systematic reassessment of the diverse sources of evidence (literary, epigraphic, archaeological, and historical), while also exploring the limitations and interpretative problems associated with these sources. Most of the evidence is fragmentary and at times even somewhat perplexing, but a number of clear stories can be told about the composition of the theater audience in terms of gender, ethnicity, social status, and class throughout the Classical and early Hellenistic periods. This book thus analyzes the audiences for the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Menander—the most prominent dramatic poets of the Greek theater. Although there were important differences in the composition of audiences, seating arrangements, and the financial operations of the theater in Roman times, the Attic theater in the later Hellenistic period appears to have continued practices that were established much earlier. The reconstruction of the theater in the fourth century and the economic and political changes in the early Hellenistic city shaped the composition of subsequent audiences in the later Hellenistic theater. While the study of the theater audience itself yields much insight into the changes in attitudes towards the theater, my focus on Classical and early Hellenistic audiences has direct implications for the study of literary and historical aspects of Greek drama.


Despite my particular historical focus, some of the sources I employ to analyze the role and composition of the audience are far removed from the Classical and Hellenistic periods. This broad chronological scope is further complicated by the wide range of sources, including dramatic texts, inscriptions, funerary reliefs, theater archaeology, historical and philosophical sources, encyclopedic lexicons, and vase painting. Because of the relative lack of evidence, this range of materials is needed to create as complete a picture of the audience as possible. An important concern with late sources, however, is whether they reflect the reality of earlier periods or whether they were influenced by later practice. It is impossible and thus unwise to answer this categorically, since late sources do not all belong in the same class. The lexicographical tradition (e.g., Harpocration, Suda) is typically based on words and expressions found in ancient texts, many of which are now lost. "Late" in these cases, however, is never as late as it seems, since even the Byzantine Suda for the most part belongs to a fairly faithful copy tradition that goes back to informed Hellenistic scholars often operating with many more materials than we now possess. The explanations of lexicographers are particularly useful when there is additional evidence with which to assess them. A similar but often more careful handling is required for such sources as the first/second-century AD author Plutarch or the second/third-century AD author Aelian, who provide a number of anecdotes relevant to the ancient theater.


What is striking is that despite the disparate sources and their wide chronological span, a number of recurring components are present in these anecdotes that form a rather coherent and often critical tradition concerning the theater. Each source used in this study presents its own set of issues that generally yields one of two results: the source can be demonstrated either to elaborate other fragmentary evidence from the Classical and Hellenistic periods or to reflect a distorted and propagandistic tradition that responds critically to others. In either case, these late sources can be shown to form part of a critical tradition that connects meaningfully with contemporary evidence from ancient Athens. In brief, the merits of individual testimony, no matter how late, have to be weighed against the broader set of evidence on a case by case basis. In this respect, lateness or earliness has little importance.


Whose Theater? Citizens and Community


The composition of the audience was always a matter of concern for theater historians, but the topic became increasingly important in the twentieth century as those studying drama became interested in its political or ideological function. The audience it discovered mirrored, perhaps unconsciously, the straight-jacketing typical of the more conservative aspects of structuralist work, which crucially came of age during the Cold War, with its focus on self and other. Starting in the 1980s, much influential work on drama has approached it from an "Athenocentric" angle. This approach views drama in terms of the citizen male population and makes citizen identity a backdrop for understanding the effects of drama. This focus is in fact part of a larger trend of conceptualizing audiences in terms of civic standards and citizenship. It has also played a significant part in recent historical discussions of the "average" Athenian: a "middling" farmer who fights as a hoplite.


Athenocentric readings of drama privilege dramatic texts and democratic culture. A particularly influential approach has been to view drama as validating Athenian civic society. This approach took root in important studies of ancient drama by Italian Marxists, who nonetheless downplayed or ignored performance conditions. Drawing on the work of Althusser, these studies viewed drama as an "ideological state apparatus" that validated the dominant civic and political order of the polis. The audience was assumed to be a rather passive and homogeneous group notably lacking internal divisions. Many of the essays in Easterling's influential Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy exemplify a modified version of this approach with an emphasis on the questioning and problematizing of civic ideology. In this model, however, "the audience represents the body politic," and "by participating in the festival at all its levels the Athenian citizen demonstrated his citizenship, and it is by staging the festival that the city promoted and projected itself as a city." As Wiles argues elsewhere, the audience is a "homogeneous citizen body," and unlike Elizabethan drama, which was concerned with creating the individual as subject, "Athenian drama was preoccupied . . . with constructing the Athenian citizen (polites) as a subject."


Studies of gender and drama working within this paradigm posit an audience of citizen men often to the exclusion of women (among other sorts of noncitizens). As a result, scholars have placed an emphasis on the representation of female characters as a means to provide a "fuller model for the masculine self." In this shift from women's historical conditions to dramatic representations, women in drama are marshaled to address male (citizen) concerns and to offer models or antimodels for men. "Playing the other" (e.g., women) has emerged as one productive way to explore "the male project of selfhood in the larger world." To be sure, drama was composed by male poets and performed by men. Nevertheless, evidence for the presence of women in the audience presents a problem for this view of drama's function. The "quasi political" status of Athenian women in the life of the polis also suggests that their interests could at times overlap with those "civic" (not to mention class) issues viewed as being addressed to men.


In such studies, the role of nonmale and noncitizen spectators in dramatic production is ignored. It is not hard to see the legacy of structuralist models of alterity in this work: citizen males constitute the "unmarked" category, while the poor and noncitizen others are relegated to the margins in the study of the construction of (male) civic identity. Much like the study of women as "other," studies of foreigners in drama tend to treat them as the other of the male citizen. Additionally, the subjectivity of citizens constructed through the representation of so-called barbarians is typically ahistorical and class-less. Such Athenocentric narratives are not sufficiently sensitive to the possibility of noncitizen agency in the construction of dramatic representations of foreigners. A more nuanced and dialectical relationship between Greeks or Athenians and its others is impossible with this approach.


The Athenocentric study of drama with its focus on citizens made an important contribution to the study of drama in terms of a particular demographic, but its assumption that drama relates to the democratic polis rather than the broader community in general is questionable. In light of my conclusions about noncitizens in Chapter 4 and about women in Chapter 5, a focus on democratic citizen culture appears rather parochial. The lack of any consideration of class differences in Athenocentric models is also problematic. Drama's more holistic, at times indiscriminate, appeal to spectators suggests that ancient poets and performers were less interested in singling out and even appealing to spectators qua citizens than modern critics argue.


Some recent scholars have moved away from these categories, but the specter of a citizen male audience still haunts them. Thus, in a helpful discussion of the festivals and audiences in Athens, Rehm suggests that "the festival's competitions introduced a critical element into the audiences' response, reinforcing their role as democratic citizens determining their city's future." While there is some sense in which the audience's exercise of judgment could be (and was) perceived as part of democratic culture, these ideals were not limited to Athens or to democracy. More subtle analyses of wish fulfillment and fantasy, often in reference to class relations, have highlighted the complex ways in which drama engaged with the conscious and unconscious desires of spectators, who are generally defined as male citizens. While these studies have productively opened up the question of spectators' subjectivity and psychological responses, they focus on audience members qua citizens to the exclusion of other sorts of theatergoers (e.g., metics, slaves, women) living in the community and nonresident foreigners attending the festivals.


The increase in scholarly attention to drama's civic function occurred at about the same time as performance studies or performance criticism emerged as an increasingly legitimate approach to the study of ancient drama. The emphasis on performance and theater history ushered in a shift away from texts and authors. The earlier pathbreaking work of T. B. L. Webster (including his fundamental work on the "monuments" connected with dramatic production) covered most aspects of dramatic performance. But starting in the 1970s, notably through the work of Oliver Taplin, the study of drama in terms of performance has become increasingly popular. In place of a focus on authors, texts, and poetry, scholars began to situate the study of drama within a more comprehensive and systematic approach to the theater involving performers (e.g., actors, musicians, choral trainers), social institutions (e.g., festivals), economic organization, and audiences. The split in scholarship—roughly between accounts and analysis of plays, on the one hand, and the history of the theater, on the other hand—was part of a broader development in the study of drama in the twentieth century. As the study of drama was institutionalized, scholars working in Drama and Theater Departments carried out studies of the historical conditions of performance, while scholars in English Departments—or in the case of ancient drama, in Classics Departments (with its deep-seated ties to philology) carried out the study of drama as literature. This division between literature and theater history was driven in part by ideology and economics, but it is worth noting that in studies of the theater in the United States, even more sociologically informed approaches (as elaborated by Raymond Williams, among others) tended to downplay the aspect of production. As a result, "the sociology of the theater has effectively weakened the category of that which is concretely social and drawn a veil over the major influence of Marxism."


The basic social and cultural categories that defined the theater audience remain to be fleshed out. The citizen body itself was not homogeneous, and many noncitizens resided in Athens and were active in the theater. There was also much polarization along class and ideological lines. The works of the Old Oligarch, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, to cite a few examples, are filled with accounts of opposed groups within the citizen body. The traditional elite's reaction to the so-called demagogues (e.g., popular leaders of the radical democracy)—as, for example, in the work of Thucydides or Plato—and the oligarchic putsch in 411 BC, with its bitter infighting among partisan factions divided along political and ideological lines, provide eloquent examples for the existence of groups with opposed values in the polis. The class composition of the audience is also downplayed in more performance-orientated studies with their claims that the audience was mixed and "included anyone who could afford a ticket." Instead of the category of "citizens," we have a "mixed" audience of certain means with no analysis of the social, political, and economic practices enabling different kinds of spectators (and roughly in what percentages?) to attend the festivals. Despite the rising interest in performance studies and a more sociological approach to drama, the theater audience remains inadequately understood.


Athens was an imperial city at its peak in the middle of the fifth century. It continued to attract foreigners, both Greeks and non-Greeks, from across the Mediterranean throughout the fifth and fourth centuries, and this influx of people contributed to the fabric of society. Recent work on Athenian society has stressed the contribution and presence of non-Athenians, particularly in nonagricultural labor. The at times radically different ways in which metics represented themselves on funerary and dedicatory reliefs reveal a conceptualization of social identity quite different from most citizens. Some metics are shown with clear indications of their often banausic labor: their working-class livelihood is shown as central to the successful life of their household, and the iconography foregrounds the values of industry and craftsmanship.


In contrast, Athenian citizens generally represented themselves as idealized citizens on reliefs (i.e., as elite and void of any direct reference to their livelihood) and in fact were represented in idealized ways on such public monuments as the Parthenon frieze. But even here caution is needed. While there are some examples of Athenian citizens, including some Athenian women, represented in terms of their working-class occupations, the percentage of metics vis-à-vis citizens shown in such scenes is much higher. In such instances as this, the categories of ethnicity, class, and gender overlap, while emphasizing the values of industry and labor rather than citizenship.


The vast number of metic and citizen laborers (not to mention the poor and slaves) in Athens presents us with a sizeable constituency. Some of them entertained quite different notions of identity than those shared by the "noble demos" that is, those (often humble) citizens misrecognizing themselves as elite and identifying with a community diffused with aristocratic values. The implications for the composition of the theater audience are immense. As I argue in detail, the presence of noncitizens in the dramatic festivals of Attica, and not just at the City Dionysia, was far more substantial than has been recognized. Drama's concerns with issues of imperialism and ethnicity need not be restricted to citizens' interests and anxieties. My reassessment of non-Athenians as spectators suggests that such issues were also part of drama's engagement with the concerns of noncitizens.


Attic drama quickly spread from Athens to Greek cities throughout the Mediterranean. Athens was not even guaranteed the first production of a play, as a comment from Aristophanes makes clear: the poet thought Athens worthy to have the first taste of his comedy (Clouds 523). There was a long tradition of poets traveling and performing throughout the Mediterranean, and the biographic traditions of tragic poets point to performances in Magnesia and Macedon (Euripides) as well as Sicily (Aeschylus). There were likely many others; the credibility of such stories is due in large part to the existence of an extensive theater market, in which poets, plays, and performers traveled. South Italian and Sicilian vase paintings show that some dramatic performances there were based on Athenian drama. Yet the appropriation of Attic drama was part of an active process of reception that did not (only) slavishly copy Athenian models. Attic drama clearly sparked great interest among Western Greeks, but these plays could also be "seen" and reinterpreted through local culture and performance traditions.


At the very least, the dissemination and reception of Attic drama elsewhere points to issues other than Athenian citizenship and civic allegiance as the defining attributes of the genre. The evidence for the spread of drama and the development of a veritable theater industry throughout Attica and the Greek-speaking world requires us to rethink the role of the theater and its complex audiences. Just as plays were mobile, so too were people: Athens was an imperial city for much of the fifth century and continued to attract a significant number of foreigners.


Although there has thus been some scholarship written in the wake of and in critical response to Athenocentric studies, the revised and salutary focus on Panhellenic ideals and non-Athenian (but Greek) audiences ignores the complexity of audiences in Athens itself. Such "Hellenocentric" approaches have the potential to move the study of drama away from the parochialism of Athenocentrism, which at times bordered on state propaganda. Nevertheless, Hellenocentrism runs the risk of reproducing the ills of Eurocentrism with a discursive framework that ignores class, silences ethnic "minorities" (i.e., when viewed from the perspective of Europe, Greece, or Athens), and isolates a particular kind of culture (Athenian, Greek) from the interference and resultant adulteration with other cultures and people from across the Mediterranean. Even if scholars are increasingly receptive to the idea that Attic drama itself spread and was performed in other cities, the danger is that the specter of difference is thereby displaced onto other (non-Athenian) Greek communities rather than explored as a contributing factor to cultural production and the formation of ideas about the social in Athens.


At stake in evaluating the evidence for the composition of the audience is the reclaiming of radically different ways of conceptualizing and understanding dramatic performance. If the insights of the best work in Reception Studies reveal a new or otherwise silenced perspectives on the ancient world, a comprehensive study of the theater audience can also contribute to the project of opening up ancient drama to its complex engagement with the poor, women, foreigners, etc., in addition to those elite citizens in the audience. A more comprehensive understanding of the ancient theater audience provides some grounding for the exploration of many issues raised by postcolonial studies in ancient drama itself. Thus, for example, the hybrid quality of ancient drama could serve to exceed and critique affirmation or contestation of Athenian civic values by introducing elements that were otherwise unrepresentable in a dominant culture founded on citizenship. The hybridization manifest in Euripides' Mysian hero, Telephus, through the specific political actions he performs, reveals a profound ambivalence concerning ethnic identity and social status. Telephus' agency while disguised as a beggar and with his intimate connections with "barbarians" can be seen as a site of resistance to the idea of the "noble demos" and the dominant ideology in Athens.


Part of my study thus aims to "provincialize" Athens and its citizens in the study of Athenian drama. As I have suggested, there is evidence for quite different conceptions of identity and social values among the various social groups in Athens. The presence of a number of subaltern groups in significant numbers in the theater, perhaps even the majority of the total audience, can thus open up the study of drama to more careful analyses of the incorporation of competing (even if otherwise occluded) values in dramatic performances and the precise ways in which theater worked.


Establishing the composition of the audiences is the sine qua non of any study of the theater, but the stakes involved in Greek drama are particularly significant. The putative origins of drama have often been traced back to the Greek theater, which is in turn used as a model when examining the performance traditions of other cultures. Reassessing the composition of the audience in Athens can help qualify this theater's "target" audience and give further nuance to the various political and cultural uses to which the ancient world has been put, with drama often serving a central role in these discussions. This leads directly to the next section: What can we say about the population of Athens? The answer is fortunately better than "not much."


People in Athens


In Aristotle's discussion of how the best state is to be constituted, the first question concerns population. The most important issue is how many and what kind of people should belong to the state (Politics 1326a5–7). While for Aristotle the most important part is the citizen body (1326a21–22), his question does include consideration of different kinds of people (i.e., what kind). Nonetheless, according to Aristotle, a state should not be judged by the size of its metics, foreigners, and slaves, since it is the superiority of the number of citizens that makes a state great. The question of the population was important for Aristotle's reflections on the ideal state: not only its size but its composition.


There is little direct evidence for Attic demography. As a result, the precise size of the population in Athens has been the subject of intense debate and controversy. Despite the general absence of reliable numbers and statistics, we can nevertheless ascertain the rough size of the population and, perhaps more importantly, the magnitude of some of the changes throughout the Classical and early Hellenistic periods.


The total population of Athens—including men and women, citizens, slaves, and metics—increased in size from the start of the fifth century until the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC. These years represented the zenith of the Athenian empire, and it is thus plausible not only that conditions were favorable for an increase in the birth rate and mortality but also that more foreigners came to Athens during these years out of economic and political interests. It is estimated that around 480 BC there were 25,000–30,000 Athenian citizens and that by the start of the Peloponnesian War the population grew to 40,000–60,000. The number of "citizen" or "Athenian" women was presumably in keeping with the magnitude of citizen males. The total population probably ranged between 250,000 and 400,000: a relatively uncontroversial estimate pegs it around 300,000.


Citizens were in the minority. The total number of slaves preserved in Athenaeus (400,000 slaves in the late fourth century) and Hyperides (more than 150,000), or attributed to the fifth-century general Nicias (1,000) or the wealthy Callias (600) are not to be accepted uncritically, but they do attest their significant numbers. A slave population of the magnitude of 100,000 is not unlikely. Some evidence indicates that there were 10,000 metics in the later fourth century, and this has been plausibly interpreted as referring to able-bodied metics, thus suggesting a total population around 40,000. Fifth-century metic numbers were doubtless higher. The number of citizens was significantly dwarfed by the total size of the population (i.e., including women, metics, slaves).


Population size appears to have remained relatively consistent throughout the fourth century following the losses suffered during the Peloponnesian War. By the end of the war in 403 BC, Athens had lost from one-third to one-half of its population, with the total number of citizens closer to 25,000. With a modest annual increase, however, the population may have increased to about 30,000 in the middle of the fourth century. Some statistics, provided by Ctesicles (preserved in Athenaeus), indicate that during the reign of Demetrius of Phaleron (317–307 BC) an "examination" of the population indicated that the number of Athenians was 21,000; metics, 10,000; and slaves, 400,000. It has been plausibly argued that Demetrius' examination was done for the purpose of reviewing the number of citizens of military age, and thus the total number of citizens was closer to 30,000, not 20,000. With this baseline number for citizen males, it is likely that the total population of Athens by the end of the fourth century was about 210,000. The institution of a wealth requirement for citizenship by Antipater in 322 BC and later by Demetrius caused mass emigrations of poorer citizens. Such movements of people at the end of the fourth century have been rightly seen to "defy calculation."


Citizens were vastly outnumbered, but the composition or structure of this citizen population needs to be unpacked. Although many people were agricultural laborers located outside the urban center, an increasing number of laborers also came to inhabit the urban center. It is also important to note the presence of commercial activity in the suburban demes: craftsmen and markets were part of life outside the city center, and the high density of land occupation even in some of the outlying demes contributed to the level of nonagricultural activity. The critique in Xenophon of the presence among the citizenry of cobblers, tradesmen, fullers, and anyone who buys cheap and sells dear in the Assembly reveals a perceived shift in demographics and the perhaps-increased visibility of laborers and "sellers." The evidence for the various kinds of workers connected with the agora and the various professions attested in ancient sources indicates the substantial presence of laborers. The apparent increase in the number of lower-class laborers (thêtes) throughout the fifth century doubtless altered the face of the city. Finally, since metics could not own land in Athens, many (if not most) would have been directly involved in commercial business in the agora, while others likely contributed to the number of available laborers. In addition to agricultural workers, laborers in different guises and of different social statuses were prominent in Athens.


Laborers and farmers, who worked daily for their subsistence, made up the majority of the population. But a small percentage of wealthy families was directly involved in the running of the polis, cultural production, and the maintenance of unequal property and economic relations. One way of estimating the number of wealthy families is to consider those capable of performing liturgies, namely, large public works projects such as the funding of a dramatic or dithyrambic chorus (khorêgia) or the funding of a naval vessel (trierarkhia) or the payment of war taxes (eisphora). The estimates for the number of households capable of paying either liturgies (300) or war taxes (2000) reveal the relatively small number of wealthy families in comparison with the citizen body, not to mention the total population. Some individuals in Athens who could afford to fund liturgies, however, clearly did not do so: they preferred to hide their wealth. Additional indications of wealth derive from sources attesting the ownership of exotic slaves or vast numbers of them, the consumption of expensive food, wearing sumptuous and foreign clothing, and lavish living in general. Although the exact numbers (again) escape us, the magnitude of the imbalance of wealth does not: the vast majority of the population was not wealthy and not citizens. As I discuss below, the broad demand for theater among the population at large and the size of the theatron and available spaces for viewing made it impossible for the theater audience not to represent in part this imbalance in citizen/noncitizen numbers and in wealth distribution.


Overview of the Book


This sketch of the demography of fifth- and fourth-century Athens provides some context for my analysis of the rising authority of the theater audience and its composition in terms of class, ethnicity and social status, and gender. While certain aspects of ancient Athens and its theater defy easy generalizations, the evidence marshaled here is, nonetheless, crucial for the window it opens up for different conceptions of the audience and its relationship with dramatic production. Where certainty is not attainable, we must understand what is possible at a given historical moment.


In Chapter 1, I examine the representation of the audience and explore the techniques and stakes involved in the necessary negotiation of spectators' interests. The various officials, performers, poets, and stagehands involved in dramatic productions doubtless shared some ideas on the relationship between performance and audience, but they had somewhat different interests at times in the theater industry. While the plays constructed a series of favorable roles for the spectators to play, there was much critical discussion in antiquity of the audience's enactment of these roles. Spectators were, however, increasingly recognized as arbiters of the dramatic competition. Critical views of the audience rebuked drama's indiscriminate appeal and the empowering effects of festival attendance, thus throwing into high relief the audience's adjudicatory role. These critics flesh out the intimate connections between drama and the politicization of culture, on the one hand, and the fundamental authority of the collective audience, on the other hand.


The available space for spectators shaped in part audience composition. In Chapter 2, I review the various spaces for viewing dramatic performances and the mapping of some of the city's main social and political divisions in the theatron. Space emerges, not surprisingly, as a key factor in assessing ancient audiences. The early theaters in Athens and in the demes were roughly divided into three sections: one for those receiving the privilege of front seating (prohedria), one for those paying for seats in the theatron, and one for those who watched from alternative spaces. The ways in which Athenians built seating for spectators was typically related to the charging of fees for seats in the theatron. But alternative viewing spaces, those unofficial and unregulated areas that have curiously fallen out of recent discussions of the theater, enabled a sizeable number of spectators to watch for free.


The potentially helter-skelter audience assembled in these unofficial sites contrasted sharply with the special seating reserved for various city officials and public benefactors down front. Although some of the civic and political divisions of the city were thus reflected in seating arrangements down front, elsewhere in the theater Athenians were not organized by tribal status or citizenship. In the later fourth century with the expansion (and rebuilding) of many theaters, there was a marked increase in the number of designated sections. At the same time, the city eliminated free viewing spaces above the theatron: all spectators not granted prohedria were now required to pay for a seat to watch the performances. As I argue, the architecture and topography of theaters created various spaces for spectators, and the changing historical conditions of these spaces determined in part the sociology of audiences.


If space emerges as key concept in the shaping of audiences, money and theater finances further defined the makeup of the audience. The charging for seats, as noted above, created financial barriers to attending the dramatic festivals. For as long as they lasted, unofficial spaces provided one way around entrance fees. But the state also distributed money to citizens for their festival attendance. In Chapter 3, I discuss these distributions (theorika) and their implications for the class composition of the audience. The dating of the introduction of these distributions has been subject to intense debate; at stake is the presence of poor citizens at the dramatic festivals. In the mid fourth century, the rebuilding of the Theater of Dionysus and the expansion of many deme theaters effectively monetized the entire audience, and it is at this point that we hear of the Theoric Fund as the financial body responsible for theorika.


As I argue, however, the history of these distributions was more complex and part of a gradual development in state finance. Intermittent fifth-century theoric distributions provided citizens with cash for the festival from an early date, but these distributions became institutionalized only around the time of the rebuilding of the theater. Changes in space and economics were crucial factors determining the constitution of audiences and affected spectators' relationship with dramatic performance. Subsequent political and social upheavals in Hellenistic Athens further contributed to broader changes in spectators' attitudes to the theater. While the enlarged theater was capable of holding thousands more paying spectators in the early Hellenistic period, the intensified diffusion of elite values rendered the audience more ideologically homogenous.


After my discussion of space and economics, I turn in Chapter 4 to the presence of metics, slaves, and foreigners in the theater. My study assembles the evidence for noncitizen spectators from a varied collection of texts (i.e., historical, literary, epigraphic) and ranges more broadly in its interrogation of the extent of noncitizens' participation at dramatic festivals. With its imperial trappings, the premier festival, the City Dionysia, may have had a more "international" feel to it, but the evidence for noncitizens as spectators and their participation in the theater reveals that all dramatic festivals in Attica were much more international than has been acknowledged. The diverse ethnic origins of "theater workers" (e.g., musicians), various financial sponsors, and trainers, as well as the participation of slaves, put a significant noncitizen presence right at the heart of theater production.


The handling of locales beyond Athens in drama reflects this internationalization of local audiences in Athens. The city of Thebes, for example, emerges as complex site of contestation among potential noncitizen theatergoers. Such diversity of spectators among the audience significantly qualifies the notion that such foreign cities in drama were simply a means for citizen spectators to define themselves through opposition. And yet, even the demos was subject to adulteration. Although naturalization in Athens was limited, the process by definition created Athenian citizens out of noncitizens. In this light, the select segmentation of audience members by the city down front in prohedria may have served as a counterpoint to the visible cosmopolitanism in festival audiences and to the questionable social status of many theatergoers.


In addition to class and civic identity, gender was an important fault line of Attic society. In Chapter 5, I examine the issue of women's presence in the theater audience. This topic has a long history in Classical scholarship, and my analysis includes a critical study of its historiography. Part of the problem is the Enlightenment shadow that hangs over the issue: moral prejudices concerning women in public have ossified into commonsensical assumptions about Athenian practices. As a result, much of the available evidence has been dismissed by some scholars who deny the presence of female spectators, while other scholars in favor of women's attendance have paid insufficient attention to the ideological positioning of our sources; doubts remain concerning women's attendance.


My discussion starts out with a brief analysis of some late sources supporting women's theater attendance. These late sources support earlier evidence for the absence of any restrictions on women's attendance; some of them betray the influence of elite ideals in their construction of the audience. However, attending the theater—itself embodying a complex combination of ritual and civic components—posed no problem for the majority of women in Athens who interacted with the public "masses" not only through their quasi-political performance of ritual but also through their extensive work outside the house (e.g., in the agora). As I argue, class considerations intersect closely with the question of women's attendance.


The main sources of evidence for women's attendance, Aristophanes and Plato, present additional problems. Since they are notoriously difficult to pin down, predictably the significance of their testimony has been hotly contested. My approach is to contextualize these two sources within an evolving tradition of critical reception on theater audiences and Athenian politics. Comedy was not concerned with differentiating audience members according to gender, but by turning the presence or absence of women into a source of dramatic material, comedy played with a topical and contentious issue. Women's attendance was a bone of contention in part because of its utility in more conservative attacks, as in Plato, on the cultural sphere of the radical democracy. This critical tradition explains in part the specific ways in which comedy engages with the issue of women in the audience.


In this book I have thus not attempted to rewrite our understanding of ancient drama from the perspective of the poor, noncitizens, foreigners, or women. Rather, with this study I hope to have shown that our models of the theater in ancient Athens need to be revised to include the multiple perspectives derived from quite differently constituted groups of people. The process of determining "whose theater" we mean when we discuss ancient drama unearths a complex history of the role of the theater in society and the agency of spectators. More broadly, the study of audience composition provides a window onto the historical relationship between culture and the state. Accordingly, I seek to salvage the role of the socially and politically marginal in Athenian theatrical production and hope to rescue them from the "enormous condescension of posterity."



“Roselli does not hide the fragmentary and contradictory state of the evidence for ancient audiences, and he takes important steps towards reconciling and explaining much of it. Although he discusses some modern theoretical frameworks for understanding theater audiences, particularly in his introduction and first chapter, he does not allow unifying theories to guide the inclusion or exclusion of evidence. The result is a rich and winding path through a huge amount of material.”


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