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Supporting Materials for Lectures

Lecture 12: Theatre in Rome


  1. Roman Plays:
    Perhaps the earliest form of drama at Rome, and probably the only native one, was the Atellan farce. Sadly, no examples survive, and indeed these skits may have been improvised, never existing in written form. They relied on a series of stock-characters with fixed masks and names such as Maccus, the clown, Bucco the simpleton, Pappus the old fool, and Dossennus the hunchback; as such they are antecedents to the Italian Commedia dell'arte and the Spanish Entremeses. The role of the alazon in Aristophanic comedy was perhaps taken by the mean father and that of the eiron by the noble lovers, humorous clowning being provided by Maccus and other zanies (a Commedia dell'arte term from the Venetian pronunciation of "Johns", i.e. servants). A related art-form, likewise unrepresented by extant texts was the Mime, which presumably involved greater literary skill, the lyric poet Catullus being said to have written some (see T. P. Wiseman, Catullus and his World [Cambridge 1985]189ff).

    The following is a list of Latin plays that survive to the present day. All of them, except for the Octavia, wrongly attributed to Seneca, are based on Greek originals (many of which are lost):


    1. Comedy
      1. Plautus (died 184 B.C.); these plays are listed in alphabetical order, as their date of composition is unknown:
        • Amphitryon
        • The Braggart Soldier (Miles Gloriosus)
        • The Captives (Captivi)
        • The Casket Comedy (Cistellaria)
        • The Comedy of Asses (Asinaria)
        • The Entrepreneur (Mercator)
        • Epidicus
        • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Wedding (Casina); edited with commentary by W. T. MacCary and M. M. Willcock (Cambridge 1976)
        • The Haunted House (Mostellaria)
        • The Little Carthaginian (Poenulus)
        • The Persian (Persa)
        • The Pot of Gold (Aulularia)
        • Pseudolus
        • The Rope (Rudens)
        • The Savage Slave (Truculentus)
        • The Sisters Named Bacchis (Bacchides)
        • Stichus
        • The Tale of a Travelling Bag (Vidularia)
        • Three Bob Day (Trinummus)
        • The Two Menaechmuses (Menaechmi)
        • The Weevil (Curculio)


      2. Terence (circa 190-159 B.C.), the plays are listed in order of composition:
        • The Girl from Andros (Andria), edited with commentary by G. P. Shipp (Oxford 1960)
        • The Self-Tormentor (Heautontimorumenos)
        • The Eunuch (Eunouchus), edited with commentary by J. Barsby (Cambridge 1999)
        • Phormio
        • The Brothers (Adelphoe), edited with commentary by R. H. Martin (Cambridge 1976)
        • Her Husband's Mother (Hecyra), 2nd version


    2. Tragedy
      1. Seneca (circa 1-65 A.D.):
        • Trojan Women
        • Thyestes
        • Phaedra, edited with commentary by M. Coffey and R. Mayer (Cambridge 1990)
        • Medea, edited with commentary by C. D. N. Costa (Oxford 1973)
        • Agamemnon
        • Oedipus
        • The Madness of Hercules (Hercules Furens)
        • A Cloak for Hercules (Hercules Oetaeus)
        • [Octavia]
        • The Phoenician Women (Phoenissae)


  2. Theatre as Part of Roman Life:
    Widely popular in Rome was the philosophical school of Stoicism (on which see M. E. Reesor, The Nature of Man in Early Stoic Philosophy [London 1989]), one of whose tenets was that "all the world's a stage" (cf. Seneca Epistle 76.20, 80.6-8, De Providentia 2.9; see L. G. Christian, Theatrum Mundi [New York and London 1987] 11-24), and in keeping with this doctrine all of Roman life was highly theatrical.

    In the public and political sphere drama was very important. A number of major politicians either composed or acted in plays, for example when he was being held for ransom after being kidnapped by pirates, the teen-aged Julius Caesar passed his time writing a play on the Oedipus-story (Suetonius Iul. 56.7, Tacitus Dial. 21.6; see V. Valcárel, "La pérdida de la obra poética de César: un caso de censura?" 317-24 in J. L. Melena ed., Symbolae = Festschrift Lucovico Mitxelena [Salamanca 1985]) and Nero liked to act the title-role of an Oedipus exsul (Suetonius Nero 46). Theatrical techniques were useful in forensic oratory, notably the practice of prosopopoeia whereby the speaker took on various personae and spoke in voices other than his own as a way of providing variation and humour in his speech. One of the ways that politicians maintained popularity was by entertaining the plebs with blood-sports of various kinds. The executions of criminals could be used theatrically for this purpose, for example tarring and feathering a convict and pushing him off a high platform into a small tub of water and calling the whole charade Icarus (see Coleman).

    In the private sphere a popular form of entertainment was dinner-theatre, not quite in our sense of the word, but rather through meals in which the serving of food became itself mimetic and dramatic. An interesting fictional account of such a dinner is the dinner-party of Trimalchio episode from Petronius' novel, Satyricon in which the host stages a reenactment of Ajax mad, serves dishes disguised as foods of other types, compels his wife to climb on a table and dance the kordax (a sort of can-can), has tumblers let down from the ceiling in a machine, and ends up pretending to be dead so all the guests can mourn for him and give him the pleasure of, as it were, attending his own funeral.


    • F. Abbot, "The Theater as a Factor in Roman Politics under the Republic," Transactions of the American Philological Association 38 (1907) 49-56.
    • F. W. Wright, Cicero and the Theater (Northampton, Mass. 1931).
    • M. Kokolakis, "Lucian and the Tragic Performances in His Time," Platon 12 (1960) 67-109.
    • W. A. Laidlaw, "Cicero and the Stage," Hermathena 94 (1960) 56-66.
    • T. P. Wiseman, Cinna the Poet (Leicester 1974) 159-69.
    • E. Cizek, "Suéton et le théâtre," in Association Budé, Actes IXe Congrès (Paris 1975) 480-85.
    • J. Cousin, "Quintilien et le théâtre," ibid. 459-97.
    • C. E. Manning, "Acting and Nero's Conception of the Principate," Greece and Rome 22 (1975) 164-75.
    • F. Dupont, L'acteur-roi ou le théâtre dans la Rome antique (Paris 1985).
    • K. M. Coleman, "Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments," Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990) 44-73.
    • A. Malissard, "Tacite et le théâtre ou la mort en scène," in J. Blänsdorf ed., Theater und Gesellschaft im Imperium Romanum (Tübingen 1990) 213-22.
    • P. L. Schmidt, "Nero und das Theater, " ibid. 149-63.
    • E. Rawson, Roman Culture and Society (Oxford 1991) 468-77.
    • D. Potter, "Martyrdom as Spectacle," in R. Scodel, ed., Theater and Society in the Classical World (Ann Arbor 1993) 53-88.
    • S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge, Mass, 1994).
    • W. J. Slater, "Pantomime Riots," Classical Antiquity 13 (1994) 120-44.
    • R. C. Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Imperial Rome (New Have and London 1999).

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