A generic name in Greek antiquity for festivals dedicated to Dionysus. In Athens the term referred to the ‘City Dionysia’ or ‘Great Dionysia’, whereas festivals held in the townships (demes) of Attica are now collectively known as ‘Rural Dionysia’. Scholars have generally dated the creation of the City Dionysia at 534 bc when, according to tradition, 'Thespis, the poet, who directed a drama in the city, first acted'. Many now place the festival later, soon after 508 in the early years of Athenian democracy, in line with a trend to see strong links between drama and democratic ideology. Certainly this later date coincides with the first reliable records for dramatic performances and the earliest archaeological evidence for theatres. Excepting the Panathenaea, the City Dionysia was the most important festival of the Athenian calendar. It took place in Elaphebolion (late March). At the Proagon, poets, accompanied by their uncostumed actors and choruses, ‘spoke about their compositions’. Religious festivities began next day with a procession in which the icon of Dionysus was taken from his shrine by his theatre to the Academy, a grove outside the city, and after hymns and sacrifice was returned to the theatre by torchlight. The official festival began two days later when an elaborate parade (Pompe) transported hundreds of sacrificial beasts, bread, cakes, and wine from the Dipylon gates to the theatre. A carnival atmosphere was encouraged by drink, satyr costume, and a series of large, decorated, and sometimes mechanically animated phallus-poles, carried by men in erect-phallic costumes who danced under the weight of the pole and sang suitably obscene (and partially improvised) lyrics.
The order of events that followed is disputed and may have varied. Twenty dithyrambs probably followed the sacrifice (presumably while the meat was cooked and served), performed by choruses of 50 boys and 50 men, all citizen volunteers trained by each of Athens's ten ‘tribes’. The following three or four days were given over to competitions for five comedies (sometimes perhaps three) and three sets of three tragedies. The tragedies were followed originally by a satyr-play, later often by a fourth tragedy. Time was also found for lengthy civic ceremonies (purificatory sacrifice, libations, announcements of public honours, parades of war-orphans, and displays of tribute from the empire, not to mention elaborate ceremonies for the selection of the contest judges, the judging, the awarding of prizes, sacrifices and victory feasts in the sanctuary).
The prize was for the production: a single judgement determined the victorious poet (who was usually also the director) and chorus. The prize for the chorus was honorific and given to the choregus (a wealthy citizen obliged to organize and pay for the chorus). Victorious poet-directors were crowned with ivy in the theatre but afterwards received substantial honoraria. A comic competition was added to the festival in 486 bc, while prizes for tragic actors, independent of the success of the production, were added around 449. Revivals of ‘Old Tragedies’, ‘Old Comedies’, and ‘Old Satyr-Plays’ preceded the dramatic competitions for the first time in 386, 339, and by 340, respectively, and soon became regular events in the programme and eventually formed separate competitions. By 341 tragedians performed with three tragedies only and no satyr-play. Prizes for comic actors were not included until sometime between 329 and 312 bc. The evidence grows ever sparser with each succeeding century, but tragedy and comedy probably continued to be part of the Athenian Dionysia until the second century of the Christian era.
The Rural Dionysia were possibly celebrated by all 139 Attic demes, but we have evidence for only about sixteen. They took place in the month of Posideion (December). Plato speaks of enthusiasts running around to all the Dionysia ‘without missing a single one’, which suggests some attempt to coordinate the festival calendar. Rural Dionysia included phallic processions, sacrifices, and communal drinking and eating, to which other entertainments might be added, ranging from dancing on greased wineskins to dramatic competitions. Six Rural Dionysia attest both tragedy and comedy, four tragedy only, and one comedy only; the full slate of dithyrambic, tragic, and comic competitions is known only from the three largest demes. The number of competitors in each genre was generally smaller than at the City Dionysia: we know of only two competitors in tragedy and three in dithyramb. There is no evidence for the satyr-play at the rural festivals. Despite the common assumption that the rural festivals were derivative and second rate, the evidence regularly attests to the participation of top performers.