Great Dionysia Festival

January 22, 2005 · updated February 15, 2022

Many festivals of Dionysus were held in ancient Greece; this article concerns the major Dionysian festival known as Great Dionysia or City Dionysia. This festival is highly significant as the origin of dramatic tragedy and comedy.

The Great Dionysia is thought to have been founded, or at least revived, by the tyrant Pisistratus (c. 530 BCE). It was held in Athens at the end of March, when the city was once again full of visitors after the winter. The festival honored Dionysus Eleuthereus, who was said to have been introduced into Athens from the village of Eleuterae.

The first event of the festival was a procession bearing an image of Dionysus to the theater (on the south slope of the Acropolis) to commemorate his original arrival in Athens. This was followed on the 10th of Elaphebolion by another procession, which followed an unknown route to the sacred area next to the theater. Participants in the procession carried phallic symbols, loaves, bowls, and other sacred objects, and the resident foreigners dressed in red. At the end of the procession, animals were sacrificed and bloodless offerings were made.

The theatrical contents took place from the 11th to the 14th of Elaphebolion. At some point before the performance of the tragedies, the sons of citizens killed in battle were paraded aroud the theater, as was the tribute brought by Athens' allies. Three tragic poets then presented three tragedies on a single theme plus one satyr play (a burlesque comedy serving as comic relief). Judges, who were chosen by lot, would then award a prize to the best poet.

The comedy competition was introduced in 486 BCE, and followed the tragic contest. Five comic poets competed, each with a single play. Each of the ten tribes also provided one dithyrambic chorus for the men's contest and one for the boys' contest.


    - "Dionysia." Price, Simon and Emily Kearns, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion (Oxford UP, 2003), p. 35. - "Great Dionysia." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 22 Jan. 2005 <>.