As we explore the background to Sydney’s copy of Lysicrates Monument, we light upon a whole forgotten world of passion and artistic achievement. We already know something about the marble original, erected in 334 B.C., and about the ancient Athenian theatre competition it commemorates, but most of us know very little about something much closer to our own time, namely the extraordinary man who caused our beautiful sandstone replica to be built. These next two sections, accordingly, cover two histories – the one we tend to know more about, that is the ancient Greek context, with its thousands of spectators arguing about the merits of Sophocles or Aeschylus’ plays, and then the one we know much less about, that is, the one that began in 1820 with the birth of a remarkable Premier and jurist, a man who was Australia’s first native-born . . . . but you will have to read it to find out, not just about him, but about the very remarkable way the replica was saved in the 1940s for us to enjoy today.

Dionysos and Lysicrates in Ancient Athens

The Lysicrates Prize takes its name from a wealthy young Athenian who, in the year 334 BC, won a competition as the financial backer – choregos in Greek – of a theatrical performance held in honour of the god Dionysos. As a prize he was given a solid bronze tripod that stood some three metres high, made by the city of Athens. In return for his generosity in sponsoring the performance and his success in winning, he was allowed to set up this tripod as part of a permanent stone memorial that recorded the event, with his name and the details of his competing team inscribed on it. The result was the monument of Lysicrates, which was erected on an ancient road that led from the theatre and passed around the south-eastern side of the Acropolis, known in antiquity as Tripodes or ‘Tripod-street’, because it was lined with many such elegant victory-monuments of past choregoi.

Theatre was utterly central to the lives of the ancient Athenians. Not only did individuals like Lysicrates spend huge amounts of money on training and costuming the performers (we hear of choregoi who spent sums that would buy a good-sized house). The city of Athens itself devoted a sizeable percentage of its annual public expenditure on drama – as much as 5% of what it outlaid on military activity at the height of its empire. For a full five days in spring each year the people of Athens turned over their city and their lives to worship of the god Dionysos – the god of wine, of the mask, and of theatre itself. The famous assembly and courts that were the engine of the direct democracy and that met virtually other every day fell silent as a different forum, the theatre, became the focus for collective attention. The great annual festival for Dionysos, the Dionysia, was an extraordinary combination of religious worship, unparalleled literary creativity, community formation and critical self-reflection on a society’s values and the challenges that faced it. Singing hymns had long been a form of religious worship, but the Athenians literally elevated this into a high (but popular) art form when they combined choral song with spoken verses to create the stunningly innovative two great dramatic forms, tragedy and comedy. These were forged in the contests of the Athenian Dionysia, in the hands of poets like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, and by around 450 BC drama had become the premier cultural product of the Classical world.

The Dionysia was an event of mass participation. Over the course of their lives many, perhaps most, citizens will have themselves danced and sung in the choruses that were central to it. And the audience – perhaps as large as 15,000 in number – was itself highly participatory, expected to weigh up the complex moral arguments presented to them in the nine new tragedies they watched each year; and to laugh at the five new comedies – but also to assess the political advice that its poets claimed to offer. The audience also made its views known to the panel of citizen-judges whom they had elected by a complex democratic procedure to cast their votes for the winners.

Dionysos and Lysicrates in Modern Sydney

James MartinSydney’s own choregic monument of Lysicrates, now in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Farm Cove, was the brainchild of litterateur, journalist, solicitor, QC, Attorney-General, three times Premier, and Chief Justice of New South Wales, (Sir) James Martin (1820-1886), in whose honour ‘Martin Place’ in Sydney is named. Born in County Cork, Ireland, the son of a groom, Martin settled with his family in Parramatta after arriving in Australia in 1821 aged only eighteen months. His love of Classical culture was fostered at a young age at Cape’s School on the corner of Phillip and King Streets, and at Sydney College (now Sydney Grammar School), where he distinguished himself academically, not least of all in the Classical languages. He was a published author by the age of eighteen, writing a book of essays on various aspects of Australian life, The Australian Sketch Book, in 1838. As a politician Martin was a leading figure in the push to establish Australia’s first mint. In 1866 as Premier in coalition with (Sir) Henry Parkes he not only supported improved social conditions through the Act for the Relief of Destitute Children, but also the Public Schools Act of that year, creating schools in remote areas and giving greater authority to the new Council of Education over denominational schools.

Copper engravingAfter marrying Isabella Long, the daughter of William Long, a wealthy wine and spirits merchant (and former convict), Martin settled at ‘Clarens’ in Potts Point in 1853 where he began an ambitious and costly project to create a magnificent, classically inspired multi-tiered garden, one which the English writer Anthony Trollope later romantically described as ‘falling down to the sea … like fairyland’. Martin’s project to recreate the choregic monument of Lysicrates in this garden, where it stood proudly above the harbour, marked a convergence of several personal interests: a fondness for Classical culture, an affection for the poetry of Lord Byron (his favourite poet), and a deep love of travel literature (although unfortunately he never travelled abroad). Byron, during his Grand Tour of 1809-1811, famously lodged at the capuchin monastery in Athens which incorporated the original monument of Lysicrates. Its hollow interior had been converted into a small library where Byron would read and write, and was even rumoured to have slept. Martin’s imagination was no doubt captivated by such accounts, as well as by other travel literature that mentioned this peculiar and elegant relic from antiquity. One work in particular, The Antiquities of Athens by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, first published in 1762, contained detailed measured engravings of the monument which eventually became the blueprint for Martin’s replica. For this task Martin hired the skilful Scottish-born stonemason Walter McGill to recreate it in Pyrmont yellowblock sandstone, with the work completed around July/August of 1868.

The Sydney MonumentDuring World War II ‘Clarens’ was resumed by the Department of the Interior and the garden marked for demolition to make way for the new graving dock at nearby Garden Island. The monument, however, was preserved and relocated by the efforts of both citizens and political leaders alike, including the writer Frederic Spencer Burnell, as well as David Drummond of the Country Party and Labor Party minister Clive Evatt. It was re-erected in 1943 by the Labor Premier (Sir) William McKell (the second Premier to establish a link with the monument; the third would be Mike Baird during the inaugural Lysicrates Prize in 2015). Appropriately it was resettled at Farm Cove, a place which resonates strongly with ancient dance and cultivation of the vine, and is at the green heart of a city which, etymologically speaking, shares its name with the god, Dionysos, in whose honour the original monument in Athens was first dedicated.*

*The name ‘Sydney’ stems etymologically from the French ‘St Denis’ (i.e. ‘St Dionysios’) which in turn derives from the name ‘Dionysos’.