Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment

Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment

by George E. Duckworth


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Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment by George E. Duckworth

This book provides the most complete and definitive study of Roman comedy.

Originally published in 1952.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691620282
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 526
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 3.80(d)

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Nature of Roman Comedy

A Study in Popular Entertainment

By George E. Duckworth


Copyright © 1952 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06082-8



THE traditional date of the founding of Rome was 753 B.C. and more than five hundred years elapsed before a Greek named Livius Andronicus adapted a Greek tragedy and a Greek comedy for presentation on the Roman stage. This date, 240 B.C., is important, for it marks not only the appearance of Greek drama at Rome but also the beginning of formal Latin literature. Latin prose and verse had appeared earlier in primitive form (e.g., laws, maxims, religious songs, dirges, epitaphs) and had been slowly developing throughout the centuries; the linguistic medium was being prepared for the time when a sudden impetus would make literary creation inevitable.

In the early days of the Republic the Romans were too busily engaged in the mastery of their environment to give much thought to cultural pursuits. Gradually they consolidated their position as the ruling people of the Italian peninsula and in so doing came into closer contact with the Greeks of southern Italy. The first Punic war (264-241 B.C.) gave the Romans a knowledge of Greek life and culture in Sicily, and their victory over Carthage, which marked the beginning of their expansion as a world power, may have brought to them a self-consciousness, a realization of their own cultural deficiencies and what would be expected of them as a great nation. Certainly it is no accident that the regular production r>f tragedies and comedies at Rome began in 240 B.C., one year after the conclusion of the war. The necessary stimulus to literary activity had arrived. Whether the dramatic presentations were primarily to satisfy the desires of soldiers who had seen Greek tragedies and comedies at Syracuse and elsewhere or whether the plays reflected a more general realization that the cultural development of the Romans had not kept pace with their political prestige is difficult to decide. The fact that Livius Andronicus also translated the Odyssey into Latin for use in schools reveals an increasing concern for better educational methods. From this time on for the next hundred years epic and drama remained the chief concern of the Roman poets.

The beginnings of Roman literature are sometimes criticized as imitation and translation but it is worth recalling that the Greeks by the third century B.C. had already invented, developed, and brought to a state of perfection almost every conceivable literary form — epic, drama (both tragedy and comedy), lyric, elegy, epigram, pastoral, history, oratory, philosophical dialogue and treatise. The literature of ancient Greece is the one truly original European literature and in a broad sense all later literatures of western Europe are and must be imitative in that they are all indebted to Greece, directly or indirectly, for their literary forms. The Romans had nothing of their own that deserved the name of literature and so, when they came into contact with Greek culture and Greek literature, they were naturally eager to imitate and adapt the Greek masterpieces. The Romans may have lost some strength and realism by their generous use of Greek writers but they doubtless saved much time by entering quickly on their heritage, and early writers like Naevius and Plautus brought vigor and originality to the literary types taken over from the Greeks.

It is well to remember that of all the peoples of the period who came into contact with the Greeks only the Romans had the maturity and the imagination to assimilate and carry on the culture of their Greek neighbors. The very beginnings of Roman literature were audacious and merit our admiration. A new art was developed — the art of translation. To transfer a literary work from one language to another was in itself a new idea and a bold undertaking at a time when the Latin tongue had not yet attained a truly poetic expression. Livius Andronicus and his successors, Naevius, Plautus, and Ennius, did much to make Latin a more flexible and melodious medium. They mark the beginnings of a development in the language which did not reach its culmination until the days of Cicero and Vergil.

Although 240 B.C. is the all important date for the beginning of Roman literature, we must believe that the ground had already been prepared for the introduction of formal drama. The very fact that there were theatrical performances and a theater-going public in 240 B.C. implies that some form of dramatic activity existed prior to this date. Our first concern will be to describe the nature of this drama, as accurately as can be determined, and to discover what influence, if any, this primitive, non-literary drama may have had upon Roman comedy of the second century B.C.

Horace and Livy on Early Drama

The ancient Romans, like the modern Italians, had a fondness for gesticulation and mimicry, and it is difficult to conceive of primitive festivals without some form of song and dance in which the mimetic element played a part. The poet Horace in a famous passage (Epistles 11, 1, 139-163) describes the farmers resting from their toil and making sacrifices to their gods in a rural harvest festival, on which occasion they uttered rustic jests of an abusive nature in alternate verse, and Horace refers to this practice as Fescennina licentia. These Fescennine verses, he says, developed into so scurrilous a form (iam saevus apertam in rabiem verti iocus) that they were restrained by law, after which they again lapsed into a form of harmless entertainment (ad bene dicendum delectandumque redacti). Then Horace utters the famous sentence: "Conquered Greece took captive her fierce conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium," and states that after the Punic wars the Romans turned to the pages of the Greeks and began to search for the useful matter to be found in Sophocles, Thespis, and Aeschylus. He admits, however, that traces of the earlier rustic verses (vestigia ruris) have survived to his own day.

Horace thus ascribes to rural festivals the origin of a crude form of dramatic dialogue in verse, and gives also a brief history of its development prior to the importation of Greek drama. He does not mention the name of Livius Andronicus, and the references to Greek drama seem to be entirely to tragedy.

Much more is learned about the early history of drama at Rome from an important and much discussed passage in Livy's History of Rome (VII, 2), which gives a very different account. Livy describes the various stages of the development as follows. (1) During a plague at Rome in 364 B.C., as one means of appeasing the wrath of the gods, performers were brought from Etruria to dance to the music of the flute. (2) This Etruscan dance was taken over by Roman youth who added rough dialogue and appropriate gestures; the form became popular, and native professionals (vernaculi artifices) received the name of histriones, from ister, the Etruscan word for performer. These early productions, containing repartee and impromptu verse, are considered by Livy to be similar to the Fescennine verses, but apparently are not to be identified with them.

(3) A more elaborate performance followed, a kind of musical medley, no longer improvised but with song and dance now arranged for accompaniment by the flute; to this performance Livy applies the term satura. This medley of song, dance, and dialogue had no real plot and was easily displaced by (4) plays with a plot (argumentum) which were first introduced by Livius Andronicus. Livy fails to mention that the plays of Livius Andronicus were Greek plays translated and adapted for the Roman stage, but refers to him as an actor in his own compositions and tells the story that once, when Livius had strained his voice from taking too many encores, he employed a boy to sing and he himself merely acted out the song with gestures; from this, says Livy, arose a distinction between songs (cantica) and dialogue verse (diverbia), and the histriones confined themselves to dialogue and accompanied with gestures the songs when sung by others.

(5) The final stage in Livy's account marks a reaction from the highly developed drama of the professionals; the Roman youth left to the histriones the acting of little plays and returned to the responsive songs and jests of the earlier period, that is, of the second stage; these were later called exodia or afterpieces, and were attached to the jabula Atellana, a type of comedy that had been developed by the Oscans in Campania. Since the Atellan plays were acted by Roman youth, they were kept free from any degrading association with professional actors; hence the custom remained that the amateur performers retained membership in their tribes and served in the army. Livy concludes his discussion with these words: "In my account of the small beginnings of other institutions it seemed advisable to include also the origin of stage performances, in order to show how from a wholesome beginning they have developed into a craze which can scarcely be supported by wealthy kingdoms."

A passage in Valerius Maximus (11, 4, 4) gives a history of the early drama that in most respects resembles Livy's account. Valerius Maximus mentions the development of an early song and dance into the metrical satnrae, the introduction of plays with plots by Livius, the story about Livius losing his voice and acting out songs in pantomime, the coming in of Atellan farces from Campania, and the fact that the performer of such plays was allowed to retain both membership in his tribe and the right of serving in the army. All this closely parallels the details given by Livy; the chief difference is the assignment to Roman youths of the earliest song and dance, after which a dancer was summoned from Etruria. It seems unlikely that Valerius Maximus took his material from Livy, but the close resemblance shows that the two accounts at least came from the same source.

Horace and Livy in the Augustan age and Valerius Maximus in the early Empire wrote centuries after the events they were attempting to describe, and it is quite possible that they or their sources may on occasion have been guilty of theorizing and guesswork. For instance, the popularity of the mime and the pantomime in the later Republic perhaps led to the theory of the separation of the actors from the singers — an incredible procedure for comedy in the age of Plautus. Again, the status of actors in the late Republic when manumitted slaves were employed on the stage may have been responsible for the theories in Livy and Valerius Maximus that a stigma was attached to the profession of acting in the earlier period with the exception of the performers in the Atellan plays. But if Livy is correct in stating that all regular actors of Roman birth were removed from army service and from membership in their tribes, the procedure was a mark of disgrace; it could hardly, as Frank suggests, have resulted from a scarcity of actors and been originally intended as an honorable exemption, which was misunderstood when the theater deteriorated and ex-slaves entered the profession.

In other respects also it is possible that the accounts of Livy and Valerius Maximus are untrustworthy, and that they have been in part invented to produce a history of early Roman drama where none really existed. We shall return to this point later in the chapter. As to the various types of the pre-literary drama, Horace, Livy, and Valerius Maximus provide us with the following names: the Fescennine verses, the dramatic satura, the fabula Atellana; to these must be added the mime, whose existence in Italy is well attested for the early period. What can be determined about the nature of these four forms? With the exception of the satura, all survived and flourished in the classical period; fragments of the later mime and Atellana are extant, as well as numerous references to them, and certain inferences may reasonably be drawn from this information concerning their nature in the third century B.C.

The Fescennine Verses

There were in antiquity two explanations of the word "Fescennine"; either the name of the verses came from the Etruscan town Fescennium, or they were so called because they were thought to ward off witchcraft (fascinum). Most modern scholars accept the former derivation; just as the fabula Atellana was named for Atella, a town in Campania, so these crude verses received their name from the town of their origin; also, there are linguistic difficulties in deriving Fescennine from fascinum.

There is no evidence that the Fescennine verses were dramatic in the classical period. They were used chiefly at weddings and are referred to as nuptialia carmina. Numerous citations in Catullus, Seneca, and later authors attest to this practice. They were apparently also employed for invective; Macrobius (Sat. 2, 4, 21) refers to Fescennini written by the emperor Augustus attacking Asinius Pollio, and quotes Pollio's witty answer with its play upon scribere and proscribere:

I am silent; for it is not easy to inscribe verses against a person who has the power to-proscribe.

The general character of the earlier Fescennine verses seems clear; they were jesting, abusive, and doubtless obscene, and were especially associated with weddings and harvest festivals. There can be little doubt that they were dramatic in a crude fashion, since they were improvised and responsive, and they were probably accompanied by dramatic gestures. As to the verse form, it is most likely that they were composed in the native Saturnian meter although the trochaic septenarius, so frequently employed by Plautus and Terence, seems to have been a native Latin meter well known in the early period.

The Problem of the Dramatic Satura

From a dance with gestures and dramatic dialogue, which, according to Livy, resembled the Fescennine verses, it would be only a step to a more elaborate musical performance. To this more developed stage of drama both Livy and Valerius Maximus gave the name of satura, but little is known of its nature; that it was a kind of musical medley is implied by Livy's phraseology (impletas modis saturas; cf. Valerius Maximus: saturarum modos) and it apparently had little plot, since it was sharply distinguished from the play with a plot introduced by Livius Andronicus. The word satura itself indicated a mixture, or medley; cf. the phrase Ianx satura, "a platter filled with mixed foods"; the word also occurred in legal terminology to refer to an omnibus law (e.g., imperium per saturam dare, sententias per saturam exquirere) and was used by Ennius as a title for his collection of miscellaneous poems.

Many modern scholars have rejected outright the tradition of an early dramatic satura. Hendrickson and Leo, in particular, maintain that the account of Livy and Valerius Maximus is completely untrustworthy. Briefly, the arguments against the existence of the satura are these : the tradition of the satura goes back to a pre-Varronian Roman grammarian, who, having no facts about drama in the pre-literary period, wrote up a history of Roman comedy based upon Aristotle's account of Greek comedy (Poetics 1449a, 10 ff., 1449b, 7 ff.). Hendrickson believes that both Livy (vn, 2) and Horace (Epist. 11, 1, 139 ff.) go back to this source. Horace's rustic festival and Livy's city ritual correspond to Aristotle's origin of comedy in phallic verses; the scurrility (apertarabies) of the Fescennine verses in Horace's account and the satura of Livy are a parallel to the lampooning and abuse ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of Old Attic Comedy, while the introduction of Greek plays (Horace) and the introduction of plays with plots by Livius Andronicus (Livy) correspond to Aristotle's description of Crates as giving up lampooning and introducing plays with plots. On the basis of this supposed dependence on Aristotle the Roman account could have no validity; the dramatic satura had never existed but was invented to provide a parallel to Aristotle's second stage, the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Old Comedy. Leo believes that the term satura was invented to correspond to the Greek satyr play, and he denies that Horace and Livy go back to the same source, but he too thinks that the accounts reflect the attempts of Roman scholars to write a history of Roman drama using Greek methods and Greek material.


Excerpted from Nature of Roman Comedy by George E. Duckworth. Copyright © 1952 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • PREFACE, pg. v
  • CONTENTS, pg. xi
  • Chapter 3. The Golden Age of Drama at Rome, pg. 39
  • Chapter 4. Presentation and Staging, pg. 73
  • Chapter 5. Stage Conventions and Techniques, pg. 102
  • Chapter 6. Theme and Treatment, pg. 139
  • Chapter 7. Methods of Composition, pg. 177
  • Chapter 8. Foreshadowing and Suspense, pg. 209
  • Chapter 9. Characters and Characterization, pg. 236
  • Chapter 10. Thought and Moral Tone, pg. 272
  • Chapter 11. The Comic Spirit in Character and Situation, pg. 305
  • Chapter 12. Language and Style, pg. 331
  • Chapter 13. Meter and Song, pg. 361
  • Chapter 14. The Originality of Roman Comedy: A Recapitulation, pg. 384
  • Chapter 15. The Influence of Plautus and Terence upon English Comedy, pg. 396
  • APPENDIX, pg. 435
  • ABBREVIATIONS, pg. 443
  • Bibliography, pg. 445
  • Index, pg. 465

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