Ancient Greek Costumes, Masks And Theatre In Focus

Ellen Lloyd – – What did ancient Greek costumes, masks and theatre look like? Theater played an important role in ancient Greece. History of the Greek theatre started with festivals held in honor of their gods honoring their gods. A god, Dionysus, was honored with a festival called by “City Dionysia”.

In the days of Solon, people were often to be seen wandering around the streets during the festival of Dionysus, god of wine. They were clad in goatskins, were smeared with the dregs of wine and danced and sang rude songs in honor of their god. These songs were called tragedies. It is interesting to note that tragedy means in Greek mean “goat song,” because the goat was sacred to the god whom they thus worshiped. The people were greatly amused by the rude songs and dances.

The birth of theater in ancient Greece

Thespis of Icaria, a Greek poet and first Greek actor, noticed how popular these amusements were. To please the public taste he set up the first rude theater. In the beginning, it was only a few boards raised on trestles to form a sort of stage in the open air. However, Thespis of Icaria soon built a booth, so that the actors, when not on the stage, could be hidden from public view. The first plays, were very simple and consisted of popular songs rudely acted. Later, the plays became more and more elaborate, and the actors tried to represent some of the tales which the story-tellers had told.

The Ancient Theatre of Delphi.
The Ancient Theatre of Delphi. Image credit: Leonid Tsvetkov

Some people disapproved of this kind of amusement. One of them was Solon, who said that Thespis of Icaria was teaching the Athenians to love a lie, because they liked the plays, which, of course, were not true.

However, the plays continued. New actors started playing and great poets wrote works for the stage.

Theatre of Epidaurus
Theatre of Epidaurus. Image credit: Wikipedia

Soon, a huge amphitheater was built. It was so large that there were seats for thirty thousand spectators. Theatre buildings were called a theatron. The theaters were large, open-air structures constructed on the slopes of hills. They consisted of three main elements: the orchestra, the scene, and the audience. Theater in ancient Greece became very popular.

Tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays were theatrical forms. Tragedy and comedy were viewed as completely separate genres.

Three well-known Greek tragedy playwrights of the fifth century are Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus.

Ancient Greek masks and costumes

The Greek actors soon dressed in costume, and all wore masks expressing the various emotions they wished to represent. The Greek term for mask is persona and was a significant element in the worship of Dionysus at Athens. The mask-makers were called skeuopoios or “maker of the properties,” thus suggesting that their role encompassed multiple duties and tasks.  Unfortunately, there are no physical remains of ancient Greek masks as they were made of organic materials and not considered permanent objects.

Nevertheless, the mask is known to have been used since the time of Aeschylus, an ancient Greek tragedian and considered to be one of the iconic conventions of classical Greek theatre.

From statues and paintings of ancient Greek actors, it is possible to picture what kind of masks and costumes were used. The actors were so far away from the audience that without the aid of exaggerated costumes and masks, they would be difficult to see.

Ancient Greek mask
Roman, Republican or Early Imperial, Relief of a seated poet (Menander) with masks of New Comedy, 1st century B.C. – early 1st century A.D., Princeton University Art Museum


Ancient Greek masks
Image credit: The Kennedy Center Arts Edge

Tragic masks carried mournful or pained expressions, while comic masks were smiling or leering. In a large open-air theatre, like the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, the classical masks were able to bring the characters’ face closer to the audience, especially since they had intensely over-exaggerated facial features and expressions. They enabled an actor to appear and reappear in several different roles, thus preventing the audience from identifying the actor to one specific character. Their variations help the audience to distinguish sex, age, and social status.

Ancient Greek theatre mask, 1st century BC
Ancient Greek theatre mask, 1st century BC. Image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Actors who played tragic roles wore boots called cothurneses that elevated them above other actors.

Ancient Greek mask
Tragic Comic Masks Hadrian’s Villa mosaic. Image credit: Wikipedia

When playing female roles, the male actors donned a ‘ prosterneda’ which is a wooden structure in front of the chest to imitate breasts.

There is little information on theatrical costumes. This is due to the perishable materials they have been made of. Still, we have some information drawn from depictions on ancient pottery.

Ancient Greek mask
Mask dating from the 4th/3rd century BC, Stoa of Attalos. Image credit: Giovanni Dall’Orto.
Image credit: N-T

An actor’s entire head was covered by his mask, which included hair. It has been theorized that the shape of the mask amplified the actor’s voice, making his words easier for the audience to hear. The cast of a Greek play in the Dionysia was comprised of amateurs, not professionals and all were male.

Ancient Greek actors were forced to gesture grandly so that the entire audience could see and hear the story, but most Greek theatres were cleverly constructed to transmit even the smallest sound to any seat.

Written by – Ellen Lloyd – 

Copyright © This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of

Expand for references