200 years of Oxford rowing

IT IS BELIEVED that recreational rowing at Oxford began around the 1760s but the first Summer Eights (eight rowers, one cox) Head of the River race took place between my College, Brasenose (see December 20 post) and Jesus College in 1815, exactly 200 years ago, a few months before the Battle of Waterloo. Brasenose won to become the very first ‘Head of the River’. To commemorate the anniversary of this achievement there was a ‘re-enactment’ of the event at Oxford this weekend (Saturday 30th May). I say ‘re-enactment’ – it was not intended to be an exact re-enactment as Jesus (College that is) had every intention of winning this time around. Well, they didn’t. In fact they rather lost it right in front of their own boathouse (‘caught a crab’). So Brasenose were victors again but it was all in good fun.

bnc race

Brasenose crew (foreground) on their way to victory; Jesus (background) about to ‘catch a crab’ in front of their own boathouse

At the end of this post you can click on a link for a video of a brief part of the race

The crews dressed in true 1815 style and used wooden boats of that era. Back in the 19th century the ‘bumps’ (see below) races began within Iffley Lock and ended at a finishing line marked by a flagpole on Mr Isaac King’s barge off Christ Church Meadow (not far from the current finishing line).


Before the race: the crews dressed in 1815 style kit (Brasenose, left, discarded their black and gold stripey jumpers for the race –  as can be seen in photo above)

There had been previous races but they had been between professional watermen (such as Ranelagh Regatta of 1775) but the 1815 race was the first recorded between two boat clubs. So Brasenose College and Jesus College Boat Clubs are the oldest known competitive amateur rowing clubs in the world. The two Colleges raced again the following year in 1816 and again Brasenose won. In 1817 they were joined by Christ Church who won three years running. There is no record of the race in 1820 but in 1821 there was no Christ Church boat and it was just Brasenose and Jesus again with another victory for Brasenose. In 1822 Brasenose were bumped by Jesus but the Brasenose crew continued rowing and attempted to haul down the Jesus flag. Bit unsporting – but there were no definite rules then! A rematch took place and Brasenose won. Christ Church returned in 1824, along with Exeter College, and the tradition of Eights was established and as the years went on more Colleges became involved. (My thanks to William O’Chee and Christopher Seward for this info).


‘The earliest-known scene of a race between two eight-oared boats at Oxford University. It has been suggested that the picture shows the “disputed bump” of the 1822 race between Jesus College and Brasenose College’

Now obviously the River Thames that flows through Oxford is far too narrow for boats to actually race side-by-side (around 30-40 m in width), so in 1826 bumping rules were devised. This means that each boat starts 130 feet in front of another and the idea is for the one behind to catch the one in front and ‘bump’ it. When this happens the two boats swap places for the next race (next day) and boats can work their way up the order over a week (which is why it’s called ‘Eights Week’). The one at the head at the end of the week is ‘Head of the River’.

Postcard dated 1915 – 100 years ago and 100 after Brasenose v Jesus

Initially all racing stopped behind the first boat to be bumped and only the boats ahead carried on to try and achieve their own bump. After 1840 a new system of bumping was introduced: when a boat was bumped it had to pull over to the river bank so boats still racing behind could continue. During the 1870s, the 20 or so Colleges competing were divided into two divisions. In 1908 Colleges were able to submit second crews of eight. Now all 39 Colleges are involved with three or four teams and there are seven men’s divisions and six women’s divisions. This, of course, makes it more difficult to become Head of the River. Brasenose last managed this in the 1930s and now it is presently in Division II. I was told on Saturday that it will be at least 16 years before it could contest for the Head of the River again based on the bumping rules. However, in case you didn’t read my December post on Brasenose, I would mention that since the races began in 1815, Brasenose runs 3rd with 23 victories as the ‘Head of the River’ (Oriel is 2nd with 30, Christ Church is 1st with 33).

Rowing in Oxford – early days

Women’s rowing had existed at the University since the 1920s (and some women were allowed to join the men’s crews) but there were no solely women’s crews until 1969 when St Hilda’s College entered with an all women crew. Then, after all-male Colleges began admitting women in the mid-1970s, a women’s division was introduced in 1976. Women have been coxing men’s crews for many years (and vice-versa).

ox boathses

Some of the College boathouses (Brasenose to the left with the white & yellow flag hanging from the balcony)

So there you have it. I’m sure you were aching to know all about Oxford rowing races. I did try it once but they didn’t ask me again (okay, I was a little older than the average student).

bnc grdn prty

 30th May 2015: The Brasenose and Jesus Garden Party opposite the river to commemorate the race 200 years before

 Click here for a brief part of the race – just as Jesus ‘catch a crab’



Don’t you just love Oxford – well, Sarah and I do …….


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I have discovered another volume of Artemus’ notebooks (followers will recall Dr Artemus Smith was an archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction). Here is an extract:

The wife of one of my colleagues is an maths teacher to 11-12 year olds.  She had asked her class a mathematical question:

“A wealthy man dies and leaves ten million pounds. One-fifth is to go to his wife, one-fifth is to go to his son, one-sixth to his butler, and the rest to charity. Now, what does each get?”

After a very long silence in the classroom, young Morris raised his hand.

My colleague’s wife called on young Morris for his answer.

With complete sincerity in his voice, young Morris answered, “A lawyer”



The other ‘Great Escape’

LAST August I talked about the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III and the film (‘Hollywood fact or fiction?’). I’ve since found another ‘Great Escape’ which I thought I might share with you. It’s mentioned in the Book of Heroic Failures under ‘The Worst Prison Guards’.

The escape of 124 prisoners from the Alcoentre maximum security prison near Lisbon in Portugal took place in July 1978. This was half the prison’s population and a record for the largest number of convicts to escape simultaneously from a prison (only 70 from Stalag Luft III but they were not, of course, convicts but POWs). If you read my August post on the Stalag Luft III escape you will recall the remarkable list of missing items undetected by the Germans. The Alcoentre list was nothing like as impressive but it did include 220 knives, a large quantity of electric cable, spades, chisels, water hoses and electric drills. A  guard explained, “Yes, we were planning to look for them but never got around to it.”

Estabelecimento Prisional de Alcoentre (the prison)

What else the guards had not noticed were gaping holes in the wall which had been covered over with posters (reminiscent of the The Shawshank Redemption?). The night before the breakout one guard realised that only 13 of his 36 prisoners in his block were present. He said that was normal because inmates sometimes missed roll-call or hid but usually came back in the morning.  (That’s very good of them).

Poster covering hole in wall in The Shawshank Redemption – nothing new with that

A warder then announced, “We only found out about the escape at 6.30 the next morning when one of the prisoners told us.” (I’m surprised there was one left to tell anyone). Then the warder added, “The searchlights were our worst enemy because they had been directed at the guards’ faces and dazzled them making it impossible to see anything around the prison wall.” Easy mistake to make.


What escaping prisoners?

By way of explanation, the Portuguese Justice Minister, Dr Santos Pais, claimed that the escape was ‘normal’ and part of the “legitimate desire of the prisoner to regain his liberty.”   Oh, that’s all right then.


Then there was the most unsuccessful escape. In Northern Mexico, 75 prisoners carefully planned an escape from Satillo Prison. In the November of 1975 they began digging a secret tunnel designed to bring them up on the other side of the prison wall. 5 months later, and guided by sheer genius, they emerged in the nearby courtroom where most of them had been sentenced. The surprised judge returned them all to their confinement.


We’re free …..Oh

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I have discovered another volume of Artemus’ notebooks (followers will recall Dr Artemus Smith was an archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction). Here is an extract:

Three of us were chatting about funerals and one of my companions asked,”When you are in your casket and friends and family are talking about you, what would you like them to say?

I said, “I would like to hear that I was a great and enterprising archaeologist with outstanding knowledge.” 

My first colleague said, “I would like to hear them say that I was a a wonderful lecturer who made a huge difference to the students of my time.”

My other colleague said, “I would like to hear them say … ‘Look, he’s breathing!'”


Outlander – and the Jacobite Rebellion

HAVE YOU been watching Outlander?  It’s on Amazon Prime and I don’t normally watch Sci-Fi but I sort of got drawn into this one. It’s about a woman who, on her honeymoon in Scotland just after the 2nd World War, visits a mysterious ancient stone circle and is transported back to 1743 (I’m sure it happens all the time). She finds herself embroiled in the build-up to the Jacobite Rebellion. Coincidently (or not) she meets up with an ancestor of her husband’s who turns out to be a nasty piece of work (the ancestor not the husband). She ends up with a motley bunch from the Clan Mackenzie but marries Jamie, a member of the Clan Fraser (it’s complicated). The lawyer in me idly wondered if you could be guilty of bigamy if you married ‘again’ but some 250 years before your first husband was born ….

Now, about the future …. 

Just in case one or more of you may also have recently appeared from another time warp, the Jacobites (Jacobus – Latin for James) were supporters of Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie [1]) and his desire to regain the English/Scottish throne for the Stuarts. The Stuarts came to the English throne under James I (formerly known as James VI of Scotland) following the death of Elizabeth I (who left no Tudor heirs). The Stuarts reigned until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when Parliament passed legislation prohibiting Roman Catholics from the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland [2]. James II was accordingly deposed as king as a result. The Stuarts sort of continued (as queens) with James’ daughter, Mary (II) and her husband, William III (of Orange) (both Protestants) and thereafter Anne II (Mary’s sister). The Stuart line then came to an end on Anne’s death in 1714 and along came the House of Hanover with George I.  At the time of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, George II was on the throne.

Lost Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart.jpg

Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788)

Anyway, back to Outlander. I think I can see where this is all going (although I have not yet finished the 1st series and the 2nd series has not been completed and I have not read any of the 8 books – yes 8!). At some point it’s going to encounter the infamous Battle (or massacre) of Culloden in April 1746 …. and will reflect on who of our Scottish ‘heroes’ gets killed. Will Jamie or wont he?  Will any of the motley Mackenzies survive?  Bearing in mind that the total number of Jacobites killed was between 1500-2000 out of some 6000 (compared to the Government losses of about 50) you may want to work out the odds. There’s just one issue – and I don’t want to spoil it for you so, SPOILER ALERT – for those of you who have not turned away:  none of the Mackenzies were at Culloden. This was because they had already been attacked and defeated by the pro-British Government force, the Mackay and Sutherland Independent Highland Companies, at the Battle of Littleferry (aka skirmish at Golspie). This prevented the Mackenzies from an appearance at Culloden (probably just as well for them). Soon after the Littleferry fracas, George Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Cromartie, and his son were captured at Dunrobin Castle and the Earl was sentenced to death but pardoned with his title forfeited. Some other Mackenzies, including a Kenneth Mackenzie, Lord Fortrose, actually took the side of the British Government.  No mention of Outlander’s Colum or Dougal Mackenzie.


George Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Cromartie (1703-1766)

The Frasers of Lovat were at Culloden. The Chief, Simon Fraser, the 11th Lord Lovat, was captured, tried for treason and executed in London the following year. His son, also Simon, escaped and was later pardoned (then joined the British forces in the fighting in Canada in 1750 – a ‘turncoat redcoat’).  Charles Fraser was killed at Culloden; David Fraser of Glen Urquhart (who was deaf and mute) was captured and died in prison; John Fraser (‘McIver’) was wounded and put before a firing squad but a sympathetic British officer, Lord Boyd, who had seen enough killing, rescued him. Good man, Boyd. The Fraser’s residential home, Castle  Dounie, was burnt to the ground.  But no mention of Outlander’s Jamie Fraser …..

Stone memorial to the Frasers at Culloden

What do you mean, didn’t I know it’s only fiction? The Jacobite Rebellion was not fiction; Bonnie Prince Charlie was not fiction; time-travel was not ….. okay, some of it may be fiction.



[1] My maternal grandmother was convinced that she was a distant relative of Bonnie Prince Charlie – along with hundreds of others I suspect – but I can’t remember why she had that belief (I thought you would like to know that – now you know were I get it from ….).

[2] The monarchs of England and Scotland came together as monarchs of Great Britain under the Acts of Union 1707 (but you knew that).



When I wrote the above post I was about three-quarters the way through the series of Outlander and it was plodding along quite slowly but quite amicably. I have now seen it to the end. Really, the last two episodes are rather unnecessary and not recommended viewing in my opinion. It all ends with somewhat of an anti-climax and we are not yet at Culloden. And yes, our heroine is intent on trying to change the future (or is that the past?); and no, I probably won’t bother with the 2nd series.


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I have found a scrap of paper which may have fallen from Artemus Smith’s notebook as it relates to another of his tales (followers will recall Dr Artemus Smith was archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction):

A police officer colleague of mine told me of a time when he was waiting in a lay-by on the A22 ready to catch speeding drivers. He saw a car puttering along at well under the 30 mile per hour limit. Says he to himself: “This driver is just as dangerous as a speeder!” So he went in pursuit of the car and pulled it over.

In the car he noticed that there are five old ladies, two in the front seats and three in the back …. all wide eyed and white as ghosts. The driver, obviously confused, said to him, “Officer, I don’t understand, I was doing exactly the speed limit! What seems to be the problem?”

“Ma’am,” he replied, “you were not speeding, but you should know that driving slower than the speed limit can also be a danger to other drivers.”

She responded proudly, “Slower than the speed limit? No sir, I was doing the speed limit exactly, 22 miles an hour!”

My colleague, trying to contain a chuckle, explained to her that A22 is the road number, not the speed limit. A bit embarrassed, the lady grinned sheepishly and thanked him for pointing out her error.

He then said, “But before I let you go, Ma’am, I have to ask, is everyone in this car OK? Your passengers seem awfully shaken, and they haven’t made a sound this whole time.”

“Oh, they’ll be all right in a minute officer. We’ve just come off the A120.”


Alcibiades the Lad

MOVING ON from the 300 Spartans (a couple of posts back), I thought you might be interested in a resourceful, not to mention ambitious, chap called Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles (see 300 Spartan post). He was an ancient Athenian, who was a prolific general during the Peloponnesian War (between Athens and Sparta) which followed the Persian invasion of Greece and the 300 Spartan defence at Thermopylae. What we know of this three-phase war was written by the Athenian historian, Thucydides, whilst he was in exile in Sparta (for his failing in the first phase of the war).

Thucydides (460-395 BC)

Alcibiades came to one’s notice in the second phase of the war – the Sicilian expedition. He was keen to invade Sicily as he considered it easy prey. Syracuse (eastern Sicily) was exerting its power and was threatening Segesta (western Sicily), who was at war with Selinus (southeast Sicily), an ally of Syracuse. Segestia called to Athens for help, warning the Athenians that if Syracuse overran Segesta it would soon rule Sicily and ally with Sparta (fellow Dorians).  However unlikely, it gave Athens ‘food for thought’ that assisted Alcibiades in his cause for war (and glory). The cautious Athenian general, Nicias, was against the war. He considered it unnecessary to seek another conflict (after the first phase of the war) and asked how a government could work successfully so far away; how a revolution could be controlled; and how an army could be sent such a distant with an antagonistic Sparta already on the doorstep? He added that there was no danger from the Sicilians and so why provoke it. The money could be better utilised on home improvements.  Sensible chap.

Bust Alcibiades Musei Capitolini MC1160.jpg

Alcibiades (450-404 BC)

The assembly was swayed by Alcibiades and, with fellow generals, Nicias and Lamachus, preparations were made for the expedition.  However, each had a different plan of attack. Nicias simply wanted to make a show of strength and scare the enemy but there was little point in this idea as it would achieve nothing (basically boring).  Lamachus felt an outright attack on Syracuse to be more appropriate, particularly while Athenian morale was high. In principle, this was a good plan but it was discarded because there was no base from which to moor the ships and gather supplies. Alcibiades suggested that the most sensible way to defeat Syracuse was to incite riot with other cities and gain Messana (northeast coast of Sicily) as an ally.  Lamachus was persuaded to support this notion and so it won the vote.  Unfortunately, it gave Syracuse an opportunity to prepare itself, although, initially, it did not really believe Athens would embark upon such a venture (probably a pretty sensible belief even if to prove false).

Nicias (470-413 BC)

In 415 BC, a force of one hundred and thirty ships and thirty thousand men set sail for Rhegium, in southern Italy. However, immediately prior to the departure certain statues of Hermes were mutilated.  Alcibiades, with his reputation of indifference to the gods, was blamed and recalled to Athens for trial. This left a very shy and unimaginative Nicias in command, with only Segestians as allies.  Realising he had no support in Athens (all his democrats were with him on the expedition), Alcibiades eluded his escort and fled to Sparta (possibly by invitation from the already exiled Athenian historian, Thucydides).

Sicily during the Peloponnesian War

Syracuse sought Spartan assistance against Athens. The Spartans turned to Alcibiades for his opinion (well, why not!).  He commented that Athens was looking to conquer Sicily, Italy and then Carthage, followed by the rest of the Greek world. He suggested that a force should be sent to assist Syracuse, otherwise it would be lost when reinforcements arrived from Athens. King Agis of Sparta sent Gylippus to Syracuse in 414 BC.

Cutting a longish story short, Lamachus was killed and, basically, Nicia messed up and the Athenians suffered an embarrassing defeat in Sicily (Nicias was executed by the Sicilian mobsters despite protests from Gylippus). This led to the third and final phase of the Peloponnesian War, called the Ionian war – because it took place in Ionia (west coast of Asia Minor aka Turkey), which skirted the Persian Empire.

Possibly King Agis of Sparta (reigned 427-401 BC)

In 413 BC, following Alcibiades’ advice, Agis occupied Decelea, north of Athens. This caused the closure of the Athenian silver mines of Laurium and the corn route from Euboea. This loss of silver and the drop in tributes from the Aegean cities meant that Athens was in serious financial difficulties, particularly as it needed to rebuild its fleet and pay its crews. Sparta realised that the only way to finish off Athens was at sea as this had been the main Athenian lifeline in the past. Sparta attempted to build a fleet of its own but even with the help of its allies it was still short on resources and so it turned to Persia. Family squabbles had weakened Persia and its king, Darius II, had left Asia Minor in the hands of his satraps, Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, who were seeking repossession of the Ionian cities lost after the invasion. In Sparta, Alcibiades was not receiving the honour he believed due to him and decided to join Tissaphernes, in Sardis, on the pretence of an alliance with Sparta (although there was a rumour that he had been indiscreet with the wife of Agis and considered it prudent to make haste from Sparta – sounds like Alc). Tissaphernes did agree to contribute finances for ships and a Phoenician fleet in return for Spartan assistance in recapturing the Ionian states. However, he was very casual with the payments and the Phoenician fleet only sailed as far as Crete.  Although Tissaphernes was intent on an Athenian defeat, he did not wish for a completely victorious Sparta for fear that it became too ambitious and a threat to Persia. On Alcibiades’ advice, Tissaphernes chose to sit back and let the Greeks wear each other down. Cutting another longish story short, this is exactly what they did and Athens suffered the most.

Map of the Peloponnesian War (436-404 BC) (Sardis is just east of Ephesus)

In Sardis, Alcibiades suggested that Tissaphernes should support the now weaker Athenians, reminding him of the danger of an ambitious Sparta growing in strength. It is unlikely that Tissaphernes would have supported Athens as he knew it too was ambitious and he could have as much trouble with the Athenians as he could with the Spartans. It was his intention to continue to play the two sides off with each other. It would appear that Alcibiades was trying to regain favour in Athens. Then, in 410 BC, Sparta attempted to regain the Propontis (Sea of Marmara east of the Hellespont) but, on the arrival of Alcibiades, the Spartan fleet was overcome at the battle of Cyzicus. Within two years Alcibiades had recaptured Byzantium and re-established Athenian control over the Propontis.  Despite his successful war-mongering he did not actually return to Athens until 407 BC, at which time he was received with honour.

Propontis (Asia Minor)

Alcibiades had proven his worth on behalf of Athens but he had his enemies who were waiting for any mistake that he may make. This came in 406 BC. He was at Notium watching the Spartan fleet, under Lysander, moored at Smyrna. Leaving instructions to his commander, Antiochus, not to engage the Spartans in battle, he made a brief expedition to reinforce Thrasybulus at Phocea. In his absence, Antiochus sailed too close to the Spartans who came out from the harbour to meet him. Lysander was victorious and destroyed fifteen Athenian ships. The news reached Athens and Alcibiades was blamed by his enemies for the defeat and for not counter attacking and was duly exiled.

The Athenian empire had now collapsed. Alcibiades decided to go to Persia as there was no point in returning to Athens. On his way through Asia Minor he was murdered, possibly on the Persian king’s instructions, as he had no time for a man who was responsible for the Athenian recovery.

Death of Alcibiades (by Michele de Napoli, c 1839)

The treatment of Alcibiades had a great bearing on the outcome of the Athenian quest for power. To the Greek people he could be described as an enigma, but his enigmatic changes all had basic reasoning about them.  He was, without doubt, a supreme commander with every intention of gaining glory for himself and, in an unscrupulous manner, for whichever power was to support him. He played a part on the sides of all three major powers, but on each occasion he was only attempting to find a position of high esteem which was to result in the downfall of the Athenian empire and the end of an era of Athenian dominance in Greece.  So, there you are: I told you he was ambitious – playing for all three teams!


Greek Drama-rama

GREEK THEATRE in Athens began some 2,500 years ago – around 600 BC – but its form, technique and terminology have lasted into modern theatre. Greek festivals evolved from religious rites going back to about 1200 BC when the cult of Dionysus led to somewhat emotional displays of dancing (those of you who were part of the 60s/70s era will know what I mean). Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele and so was one of the 12 Olympian gods (he was god of wine, fertility, grapes, ecstasy, madness, pleasure, festivity, etc – you get the drift).



Initially the rites of Dionysus were led by the dithyramb (‘choric hymn’). This was sung/chanted by a Greek chorus of up to fifty men or boys (no women or girls in ancient Greek theatre). They may have been dressed as satyrs (men with horses’ ears and tail, servants of Dionysus) and some probably played the flute, lyre and drums. The gist of the hymn would relate to some incident in the life of Dionysus or just be celebrating wine and fertility in his name. Good a reason as any.


Dithyramb from ancient Greek vase

Circa 600 BC, Arion of Mehtymna (Corinth) wrote down formal lyrics for the dithyramb. Then, sometime during the next 75 years, Thespis of Attica added an actor who interacted with the audience. And that is where the word thespians (actors) today comes from. This actor was known at the protagonist, meaning the main character of a drama. In 534 BC, Pisistratus (the Athenian ‘tyrant’) changed the Dionysus festivals and introduced drama competitions. Thespis is said to have won the first competition. Around this time the Theatre of Dionysus was built in Athens (what remains today is mainly from the 4th century BC).


Theatre of Dionysus, Athens – seated 17,000 people

The Theatre at Epidaurus, in the east Peloponnese of Greece, is still used today for Greek plays (but not always in Greek – Sarah I went there a few years ago when four Greek plays were presented in German and to a modern setting – it just didn’t work for either of us). The theatre was designed by Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC and originally had 34 rows of seats which were extended at the top to another 21 rows by the Romans. The view of a lush landscape behind the skene was an integral part of the theatre itself and not to be obscured.

Theatre of Epidaurus ‘today’ – seats 14,000 people, viewing a lush landscape background

The government authority (the archon) chose the competitors and a wealthy patron (choregos) financed the production. In return, the patron paid no taxes that year. So funding the arts was a way of tax avoidance (not evasion – apparently that is something different). You can see from the diagram below how the theatre was set up and how the names were used:

greek theatron

               Theatron: ‘seeing space’;  Orchestra: ‘dancing place’;  Skene: ‘scene building’; Parados: ‘entrance’

Plays were performed in the daytime and were spread over several days in Athens. There was little or no scenery and most the action took place in the orchestra by the ‘chorus’. When there came an important shift from chorus to characters, the action moved to the skene (then became ‘the stage’). The chorus literally means ‘dance’ and most Greek choruses blended music, dance and song. The chorus entered the orchestra during the parados (‘entrance speech’) and remained there for the whole play. Its purpose was to create ‘doom and gloom’ to come (‘foreshadowing’) and some suspense to help the audience understand what was happening (although with the  later tragedies, the audiences already knew the plots).

Types of plays

Tragedy (Tragodia) comes from tragos and ode meaning ‘goat song’. The reason the word is used is obscure but it could either mean that the chorus was dressed in goat skins, or a goat was the prize for the best song/play (hmmmm …. ok). Tragedies, usually trilogies, were centred around the rise and downfall of the ‘hero’ (from Homeric epic or mythology) and the conclusion was usually a messenger coming out to tell the audience of the tragic consequences of the characters action (never good). The main tragedy poets of the 5th century BC were Aeschylus (who added a second actor, the antagonist, and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12); Sophocles (who added a third actor and put more emphasis on interaction between humans rather than humans and gods); and Euripides (whose plays were more about real people). Due to the limited number of main actors, masks were worn by all at all times (that way one or two actors could play different parts – also, masks may have amplified the voice).


Aeschylus (525-456 BC)                  Sophocles (496-406 BC)                  Euripides  (484-406 BC)

Satyr had to be submitted to a magistrate (archon eponymos) along with three tragedies for a competition. A satyr play, although implies comedy, was actually somewhere between tragedy and comedy – sort of tragicomedy – and, again, taken from epic or mythology. The only satyr play to survive in its entirety is Euripides’ Cyclops based on Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops, Polyphemus (not exactly an hysterical tale). They were performed at the end or between the 2nd and 3rd Tragedy play for a bit of ‘light’ relief. You needed a break!


Papposilenus playing the crotals, type of the satyr play

Comedy was slapstick and crude humour and appeared for the Festival of Lenaia in March. Such plays had happy endings and the characters usually found a solution to the original conflict of the play (rather like farce). Aristophanes (old satirical comedy) and Menander (new farcical comedy) were the best known comic playwrights of the 5th-4th centuries BC. The democracy of Athens allowed for free speech and these guys made good use of that. Aristophanes particularly disliked warmongers and made that clear in his plays (occasionally finding himself in court for defamatory remarks against a pro-war fanatic called Cleon).

                                Bust of Menander

                            Aristophanes (446-386 BC)                             Menander (342-290 BC)

Athenian drama waned somewhat around 404 BC with the defeat of the Athenians by the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Athens was never the same again. In fact, nor was drama …….. until a chap called Shakespeare came along some two thousand years later in the 17th century. So there you have it.  Don’t you feel better informed? ……… No. Okay.