Episode 42: The Beginnings of Roman Literature

Roman literature grew slowly from Greek traditions during the 300s and 200s BCE. Learn about its earliest figures, and how they paved the way for the age of Cicero.

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The Beginnings of Roman Literature

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Or should I say. . . [“Acoustic Picking 18” orchestral theme] Hello. And welcome to the Literature of Rome. That, by the way was my version of the Garage Band loop that Mike Duncan used in his podcast, “The History of Rome.”

Well, I’m back from time off, and this is Literature and History, Episode 42: The Beginnings of Roman Literature. This show is a high level overview of the birth, development, and early evolutions of Roman literature, from the mid-300s BCE up to about 100 BCE.

This is our first program on Roman literature. In our podcast thus far, we’ve spent about 39 hours on Ancient Greek literature, from Hesiod to Apollonius of Rhodes. Over the next twenty or so shows, I expect to produce an equal quantity of content on Roman literature. Our podcast has many different kinds of listeners, from relative newcomers to ancient history to experts on the subject, and so I want to take a second to get us all on the same page by giving you the history of Rome in a single paragraph.

Roman Literature’s Most Productive Period

Bust of Gaius Iulius Caesar in Naples

Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE), perhaps the most famous of all Romans, was at the center of Rome’s transition between republic and principate, and lived at the beginning of Roman Literature’s so-called Golden Age.

Roman history is usually divided up into four periods – the regal period, during which Rome was ruled by kings, the Republican period, during which Rome was ruled by bodies of elected officials, the Principate, during which Rome was ruled by emperors, but still retained features of its previous electoral system, and the Dominate, during which powerful authoritarian emperors controlled Rome. The regal period, according to ancient Roman historians, is said to have begun in 753 BCE, although archaeological evidence suggests Rome wasn’t an urban center until the 600s or 500s BCE.1 Whatever the exact chronology of its inception, Rome was, between its very beginning and the year 509 BCE, ruled by kings. Between 509 and 27 BCE, Rome had what we call its Republican period, during which ruling officials were elected to office, served limited terms, and had their powers controlled by a system of checks and balances. The Republican period ended in 27 BCE, after a prolonged period of civil wars, when Rome’s first emperor ascended to the throne, paying clever lip service to the old Republican structure of government but meanwhile consolidating power for himself and his heirs. This was the beginning of the Roman Principate, ruled by a very diverse set of emperors, from ingenious Augustus to sadistic Caligula, from narcissistic Nero to farsighted Hadrian, from noble Marcus Aurelius to bloodthirsty Commodus. After the Roman Empire nearly collapsed during the 200s CE, the Dominate or final phase of Rome in the west began with the ascension of Emperor Diocletian in 284. Thereafter, the later emperors of Rome did away with many pretensions of Republican government and used a broader bureaucratic structure to impose a more despotic regime on the territories of the empire. So those four main phases of Roman history are again are the regal period – 753 until 509 BCE; then the Republican period – 509 to 27 BCE; then the Principate – 27 BCE until 284 CE; then the Dominate – 284 until 476. If you know nothing at all about Rome, those four periods are a pretty solid place to begin your education on the subject – 250 years of kings, 500 years of a plutocratic electoral system, 300 years of autocracy mixed with oligarchy, and then at the end, a final two centuries of increasingly dysfunctional and fragmented totalitarianism.2

If we take the entire history of the Western Empire, from 753 BCE up until 476 CE – all 1,229 years of it, and we place Rome’s most famous and influential literary figures on this timeline, we see a pronounced concentration of influential writers active between 100 BCE, and 100 CE. In literary history, these two centuries encompassed the careers of Cicero, Lucretius, Horace, Catullus, Propertius, Virgil, Livy, Ovid, Petronius, Statius, and Seneca the Younger, with the work of Juvenal, Apuleius and Marcus Aurelius spilling into the second century CE. This small fraction of Rome’s lifespan produced the figures who dominate Latin literature courses today. During these two centuries, the Late Republic gave way to the early principate, and Rome’s leading writers were all, in various ways, dragged into the vortex of historical change, some resisting it, others embracing it, and everything in between.

A century and a half before Cicero, however, Rome was already teeming with literary activity. By the late 200s BCE, Latin language plays were popular festival entertainments in Rome – comedy, tragedy, history plays, burlesques, and mime shows, and in the apartments of aspiring intellectuals, epic chronicles of Roman history were being produced. Rome’s first writers were a motley bunch – imports, generally speaking, from outlying areas of the Italian peninsula and sometimes even further afield. But the backgrounds of Rome’s earliest known writers – Magna Graecian, Umbrian, Greek, Carthaginian – the backgrounds of these writers made them especially well qualified to bring various cultural traditions to Rome and set the great project of Latin literature in motion.

Unfortunately, the vast bulk of Roman literature before 100 BCE, excepting the plays of Plautus and Terence, has not been preserved. Entire genres have been lost, and a substantial prehistory of Latin literature that influenced Cicero and the authors who followed him is now only known through secondhand quotations and descriptions in later literary histories – tiny tendrils that give us a tantalizing glimpse of the scope of Rome’s literary output during the Middle Republic. Fortunately, though, some particularly talented modern scholars have systematically indexed what we know about the beginnings of Latin literature. We will likely never be able to read Rome’s first known plays, nor its earliest works of history, but by combing through the granular matter of later literary histories and fragments of manuscripts, we now have a pretty good sense of when Latin literature began to be produced, why its production started taking place, who was involved, and what they generated.

Almost everything that we’ll talk about today happened during the Middle Republican period – in the mesmerizing century that began with the conclusion of the First Punic War in 240 BCE, and ended in 140 BCE, a few years after Rome subjugated Greece and demolished Carthage. During this century, a few generations of Romans managed the unlikely feat of conquering almost the entire Mediterranean, fighting Hannibal and Carthage, Macedon, the Seleucids, and a vast alliance of Greek city states led by Corinth, not to mention others. While all this was happening, at home on the peninsula, Roman literature began in earnest, an amalgamation of languages, genres, and ideologies that reflected the changes sweeping the Mediterranean world.

To begin the story of Latin literature, though, we’re going to start before even 240-140 BCE, that century that saw Rome’s all time greatest period of expansion. We’re going to go all the way back to one of the first known inscriptions in the Latin language, and see what it says. To do this, we need to travel to the Roman Coliseum. We’re going to head out of the western side of the Coliseum, and walk a third of a mile to the northwest from there, through the heart of the Forum, until we reach a place where ruins lie beneath ruins – a place that Julius Caesar himself would have regarded as ancient and historic. This place was a shrine – a shrine that the Romans called Lapis Niger, or “Black Stone.” And the discovery of this inscription in 1899, in the words of historian Mary Beard, “has changed the way the history of early Rome has been understood ever since.”3 [music]

The Forum Inscription at Lapis Niger

At Lapis Niger, beneath the dark marble flooring for which the shrine gets its name, archaeologists working at the turn of the 20th century discovered one of the earliest inscriptions in the Latin language.4 The inscription, often called the Forum Inscription, is most commonly dated to the 500s BCE – about half of a century before Rome became a republic.5 The Forum Inscription is written in an older form of Latin – one in which the Greek alphabet had fairly recently been borrowed and adapted for Latin by means of Greek colonies on the Italian peninsula, and the Forum Inscription is sufficiently fragmented that it’s difficult to piece together. Alongside a small collection of archaic Latin etchings and potsherds, the Forum Inscription is our first glimpse of a language that would dominate much of the Mediterranean world, and later, its theology, for a thousand years.

Lapis niger stele roman literature

The Forum Inscription on this stone stele was unearthed at the beginning of the 20th century. While its archaic Latin is useful to linguists, the writing is too fragmented for us to make any conclusive sense of it, or connect it to Roman Literature in the long run.

The Forum Inscription dates from the decades when the city of Judah was facing concerted encroachments from the Babylonian Empire – the 590s, the 580s, perhaps a little later. As the last kings of Judah saw their territories carved up by Mesopotamian imperials, the poet Sappho was composing lyrics in the Eastern Mediterranean, the great Persian ruler Cyrus was a young child, and Rome was a minor kingdom in the west central part of Italy, at that juncture indistinguishable from several comparable neighbors. When the Forum Inscription was written at Lapis Niger, Rome would have been on the fourth or fifth of its legendary early kings, and the Forum itself had only recently been transformed from a marshy lake and into a piece of solid ground, in an event that survived in later Roman memory as the Cloaca Maxima, or “the Great Drain.”6

We don’t know exactly when the Forum was transformed from a riverside swamp and into solid ground that later became the center of the Roman world. Even the patriotic historian Livy admitted that the earliest legends of Roman history were approximations and perhaps wholesale myths, writing that “The traditions which have come down to us of what happened before the building of the city, or before its building was contemplated, [were] suitable rather to the fictions of poetry than to the genuine records of history.”7 The stories of the city’s first monarchs, with their suspiciously lengthy reigns and larger than life personalities, have thus been suspect since the early Imperial period. Livy, who began his history of Rome in the 20s BCE, told the tale of Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabines, and the Oath of the Horatii with the occasional wisecrack and wince. Modern archaeology has found little more than wattle and daub huts that can be dated before the 500s BCE, which suggests that Rome’s earliest kings were tribal chieftains, and the wars with the Sabines, and Latins, Volsci and others were small squabbles and cattle raids, ballooned in size and significance through the telephone game of nationalistic historiography.8 So for all of these reasons, because the regal and early Republican periods are enshrouded in mystery and ancient hyperbole, when the Forum Inscription was discovered at Lapis Niger, or Black Stone, this inscription was studied with exacting rigor, a single piece of the past, unadulterated by the fabrications and distortions of later historians.

What it says, however, is frustratingly elusive. The archaic lettering and dismal state of preservation of this earliest piece of Latin writing make decipherment difficult, and the legible words are largely enigmatic – scholars over the past century have come to a consensus that the Forum Inscription is some sort of “boundary stone” or ancient piece of legislation having to do with watching livestock avoiding a curse, but beyond that we remain unsure.9 Notwithstanding its cryptic meaning, however, the Forum Inscription has been very useful to historians and scholars studying the languages of the Italian Peninsula, its archaic phonetic Latin alphabet often cited in histories of the Latin language. By the 500s BCE, phonetic alphabets had been present in the Eastern Mediterranean for hundreds of years, and in the Fertile Crescent, while Rome was still young, phonetic writing on papyrus was rapidly supplanting cuneiform on clay tablets.

The advantages of phonetic alphabets, at any point in history, are obvious. An aspiring writer needs only learn how to draw a small handful of signs representing sounds, rather than a character or pictograph based library featuring hundreds or thousands of symbols. If you want to learn Russian, you can begin by learning the 33 letters of its alphabet in a day or two. If you want to learn written Chinese, however, you have thousands of characters to memorize at the outset. The distinction between Russian and Chinese was similar to the one that existed between, say Greek and Akkadian in the 580s BCE, when the Roman Forum Inscription was carved into stone. Rome’s earliest writers did not opt for a pictographic or symbolic written language – their letters used existing characters from various Indo-European languages to represent the sounds of their language.

A closer look at the lettering on the Forum Inscription.

While the Forum Inscription, buried beneath the black marble of Lapis Niger, eludes literal interpretation, it nonetheless tells us a bit about the Romans who lived during the regal period. They were, like their counterparts throughout the ancient Eurasian world, a superstitious people – a people who believed in omens, portents, and the potency of sacred oaths. Their augury was often based on livestock – the Forum Inscription seems to issue a warning about watching the behavior of yoked oxen for the sake of reading omens, and in their rituals of public animal sacrifice and divination, Romans were in step with ancient Judah, Babylon, Athens, Sparta, and Egypt. And perhaps most importantly, the Forum Inscription includes the word recei, a dative case noun meaning “to or for the king.”10 Thus, Rome may have been a small, unfortified settlement during the 700s and 600s. But by the 500s, Rome had a central convocation point, and a king, and, most importantly for our purposes, a written language.

The meaning of the Lapis Niger inscription remains unclear. Nonetheless, this inscription serves as a fitting introduction to Roman literature as a whole. Like the Lapis Niger inscription, the earliest Roman literature – its songs, theatrical games, and stage performances, only survive in fragments and echoes. Just as the inscription at the Black Stone shrine seems to have been a publically codified law, for a thousand years after it was written, an unusual preoccupation with law helped enable the Roman military and political engine conquer much of the known world. And finally, like the archaic Latin letters of the Lapis Niger inscription, Roman literature was from the beginning syncretic, its earliest iterations a fusion of native Latin traditions seasoned with Greek and Etruscan art and literature. Livy describes the earliest Romans as a “rabble of shepherds and strangers, fugitives from their own countries.”11 From these humble beginnings, relentlessly importing and adapting anything that struck them as impressive or useful, Romans built their literature, and their world. [music]

Etruria, Magna Graecia, and Rome: Early Roman Literature’s Genesis

When you study Roman culture for the first time, you are likely to encounter a certain kind of informational table in history books. This table shows the Olympian Pantheon of Ancient Greece alongside the pantheon of Rome, with Greek deities in one column and Roman deities in the other. At the top is Zeus adjacent to Jupiter, then Hera next to Juno, and as you move down through the rows, numerous other pairings – Poseidon and Neptune, Hephaestus and Vulcan, Aphrodite and Venus, Hermes and Mercury, and so on. Now, you may not have seen one of these comparative infographics, but what they display is easy enough to understand; in a word, they demonstrate the structural similarities between Greek and Roman religion. The Roman adoption of Greek religion and culture is of course well known. A couple of episodes ago we talked about the poet Horace’s extremely famous and succinct maxim that “Conquered Greece took prisoner her rough conqueror and introduced the arts to rustic Latium.”12 This assumption – that Greek culture suffused Rome in a unilateral fashion – this assumption is thousands of years old. Horace’s statement, and a score of comparable generalizations by ancient and modern historians, invite us to believe that Greeks were the fountainhead of everything artistic and creative, Romans were a mass of soulless aqueduct builders, that Greece suffused the otherwise crude and backward avenues of Rome with art and enlightenment, that Romans were the Top Ramen noodles and Greeks the tasty seasoning packet.

To understand Roman literature, even at a high level, as we’re trying to do today, you need to know a bit about the history of Greece’s cultural impact on Rome. Now when Horace wrote that “Conquered Greece took prisoner her rough conqueror,” some time in the 30s BCE, Horace was thinking of relatively recent historical events. In 190 BCE, Romans had defeated the Seleucid Empire at the Battle of Magnesia about thirty miles inland from the central west coast of modern day Turkey, snatching up huge swaths of this Greek-led territory. More decisively, in 146 BCE, Romans had crushed the city of Corinth in a final showdown between a rebellious Greek league and the growing Roman presence in the lower Balkans. 146 BCE marked the end of Greek sovereignty in Greece, and so when Horace looked back over his shoulder, contemplating the decisive military victory of Rome over Greece, he found it rather curious that, 125 years later, the Roman gentility was speaking Greek, reading Greek, and practicing all sorts of cultural rituals that came from the Greek speaking world. To Horace, Rome might have assumed military leadership over Greek territories, but in turn Greek art, literature and religion assumed sovereignty over the Roman imagination.13

I think every Latinist knows that quote – “Conquered Greece took prisoner her rough conqueror,” or sometimes, “Captive Greece took her captor captive.” It’s a pithy sentence that seems to capture a complex historical pattern, containing within it the sense that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and that the grace and power of ancient Greek literature was sufficient to seduce even the inelegant brawn of Rome. But the real story of Rome’s engagement with Greek culture dates back into the distant past – before the victory at Corinth in 146 BCE, before the defeat of the Seleucids in 190, before the Pyrrhic War in the 270s, long before even the Gallic sack of Rome in 390 BCE.

Iron Age Italy early Roman literature

The language groups of Ancient Italy. Graphic by Dbachmann [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons. Roman literature’s founders spoke Latin and Greek, but also other regional Italian languages.

Even way back during the regal period of Rome – before the Republic began, when the inscription we talked about earlier was carved at Lapis Niger in the early 500s, the earliest Romans knew all about their Greek counterparts. In fact, in 509 BCE, the year that the Roman Republic was born, and also, strangely enough, the year before a form of democracy was instituted in Athens, early Romans were well aware that a vast network of city states existed on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. People from west central Italy had been doing business with various Greek speaking peoples since the beginning of the Iron Age. As the Forum Inscription was carved at Lapis Niger during the early 500s BCE, just 120 miles to the south, a cluster of Greek speaking cities were expanding in the region of Campania – these included Neapolis, Capua, and Cumae. Greek speaking colonies had existed around the rim of Sicily and along the sole of the Italian boot in various forms since the Bronze Age, and throughout the early centuries of Rome’s recorded history, Greek settlement crept northward up the peninsula, forming what Romans called Magna Graecia, or “Great Greece.” One citizen of Greek settlement in Italy is a household name – the philosopher and cult figure Pythagoras spent a good deal of his life at Croton, some 300 miles overland south of Rome, and would have been in his 60s when Rome began its Republican experiment.

From the earliest days of Rome, even when the Forum was nothing more than a riverside marsh, men and women who spoke dialects of Latin and Greek were encountering each other, trading goods and cultural traditions, and intermarrying with one another, and with Etruscans, Sabines, Samnites, and other inhabitants of the Italian peninsula. Even during the Bronze Age, the waterways of the Mediterranean saw eastern ship traffic sweeping up both coasts of the Italian Peninsula, and so the dissemination of Mycenaean and Cretan culture in the coastal lowlands of Italy dates back to the earliest maritime traffic in these areas, Rome, by all means, included.

The point of all of this is pretty simple. Rome, part of an ethnically and commercially diverse area from the beginning – an area that included the Greek language from the beginning, did not develop some proud, monolithic, distinctly Latin culture in isolation from the world around it. Nor did Rome suddenly nab up the Greek pantheon wholesale at some point just after the Battle of Corinth. Romans and Greeks, like their predecessors we’ve met in Hattusa, Ugarit, and Babylon, worshipped pantheons capped by thunder gods – Kumarbi, Baal, and Marduk. Greece and Rome added their Zeus and Jupiter, moved some parts around, and otherwise maintained fairly orthodox Iron Age polytheisms. So as we venture into early Roman literature, from the beginning, we’re going to avoid the common misconception that Greece was a crucible of civilization that illuminated the otherwise inert ancient world with its great works and ideas. There had, from the beginning, been Greek language and ideas in the Roman world, as just down the path from Rome’s doorstep lay the diverse and commercially robust coastal towns of Magna Graecia. Part of what it meant to be Roman, even when the Lapis Niger inscription was carved into the rocks of the Forum in the early 500s BCE – part of what it meant to be Roman was to be able to operate, to some extent, in the oceanic eastern world of the Greek language.14[music]

The Ludi Scaenici and Legislative Changes of 364 BCE

So far, we’ve talked about what’s possibly the very first surviving Latin inscription – the writing at the Black Stone shrine in the Roman forum, from some time around the 580s BCE. And we’ve talked about how Greek culture and language were a part of the Roman experience from the time before Rome was a Republic. Now, it’s time for us to talk about some events which undoubtedly helped encourage and enable the production of Latin literature. I want to start the story of Roman literature proper on a day in mid-September of 364 BCE, in the city of Rome itself. Specifically, we can start this story on the west bank of the Tiber River, on the wooden bridge called the Pons Sublicius, which in 364 would have been a rather primitive affair – nothing more than carefully hewn planks laid over pointed pilings sunk into the river bottom and shallows.

If you were standing at the west end of the Pons Sublicius, or Sublician Bridge, in September of 364 BCE, perhaps after just having made the 15 mile journey inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea, you would have heard a lot of commotion within the square mile or so on the other side of the river. This commotion would have come from a festival called the Ludi Romani, or the Roman Games. The centerpiece of these games would have been visible from the bridge. As you crossed the Tiber, and looked to the southeast, you would have seen a racetrack at the foot of the Palatine Hill, a racetrack that even in the early year of 364 BCE was an inveterate cultural institution. All of Rome’s finest would have been there at the enormous track called the Circus Maximus, the foremost among them enjoying the seats with best visibility. And although the chariot races were, and would continue to be the main course of the Roman Games, in 364 BCE, if you took the path around the northern side of the Palatine Hill, as the day lengthened and the races ended, you would see Romans beginning to partake in another sort of entertainment.

Phersu roman literaure

A phersu, or “masked actor” dances on the wall of the Etruscan Tomb of the Augurs, dated to the late 500s BCE. Later Roman literature’s actors, like their Greek predecessors, wore masks on stage.

[tibia music] You might hear it first, actually – a sound that you might have heard in many temples, and palace courtyards, and public squares all around the ancient world that year – the sound of stringed instruments blending together with wind instruments – lyres and variants of the modern day flute and clarinet. Their throats a little hoarse from shouting at the chariot races, maybe, in mid-September of 364 BCE, the attendants of the Roman Games would have curiously followed the sounds of strings and pipes over to specially constructed wooden stages. Because that autumn, for the first time, to our knowledge, Rome sponsored its first ludi scaenici, or “stage games.”

The mid-360s saw sweeping changes go through the Republican Government of Rome. Even by the 360s, Roman territory proper was still geographically confined – a red stain on the central shinbone of the Italian boot. Nonetheless, the little civilization showed promise – its temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, built a century and a half before, remained one of the largest structures in the Mediterranean, and emblematized Rome’s domination over the Italian peninsula. As the decade of the 360s continued, structural reforms passed that changed Roman politics forever after and helped enable its eventual expansion.15 These reforms were designed to narrow the gaps between the lower and upper classes. One of them capped interest rates on loans. Another limited the amount of land that a private individual could hold. These regulations ensured that the plebeians, or the lower classes of Rome, suffered less from predatory lending and agricultural monopolies. But the most far reaching political change of the 360s was a transformation in Rome’s executive leadership. The Roman Republic had from the outset been based on a system in which two leaders called consuls were elected annually to superintend the military and political structure of Rome. These consuls had only been from the wealthy, or patrician classes, up until the 360s. But in 367, a law passed that required one of the two consuls to be a plebeian.

Now, these legislative changes – the cap on interest rates, the limit on private land ownership, and the divvying up of executive leadership between patrician and plebeian – these were gigantic victories for the working classes of the young Republic. While what historians call the Conflict of the Orders between the patricians and plebeians continued to flare up through subsequent decades, and while Rome would continue to be a plutocracy, nonetheless what happened politically in the 360s was a huge boost for the plebeian majority that staffed Roman armies and worked the young nation’s crop fields and market stalls. And so, to return once more to the Sublician Bridge in the autumn of 364 BCE, as you crossed that bridge and headed into the old Forum, in addition to hearing music from the new Ludi Scaenici, or stage games, you would have heard a certain excitement in the plebeian masses that resulted directly from their new political empowerment. The structural changes in the great Roman Games – that fourth day added to the first there, symbolized the political reforms that had just taken place. A decade before, patrician aristocrats sat in their inherited seats at the Circus Maximus to watch the chariot races, while the plebeians, inevitably, were consigned to places with inferior views. Yet in September of 364, with an entirely new day of festivities added, with a plebeian consul in place, with new laws posted that helped plebeian farmers borrow more for less, and purchase land to farm, the atmosphere at the first Ludi Scaenici must have been heady indeed. Suddenly, the Roman lower classes had a position in the control room of the state’s political machine. And in the opening months of this sudden political empowerment, patricians and plebeians alike came together in their city for the first time to enjoy state sponsored theater, and music, and the spectacle of dancing, equals, for an afternoon, at least, in sharing the fun and novelty of the experience.

We don’t know, exactly, what went onstage in 364 BCE. It was probably a combination of instrumental and vocal songs, dancing, recitation, and perhaps a form of improvised slapstick farce that during the Republican period was associated with the region of Campania.16 In other words, in 364 BCE, the Romans did not gather around their first state sponsored stage event to watch a play – it would have been a smorgasbord of different entertainments. Archaeological evidence from Etruria, to the immediate northwest of Rome, suggests that from the 500s BCE onwards Etruscans enjoyed the spectacles of gladiators, boxers, cult dancers, and mimes.17 Latin words that have to do with the mechanics of theater – words like histrio, or actor; ludius, or player; and scaena, or stage – these words were probably adopted from Etruscans, who had in turn adopted them from Greek.18 So Etruscan stage shows, by the year 364, would have been familiar to Romans for centuries – it was just that in 364 Rome decided to sponsor its own theater event.

Phlyax scene on a calyx krater by Asteas Antikensammlung Berlin F3044 5 roman literature

A phlyax play scene depicted on a krater, dated to the mid 300s BCE, just after Rome’s first Ludi Scaenici of 364 BCE, as good a data as any to pinpoint as the beginning of Roman literature.

Theatrical medleys had been spilling down into Rome from Etruria from the north for generations. And by 364, Rome had also had plenty of access to the theatrical events of Magna Graecia to the south. Aeschylus had staged plays in the Sicilian city of Syracuse back in the 470s, and in 444 Athenians founded the colony of Thurii, on the instep of the sole of the Italian boot. By the 300s, largely improvised burlesques called Phlyax plays were common spectacles in the colonies of Magna Graecia, and scenes from these plays have been preserved in some particularly beautiful vases unearthed in southern Italy and Sicily and dated mostly to the four decades between 380 and 340.

So in mid September of 364, after generations of exposure to Etruscan and Magna Graecian stage shows, Romans decided to host their own. It certainly wouldn’t have been the first theatrical or literary event to take place in Rome. But it’s a good scene for us to imagine how Latin literature began – at a confluence between various Greek and native Italian traditions. The stage shows in Rome that autumn would have been a multilingual and multiethnic affair, with some actors and dancers imported from the north and south, with a set of spectacles designed to bring the maximum amount of entertainment to the largest number of audience members. As Rome continued to grow, the famous Via Appia was completed in 312 BCE, expanding southeast to the Magna Graecian city of Capua, and in the following century, further southeast, to Tarentum and the Adriatic port city of Brundisium. By the early 200s, then, the Roman entertainment industry was connected to a cosmopolitan world, and open for business.[music]

The First Punic War and the Birth of Roman Literature

Map of Roman roads in Italy early roman literature

The Via Appia, (red here) by the early 200s before any of the Punic Wars, was one of the main routes connecting Rome with the world of Greek culture on the lower peninsula during Roman literature’s early days’. Graphic by NielsF [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

So you’ve heard about the inscription at Lapis Niger, about Rome’s development in the polyglot and multicultural Italian peninsula, and about the political changes that led to the first Ludi Scaenici, or “stage games” in the autumn of 364. This is all interesting stuff, but it’s also quite an early set of topics to discuss in tandem with Roman literature, written in the Latin language. Roman literature proper – the canon known to Cicero and his contemporaries – is generally said to have begun not in 364 with the first ever stage games, and certainly not way back in the early 500s, but, in point of fact, in the year 240 BCE. Starting in the mid 200s, we begin to have the names of ancient Roman writers and translators, figures who became active after the First Punic War. I want to tell you about some of those early writers and translators, and why a sudden efflorescence of literature in Latin sprung up during the second half of the 200s. This efflorescence was likely a direct product of events that took place during the First Punic War.19

The First Punic War began in 264 BCE, exactly 100 years after our little trip across the Sublician Bridge to Rome’s first ever stage games. Between 264 and 241, Rome fought the North African kingdom of Carthage for the first time for sovereignty of the Central Mediterranean. The fact that Rome could even tackle Carthage at all was a testament to Rome’s meteoric rise between 364 and 264. Following the political reforms of the 360s and the first stage games, Rome spent over half a century securing rugged portions of central Italy from the Samnites. With the Samnite Wars wound up in 290, after a ten year break Rome fought King Pyrrhus of the territory of Epirus, just across the Adriatic from the heel of the Italian boot. By 275, after having met Pyrrhus’ war elephants and Greek phalanxes in battle in the south, Rome had expanded to assume control over the territories of Magna Graecia, and controlled the Italian Peninsula up to the southern face of the Apennines. Military victories against the Samnites and the Greek armies of Pyrrhus led to Romans thinking big by the end of the 270s.

The first Punic War began out of Rome’s gradual realization that Carthage was vying for control of Sicily, and that the sovereignty of the city of Syracuse, important for the power balance in Southern Italy, was threatened. The First Punic War lasted the quarter century between 264 and 241. It was the central occupation of a generation of Romans, and these Romans, campaign season after campaign season, poured southward into the territories previously controlled by Greek colonies.

First Punic War 264 BC

Sicily was the epicenter of the First Punic War, which opened ancient Mediterranean cultural channels and helped spur on some of Roman literature’s early poets. Graphic by Jon Platek derivative work: Macarenses (First_Punic_War_264_BC.png) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sicily, to this generation of Romans, was a crossroads between the Latin, Greek, and Carthaginian worlds. Rome, tucked just inland on the west side of Italy for the first few hundred years of its existence, had always been awash with multicultural influences, but during the First Punic War of 264-241, those multicultural influences became a tidal wave. During the First Punic War, the previous generation’s animosities with Greek colonists in southern Italy were supplanted by an animosity toward a shared foe – the Carthaginians. Romans and the Greek colonies that were newly under Rome’s sphere of influence together faced an enormous nemesis. The Carthaginian Empire controlled the fertile fringe of the North African coast, seaside territories of southern Spain, the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, not to mention, much more threateningly, the vast western reaches of Sicily.

So if there had ever been a nationalistic predisposition in Roman culture beforehand – a predisposition to exert a mild resistance to Greek influence, this Roman cultural insularity faced a seismic shift during the First Punic War. The Roman soldiers of the First Punic War found that although their fathers had fought for control of Magna Graecia and faced the war elephants of Pyrrhus – although there had been serious hostilities with the Greek masses congregated all over the south of Italy – suddenly these Greek masses were quite preferable to the much more alien culture of the Carthaginians. In short, Romans and Greek Magna Graecians had been inhabiting the same turf for generations. And the First Punic War – those years between 264 and 241 – brought them closer together.

Rome’s friendship with the Greek King Hiero of Syracuse, which began in 263 BCE, was an important part of the growing amity between Roman and Magna Graecian culture during the First Punic War. There is a theater in the city of Syracuse that still stands today – one built as a celebration of Syracuse’s continued sovereignty and successful alliance with Rome at the end of the First Punic War. It’s a Greek theater, with an orchestra, built in stone, and Hiero II probably built it just after the war as a testament to his city’s endurance and success under the Roman alliance.20

Romans did something similarly theatrical in the year 240 BCE – again the year that is generally said to mark the beginning of Roman literature. In this year, at the Ludi Scaenici¸ or Stage Games of September of 240 BCE, for the first time to our knowledge, a Greek play was translated into Latin and watched in the Roman capital. Livy describes how in the midst of a plague that hit Rome at the end of the First Punic War, the Romans enjoyed a new form of entertainment. “[T]heir minds being broken down by superstition,” Livy writes, “among other means of appeasing the wrath of heaven, scenic plays also are said to have been instituted, a new thing to a warlike people. . . But the matter was trivial, (as all beginnings generally are,) and even that itself from a foreign source. . .[and Livy adds that a writer named] Livius [Andronicus], who several years after, giving up medleys, was the first who ventured to digest a story with a regular plot.”21 It’s not the most heroic or momentous record of the beginnings of Roman literature. Livy essentially writes that during a plague, for the first time, a play with a plot made its way into the city of Rome, though it really wasn’t that great, as it came from a foreign source. And while Livy’s offhand mention of the beginning of Roman theater isn’t a particularly arresting moment in his giant annals of the Roman Republic, it’s still important for those of us interested in Rome’s literary history.

magna graecia early roman literature

Many of the early figures in Roman literatur ehailed form Magna Graecia, shown here in about 280 BCE. Graphic by Maximix (www.satrapa1.com) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

We know a bit about Livius Andronicus (not to be confused with the later historian Livy who lived two centuries after him). Livius Andronicus, who translated a Greek play into Latin and staged it in 240 BCE, was a native Greek speaker, and a citizen of the Magna Graecian city of Tarentum, that town on the rear instep of the Italian boot that had fairly recently been connected Rome via the Appian Way. The first named author in the Roman record was not a patrician, nor even a plebian, but a slave – the victim of Roman expansionism on the lower peninsula. Livius Andronicus – again, the first author of Latin work whose name has come down to us, lived through the middle part of the 200s, a contemporary of Apollonius of Rhodes and the writers who produced the Greek Septuagint down in Alexandria, Egypt. And Livius Andronicus is known for two literary achievements. The first of these two achievements is that Livius Andronicus translated Homer’s Odyssey into Latin. The poem was by this point around 500 years old, and enjoyed wide popularity in the Greek speaking world, and so for any Latin speaker aiming to learn Greek, the Homeric poems were part of a core curriculum. Livius Andronicus’ translation of the Odyssey, of which only a handful of lines now survive, was at least in part a pedagogical exercise to help teach the Roman gentry about Greek language and literature. And though a translation of a major work isn’t quite as exciting as the creation of a major work, Livius Andronicus’ Latin version of the Odyssey marked a historical moment at which literary and theological translations were becoming increasingly necessary under the heels of world empires around the Mediterranean. In Alexandria, Hebrew speakers worked to rewrite much of the Old Testament in Greek. And in Rome, around the same time, the Odyssey was translated into Latin. The Septuagint ended up being more consequential in the long run, but in the mid-200s, Homer being translated into Latin was nonetheless a really big deal.

Livius Andronicus’ Latin Odyssey was only one of the two things for which he’s generally remembered. Livius Andronicus is also remembered for his plays, one of which, as I said a moment ago, was staged in 240 BCE, just after the end of the First Punic War. With Carthage defeated, and with the old rivalry between Rome and Magna Graecia nudged under the rug of the recent war, Romans gathered around the stage to watch a play, in Latin, with a plot – a play in all likelihood translated from or adapted from a work of Greek literature. Only about forty lines survive from Livius Andronicus’ Odyssey, and of his plays, only titles – Achilles, Aegisthus, Andromeda, Danae, The Trojan Horse, and other names familiar from the Homeric Epics and the playwrights of fifth-century Athens.

So at the annual games of 240 BCE, at the end of the First Punic War, when Romans and their Greek speaking Magna Graecian subordinates had finally beaten back the North African menace of Carthage for the first time and imposed a heavy indemnity on the Carthaginians, Romans gathered together and watched an adaptation of a Greek play. There is something distinctly Roman about this little story. Like all Roman stories, it has a bit of Greek in it. And while the rest of the world, was learning to speak Greek, and Jews in Alexandria were even rendering their sacred texts into the alien language, Romans were taking Greek works and rendering them into Latin. Now, Romans would, of course, speak plenty of Greek on down the road, and there is some truth to Horace’s famous statement that captive Greece took its captor captive. But Rome never forgot who the captor was, and who the captive was. Even Rome’s most famous origin story – that Romans are descendents of the Homeric hero Aeneas – demonstrates Rome’s spirit of combative individualism in the face of Greek culture. Aeneas, after all, was no Greek. And Romans, though from the beginning they borrowed much from Greek culture, often did this borrowing at the point of a spear. The Terence Scholar Peter Brown writes that Rome’s importation of Greek literature was “both a gesture of admiration and at the same time a form of cultural imperialism, a demonstration that it was possible to write such works in Latin too.”22 [music]

Naevius, Ennius, Plautus, and Terence: Titans of Early Roman Literature

So we’re up to 240 BCE, now. And we’ve talked about Livius Andronicus, that Magna Graecian writer who translated the Odyssey and began staging works of Greek New Comedy on the Roman stage. Livius Andronicus produced Greek plays and a Greek epic in Latin, his foreign background, and the slavery in his past setting him apart from the pureblooded patricians of Rome who traced their roots back to the regal period and before. And Livius Andronicus, a cultural import, and an ex-slave, is representative of the heterogeneous bunch who got literature going in the city of Rome. If we look at the first practitioners of Latin language literature, even ones from whom full works survive, not a single one of them was from Rome. Livius Andronicus was from Magna Graecia, as were his successors Quintus Ennius, and Marcus Pacuvius. Plautus, on whom we’ll devote a full episode, was from an Italian territory north of Rome called Umbria, while Terence, on whom we’ll also do a full show, was probably from the North African city of Carthage. Other early practitioners of Roman literature were from Gaul, Syria, and various spots in mainland Greece.23

On one hand, it’s not very surprising that plays and stage shows more generally, which came to Rome from foreign sources, would be produced there by foreign authors. On the other hand, the first few generations of Roman writers are a unique and colorful bunch in literary history. As scholar Gesine Manuwald puts it, “Perhaps an initial word of caution on the term ‘Roman’ is in order. . .‘Roman literature’. . .might be regarded as a misleading term, since the early poets were not ‘Romans’ in a strict sense.”24 They were not only not Roman. They also frequently shared Livius Andronicus’ status of being a former slave – Livius Andronicus and his successors were generally men of low social standing who had to write to make a living. This makes them a very different bunch than Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, who hailed from affluent and politically influential backgrounds. Necessity being the mother of invention, the ragtag set of men who kicked off Latin literature had financial motivations to be prolific and to experiment with their content to see what drew the largest audience.

A minute ago I named a bunch of names alongside that of Livius Andronicus to give you an idea of the diverse geographical backgrounds of Rome’s first known authors. I’d like to talk about a few of these writers – writers from whom we have secondhand accounts in literary histories, and small fragments of text, but no complete works. This is a little bit off the beaten path of Anglophone literary history, but I think it will help us get a portrait of the colorful world of Republican Roman theater before we meet our first major Roman author, Plautus.

We talked about Livius Andronicus, and how it’s generally agreed that he produced a play translated from Greek and into Latin in 240 BCE, about a year after the First Punic War wound up. The next Latin language writer whose name has come down to us was Gnaeus Naevius. Naevius was a slightly later contemporary of Livius Andronicus. And Naevius fought in the First Punic War. Like Livius Andronicus, Naevius wrote adaptations of Greek comedies. In ancient Rome, these comedies were called fabulae palliatae, roughly translated as “cloaked stories,” named after the pallium, or Greek style cloak. Gnaeus Naevius also wrote fabulae togatae, or plays starring characters in Roman togas, and we’ll talk more about these genres in a minute. Almost nothing survives of these early “toga stories,” but it is safe to assume that by the time of Gnaeus Naevius, during the mid to late 200s BCE, Romans were starting to stage shows, in Latin, about Roman people doing Roman things. And perhaps more important than Naevius’ stage work was his epic, the Bellum Punicum, now, unfortunately, almost totally lost.

The Bellum Punicum was, according to sources, a full scale epic about the First Punic War, in which Gnaeus Naevius fought. The epic purportedly began with Aeneas, earliest legendary ancestor of the Romans, and culminated in the war which had dominated the Roman consciousness during the middle 200s BCE. It would have been, like most ancient history, a mixture of fact and fiction, with Romans being the valorized vanquishers and their foes a long string of villains, but notwithstanding its probable factual weaknesses, the Bellum Punicum represented a moment at which Romans, probably inspired by earlier Greek historians, were beginning to situate themselves at the center of an unfolding history that had roots in Greek epic.

So Livius Andronicus had given Romans the Odyssey in Latin, and around the same time – the mid-to-late 200s BCE Gnaeus Naevius had stapled recent Roman history to the Homeric epics with his history of the First Punic War – the Bellum Punicum. And again, both of these writers were imports to Rome – Livius Andronicus again from the sole of the Italian boot, and Gaius Naevius from Campania – about 80 or 100 miles southeast of Rome. Both writers necessarily spoke and wrote both Latin and Greek, and in Gnaeus Naevius’ case, he would have also been fluent in Oscan, a native Italian language spoken throughout the southern territory of Campania. The third writer usually associated with the beginnings of Roman literature was also not a Roman by birth. His name was Quintus Ennius, and he was born some time around the end of the First Punic War – or around 240 BCE.

Quintus Ennius, even if just some of the historical information that has come down to us is accurate, must have been a remarkable person. He was probably born in Campania just to the southeast of Rome – the same region as his predecessor Gnaeus Naevius, and would have spoken, like Gnaeus Naevius, Oscan, Greek, and Latin, and perhaps another regional language of southern Italy – Messapic.25 Ennius purportedly composed works in many genres. He translated Greek plays, including, it is fairly certain, the choruses of Euripides.26 As this was nothing new, Ennius also wrote a mythical history of Rome, though one of more ambitious scope than that of his predecessor Gnaeus Naevius. Ennius’ history was called the Annales. Its breadth was similarly massive to that of its predecessor’s, and it was written, like Homeric epics and the poetry of Hesiod, in dactylic hexameter. This, in case you forgot, is dactylic hexameter.
E – nnius WROTE his great HIS tory USing the MEter that HO mer did
THIS was a BIG deal since TELL ing the STO ry of ROME using GREEK meter
MEANT that the LEGends of ROME were all CAST in an OLD Greek form IN Latin.

There’s three lines of dactylic hexameter. It is, of course, quite odd for us today to think of composing history using any kind of meter, but as we learned early in our podcast, meter and rhyme originally existed as mnemonic devices to help orally transmitted information have more structure and memorability – not, as many people believe, in order to be flowery. The early Roman author Quintus Ennius, writing a sprawling Latin history of Rome in the storied Greek form of dactylic hexameter, was using this structure in order to give Rome’s history the lofty archaism of the Homeric epics.

Ennius did a lot more than the dactylic hexameter Latin Annals of Roman history. Ennius wrote a work about the gods and universe, entitled the Epicharmus, and another very different theological treatise called the Euhemerus. Ennius wrote an epic about food, and eating. He wrote an array of short poetry that spanned the gamut from autobiography to slanders, proverbs, debates, dialogues, and other forms.27 And Ennius evidently had quite an ego, as well. At the outset of his Annals, he wrote that Homer’s soul had transmigrated into him, and thus he was Homer, reincarnated for Rome.28

We’ll never know whether Quintus’ Ennius rather high opinion of his own ability was justified, but in any case, Ennius, who again lived some time from about 240-170, represents a moment at which Latin prose and poetry, and themes related to Roman history and the Italian peninsula more generally – when Latin prose, poetry, and theater were beginning to shine with their own set of authors, and these authors were beginning to experiment widely within a set of forms and topics, both imported and native to Italy. The earliest of these authors, the most prominent of whom were Livius Andronicus, Gnaeus Naevius, and Quintus Ennius, can only be considered Roman with asterisks next to their names, as for each of these early innovators, Latin was a third or even fourth language. According to a later historian, Quintus Ennius said “he had three hearts, since he was proficient in three tongues, Greek, Oscan and Latin.”29 Early Roman literature, similarly, was the production of a multicultural set of authors – ones who knew that the existing power structure and patronage system would favor writing in Latin, and were willing to cast anything and everything into Latin, regardless of foreign origins.

So we’ve heard the long preamble that leads up to Roman literature. It starts, perhaps, all the way back in the 580s with the early inscription at the Black Stone shrine. A form of literature began to exist at the annual Roman games back in 364 – probably a boisterous fusion of dancing and slapstick comedy, and 125 years later, as the First Punic War wound up, Rome staged its first Greek plays, born from the synthesis of Greco-Roman culture on the lower peninsula. Over the next 100 years, Roman literature began to grow and proliferate in earnest, its earliest authors, trilingual and quadra-lingual professionals like Andronicus, Naevius and Ennius passing the torch down to a new generation of authors. As the 200s gave way to the 100s, this new generation, empowered by the sheer quantity of Latin writing finally appearing in the Roman world, began to craft a more distinctly Roman literature.

Plautus early roman literature

The playwright Plautus, the earliest figure in Roman literature from whom we have a substantial body of work.

From this juncture – the cusp between the 200s and the 100s – come two literary figures who are still famous today, Plautus and Terence – both playwrights. Now, our show will feature a full episode on Plautus, and the same for Terence. We will not do full episodes on the earlier three guys Livius Andronicus, Gnaeus Naevius, or Quintus Ennius. Nor will we do shows on the tragedians Marcus Pacuvius or Lucius Accius, who come from the same period as Plautus and Terence. The reason I am doing full episodes on Plautus and Terence, and not these others, is simply that a handful of works by Plautus and Terence have survived in their entirety, and unfortunately the same cannot be said for any other author working in the decades around 200 BCE.

Because their works survive, Plautus and Terence are major world authors. Plautus, active in the decades around 200 BCE, turned out over a hundred plays over the course of his life – twenty of these have come down to us, and have been read and studied since antiquity. Terence, active 160s BCE, produced six plays that are still in print today. Plautus and Terence were not some instantiating moment at which Roman literature suddenly appeared. Both of these influential Latin authors operated in the same tradition as old Livius Andronicus, taking Greek plays and stories and recasting them in the Roman world, adapting, borrowing, and innovating when necessary. Of all the earliest works Roman literature, only a tiny fraction survives, and yet in their own time, the varied troop of freedmen and outsiders who made up Rome’s first professional writers demonstrated that Latin language plays could consistently attract a Roman audience, propping open the gates for later generations of Latin authors. [music]

Roman Literature’s Theatrical Roots: The Fabulae Palliatae and Ancient Greek Comedy

Now, I want to talk a little bit more about what we know about early Roman Republican theater. I’ve already offered you five names – Livius Andronicus, Gnaeus Naevius, Quintus Ennius, Plautus, and Terence, and in time we’ll get to know the latter two. There are other figures we could discuss – Pacuvius, Caecilius, Accius – writers from whom we generally have little to no surviving work. But I think that in podcast form, it will be more effective for us to talk about general trends in early Roman theater than to try and exhaust the surviving details we now possess about other individual authors.

So, in our podcast, we did eleven programs on the theater of fifth century Athens, including one on the City Dionysia festival itself, as well as an additional show on the New Comedy playwright Menander, who was one of the most formative influences on Rome’s earliest plays. Let’s talk a bit more specifically about how early Latin drama grew from, but also departed from Greek drama.

Menander early influence on roman literature

The New Comedy playwright Menander (c. 342-290) continued to be relentlessly popular in the Roman world, and had a huge influence on Roman literature’s early playwrights. Photo by George Shuklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Many early Latin plays are translations and adaptations of earlier Greek ones – particularly the New Comedy playwrights Menander and his contemporary Diphilus. The evidence that survives suggests that a wide range of translation related activities existed, ranging from word-for-word translations to very loose adaptations. One particularly fascinating practice was called contaminatio, or the adaptation of two Greek plays into a single Latin one.30 When I learned about contaminatio, I had to imagine unlikely combinations of plays to adapt into single ones, and considered what a fusion of Hamlet and Mary Poppins would look like, or Titus and Cats, or maybe a mishmash called Oedipus the Lion King. But what contaminatio actually involved was a fusion of two very similar plays, generally works of Greek New Comedy, that were themselves cobbled together from formulaic elements in the first place.

Greek New Comedy, as we learned a number of episodes ago, was different than the Old Comedy of Aristophanes. Aristophanic comedy, which flourished in Athens between about 430 and 380, is unapologetically crude and bombastically political. Aristophanes never shied away from prosthetic penises on the stage, nor pornographic humor, nor aggressive takedowns of his artistic and political rivals. Old Comedy plays, as we saw when we read The Clouds and Lysistrata, were doubtless funny, but they were also tailored to specific historical moments – to an in-crowd of Athenians who understood the direction of their satire. New Comedy, which seems to have begun around the 330s, was milder, less political, and often built with prefabricated plots and characters.

Even in antiquity, Greek New Comedy, and the Roman translations and adaptations that emerged from it in the 200s and 100s BCE, were notoriously formulaic. During these centuries, on Greco-Roman stages throughout the Mediterranean, stock characters voiced their lines in middle and working class dramas about lovers, mistaken identities, conflicts between parents and children, and other staple elements of light comedy. The later Roman poet Ovid, with some derision, wrote that “While devious slaves, stern fathers, cruel pimps, and enticing whores live, so will Menander.”31 Similarly, Ovid’s contemporary Horace describes the “lover under age. . .covetous father. . .cheating pimp [and] voracious parasites” as stock figures from Greco-Roman New Comedy.32 These later critics of the genre obviously didn’t view New Comedy as the summit of literary artistry, although they readily acknowledged its ubiquity.

So, why, when the bilingual generations who lived from 240-140 and began adapting Greek plays for their Latin stage – why did these figures often choose a lowbrow genre to bring before their audiences, rather than the rollicking, impious, politically incendiary stories of Aristophanes? Were these early Roman authors simply more cautious and conservative than their Greek predecessors? We actually have a pretty good answer to this question, and it comes from Cicero’s The Republic, written around 50 BCE. Here’s Cicero on why New Comedy flourished in Rome, rather than Old Comedy – it’s a rather long quote, but an interesting one.
Since (the ancient Romans) regarded the theatre and show business in general as disgraceful, they thought that such people should not only be deprived of the public offices enjoyed by other citizens but should also be removed from their tribe by the censor’s stigma. . .[The Greek Old] Comedy [of Aristophanes] would never have succeeded in gaining the audience’s approval for its vices if those vices had not been condoned in everyday life. . .Who was not mentioned, or rather attacked, by [the Old Comedy of Aristophanes]? Who was spared? Granted, it injured. . .wicked demagogues who stirred up sedition in the country’s political life. We might tolerate this, even though it is preferable that such citizens should be pilloried by a censor rather than a playwright. But it was no more seemly that Pericles, after presiding over his country in peace and war with the greatest authority for so many years, should be insulted in verses and guyed upon the stage than if our [playwrights] had dared to [insult our politicians]. . .Contrast our Twelve Tables [of Roman law]. Though they treated very few crimes as capital offenses, they did include the case where a person chanted or composed a song which brought infamy or disgrace to another. And quite right too; for our life-style should be open to the magistrates’ verdicts and the judgments of the law, not to the cleverness of poets; nor should we have to listen to insults unless we are entitled to reply and to defend ourselves in court.33

So Cicero, looking in the rear view mirror at the history of early Latin literature, did not like the idea of actors strutting around Roman stages and denouncing consuls and magistrates. Being a lawyer and perhaps the most famous orator in history, Cicero believed that the senate was the proper place for political smack downs, and not the stage. And the quote that we just read also indicates that the sacred Twelve Tables of Roman law did consider a song, or a chant that was intended to smear someone’s reputation as punishable by death.

Theatre slave Louvre CA7249 roman literature

A slave from a phlyax play on a krater, dated to the mid-300s BCE. Slaves are common characters in Roman literature’s early plays. Plautus and Terence would have had this sort of visual art around them as they wrote their plays.

So clearly, one reason why Old Comedy, or Aristophanic Comedy, did not flourish in Rome was that bans existed against libelous performances, and that republicans like Cicero didn’t want a culture of slander to exist on their stage. But there is another, simpler reason. New Comedy is more transplantable than Old Comedy. To understand an Old Comedy play like, for instance, The Clouds, you need to know a back story – the philosophical feuds in Athens during the early Peloponnesian War, the reputation of sophism and Socrates, and all that stuff. To understand a new comedy play like Menander’s Old Cantankerous, you just need to show up. Rome, after the First Punic War wound down in 241 BCE, was a different animal than fifth-century Athens. Between 240 and 140, as Rome stomped around the Mediterranean, bringing slaves and citizens back to Italy from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, Rome’s playwrights needed to produce works that were immediately understandable and appealing to their increasingly diverse audiences. And New Comedy had a track record of doing just this.

One of the ways that New Comedy appealed to its audiences was through its prologues. We’ve seen one of these prologues before – the god Pan stands up in front of the audience at the beginning of Menander’s Old Cantankerous and offers you a who’s who of the characters in the story before the play begins. In the next couple of episodes, we’ll see a deity called Arcturus introducing Plautus’ play The Rope, and one of Terence’s actors explaining the situation of his play The Brothers. New Comedy prologues are diverse – Terence’s often turn into miniature artistic manifestos, but as a whole, these prologues aim to package the play in a manner that is accessible and immediately engaging. They do something that I have done throughout this podcast, actually – offering a brief introduction to potentially confusing elements of a story before that story begins.

Alright, so, we’ve reviewed the subject of New Comedy, and talked about why New Comedy, rather than Old Comedy, flourished on Roman stages. New Comedy was culturally transplantable, it was less politically controversial, and it even included user-friendly introductions. But New Comedy was actually only one theatrical genre on the early Roman stage. The fabulae palliatae, or Greek-cloaked stories, get the most scholarly attention, since we actually have some of them that we can read today. But ancient Latin literary histories also discuss some other genres that were popular at Rome’s games and festivals, genres that we should talk a bit about now. [music]

Other Genres of Ancient Roman Drama

In addition to adaptations of New Comedy called fabulae palliatae, Romans also enjoyed a genre called fabulae crepidatae, which, literally translated, means something like “sandal stories.” Crepidae were a type of thick-soled sandal or buskin that at some point became associated with tragedy, and the other name for the fabulae crepidatae is the more familiar tragoedia. Some Roman dramatists specialized in a single genre – Plautus and Terence seem to only have done comedy. Others, however, produced both tragedy and comedy, and from fragments that survive and references in ancient literary histories, we can deduce the general structure and contents of Roman tragedy.

Roman tragedians seem to have chosen figures and stories from the Homeric epics – particularly ones associated with Troy, for production on the Roman stage. We know from many sources that Romans traced the foundation of their civilization back to Aeneas, a relatively minor figure in the Iliad who gets his pelvis broken by the brawnier Greek hero Diomedes before being whisked away to safety by his mother, the goddess Venus. Aeneas is, as I said some time ago back in Episode 9, a very odd choice for a Trojan ancestor – nothing more than a second string easterner with a powerful mother in the Homeric epics – but in any case Roman tragedians knew that Roman aristocrats traced their lineage back to Aeneas and other Trojans, and so they wrote plays about these figures.

Needless to say, it’s a shame that none of the tragedies purported to have been written by Livius Andronicus and Gnaeus Naevius and their successors survive. These Latin language playwrights knew the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and yet they lived in a radically different time and place. Livius Andronicus wrote plays about the Trojan Horse – about Achilles, Perseus’ mother Danae and his wife Andromeda, and others – and these plays are a lost link between Archaic Greece, Classical Greece, and the great works of Virgil and Ovid.

So sadly, no Latin language tragedies survive from the Republican period. And perhaps even more sadly, other entire genres of early Latin literature have been lost. We’ve talked about adaptations of Greek New Comedy, or the fabulae palliatae. And we’ve talked about adaptations of myth and epic – the fabulae crepidatae, or tragedy. But between these two genres was something I briefly mentioned earlier. Between comedy and tragedy were plays that Romans called the fabulae togatae – or “toga stories.” These toga stories were set in Rome, and they concerned themselves with contemporary Roman subjects. The later Roman dramatist Seneca summarized the fabulae togatae as “somewhat serious, and. . .half-way between comedy and tragedy.”34 The genre seems to have explored questions of Roman identity in the Hellenistic world, and the cultural collisions occurring in contemporary Rome. If we had any fabulae togatae, they would doubtless serve as valuable documents on what it was actually like to be on the ground in the city of Rome in the 200s and 100s BCE, but unfortunately, like early Roman tragedy, the “toga stories” have all vanished.

In addition to Republican Rome’s tragedy and its seriocomic fabulae togatae, another entire genre has been lost. This was a genre the Romans called the fabulae praetextae, named after the toga praetexta, a formal purple banded toga associated with magistrates and kings. The fabulae praetextae were stories about Roman history – its foundation, its early kings, all the way down to more recent events. The obvious comparison to fabulae praetextae would be Shakespeare’s history plays – Henry V, Richard III, and so on, which vividly imagine pivotal moments in English history. If any Roman fabulae praetextae survived, they would most certainly serve as a window into the way that Rome imagined itself during the Middle Republican period, long before the histories of Livy and Plutarch were composed.

So, Rome had its comedies, and its tragedies; its seriocomedies and its history plays. The breadth of these genres suggests that after 240 BCE, Rome had an appetite for stage productions with plots and narratives, and that Roman audiences were open all sorts of plays. But it would be a mistake to assume that 240 marked an end to other forms of staged spectacle at Rome’s festivals and games. One performance event – a type of show called the fabula atellana – seems to have been a homegrown Italian tradition. The fabulae atellanae, or Atellan stories, were named after a town called Atella, about a hundred miles southeast of Rome. The Atellan stories were short plays – probably prologues or postscripts to longer performances. They were perhaps largely improvised, and were a sort of lowbrow farce, with purposely rustic, simple language, stock characters, and a good deal of buffonery and clowning around. From what survives of the Atellan stories, we get the sense that a native Italian tradition of physical comedy and burlesque existed in the Oscan language of the south central peninsula, and that this comedic style was part of what made Roman drama Roman. Slapstick, while obviously not a highbrow genre, was nonetheless compatible with the sort of diverse and multilingual audience that attended Roman festivals and games.

If the burlesque fabulae atellanae were considered, even in their own time, cheap and cloddish entertainments, there was another genre that was even lower down the ladder of respectability. This was an entertainment called planipes, or the watching of mimes. Mime shows were considered especially scandalous because they involved female actors onstage, which none of the other theatrical genres we’ve discussed did. And mime shows not only featured female actors – it was evidently commonplace for these female mimes to strip naked at the end of the performance. While this doesn’t exactly make mime shows sound like intellectually rich diversions, a later tragedian remarked that mime shows could actually dispel a lot of wisdom – wisdom worthy of great comedy or tragedy.35 Now, a genre of theatrical entertainment in which actors enrich your mind through the recitation of sagacious lines, and then take their pants off for you at the end – well, this is just one of those things that makes you love the ways in which ancient history can be delightfully odd.

Now that we’ve discussed a number of genres of Roman Republican theater – comedy, tragedy, seriocomedy, history plays, rustic farces, and mime shows, I think we should talk about the linguistic structure and musical backing of early Roman theater. When we read some of the most influential plays of 5th-century Athens, we observed some evolutions in the way that productions were staged. We learned that having actors onstage, and not just choruses, was a relatively new development in the time of Aeschylus, and that having more than one actor at a time onstage was a novelty introduced by Aeschylus himself. Gradually, as more actors populated the stage, Athenian innovators built more elaborate sets and contraptions designed to make productions more vivid and exciting. Most famously, by 431 BCE the mechane, or crane, was used to make Euripides’ Medea fly off in her chariot at the end of her play. Roman playwrights, over the course of the 200s and 100s, continued innovating with how productions were staged, sung, and accompanied. [music]

The Structure and Accompaniment of Ancient Roman Drama

By far, the most important formal departure that Latin language plays made from the drama of 5th-century Athens was doing away with the chorus. Choruses were at the heart of Classical Greek tragedy – they were signal moments when the twenty or so figures in the orchestra sung and danced often solemn or brooding themes as the action of a play unfolded. Choruses, as we saw again and again, were breaks in action in which the audience was invited to ruminate on a play’s events in unison with the singers up onstage.

We don’t know exactly why or when Roman playwrights decided to break from this central custom of classical Athens. It’s possible that the civic collectivism implicit in the choruses of Sophocles and his contemporaries felt out of step with the more multicultural Roman world. It’s equally possible that the expense of training twenty singers for a single festival performance was too great for theatrical producers on the Italian peninsula, who opted for smaller casts instead, and in many cases were managing traveling tropes of actors, who had to be fed and lodged in the communities where they were performing. Whatever the reason for abandoning the Greek chorus, Roman plays nonetheless had plenty of music in them.

Early Roman plays did not have collective choruses, but they did have what we call “monodies,” or songs for individual singers. In the manuscripts that survive of Plautus and Terence, we see instructions for performance adjacent to speeches. The letters DV, which stand for deverbium, indicate speeches which are to be spoken and unaccompanied by musical instruments. The letter C, which stands for canticum, indicates that the lines are to be sung and given musical accompaniment.36 By looking at the meter of the original Latin alongside performance notes for deverbium or canticum, we can get a pretty clear idea of how Roman plays proceeded.

Now, just like Classical Athenian drama, Roman plays were not written in prose or free verse. The plays of the ancient Mediterranean world were composed in metered lines from end to end, and metrical changes helped audiences understand thematic transitions and important events within each scene. The most pervasive meter in Roman Republican theater was the iambic senarius. Iambic senarii are lines that have six feet of iambs. Let’s hear some.
An iamb is a type of foot that poets like
At first unstressed then stressed a flat part then a spike
Iambic senarii have six iambic feet
The Romans wrote thousands and never missed a beat.

That was a quatrain of iambic hexameter, or iambic senarius. This combination of meter and foot was used for spoken dialogue, unaccompanied by music. It was thought to resemble the structure of common speech, and we have hundreds and hundreds of lines of Latin iambic senarii in the surviving works of Plautus and Terence, their metrical architecture undoubtedly useful to the actors who had to memorize them.

Banquet Euaion Louvre G467 n2

A musician plays an aulos during a banquet, on a red figure cup dated to the mid 400s BCE. Early Roman literature was set to musical accompaniment.

At key moments in a performance, the iambic senarii transitions into a different sort of meter – usually a longer one. So, for instance, that iambic hexameter you heard above might evolve into iambic septameter or octometer, or trochaic septameter or octometer, the trochee being the opposite of the iamb, having a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. When these metrical evolutions happened, the actor would then break into song, and the song would be accompanied, at minimum, by an instrument that the Greeks called the aulos and the Romans called the tibia – not a single instrument, actually, but a pair of slender reed flutes played simultaneously by a single musician.

Now, I don’t have a pair of ancient Roman tibia, unfortunately, but I have listened to some authentic aulos music and have a decent idea of what it sounds like. Throughout this podcast I’ve used various wind instruments to accompany parts of the Homeric epics and other stories, and I want to talk a bit about some of the sonic capacities of the aulos or tibia, a sturdy, versatile, easily transplantable instrument that soundtracked Mediterranean stage shows for perhaps a thousand years.

In music, we talk in general terms about melody and harmony. Melody is a single line of notes. [demonstration] And by the way, that’s a French oboe, not a tibia. Anyway, melody is a single line of notes [demonstration]. Harmony involves multiple notes played simultaneously that have harmonic relationships with one another, for instance, a fifth [demonstration]. A fourth [demonstration]. A major third [demonstration]. A minor third [demonstration]. A tritone. [demonstration]. A minor sixth. [demonstration]. Some tibia music must have involved one instrument holding down a pedal tone while the other plays a melody on top of it [demonstration]. When the pedal tone changes, the two instruments together create can chord progressions in specific keys [demonstration]. Additionally, harmonized melodies could be created [demonstration]. And what we call counterpoint, or melodies moving in opposite direction could be achieved just as easily [demonstration]. Ancient Greek and Roman musicians used modes like Dorian [demonstration]. And Lydian [demonstration]. And Locrian [demonstration]. And many more modes besides these, each mode communicating a certain kind of emotion that the musician and/or playwright sought to convey.

Pompeii - Casa del Poeta Tragico - Theater 1 roman literature

A beautiful Pompeian mosaic of a tibia player. The tibia was a fixture of early Roman literature onstage.

The power and the versatility of the tibia came from the fact that the instrument, in the hands of a single musician, could play both melody and harmony, at many different volumes. Because a higher quantity of breath could create louder notes, the tibia player could increase or decrease volume depending on the strength of the singer being accompanied. Because of the instrument’s relatively high range, the melodies and harmonies could be composed so that they could be audible below the voice of a singer, or over the drone of a crowd. And the instrument absolutely had to be audible over Rome’s notoriously boisterous audiences – a quieter instrument with a more rapid decay of notes, like a gut strung lyre, would have been lost beneath the general atmosphere of any given performance. We know that musicians and playwrights worked in close collaboration in early Roman comedy – the playwright Terence used a single composer, a slave named Flaccus, to write and perform music for his productions.37

So now you know about some of the formal elements and evolution of early Roman theater – that they did away with the Greek chorus and instead used monodies by individual singers, that spoken lines were written in iambic senarii but sung lines were composed in various longer meters, and that the tibia, a reed wind instrument played in pairs, accompanied the musical portions of Rome’s plays. There’s one more subject that would logically come next in this show, and that would be a description of the physical shape and size of a typical Roman stage. However, that’s actually a complicated and historically interesting tale in and unto itself, and I’d like to save it for our upcoming program on Plautus. Romans, particularly at the patrician level, had a squeamish relationship with the theater, and it actually wasn’t until 55 BCE that a permanent theater was even installed in the city of Rome. That means, fascinatingly, that all of the plays we’ve been talking about, and all of the famous lines by Terence, Plautus and their contemporaries, and all the instrumental music that accompanied it, took place on temporary, wooden stages, erected for a festival or games, and then taken down once they’d served their purposes. In Republican Rome, there was no monolithic Dionysian theater, displaying trophies from the Greco-Persian Wars, with stone benches reserved for choregoi and city leaders. There were only short-lived, sometimes slapdash wooden stages, erected long enough for the production of festival plays, and taken down so that theatergoing did not become a real Roman cultural institution. Republican Rome had its proud traditions – the Senate, the cursus honorum, the stories of stalwart and martial ancestors – but as for theater, Rome’s plays, like its early playwrights, were stubbornly regarded as alien. [music]

“One of the Strangest and Most Unlikely Events”

Early Roman literature was a subject that I was relatively new to prior to writing this sequence of programs on Latin literature, and I found it unexpectedly challenging and intriguing. When we approach early Roman history as newcomers, we look for an anchoring point – a nonfictional foundation story, or some moment at which Rome began to look like the Rome that Livy and Plutarch imagined as they gazed back centuries into the past – Romulus, Numa, Cincinnatus, Camillus, Lucius Brutus – a grand lineage of brawn and bravery and loyalty to state that led to Rome’s domination of the Mediterranean by the year 140 BCE. We look for this lineage, and instead we find a complex layer cake made up of Romans, Sabines, Etruscans, Volsci, Messapians, Magna Graecians, Gauls, Carthaginians, and more and more, decade after decade, century after century. The historian Suetonius describes Rome’s earliest writers as semigraeci, or “half-Greeks,” but even this description is a simplification. Rome’s first authors knew the dominant languages of the central and eastern Mediterranean, but they also knew the languages and traditions of their increasingly marginalized regional cultures, and these traditions made their way into the Latin plays and poems that began to be created after 240 BCE. Horace might have written that “Captive Greece took her captor captive,” but Rome had many captives, and in turn, was captivated by all of them to varying extents.

As we move forward to the first full surviving works of Roman literature – the plays of Platus and Terence, I think it’s extremely important to remember when and how Roman literature was born, and the implications of that birth. Horace understood that ideology and cultural practices can slip sideways into even the proudest culture and begin changing the way that it thinks and operates. He understood that the work of the multilingual authors Livius Andronicus, Gnaeus Naevius, Quintus Ennius, and other figures whose writings are now lost was a multigenerational infiltration of increasingly diverse Eurasian cultures into the Roman world. This infiltration flooded Latin with neologisms and adaptations of foreign words, and made it into the language inherited by Cicero and his successors. As the linguist Benjamin Whorf famously put it,
Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it. . .every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the [speaker] not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness.38

The trailblazers who staged Rome’s first plays are now esoteric territory beyond the realm of classics. Cicero called their earliest works “rough and unfinished,” and “scarcely [worth] a second reading.”39 Yet Rome’s early authors, however graceless Cicero found them, jumpstarted a culture of literature and history that outlived Rome itself, and in doing so, structured the way that Romans processed their own experiences and thought about the world around them. Between 240 and 140 BCE, a band of subalterns and immigrant ex-slaves from the outskirts of the Roman world dominated their earliest literature, and this domination had far reaching consequences. To quote scholar Denis Feeney, “The creation of a Roman literature on Greek models was not just a matter of time, something that was bound to happen sooner or later, but instead one of the strangest and most unlikely events in Mediterranean history.”40 [music]

Moving Onto Plautus and Terence

I was fortunate enough to find some excellent scholarship while researching this episode, including a recent book called Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature, written by Princeton professor Denis Feeney. While Feeney has written widely on Roman literature, culture and religion, his book Beyond Greek covers almost everything we’ve explored in this program in much greater depth, giving a thorough account Rome’s centuries-long fascination with Greece, how and why the First Punic war spurred the development of Latin literature, and in his own words, “why Rome developed a literature in the Latin language when it shouldn’t really have done so.” It’s a fantastic piece of scholarship, and I’ve featured it as my recommended book for this show in our bookstore at literatureandhistory.com, and I hope some you will pick up a copy and delve more deeply into the subjects we’ve talked about today. Professor Feeney was kind enough to read a draft of this episode prior to its release, and his help is deeply appreciated.

In the next show, we’re going to meet the man who commonly begins college level courses on Roman literature. To later Roman commentators, Titus Maccius Plautus was a necessary but unspectacular step forward toward the literary renaissance of the first century BCE. Today, to those of us who do business in English and comparative literature departments, Plautus often slips through the cracks, important, maybe, because he influenced Shakespeare and other Elizabethan authors, but likely to be disregarded for the sake of the Odyssey, the Aeneid and other blockbuster classics familiar to nonspecialists.

While Plautus will probably never be as widely circulated as Homer and Virgil, he is nonetheless a vital link between the high drama of 5th-century Athens that we’ve covered in this show, and thousands of years of subsequent plays thereafter. All too often, we think of authors as exceptional figures who stand apart from society and steer art in new and innovative directions – mavericks who understand and push against the momentum of a dominant culture. Some authors are indeed just these kinds of individuals. But other authors, rather than being anomalies or dissenters, are something more like hubs, or pivot points – important not because of their own radical departures from tradition, but instead because of the radically innovative ways in which they consolidate multiple traditions. In other words, Emily Dickinson might be my own favorite example of an exceptional human genius, standing alongside the broad flow of a cultural tradition and only occasionally dipping her toes into it. Plautus, however, and the translators and adapters who came along before him, finished tearing down the levy between Greek and Roman culture, and the confluence that they created influenced thousands of years of literary traditions that came along afterward. So in the next show, Episode 43: On the Move, we’re going to learn all about Plautus, his plays, and his world. Thanks again to Denis Feeney of Princeton for helping me with this show – his book, again, is Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature, published in 2016 by Harvard University Press.

Just a quick reminder for those new to the podcast jumping in at Season 4 – at literatureandhistory.com, each episode has a transcription, complete with references, and relevant works of art and maps. So if, for instance, you want to see some stuff we talked about in this show – those beautiful vases from Magna Graecia, or the Etruscan Tomb of the Augurs, which displays scenes from the festival culture of Etruria, or just maps of ancient Italy, all of that is up there. I always think it’s kind of annoying when podcasters urge you to look at a map while listening to their shows – I listen to them while running, or driving, usually, so it’s not like I can do that – but anyway, generally speaking, if I’ve mentioned an artwork, an artifact, or a geographical region in this podcast, I will very likely have a nice picture of it for you there on the website, whether it’s Mesopotamian, Ancient Egyptian, Archaic Greek, Ancient Hebrew, Classical Greek – there are many high quality images up there. Also as a general reminder, there are quizzes for each episode available for the purposes of review, and this podcast has an accompanying YouTube page on which every single comedy song has been posted – it’s all very easy to find at literatureandhistory.com, and there are links to each episode’s transcription, quiz, and song in the show notes in your podcast playing app, along with links to this podcast’s Patreon page and my bonus content page. Speaking of the latter, I did launch quite a bit of new bonus content in the previous program – if you were intending to pick up a bonus series, no time like the present. I want to thank everyone who picked up the bonus content, and made a per-episode pledge on Patreon, and I look forward to bringing you the most influential works of Roman literature, in podcast form, over the next few months, putting an end, once and for all, to Romelessness in the world of literature podcasting.

Speaking of bad puns – and by the way, this concludes the serious and scholarly part of the show, so be forewarned – speaking of bad puns, I humbly submit the following two and a half minutes of Rome-themed musical silliness for your consideration to close this show.

1.^ Everitt, Anthony. The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2012. Kindle Edition, location 1263. Mary Beard adds that by the 500s, “Rome was most certainly a small urban community” (Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016, p. 91).

2.^ The early part of this chronology, up until perhaps the Second Punic War, is a highly suspect, the 753 date coming from the imaginative scholarship of Cicero’s prolific friend M. Terentius Varro. Mary Beard mentions evidence that the Republican “Roman political system took its characteristic form in the mid fourth century BCE” (SPQR p. 152), a century and a half after the first legendary consulship of Lucius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. In any case, the 753, 509, and 27 BCE dates remain well known enough to be useful in a general introduction like this one.

3.^ Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016, p. 91.

4.^ This was archaeologist Giacomo Boni’s project between 1899 and 1905.

5.^ See Liddel, Peter and Low, Polly eds. Inscriptions and their Uses in Greek and Latin Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 170-1. Another contender for the oldest writing in Latin that we have in the archaeological record was discovered in 1880, on the Quirinal Hill in the northern part of ancient Rome. And the inscription in question was written – somewhat ramblingly and awkwardly, around the rim of a curious vessel – three small clay pots arranged in a triangle and fused together by clay joists. The inscription, called the Duenos Inscription, isn’t much to look at. It’s dated variously to the 600s, 500s, and occasionally 400s, and parts of it are illegible or otherwise cryptic. The Duenos inscription seems to be a pair of sentences wishing the vessels’ users luck in his or her amorous affairs.

6.^ See Watkin, David. The Roman Forum. Harvard University Press, 2009, p. 18.

7.^ Livy. The History of Rome, Books 1-8. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Kindle Edition, location 202.

8.^ See, for instance, Mary Beard, SPQR, pp. 96-8, and Gary Forsythe’s A Critical Hisory of Early Rome (2005).

9.^ See Johnson, Allan Chester et. al. Ancient Roman Statutes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961, p.5. Mary Beard notes that the inscription’s main significance for historians is its use of the dative case noun recei, supporting the existence of the regal history written about by Livy and others (see SPQR p. 92).

10.^ See SPQR p. 92.

11.^ Livy. The History of Rome, Books 1-8. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Kindle Edition, location 1475.

12.^ Horace. Satires and Epistles. Translated by John Davie and with an introduction and notes by John Davie and Robert Cowan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 98.

13.^ The first century CE rhetorician Quintilian wrote that “I prefer that a boy should begin with Greek, because Latin, being in general use, will be picked up by him whether we will or no; while the fact that Latin learning is derived from Greek is a further reason for his being first instructed in the latter” (Quintilian. Complete Works of Quintilian. London: Delphi Classics, 2015. Kindle Edition, location 213). By the beginning of the Common Era, bilingual education for the Roman gentry was clearly institutionalized.

14.^ See Feeney, Denis. Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2016, p. 114.

15.^ Tim Cornell’s The Beginnings of Rome (London and New York: Routledge, 1995) and John North Hopkins’ The Genesis of Roman Architecture (New Haven: Yale UP, 2016) see Rome’s singularity emerging earlier than, for instance, Mary Beard’s SPQR.

16.^ See Feeney (2016) p. 105-14.

17.^ See Manuwald, Gesine. Roman Republican Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 22-3. The Tomb of the Augurs at the Necropolis of Monterozzi shows some of these performance events.

18.^ Ibid, p. 24.

19.^ For an excellent discussion of the First Punic War and its impact on the generation of Livius Andronicus and Gnaeus Naevius, see Feeney (2016), Chapter 5: A Stage for Imperial Power.

20.^ Feeney (2016) gives 238 BCE as the date for the inception of the Greek Theater at Syracuse (p. 127).

21.^ Livy. The History of Rome, Books 1-8. Translated and with Notes by D. Spillan. London: Henry Bohn, 1853. Kindle Edition, Locations 7692, 7701.

22.^ Quoted in Terence. The Comedies. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. xvii.

23.^ Naevius was Campanian and possibly from Capua. Ennius and Pacuvius were from the territory around Brundisium. Caecilius was from a Gallic territory near modern day Milan, and Publilius Syrus hailed from Syria. See Manuwald (2011), p. 90-2.

24.^ Ibid, p. 10.

25.^ See Feeney (2016), p. 66.

26.^ Ibid, p. 112.

27.^ See Kenney, E.J., ed. The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: The Early Republic. Cambridge, 1995, pp. 158-60.

28.^ See Manuwald (2011), p. 205.

29.^ Gellius, Aulus. Complete Works. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, location 879.

30.^ See Manuwald (2011), p. 150.

31.^ Ovid. The Love Poems. Translated by A.S. Kline. Poetry in Translation, 2001, p. 43.

32.^ Horace. The Works of Horace. Translated by C. Smart. Digireads Publishing, 2011, p. 127.

33.^ Cicero. The Republic and the Laws. Translated by Niall Rudd and with an Introduction and Notes by Niall Rudd and Jonathan Powell. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998, p. 79.

34.^ Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Translated and with notes by Richard M. Gummere. Lexicos publishing, 2011, p. 10.

35.^ Ibid, p. 10.

36.^ See Manuwald (2011), pp. 327-8.

37.^ Flaccus, and some of the mechanics of his musicianship, are described in the prologue of Terence’s play Phormio. See also Moore, Timothy. Music in Roman Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 52-63.

38.^ Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought and Reality. Edited and with an Introduction by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1997, p. 252.

39.^ Cicero. Brutus, Or, History of Famous Orators. Translated by E. Jones. CreateSpace Publishing, 2013, p. 17.

40.^ Feeney (2016), p. 4.