Funding the Arts in Ancient Athens

Written by Fiona MacRae

When the major UK opera company, English National Opera, suffered severe cuts to their funding in November 2022, a chorus of outrage could be heard from the arts sector. They would survive, but only with radical changes. Their plight raises many issues about who pays for the arts and how it relies on sponsorship and funding by individuals, charitable organisations, as well as government funding. The arts have always been at the cultural heart of societies, including fifth-century Athens. So, is there anything we can learn from the Ancient Athenians about funding the performing arts? 

ENO was founded over ninety years ago with the aim of bringing opera to everyone. To be accessible, they perform in English, and have a number of free and concession tickets to bring in new audiences. Consequently, one in seven attendees are under 35 years old. Similarly, drama in fifth-century Athens was performed by the people for the people, in festivals attended by thousands of citizens, resident aliens, women and slaves. The cultural importance and popularity of these performances is evidenced by the fact many have survived, and we can read and perform 46 of them today. But who paid for them?  

The arts in the UK today are supported by three main sources: ticket sales, private donors, and government and charitable organisations. While the costs of tickets are generally regarded to be quite high, organisations such as ENO manage to keep prices low by using the latter sources to subsidise these and other costs. The government funds are drawn from tax-payer money, making the funding of the arts something everyone contributes towards, but a slightly different system was in place in fifth-century Athens. 

The main event for the production and performance of plays in Athens was the Dionysia, a festival for the god Dionysus which brought in audience members from all over the Greek world. The plays were performed by citizens of Athens, not professional actors, and each tragedian wrote three tragedies and a satyr play for the Dionysia, all performed on the same day. The winning play was chosen by a jury of representatives from each deme (tribe) of Athens. Spectators of the plays would pay for tickets in Athens, an unusual practice in the ancient world. The reported amount varies between two obols (Demosthenes and Aristophanes) and five drachmae. A form of subsidy, or accessibility fund was available by the fourth century BC called theorika – money distributed to allow the poor to buy seats. The money for this came the state treasury, which in turn got its money from tributes paid by Athenian allies. It was in many ways a form of state funding. Notably, metics (resident aliens) and foreigners, as well as women and slaves, were not eligible for this.  

Today, accessibility schemes in the UK today are not available from central government and it is up to theatres and production companies themselves to subsidise tickets. If more affordable tickets are available, they are usually from private foundations rather than the government. Special access days at London’s Globe Theatre and the Royal Opera House are financed by commercial donors. In terms of paying for an Athenian production, each play had a sponsor, known as the choregos. These individuals were rich citizens who would pay for all the expenses of the play, including the wages for the amateur chorus. This was a very honourable, prestigious thing for a citizen to do, as they were contributing to public life. If his play was chosen as the winner, he would then have to pay to erect a monument of his victory in a public place, usually on the festival road or the agora. These monuments brought great honour to a choregos in particular, being set up at a place of their choice and at their own cost. But they were not only pieces for self-aggrandisement. The decorative content of the monuments always portrayed the choregos as part of a wider civic entity: sometimes a visual representation of the choregos alongside the actors and musicians he sponsored, presenting the tripod (his trophy) to Dionysus, but usually his name alongside that of the poet, the aulos player, and the tribe of the chorus. We can think of them as a cross between a commercial producer and a financial sponsor. In this way, the sponsor both received honour and shared it with the artists. Private sponsors today do not have the same pomp and ceremony attached to their donations. They may get a plaque at the venue or a programme credit recognising their support, but it is far less ostentatious than that bestowed on a choregos

The Dionysia was a festival at which the Athenians put on displays of rituals and ceremonies they wanted others to witness. Part of the festival involved the ‘allies’ of Athens bringing tributes: piles of wealth which were displayed openly. Another ceremony was the presentation of armour to boys just coming of age whose fathers had been killed in battle. The choregos setting up his tripod was all part of this. Overall, it was a massive display of pomp and power, similar in feeling to the modern Olympics or World Cup opening ceremonies. As the main event of such a festival, the arts were integral to Athens’ presentation of itself to the world.  

For us, the arts are still at the heart of our culture. Productions are supported by the British Council and major opera companies get tax-funded grants. They are seen as a form of ‘soft power’ or influence in global relations: a part of the UK showing itself to the world and connecting it with other countries. So, whilst we have no equivalent to ancient Athenian choregos, we have big funders wanting to influence the arts. And, as English National Opera has discovered, their public subsidy through the Arts Council comes with strings attached. Unless there is an individual ‘sugar-daddy’ sponsor, a modern-day choregos, willing to commit to funding them, performing arts today have no choice in doing what its public funders require. 

Featured image credit: Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus. Athens. Photograph by Tristan Craig (Editor-in-Chief), 8 September 2021.

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