Open main menu

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 (with Sicily) has ever been the native land of acting and of scenic representation; and, though Roman dramatic literature at its height is but a faint reflex of Greek examples, there is perhaps no branch of Roman literary art more congenial than this to the soil whence it sprang.

Quick observation and apt improvisation have always been distinctive features in the Italian character. Thus in the rural festivities of Italy there developed from a very early period in lively intermixture the elements of the Origin of its native forms. dance, of jocular and abusive succession of song, speech and dialogue, and of an assumption of character such as may be witnessed in any ordinary dialogue carried on by southern Italians at the present day. Not less indigenous was the invariable accompaniment of the music of the flute (tibia). The occasions of these half obligatory, half impromptu festivities were religious celebrations, public or private—among the latter more especially weddings, which have in all ages been provocative of demonstrative mirth. The so-called Fescennine verses (from Fescennium in southern Etruria, and very possibly connected with fascinum = phallos), which were afterwards confined to weddings, and ultimately suggested an elaborate species of artistic poetry, never merged into actual dramatic performances. Saturae. In the saturae, on the other hand—a name originally suggested by the goatskins of the shepherds, but from primitive times connected with the “fulness” of both performers and performance—there seems from the first to have been a dramatic element; they were probably comic songs or stories recited with gesticulation and the invariable flute accompaniment. Introduced into the city, these entertainments received a new impulse from the performances of the Etruscan players (ludiones) who had been brought into Rome when scenic games (ludi scenici) were introduced there in 364 B.C. for purposes Istriones. of religious propitiation. These (h)istriones, as they were called at Rome (istri had been their native name), who have had the privilege of transmitting their appellation to the entire histrionic art and its professors, were at first only dancers and pantomimists in a city where their speech was exotic. 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 saturae came to be performed as farcical after-pieces (exodia), until they gave way to other species. Among these the mimi were at Rome Mimi. probably coeval in their beginnings with the stage itself, where those who performed them were afterwards known under the same name, possibly in the place of an older appellation (planipedes, bare-footed, representatives of slaves and humble folk). 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 independently. At the close of the republican period the mimus found its way into literature, through D. Laberius, C. Matius and Publilius Syrus, and was 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 pantomimus (see below) the mimus continued to prevail in the days of the Empire, having transferred its original grossness 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 Atellanae. of native Italian origin, the Atellane fables (from Atella in Campania) call for special mention. Very probably of Oscan origin, they began with delineations of the life of small towns, in which dramatic and other satire has never ceased to find a favourite subject. 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-cheeked, voracious chatterbox (bucco), and the wily 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 Saturnian metre) was left to the performers to improvise. In course of time these plays assumed a literary form, being elaborated as after-pieces by Lucius Pomponius of Bononia, Novius and other authors; but under the Empire they were gradually absorbed in the pantomimes.

The regular, as distinct from the popular, Roman drama, on the other hand, was of foreign (i.e. Greek) origin; and its early history, at all events, attaches itself to more or less fixed dates. It begins with the year 240 B.C., Origin of the regular Roman drama. when at the ludi Romani, held with unusual splendour after the first Punic War, its victorious conclusion was, in accordance with 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 festivals enjoyed high popularity. His models were, in tragedy, the later Greek tragedians and their revisions of the three great Attic masters; in comedy, we may feel sure, Menander and his school. Greek examples continued to dominate the regular Roman drama during the whole of its course, even when it resorted to native themes.

The main features of Roman tragedy admit of no doubt, although our conclusions respecting its earlier progress are only derived from analogy, from scattered notices, especially of the titles of plays, and from such fragments—mostly History of Roman tragedy. 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 Argonauts. 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 circumstances have led him more fully to develop a Praetexta. new tragic species invented by him. But the fabula 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 interest—which the Greeks had treated only in isolated instances; and one might at first sight 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 Oedipus, 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 literature 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 form[1]—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 education, which taught the Oscan youth the Greek as well as the Latin tongue (so that he boasted “three souls”), to become the literary Ennius and his successors. 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 last-named three poets maintained themselves on the stage till the close of the republic; and Accius was quoted 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 officer 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 one author, the famous and ill-fated L. Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65), left behind him a series of works which were to exercise a paramount influence upon the Seneca. beginnings of modern tragedy. In accordance with the character of their author’s prose-work, they exhibit a strong predominance of the rhetorical element, and an artificiality of style far removed from that of the poets Sophocles and Euripides, from whom Seneca derived his themes. Yet he is interesting, not only by these devices and by a “sensational” choice of themes, but also by a quickness of treatment which we may call “modern,” a quality not easily resisted in a dramatist. 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 the reign of Domitian (81-96) the list comes to an end. The close of Roman tragic literature is obscurer than its beginning; 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 conclusions 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 Characteristics of Roman tragedy. composition. The later Greek plays remained, so far as can be gathered, the models in treatment; and, inasmuch as at Rome the several plays were performed singly, there was every inducement to make their action as full and complicated as possible. The dialogue-scenes (diverbia) 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 full a 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 superfluity 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 early Roman poetry.

In Roman comedy two different kinds—respectively called palliata and togata from well-known names of dress—were distinguished,—the former treating Greek subjects and imitating Greek originals, the latter professing a native History of Roman comedy. character. The palliata 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 Palliata. 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 select 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 were the tragic poets Andronicus, Naevius and Ennius, but they were alike Plautus. 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, though twelve of them were not known to the modern world before 1429. 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 originality it is impossible to judge; probably it lies in his elaboration of types of character and the comic turns 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 quite their full share of recognition. Caecilius Statius (an Insubrian brought to Rome as a captive c. 200) stands midway between Plautus and Terence, but no Terence. 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 seen) 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 main features 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 contradistinction to which and to the transient species of the trabeatae (from the dress of the knights) Togatae. 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,[5] while others point to the treatment of provincial scenes.[6] The togata, which was necessarily more realistic than the palliata, and doubtless fresher as well as coarser in tone, flourished in Roman literature between 170 and 80 B.C. In this species Titinius, all whose plays bear Latin titles and were tabernariae, was succeeded by the more refined L. Afranius, who, though still choosing natural subjects, seems to have treated them in the spirit of Menander. 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 of comedy called from its inventor Rhinthonica, and by other names (see above). But with them, the general course of the drama, which with the Greeks lost itself in the sand, could not fail to be merged into the flood.

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 the theatre had passed through all its early The Roman theatre. 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 those 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 Cn. 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 (A.D. 22) that, after being burnt down, the edifice was rebuilt in stone.

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 Actors. a matter of private speculation. The exhibitions were contracted for with the officials charged with the superintendence of public amusements (curatores 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 Sulla might make a knight of Roscius, and Caesar and his friends defy ancient prejudice, the stigma of civil disability (infamia) was not removed from the profession, which in the great days of the Attic drama had been held in honour at Athens. But, on the whole, the social treatment of actors was easy in the days of the early empire; senators and knights actually appeared on the stage; Nero sang on it; and a pantomimus was made praefectus urbi by Elagabalus.

The actor’s art was carried on at Rome under conditions differing in other respects from those of 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 stood 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, diversely coloured wigs serving to distinguish the age of the characters. Roscius, however, is said (because of an obliquity of vision which disfigured his countenance) to have introduced the use of masks; and the retrograde innovation, though disapproved of, 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 which has always been dear to an Italian public, and which in ancient days manifested itself at Rome 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 modelled on Roman precedent, typified by the standing conclusion “plaudite!” in the epilogues of the palliatae.

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 most famous representatives were Gallus, Roscius and Aesopus. called after his emancipation Q. Roscius Gallus (d. c. 62 B.C.), who, like the great “English Roscius,” excelled equally 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.


  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 metuant” (Atreus).
  5. Augur; Cinerarius (The Crimper); Fullonia (The Fuller’s Trade); Libertus (The Freedman); Tibicina (The Flute-Girl).
  6. Brundisinae; Ferentinatis; Setina.