Evaluating "Popularity" of Ancient Playwrights

Clara Hardy, Carleton College
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


It is often asserted that Euripides was not as popular or successful as his older contemporary Sophocles. In this assignment, students will gather and assess what data we actually have, and construct an argument for or against that proposition. They will need to find out what we know about how many tragedies each poet produced, how many of these were awarded prizes, and (given the eccentric way in which Athenians awarded those prizes) what that information actually tells us about the popularity of the two poets.

Learning Goals

The students should learn a) exactly what sort of evidence we have concerning the production of tragedies in the classical period; b) the odds of getting a first place award given a range of possible vote. They will also get practice working with and evaluating the very fragmentary data available. And finally they might learn to ask how we know things that are commonly repeated and accepted as truth.

Context for Use

My initial plan would be to use this exercise as a fairly low-stakes assignment early in an ancient drama course. I would provide all the data needed (or else point the students to where they could find it). It doesn't strike me as particularly adaptable to other settings, since it is aimed at a very specific data set... but on the other hand there may be stuff I'm not thinking of.

Description and Teaching Materials

I don't have this yet.

I would need to provide the students with:
a) the method we believe the Athenians used to determine which play won first, second and third place in the Dionysian dramatic competition.
b) the didaskalia, a fragmentary listing of winning tragedies.
c) the evidence for tragedies composed by Sophocles and Euripides (if found elsewhere than the didaskalia), and whether or not they won (if we know that).

Teaching Notes and Tips


I have no idea! I don't myself yet know the answer to the question I am setting. Presumably though the student work would be assessed using a) the accuracy of the numbers it presented; b) the plausibility of the analysis of those numbers and c) the strength of the argument.

References and Resources