The Influence of Ancient Theater and Politics

As a celebrated satirist, author, and rhetorician, Seneca the Younger was positioned to influence those in power. Being one of Emperor Nero’s closest advisors, Seneca was able to engage in political discourse with little to no consequences. In 54 C.E., Seneca ridiculed the previously murdered emperor Claudius in The Apocolocyntosis by emphasizing Claudius’ mental and physical impediments.[1] Seneca made another jab at Claudius’ obsession with dice games by portraying Claudius with a bottomless dice cup.[2] Even Claudius had his carriage specifically designed so that he can play while traveling. The audience laughed at this portrayal, especially Nero because he was Claudius’ successor. Unlike other comedians, Seneca was able to mock politicians and entertain the public with immunity because Nero was his sponsor. On the other hand, Nero attempted to increase his popularity with the public by sponsoring Seneca’s plays that promoted him and derided his opponents.

For most of Ancient Greece and Rome, theater and politics influence each other, especially based on who is in power. Theater is also an important entertainment medium that portrays the different dynamics among the social classes, nature, and religion. The three types of dramas are comedy (satirical and mocked men in power), tragedy (relationships between men and gods and themes of loss, pride, and power), and satyr (mocked the tragedy’s characters).[3] Theater has always been political, and the influences of Greek dramas are observed in Broadway productions. For example, Fiddler on the Roof (a musical about the anti-Semitism in early 20th century Russia) and Les Misérables (a musical about politics and rebellion of revolutionary France) reflect on the political problems. As a result, many scholars wonder about the nature and function of theater, and how it’s affected by the different political regimes.

Some scholars prefer to analyze the political bias in plays in order to establish the relationship between theater and politics. Historian Ian C.Storey examines the transformation of Greek Comedy through the three distinct stages: Old, Middle, and New. Based on the play titles, testimonials, fragments, and hypothesis to Cratinus’ Dionysalexander, Storey concludes that Old Comedy started the trend of personal and political themes within the plot.[4] Furthermore, Storey’s analysis of Cratinus’ works as an Athenian comic poet demonstrates the use of additional actors to attack prominent people in the Athenian society.[5] In Athens, theater is a mass communication medium, especially in the recounts of dramatic competitions of tragedies and comedies in the festivals. Focusing on the written accounts of Athenian festivals, Storey discovers another prominent Athenian poet Acharnians who wrote a comedy with excessive political content and personal jokes that won him first prize at the Lenaea festival.[6] As a result, Storey connects the political freedom of speech in Old Comedy to the democracy at Athens. In additions, other historians often notice the impact of right-wing agenda in the poets’ works. One scholar, Alan H. Sommerstein investigates those characters made fun of in comedy. Unlike traditional aristocrats from “the right”, political officials from “the left” are more likely to be satirized.[7] This is significant by how poets are attracted by what would make a good entertainment material while still supporting their political bias. However, the changing political atmosphere in Athens is considered with the resurgence of romantic tragedy often ending with happy conclusions. This observation reflects on the greater legal actions and restrictions on the poets’ freedom due to the coups in the 390s B.C.E.

Theatre of Dionysos on the Athenian Acropolis
Greek comedy mask made of marble

The growth of theater also contributes to the power and status of actors. In today’s popular culture, actors have a large amount of influence to sway the public on political topics. However, it was not always like this, such that AncientRome considers performers to not be citizens. Therefore, some historians explore new evidence and critique other researches to show the growth of political interest in privatizing theater. Eric Csapo examines the personal agendas of Roman Republican elites and Hellenistic autocrats in the privatization of theater.[8]He mainly focuses on the Roman governing elite practicing privatization of theater in festivals in order woo the electorate, which would help their rise in the political career. Historian David Porter also agrees about the stage being a political demonstration advantageous to the elite pushing their propaganda in the theatrical material.[9] Csapo explains that the political strategy of privatization theater is to have the audience feel that they have some control. For instance, politicians often sponsor actors who were adored by the public. Therefore, the rise of popularity of certain actors is brought with favors, gifts, and honors from many politicians.[10] In the end, the politicians gain influence in the theatrical entertainment medium that can easily sway the public’s opinion.


[1] Lorraine Boissoneault, “When Actors Mixed Politics and Comedy in Ancient Rome,” Smithsonian, April 24, 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-actors-mixed-politics-and-comedy-ancient-rome-180963005/

[2] Boissoneault, “When Actors.”

[3] Arlene Allan and Ian C. Storey, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama (New Jersey, 2005), 8.

[4] Ian C. Storey, Fragments of Old Comedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), xix.

[5] Storey, Fragments, xix.

[6] Sotrey, Fragments, xx-xxi.

[7] Alan Sommerstein, Aeschylean Tragedy, (London, Levante, 1996), 37.

[8] Eric Csapo, Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater (Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 122-134.

[9] Csapo, Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater,187.

[10] Jan Bloemendal and Nigel Smith, Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016), 3.



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