1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > Roman Drama

(Part 8)

Roman Drama

In its most productive age, as well as in the times of its decline and decay, the ROMAN drama exhibits the continued coexistence of native forms by the side of those imported from Greece—either kind being necessarily often subject to the influence of the other. Italy has ever been the native land of acting and of scenic representation ; and though Roman dramatic literature is in the main but a faint reflex of Greek examples, yet there is perhaps no branch of the Roman literary art more congenial than this to the soil whence it sprang.

The beginning of dramatic performances in Italy are to he sought in the rural festival doubtless from a very early period developed in lively intermixture the elements of the dance, of jocular and abusive improvisations of songs, speech, and dialogue, and an assumption of character such as may be witnessed in any ordinary conversation among southern Italians at the present day. The occasions of these were religious celebrations, public or private—among the latter more especially weddings, which have in all ages been provocative of mirth ful demonstrations. The so-called Fescennine verses (from fascinum, or from Fescennium in southern Etruria), which were afterwards confined to weddings, and ultimately gave rise to an elaborate species of artistic poetry, never merged into actual dramatic performances. In the saturae, on the other hand—a originally duet to the goatskins of the fullness of both performance—there seems from the first to have been a dramatic element ; they were probably comic songs or stories recited with gesticulation and flute accompaniment. Introduced into the city, these entertainments received received a new impulse from the performances of the Etruscan players (ludiones), who had been brought into Rome when scenic games (ludi scenici) were, in 364 B.C., for purposes of religious propitiation, first held there. These istriones, as they were called at Rome (istre had been their native name) who had the honour of transmitting their appellation to the entire histrionic art and its prefessors, were at first only dancers and pantomimists in a city where their speech was unintelligible. But their performances encouraged and developed those of other players and mountebanks, so that after the establishment of the regular drama at Rome on the Greek model, the saturate to be performed as farcical after-pieces (exodia0, until they gave way to other species. Of these the mimi were at Rome probably coeval in their beginnings with the stage itself, where those performed them were afterwards known under the same name, possibly in the place of an older appellation (planipedes, bare-footed). These loose farces, after being probably at first performed independently, were then played as after-pieces, till in the imperial period, when they reasserted their predominance, they were again produced by themselves. At the close of the republican period the minus had found its way into literature (through D. Laberius and others), and had been assimilated in both form and subjects to other varieties of the comic drama—preserving, however, as its distinctive feature, a preponderance of the mimic or gesticulatory element. Together. With the pantomimes (v. infra) the mimus continued to prevail in the days of the empire, having transferred its innate grossness (for it was originally a representation of low life) to its treatment of mythological subjects, with which it dealt in accordance with the demands of a "lubrique and adulterate age." As a matter of course, the mimus freely borrowed from other species, among which, so far as they were of native Italian origin, the Atellane fables (from Atella in Campania) call for special mention. Usually supposed to be to Oscan, birth, they originally consisted in delineations of the life of small towns, in which dramatic and other satire has never ceased to find a favourite butt. The principal personages in these living sketches gradually assumed a fixed and conventional character, which they retained even when, after the final overthrow of Campanian independence (210), the Atellanae had been transplanted to Rome. Here the heavy father or husband (pappus), the ass-eared glutton (maccus), the full-checked, voracious chatterbox (GREEK), and the willy sharper (dorsenus) became accepted comic types, and with others of a similar kind were handed down, to reappear in the modern Italian drama. In these characters lay the essence of the Atellanae ; their plots were extremely simple ; the dialogue (perhaps interspersed with songs in the Saturian metre) it was left to the performance to improvise. In course of time plays also assumed a literary form, written out of length by their authors ; but under the empire they were gradually absorbed in the pantomimes.

The regular Roman drama, on the other hand, was of foreign (i.e., Greek0 origin ; and its early history, at all events, attaches itself to more or less fixed dates. It begins with the year 240 B.C., when at the ludi Romani, held with unusual splendour after the first Punic war, the victory was, according to Macedonian precedent, celebrated by the first production of a tragedy and a comedy on the Roman stage. The author of both, who appeared in person as an actor, was Livius Andronicus (b. 278 or earlier), a native of the Greek city of Tarentum, where the Dionysiac festival enjoyed high popularity. His models were in tragedy the later Greek tragedians and their revisions of the three great Attic masters, in comedy no doubt Menander and his school. These continued the examples of the regular Roman drama during the whole of its course, even when it resorted to native themes.

The nature of Roman tragedy admits of no doubt, although our conclusions respecting its earlier progress are only derived from analogy, from scatted notices expecially of the titles of plays, and from such fragments—mostly very brief—as have come down to us. Of the known titles of the tragedies of Livius Andronicus, six belong to the Trojan cycle, and this preference consistently maintained itself among the tragedians of the "Trojugenae ;" next in popularity seem to have been the myths of the house of Tantalus, of the Pelopidae, and of the Argonaunts. The distinctions drawn by later Roman writers between the styles of the tragic poets of the republican period must in general be taken on trust. The Campanian Cn. Naevius (fl. From 236) wrote comedies as well as tragedies, so that the rigorous separation observed among the Greeks in the cultivation of the two dramatic species was at first neglected at Rome. His realistic tendency, displayed in that fondness for political allusions which brought upon him the vengeance of a noble family (the Metelli) incapable of understanding a joke of this description, might perhaps under more favourable circumstance have led him more fully to developed a new tragic species invented by him. But the fibula praetexta or praetextata (from the purple-bordered robe worn by higher magistrates) was not destined to become the means of emancipating the Roman serious drama from the control of Greek examples. In design, it was national tragedy on historic subjects of patriotic tragedy on historic subjects of patriotic interest—which the Greeks had only treated in isolated instances ; and one might at first marvel why, after Naevius and his successors had produced skilful examples of the species, it should have failed to overshadow and outlast in popularity a tragedy telling the oft-told foreign tales of Thebes and Mycenae, or even the pseudo-ancestral story of Troy. But it should not be forgotten to how great an extent so-called early Roman history consisted of the traditions of the gentes, and how little the party-life of later republican Rome lent itself to a dramatic treatment likely to be acceptable both to the nobility and to the multitude. As for the emperors, the last licence they would have permitted to the theatre was a free popular treatment of the national history ; if Augustus prohibited the publication of a tragedy by his adoptive father on the subject of Cedipus, it was improbable that he or his successors should have sanctioned the performance of plays dealing with the earthly fortunes of Divus Julius himself, or with the story of Marius, or that of the Gracchi, or any of the other tragic themes of later republican or imperial history. The historic drama at Rome thus had no opportunity for a vigorous life, even could tragedy have severed its main. Course from the Greek literatue of which it has been well called a "free-hand copy." The praetextae of which we know chiefly treat—possibly here and there helped to form1—legends of a hoary antiquity, or celebrate battles chronicled in family or public records;2 and in the end the species died a natural death.3

Q. Ennius (239–168), the favourite poet of the great families, was qualified by his Tarentine eduction, which taught the Oscan youth the Greek as well as the Latin tongue (so that he boasted "three souls"), to become the literary exponent of the Hellenizing tendencies of his age of Roman society. Nearly half of the extant names of his tragedies belong to the Trojan cycle ; and Euripides was clearly his favourite source and model. M Pacuvius (b. c. 229), like Ennius subject from his youth up to the influences of Greek civilization, and the first Roman dramatist who devoted himself exclusively to the tragic drama, was the least fertile of the chief Roman tragedians, but was regarded by the ancients as indisputably superior to Ennius. He again was generally (though not uniformly) held to have been surpassed by L. Accius (b. 170), a learned scholar and prolific dramatist, of whose plays 50 titles and a very large number of fragments have been preserved. The plays of the three last-named poets maintained themselves on the stage till the close of the republic ; and Accius was quated by the emperor Tiberius.4 Of the other tragic writers of the republic several were dilettanti—such as the great orator and eminent politician C. Julius Strabo ; the cultivated officers Q. Tullius Cicero, who made an attempt, disapproved by his illustrious brother, to introduce the satyr-drama into the Roman theatre; L. Cornelius Balbus, a Caesarean partisan ; and finally C. Julius Caesar himself. Tragedy continued to be cultivated under the earlier emperors ; and of one author, the famous and illfated L. Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.–65 A.D.), a series of works has come down to us. In accordance with the character of their author’s prose-work, they exhibit a strong predominance of the rhetorical element, and a pomposity of style far removed from that of the poets Sophocles and Euripides, from whom Seneca derived his themes. The metrification of his plays is very strict, and they were doubtless intended for recitation, whether or not also designed for the stage. A few tragic poets are mentioned after Seneca, till about reign of Domitian (81 – 96) the list comes to an end. The close of Roman tragic literature is obscurer than its beginnings ; and, while there are traces of tragic performances at Rome as late as even the 6th century, we are ignorant how long the works of the old masters of Roman tragedy maintained themselves on the stage.

It would obviously be an error to draw from the plays of Seneca—unfortunately the only examples of Roman tragedy we possess—as to the method and style of the earlier writers. In general, however, no important changes seem to have occurred in the progress of Roman tragic composition. The later Greek plays remained, so far as can be gathered, the models in treatment ; and inasmuch as at Rome the single plays were performed by themselves, there was every inducement to make their action as full and complicated as possible. The dialogue-scenes (deverbia) appear to have been largely interspersed with musical passages (cantica) ; but the effect of the latter must have suffered from the barbarous custom of having the songs sung by a boy placed in front of the flute-player (cantor), while the actor accompanied them with gesticulations. The chorus (unlike the Greek) stood on the stage itself and seems occasionally at least to have taken part in the action. But the whole of the musical element can hardly have attained to so call development as among the Greeks. The divisions of the action appear at first to have been three ; from the addition of prologue and epilogue may have arisen the invention (probably due in tragedy to Varro) of the fixed number of five acts. In style, such influence as the genius of Roman literature could exercise must have been in the direction of the rhetorical and the pathetic ; a surplus of energy on the one hand, and a defect of poetic richness on the other, can hardly have failed to characterize these, as they did all the other productions of earlier Roman poetry.

In Roman comedy two different kinds—respectively called palliate and togata from the names of dress—were distinguished,—the former treating Greek subjects and imitating Greek originals, the latter professing a native character. The palliate sought its originals especially in New Attic comedy ; and its authors, as they advanced in refinement of style, became more and more dependent upon their models, and unwilling to gratify the coarser tastes of the public by local allusions or gross seasonings. But that kind of comedy which shrinks from the rude breath of popular applause usually has in the end to give way to less squeamish rivals ; and thus, after the species had been cultivated for about a century (c. 250 –150 B.C.), palliatae ceased to be composed except for the amusement of small circles, though the works of the most successful authors, Plautus and Terence, kept the stage even after the establishment of the empire. Among the earlier writers of palliatae wee the tragic poets Andronicus, Naevius, and Ennius, but they were alike surpassed by T. Maccius Plautus (254 –184), nearly all of whose comedies esteemed genuine by Varro—not less than 20 in number—have been preserved. He was exclusively a comic poet, and though he borrowed his plots from the Greeks—from Diphilus and Philemon apparently in preference to the more refined Menander—there was in him a genuinely national as well as a genuinely popular element. Of the extent of his originally it is impossible to judge ; probably it lies in his elaboration of character and the comic details of his dialogue rather than in his plots. Modern comedy is indebted to him in all these points ; and in consequence of this fact, as well as of the attention his text has for linguistic reasons received from scholarship both ancient and modern, his merits have met with their full share of recognition. Statius Caecilius (an Insubrian brought to Rome as a captive c.200) stands midway between Plautus and Terence, but no plays of his remain. P.Terentius Afer (c. 185 –159) was, as his cognomen implies, a native of Carthage, of whose conqueror he enjoyed the patronage. His six extant comedies seem to be tolerably close renderings of their Greek originals, nearly all of which were plays of Menander. It was the good fortune of the works of Terence to be preserved in an exceptionally large number of MSS. in the monastic libraries of the Middle Ages, and thus (as will be seen0 to become a main link between the ancient and the Christian drama. As a dramatist he is distinguished by correctness of style rather than by variety in his plots or vivacity in his characters ; his chief merit—and at the same time the quality which has rendered him so suitable for modern imitation –is to be sought in the polite ease of his dialogue. In general, the characteristics of the palliatae, which were divided into five acts, are those of the New Comedy of Athens, like which they had no chorus ; for purposes of explanation from author to audience the prologue sufficed ; the Roman versions were probably terser than their originals. Which they often altered by the process called contamination.

The togatae, in the wider sense of the term, included all Roman plays of native origin—among the rest the praetextae, in constradistinction to which and to the transient species of the trabeatae (from the dress of the knights) the comedies dealing with the life of the lower classes were afterwards called tabernariae (from taberna, a shop, a name suited by some of their extant titles,1 while others point to the treatment of provincial scenes.2 The togata, which was necessarily more realistic than the palliate, and doubtless fresher as well as coarser in tone, flourished in Roman literature between 170 and 80 B.C. In this Titinius, all whose plays bear Latin titles and were tabernariae, was succeeded by the more refined L. Afranius, who, though still choosing national subjects, seems to have treated them in the spirit of Menader. His plays continued to be performed under the empire, though with an admixture of elements derived from that lower species, the pantomime, to which they also were in the end to succumb. The Romans likewise adopted the burlesque kind to comedy called from its inventor Rhinthonica, and by other names (cf. ante).

The end of Roman dramatic literature was dilettantism and criticism ; the end of the Roman drama was spectacle and show, buffoonery and sensual allurement. It was for this that theatre had passed through all its early troubles, when the political Puritanism of the old school had upheld the martial games of the circus against the enervating influence of the stage. In stage days the guardians of Roman virtue had sought to diminish the attractions of the theatre by insisting upon its remaining as uncomfortable as possible ; but as was usual at Rome, the privileges of the upper orders were at last extended to the population at large, though a separation of classes continued to be characteristic of a Roman audience. The first permanent theatre erected at Rome was that of Gin Pompeius (55 B.C) which contained nearly 18,000 seats ; but even of this the portion allotted to the performers (scaena) was of wood ; nor was it till the reign of Tiberius (22 A.D.) that, after being burnt down, the edifice was rebuilt in stone. See THEATRE.

Though a species of amateur literary censorship, introduced by Pompeius, became customary in the Augustan age, in general the drama’s laws at Rome were given by the drama’s patrons—in other words, the production of plays was a matter of private speculation. The exhibitions were contracted for with the officials charged with the superintendence of public amusements (curators ludorum) ; the actors were slaves trained for the art, mostly natives of Southern Italy or Greece. Many of them rose to reputation and wealth, purchased their freedom, and themselves became directors of companies ; but though Sullal might make a knight of Roscius, and Caesar and his friends defy ancient prejudice, the stigma of civil disability (infamia) continued to adhere to the profession. The actor’s art was carried on at Rome under conditions differing in other respects from the Greek theatre. The Romans loved a full stage, and from the later period of the republic liked to see it crowded with supernumeraries. This accorded with their military instincts, and with the general grossness of their tastes, which led them in the theatre as well as in the circus to delight in spectacle and tumult, and to applaud Pompeius when he furnished forth the return of Agamemnon in the Clytaemnestra with a grand total of 600 heavily-laden mules. On the other hand, the actors were nearer to the spectators in the Roman theatre

than in the Greek, the stage (pulpitum) not being separated from the first rows of the audience by an orchestra occupied by the chorus ; and this led in earlier times to the absence of masks, variously-coloured wigs serving to distinguish the age of the characters. Roscius, however, is said (in consequence of an obliquity of vision disfiguring his countenance) to have introduced the use of masks ; and the innovation, though disapproved of, afterwards, maintained itself. The tragic actors wore the crepida, corresponding to the cothurnus, and a heavy toga, which in the praetexta had the purple border giving its name to the species. The conventional costumes of the various kinds of comedy are likewise indicated by their names. The comparative nearness of the actors to the spectators encouraged the growth of that close criticism of acting for which Italy has always been famous, and which manifested itself in all the ways familiar to modern audiences. Where there is criticism, devices are apt to spring up for anticipating or directing it ; and the evil institution of the claque is modeled on Roman precedent. In fine, though the art of acting at Rome must have originally formed itself on Greek example and precept, it was doubtless elaborated with a care unknown to the greatest Attic artists. Its famous representatives were Gallus, called after his emancipation Q. Roscious Gallus (d. c. 62 B.C.), who, like the great "English Roscius," excelled in tragedy and comedy, and his younger contemporary Clodius Aesopus, a Greek by birth, likewise eminent in both branches of his art, though in tragedy more particularly. Both these great actors are said to have been constant hearers of the great orator Hortensius ; and Roscius wrote a treatise on the relations between oratory and acting. In the influence of oratory upon the drama are perhaps to be sought the chief among the nobler features of Roman tragedy to which a native origin may be fairly ascribed.

The ignoble and of the Roman—and with it of the ancient classical—drama has been with it of the ancient classical—drama has been already foreshadowed. The elements of dance and song, never integrally united with the dialogue in Roman tragedy, were now altogether separated from it. While it became customary simply to recite tragedies to the small audience who continued (or, as a matter of courtesy, affected) to appreciate them, the pantomimes commended itselt to the heterogeneous multitudes of the Roman theatre by confining the performance of the actor to gesticulation and dancing, a performance of the actor to gesticulation and dancing, a chorus singing the accompanying text. The species was developed with extraordinary success already under Augustus by Pylades and Bathyllus ; and so popular were these entertainments, that even eminent poets, such as Lucan (d. 65 A.D.), wrote the librettos for them, of which the subjects were generally mythological, only now and then historical, and chiefly of an amorous kind. A single masked performer was able to enchant admiring crowds by the art of gesticulation and movement only. In what direction this art tended, when suiting itself to the demands of a recklessly sensual age, may be gathered from the remark of one of the last pagan historians of the empire, that the introduction of pantomimes was a sign of the general moral decay of the world began with the beginning of the monarchy. Comedy more easily lost itself in the cognate form of the mimus, which survived all other kinds of comic entertainments because of its more audacious immorality and open obscenity. Women took part in these performances, by means of which, as late as the 6th century, a mima acquired a celebrity which ultimately raised her to the imperial throne. Meanwhile the regular drama had lingered on, enjoying in all its forms imperial patronage in the days of the literary revival under Hadrian (117–138) ; but the perennial taste for the spectacles of the amphitheatre, which reached its climax in the days of Constantine the Great (306 –337), hastened the downfall of the dramatic art in general. It was not absolutely extinguished even by the irruption of the northern barbarians ; but a bitter adversary had by this time risen into power. The whole authority of the Christian church had, without usually caring to distinguish between the nobler and the looser elements in the drama, involved all its manifestations in a consistent condemnation ; and when the faith of the that church was acknowledged as the religion of the Roman empire, the doom of the theatre was sealed. This doom was not undeserved ; for the remnants of the literary drama had long been overshadowed by entertainments such as both earlier and later Roman emperors—Domitian and Trajan as well as Galerius and Constantine—had found themselves obliged to prohibit in interests of public morality and order, by the bloody spectacles of the amphitheatre, and by the maddening excitement of the circus ; the art of acting had become the pander of the lewd or frivolous itch of eye and ear ; and the theatre had contributed its utmost to the demoralization of a world. The attitude taken up by the Christian church towards the stage was in general as un-avoidable as its particular expressions were at times heated by fanaticism or distorted by ignorance. Had she not visited with her anathema a wilderness of decay, she could not herself have become—what she little dreamt of becoming—the nursing mother of the new birth of an art which seemed incapable of regeneration.

Though already in the 4th century actors and mountebanks had been excluded from the benefit of Christian sacraments, and excommunication had been extended to those who visited theatres instead of churches on Sundays and holidays, and though similar enactments had followed at later dates, yet the entertainments of the condemned profession had never been entirely suppressed, and had even occasionally received imperial patronage. Gradually, however, the mimes and their fellows became a wandering fraternity, who doubtless appeared at festivals when they were wanted vanished again into the deepest obscurity which has ever covered that mysterious existence—a stroller’s life. It was thus that these strange intermediaries of civilization carried down such traditions as survived of the acting drama of pagan antiquity into the succeeding ages.


FOOTNOTE (p.410)

(1) Naevius, Lupus (The Wolf) ; Romulus ; Ennius, Sabinae (The Sabine Women) ; Accius, Brutus.

(2) Naevius, Clastidium (Marcellus?) ; Ennius, Ambracia ; Pacuvius, Paulus ; Accius, Aeneadae (Decius?).

(3) Balbus’s Iter (The Mission), an isolated play on an episode of the Pharsalian campaign, seems to have been composed for the mere private delectation of its author and hero. Octavia, a late praetexta ascribed to Seneca, was certainly not written by him.

(4) "Oderint dum metauant" Atreus.

FOOTNOTE (p.411)

(1) Augur ; Cinerarius (The Crimper) ; Fullonia (The Crimper) ; Fullonia (The Fuller’s Trade) ; Libertus (The Freedman) ; Tibicina (The Flute-girl0.

(2) Brundisinae ; Ferentinatis ; Setina.

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