A Phallus for Your Military, Art for Your Nation

Photo by Lori Greig — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

The end of the year is a great time to look back — especially when one can look back at the best of times. Soon, KadmusArts will present the Year in Festivals. But before we go to our year end review, let’s go back farther when art and politics came together to create our festival heritage.

Understanding how ancient Greek festivals worked is the subject of a new book edited by Martin Revermann and Peter Wilson: Performance, Iconography, Reception: Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin, published by Oxford University Press. The book celebrates the career of Taplin (professor at Oxford, Director of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, and teacher to so many in the festival field) by collecting essays from leading scholars on ancient Greek festival work, art, and life.

In one of the book’s remarkable essays, Wilson covers the practicalities of how ancient Greek festivals worked — specifically how they were funded. In “Costing the Dionysia,” Wilson, who is the William Ritchie Professor of Classics at the University of Sydney, does a cost analysis on the flow of state money for 5th century Athenian festivals.

There is, of course, a lot of guess work in pulling together various sources and projections, but Wilson’s conclusions ring true in terms of significance of the event, number of people involved, and the place the Dionysia held in the community.

According to Wilson, the Athenian government spent the equivalent of 5% of their military costs on the Dionysia festival. Imagine that kind of support for national cultural events today. For example, in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts had a $155 million budget for 2009. Of that $155 million, $27 million was spent on the bureaucracy and $128 million was distributed through grants. If the United States used the percentage basis of the ancient Greeks, national culture would receive $35 billion. That’s right. Five percent of the US military budget for 2009 would have been $35 billion for the arts. $128 million v. $35 billion!

But wait, it gets better.

Wilson notes that the Greek allies and their conquered lands would have been expected to contribute to the festival in additional ways. Each was to supply a cow and a large phallus.

Just imagine: the event began with 172 tribute paying states parading their contributions of a giant phallus carried through the streets in the procession of phalloi. Isn’t this the most perfect and tangible representation of military might? Look how big we are!

Of course, the Dionysia festival, which consisted of three tragedies, one satyr play, and five comedies, was a competition. Surely we can make a further leap of imagination and assume that the phalloi created by the individual countries/regions would be judged, measured, and given points for attractiveness, strength, and that oh-so-special-”It”-quality.

As all festivals sell trinkets, maybe the first festival entrepreneur sold miniature copies for a take-away: ”Oh, did you get a Sparta this year?”

Yet again, the ancient Greeks provide us with festival — and political — inspiration. Five percent of a military budget, a phallus parade of the conquered, a take-home trinket, and great art. Even their sequence of events makes sense: from the money, to the phalloi parade, to the art itself. The festival performances began with the three tragedies, followed by the satyr play and ended with a final day of comedies.

The festival tradition is one of perfect transformations: military to art; individual to community; and, tragedy to comedy.

- Bill Reichblum

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