In the salon of the Muses, in the Pio-Clementine Museum at Rome, are mosaics unearthed at Lorium showing twenty-two pairs of figures performing in tragedy, while in a grotto of the necropolis at Cyrene was found a group of three actors surrounded by a chorus. Hence, and from other works of art, we can describe the costume of a Greek actor as accurately as if he were before us on the stage, though between the outward appearance of the ancient and modern player there is little in common.
While the performers were arrayed in the gaudy attire of the Dionysiac festival, there were essential differences between that of the tragic and comic actors. The former wore the cothurnus, a boot with soles of enormous thickness, with a colossal mask on his head, further to increase his stature, the body and limbs being padded in corresponding proportions. In the Pio-Clementine mosaics the figures appear at first to have no feet, but on closer inspection it is seen that they are covered by the long robes, only the heavy soles of the cothurnus being visible. The mask represented features much larger than those of a man, and was raised far above the brow by a frontlet which served as the frame of a periwig. In this head-piece there was only one outlet for the voice, and this was either square or round, with some contrivance resembling a speaking trumpet to produce the desired effect, for in order that the eyes might be in place, the mouth of the mask must fall below the chin of the performer. The masks were changed as needed and were of different kinds for various characters, especially those used for the satyric and comic drama.
For tragic use the costumes were fully as rich and varied as those of modern times. For gods, heroes and old men there was the chiton, a mantle of rich material descending to the ankles. The garments of the patron deities of the Greeks, and especially of Dionysus, were particularly splendid. The latter was attired in a saffron-colored garment, rich with purple figures and glittering with golden stars. It was fastened under the breast with a broad girdle of dark purple, set with gold and jewels, and over it was a palla, or cloak, of purple, which was the color of the buskins. Goddesses and women of high rank were also robed in purple and gold. Matrons wore a peplon of fine embroidered cloth, fastened veil-like on the head. The long, purple robe of queens and princesses swept the ground, was fastened behind the diadem and decked with golden stars. Warriors were arrayed in every variety of armor, their helmets adorned with plumes, and for personages of exalted station there was a scarlet tunic, and over it a richly embroidered mantle.
It was the aim of the dramatist and choragus that as to dress and decorations the play should be in keeping with the dignity and splendor of the festival, and it was by departing from this custom and introducing some of his heroes in rags, that Euripides brought on himself the keenest ridicule of his contemporaries. Says Müller, in his History of Greek Literature: "The performers wore long stripped garments reaching to the ground, over which were upper robes of purple or some other brilliant color, with all sorts of gay trimmings and gold ornaments. Nor was the Hercules of the stage represented as the sturdy athletic hero whose huge limbs were only concealed by a lion's hide; he appeared in the same rich and gaudy dress as did the others, to which his distinctive attributes, the club and the bow, were merely adjuncts."
Encumbered as he was with his mask and cothurnus, to say nothing of the padding, it will be seen that the Athenian tragic actor had no easy task before him. Moreover, the demands made upon him, though differing in kind from what is required of the modern histrion, were none the less rigorous and exacting. In declamation and dialogue, in movement and gesticulation, he must avoid all interference with the general harmony of the play. Yet it would seem that the ease and grace of carriage, gesture and elocution characteristic of the finished actor of to-day were to the Greek impossible. The recitation must have been weighty and monotonous, the grouping hard, and the movements slow and cumbersome.
Purchase Books on Ancient Costume