A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. — Alexander Pope

Story of the Greeks - Helene Guerber

The First Plays

In the days of Solon, men were often to be seen wandering around the streets during the festival of Dionysus, god of wine. They were clad in goatskins, were smeared with the dregs of wine, and danced and sang rude songs in honor of their god.

theatre of Dionysus
Theater of Dionysus.

These songs were called tragedies, which in Greek means "goat song," because the goat was sacred to the god whom they thus worshiped. The people were greatly amused by the rude songs and dances of these worshipers of Dionysus, and crowds gathered about them to listen to their singing and to watch their antics.

Thespis, a Greek of great intelligence, noticed how popular these amusements were, and to please the public taste he set up the first rude theater. In the beginning it was only a few boards raised on trestles to form a sort of stage in the open air; but Thespis soon built a booth, so that the actors, when not on the stage, could be hidden from public view.

The first plays, as already stated were very simple, and consisted of popular songs rudely acted. Little by little, however, the plays became more and more elaborate, and the actors tried to represent some of the tales which the story-tellers had told.

Some people did not approve of this kind of amusement; and among them was Solon, who said that Thespis was teaching the Athenians to love a lie, because they liked the plays, which, of course, were not true.

In spite of Solon's displeasure, the actors went on playing, and soon the best poets began to write works for the stage. The actors became more and more skillful, and had many spectators, although no women were allowed on the stage, their parts being taken by men.

Finally, to make room for the ever-increasing number of theater goers, a huge amphitheater was built. It was so large, we are told, that there were seats for thirty thousand spectators. These seats were in semicircular rows or tiers, of which there were one hundred, rising one above another. The lowest row of all, near the orchestra, was composed of sixty huge marble chairs. The amphitheater was open to the sky, the stage alone being covered with a roof; and all the plays were given by daylight. The ruins of this building, which is known as the Theater of Dionysus, were dug out in 1862, and are now often visited by people who go to Athens.

The Greek actors soon dressed in costume, and all wore masks expressing the various emotions they wished to represent. The principal parts of the play were recited; but from time to time singers came on the stage, and chanted parts of the play in chorus.


Some of these plays were so sad that the whole audience was melted to tears; others were so funny that the people shouted with laughter. When you learn Greek, you will be able to read the grand tragedies which were written by Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedies or funny plays of Aristophanes.


Front Matter

Early Inhabitants of Greece
The Deluge of Ogyges
Founding of Important Cities
Story of Deucalion
Daedalus and Icarus
The Adventures of Jason
Theseus Visits the Labyrinth
The Terrible Prophecy
The Sphinx's Riddle
Death of Oedipus
The Brothers' Quarrel
The Taking of Thebes
The Childhood of Paris
Muster of the Troops
Sacrifice of Iphigenia
The Wrath of Achilles
Death of Hector and Achilles
The Burning of Troy
Heroic Death of Codrus
The Blind Poet
The Rise of Sparta
The Spartan Training
The Brave Spartan Boy
Public Tables in Sparta
Laws of Lycurgus
The Messenian War
The Music of Tyrtaeus
Aristomenes' Escape
The Olympic Games
Milo of Croton
The Jealous Athlete
The Girls' Games
The Bloody Laws of Draco
The Laws of Solon
The First Plays
The Tyrant Pisistratus
The Tyrant's Insult
Death of the Conspirators
Hippias Driven out of Athens
The Great King
Hippias Visits Darius
Destruction of the Persian Host
Advance of the Second Host
The Battle of Marathon
Miltiades' Disgrace
Aristides the Just
Two Noble Spartan Youths
The Great Army
Preparations for Defense
Leonidas at Thermopylae
Death of Leonidas
The Burning of Athens
Battles of Salamis and Plataea
The Rebuilding of Athens
Death of Pausanias
Cimon Improves Athens
The Earthquake
The Age of Pericles
Teachings of Anaxagoras
Peloponnesian War Begins
Death of Pericles
The Philosopher Socrates
Socrates' Favorite Pupil
Youth of Alcibiades
Greek Colonies in Italy
Alcibiades in Disgrace
Death of Alcibiades
Overthrow of Thirty Tyrants
Accusation of Socrates
Death of Socrates
The Defeat of Cyrus
Retreat of the Ten Thousand
Agesilaus in Asia
A Strange Interview
The Peace of Antalcidas
The Theban Friends
Thebes Free Once More
The Battle of Leuctra
Death of Pelopidas
The Battle of Mantinea
The Tyrant of Syracuse
Damon and Pythias
The Sword of Damocles
Dion and Dionysius
Civil War in Syracuse
Death of Dion
Philip of Macedon
Philip Begins His Conquests
The Orator Demosthenes
Philip Masters Greece
Birth of Alexander
The Steed Bucephalus
Alexander as King
Alexander and Diogenes
Alexander's Beginning
The Gordian Knot
Alexander's Royal Captives
Alexander at Jerusalem
The African Desert
Death of Darius
Defeat of Porus
Return to Babylon
Death of Alexander
Division of the Realm
Death of Demosthenes
Last of the Athenians
The Colossus of Rhodes
The Battle of Ipsus
Demetrius and the Athenians
The Achaean League
Division in Sparta
Death of Agis
War of the Two Leagues
The Last of the Greeks
Greece a Roman Province