The economics of classical entertainment
October 29, 2009 2:41 PM   Subscribe

Did ancient greeks pay for their tickets to the theatre? The Romans for their seats at the Circus?

How was the Greek theatre funded? How were authors and players paid?
posted by kandinski to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Reading "The Walled Orchard" by Tom Holt gives some insight into this for the Greeks, anyway, and is a very good read as well. Basically rich people were selected by the government to sponsor the cost of putting on a play, and the costumers, actors, etc were paid out of this. The authors didn't get paid but competed to be the ones whose plays were selected for performance. I think all Greek citizens got into the plays for free, while foreigners had to pay for admission.
posted by The otter lady at 3:15 PM on October 29, 2009


Athenian theater (and public festivals) were funded by the Theoric Fund, a civic fund which provided monies for such purposes, and subsidized the cost of the tickets for at least some segment of the population. There's some debate over whether Pericles initiated the program, but it definitely existed by the mid 4th century, since in 349, Demosthenes advocted, in his First Olynthiac oration, that money be taken from the Theoric to the Stratiotic, or military fund, and used to check the rising power of Philip II of Macedon. You can read the oration to get a sense of his argument.

This is all off the top of my head and I'm sure someone more knowledgeable could correct or add to this. If you have access to a university library, check out Theorika by James J. Buchanan.
posted by Bromius at 3:20 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


AFAIK Bromius is right. There was an Athenian fund for theater tickets for people who otherwise couldn't afford them.

For Rome, I believe that entertainment would have been free in two situations: 1) someone from a rich family dies, and his survivors sponsor a public spectacle (usually games) (this was eventually made illegal, at least in theory) 2) someone rich was trying to get elected into office and wanted to win over the masses.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:38 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


For Rome, I'm pretty sure it was free based on the whole "Bread and Circuses" thing.
posted by kylej at 3:51 PM on October 29, 2009


The otter lady: Basically rich people were selected by the government to sponsor the cost of putting on a play, and the costumers, actors, etc were paid out of this.

This is correct. The first citation that occurs to me that I have handy at the moment is Xenophon, Oeconomicus II.4-6, where Socrates is speaking to a wealthier man named Kritoboulos [emphasis is mine]:
"My things are sufficient to provide enough for me," he said, "but even if you had three times what you possess now, it seems to me it wouldn't be sufficient for you."

"How so?" said Kritoboulos.

Socrates declared: "First, because I see you are compelled to make frequent and great sacrifices, as otherwise, I suppose, neither gods nor human beings could put up with you; then, because it's appropriate for you to receive many foreigners, and to do so with magnificence; and then, because you must feast the citizens and treat them well, or be bereft of allies. And again I perceive that the city orders you to accomplish great things—breeding of horses and training of choruses, support of the gymnasia [schools], public commands; and if war should come, I know they will order you to support a trireme [a kind of ship] and to contribute so much that you will be hard put to sustain it. And should you seem to have performed some one of these things inadequately, I know the Athenians will punish you no less than they would if they caught you stealing something of theirs..."
When Socrates says that Kritoboulos would be expected to cover "training of choruses" (a troupe of singers, dancers, or actors in Greek theater) he means organizing them, paying for their costumes, et cetera. The benefactor of a chorus was called a choregus, and generally was a wealthy man who paid a teacher and trainer to drill the chorus. It was not supposed to be easy to be in a chorus, apparently; see on this point Plato's Laws, I.665e:
Athenian Stranger. Everyone as he gets more elderly is presumably full of reluctance to sing songs; he gets less delight from doing this and would become rather ashamed if compelled to do it. The more elderly and moderate he becomes, the more this increases. Isn't that so?

Kleinias. That is so.

Ath. Then he would be still more ashamed to sing at the theater, standing up before all sorts of human beings. Especially if such men were compelled to sing under the same conditions as the choruses that train their voices for competitions, lean and without having eaten, they would do so entirely without pleasure, ashamed, and without any eagerness of spirit.
We can at least catch the implication here that people were enlisted for choruses largely by compunction and probably an appeal to the singer's public zeal, and that being part of a chorus was a competitive affair which demanded even a strict diet.

Many times I have here recommended what I think is a standard text on the lives of the ancients, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges' The Ancient City [1.01 MB PDF]; Coulanges is useful because he tends to emphasize the things that we moderns miss. Chiefly, we tend to imagine the ancient Greeks and Romans as being somewhat free-thinking and secular; nothing could be further from the truth, and as Coulanges points out, theater had a strong religious element in ancient Greece [p. 181]:
Xenophon declares that the Athenians had more religious festivals than any other Greek people. “How many victims offered to the gods!” says Aristophanes, “how many temples! how many statues! how many sacred processions! At every moment of the year we see religious feasts and crowned victims..."

The Athenian whom we picture to ourselves as so inconstant, so capricious, such a free-thinker, has, on the contrary, a singular respect for ancient traditions and ancient rites. His principal religion — that which secures his most fervent devotion — is the worship of ancestors and heroes. He worships the dead and fears them...

Nicias belongs to a great and rich family. While still young he conducts to the sanctuary of Delos a theoria — that is to say, victims [animals to sacrifice], and a chorus to sing the praises of the god during the sacrifice. Returning to Athens, he offers a part of his fortune in homage to the gods, dedicating a statue to Athene and a chapel to Dionysius. By turns he is hestiator, and pays the expense of the sacred repast of his tribe; and choregus, when he supports a chorus for the religious festivals.
So I imagine you begin to get a better picture of how the ancient city dealt with the theater. Ancient Greek theater was a public and religious event; it was expected that the wealthy pay for what had to be paid for. But at the same time, the idea that people must be paid for their work is actually somewhat modern. Choruses of actors weren't paid, they were fed, clothed and housed; the wealthy man was expected to accommodate them as he was expected to feast the whole city at certain festivals, feeding everyone from out of his storehouses and his flocks. It wasn't as much a question, as it is today, of an exchange of tender; there were payments made, and there were people who were paid for various tasks, but generally these were public events that were funded by benefactors, and that was the air with which they were taken. These were patron-based affairs.

Bromius gave some more specific information on the programs which Athens initiated to cover theater, but I think this gives a good picture of the shape of it; ancient Greek theater was ostensibly an even associated with religious festivals and holidays, at which times there would often be competitions, and the wealthy were expected to facilitate this by feeding and clothing the actors and by paying someone to train them and often paying for refreshments at the show. It's sort of like if George Steinbrenner were running the Yankees as a charity for the Pope.
posted by koeselitz at 4:44 PM on October 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


oinopaponton: For Rome, I believe that entertainment would have been free in two situations: 1) someone from a rich family dies, and his survivors sponsor a public spectacle (usually games) (this was eventually made illegal, at least in theory) 2) someone rich was trying to get elected into office and wanted to win over the masses.

I don't know as much about ancient Rome, but I know that senators had reserved seats.
posted by koeselitz at 4:45 PM on October 29, 2009


Thanks everyone. I have marked you all as "best answers".
posted by kandinski at 4:51 PM on October 29, 2009


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