Drama in ancient Greece

Drama Depicted on Pottery

The relation of vase-paintings to the drama has already been discussed in Chapter XI., in which it has been shown how the tragedies of Euripides and the farces of Rhinthon influenced the artists of Southern Italy. It may, however, be worth while to recapitulate here the actual representations of actors or of scenes taking place on a stage, together with some account of the numerous burlesques of mythical subjects.

On one curious B.F. vase (probably late and imitative) we see a rude representation of a tragic and a comic chorus, and occasionally on vases of this period we find figures of actors dressed up as birds, or otherwise in comic fashion. More important in this connection are the fifth-century vases found on the site of the Cabeiric temple at Thebes, several of which have parodies of well-known subjects, such as Odysseus and Kirke, or Peleus bringing the young Achilles to Cheiron. It seems probable that these scenes are actual reproductions of burlesque performances connected with the worship of the Kabeiri.

We look in vain for representations of scenes from Aristophanes and the Old Comedy, though there are one or two vases which recall (if nothing more) episodes in the Acharnians  and Frogs . But for the rest, these comic scenes are almost confined to the vases of Southern Italy, especially those made at Paestum, with their presentations of the φλύακες or fourth-century farces. A fairly exhaustive list of these was made some years ago by Heydemann, and probably requires little emendation as yet; we repeat below a number of the more interesting subjects, and others may be collected from the foregoing pages in which myths are burlesqued (the Judgment of Paris, the apotheosis of Herakles, Oedipus and the Sphinx, etc.).


Other scenes represent single figures, such as Herakles, or Taras on the dolphin; or subjects from farces of daily life, such as an actor with a table of cakes or the drunken return from a revel. Many scenes, again, have some reference to the Satyric drama, as on the fine vase in Naples, where Dionysos and other figures attend the preparations for a performance of that kind; or such scenes as that of Hera and Iris attacked by Seileni, or those relating to adventures of Herakles and Perseus with Satyrs. Other subjects have no particular significance, such as an actor attired as a Seilenos playing on the flute, or dancing, or with a Sphinx, groups of actors (in one case dressing), a comic actor among Satyrs and Maenads, and single figures. Some, which are apparently mythological, defy explanation.

The influence of Tragedy on vase-paintings is an indirect one, and entirely confined to the vases of Southern Italy on the one hand, and to the plays of Euripides on the other. The subject has been discussed at length elsewhere in this work, and it is unnecessary here to give a list of the subjects on South Italian vases which can be traced to the influence of Euripides. It has also been pointed out that this influence made itself felt, not only in the actual choice of subjects, but generally in their treatment and arrangement, in the quasi-architectural setting of many scenes, and in the elaborate costumes of the figures.