Rome may have conquered and colonized Greece, but in terms of culture it was the Greeks who conquered Rome, especially so in the intellectual and artistic sphere. Before coming in contact with Greece there was hardly a literature that could be called Roman. Even after initial exposure there was little tendency of Romans to emulate the Greeks in the practice of letters. The Greeks had colonial outposts on the Italian peninsula as far back as the 6th century BC, from which point the Greek influence must be reckoned. Yet it is only in the third century BC that we notice a presence of Latin literature.
In religion and political institutions the Greek influence was felt far earlier. A century after Solon was being elected arch-archon of Athens democracy and republicanism came to Rome. Institutions emerged that began to ape those found in Athens and the Greek polis – the city state. The Romans adopted wholesale the Greek pantheon of gods, and this too was a consequence of republicanism. Religious syncretism had given rise to the Greek pantheon, and the same mechanism was set of motion by the formation of the Roman Republic.
All these developments meant that Rome was gradually drawn into the sphere of the general expansion of the Greek intellectual tradition. The specific Greek influence, and that which triggered the advent of Latin literature, can be located from the middle of the third century BC, or from the beginning of the Punic Wars fought against Carthage. Many Greeks had fought on the side of Carthage, and therefore they were among the prisoners of war that ended up enslaved in Rome. It was a conduit to Greek culture in Rome and many of the slaves were employed as pedagogues – teachers to children of nobility.
At this time the Macedonians held sway over the Greeks. It was the remnant of the world empire that Alexander the Great has created after a series of conquests in the east, and enacted over a century earlier. The empire crumbled very soon after the death of Alexander, but his descendants continued to rule over Greece. The freedom-loving Greeks felt this to be oppression, and they invited the Romans to challenge the throne of Macedonia, and it was promptly overcome. But in effect the Greeks had only changed masters, because the Romans were soon encroaching upon their promised freedom.
This subjection of Greece meant a greater influx of Greek slaves to Rome, which greatly aided the advance of Latin literature. Lucius Livius Andronicus (284? -204 BC), a Greek slave brought to Rome from the Southern colonies, made the first impressions in Latin literature by translating Homer’s Odyssey. Gnaeus Naevius (270? – 201? BC), considered to be the father of Latin literature, followed the earlier example of Andronicus to write an epic on the Punic Wars. He also wrote dramas that were reworked from Greek originals.
Both these examples inspired Quintus Ennius (239 – 169 BC) to compose his Annals, a historical epic that recounted Roman history from the legendary foundation of Rome by Romulus and Remus. The first example of prose is a guide to farming, De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture; 160? BC), written by Cato the Elder. Another Greek slave who enriched Latin literature was Polybius, who wrote history with methodical precision. He is one of the first to approach his subject from a philosophical point of view. The outstanding aspect of Latin literature, however, was comedy in drama.
It is the medium in which the Latin sensibility found its greatest expression, and also the vehicle through which the Greek influence made the most inroads. The two writers we intend to examine in this respect are Plautus and Terence. They were the most successful, and are indeed the most well preserved dramatists. They wield an influence that has resounds throughout Western history and continues to this day. On the face of it they are little more than imitators and copiers of the New Comedy, a genre among the Greeks.
But their specific contributions are also importance, to consider which we need to review the New Comedy first. Aristophanes is the greatest example of a dramatist from the school of the Old Comedy. His plays are political and intellectual satires. In The Frogs for example he presents us with a rowdy argument between the tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides, presided over by the god Dionysus. Things become so unruly at points that obscenities and fists begin to fly, and Dionysus is hardly able to contain them. In a similar vein Socrates is lampooned in The Clouds.
Yet, however rowdy and boisterous the exchanges, it never actually descends into farce. It remains grounded in ideas and ideals, either in politics or philosophy. This is in keeping with the function of Greek drama, which was after all part the religious festivals. The overriding aim is to teach, or to elevate. This aim is not abandoned with the advent of the New Comedy, which became the norm in the fourth century BC, even though the subject matter of this new drama eschewed politics and philosophy, and instead concentrated on mundane plots of domesticity and relationships.
Menander is the prime proponent of the New Comedy. The plays are more geared towards entertainment, and if anything is taught it is the simple virtues. But even Menander does not descend into farce. His plays were solemn enough to be acted out on religious occasions. The plays of Plautus are in the vein of Greek New Comedy, and in particular follow Menander. To generalize between the two, we can say that they both deal with “situations that tend to develop in the bosom of the family. ” In some instances the plots and characters are so close to a Menander play that he could even be accused of plagiarism.
Nevertheless the treatment of Plautus is original enough. The crucial point is that Plautus is adapting the Greek play for the Roman stage, and this implies a new function. The Roman festival, in which the play was acted, was a gay occasion. The Roman audience did not expect to be taught solemn lessons; they expected pure entertainment. The Greek theatre was a permanent stone structure, built in proximity to the holy shrines, and where the religious festivals took place. It would not befit the Roman comedies to be acted on such stages. In keeping with the more earthy Roman play, the stages were wooden makeshift structures.
Hammond et al, in their introduction to the Miles Gloriosus, state that “the Romans were acquainted with the Greek stone theatre, but, because they believed drama to be a demoralizing influence, they had a strong aversion to the erection of permanent theatres. ” A play of Plautus easily descends into farce. But this is not to belittle it. If we look at the trend in Greek drama we will find a growing trivialization. The philosophers, statesmen and gods that peopled the Old Comedy gives way to the clever slaves, tricksters, paramours and lusty old men in the New Comedy.
The pandering to popular taste could not be taken beyond a certain point, and this is the barrier that Roman theatre easily crossed. This reflects a crucial difference between Greek and Roman democracy. The Greek experiment was based on political theory, and accordingly its application was limited. The democratic institutions never managed to function beyond the city walls. Even the effort towards alliance of the city states was fraught; the Delian league collapsed and sparked the Peloponnesian Wars.
Roman democracy, on the other hand, was a natural outgrowth of Roman values, and so it was more successful in reaching out to the people, and the institution evolved in step with the expansion of the Republic. The same came to be reflected in its art, and especially so in the first vigorous art form that the Roman adopted – comic theatre. Menander may have trivialised, but Plautus was engaged in creating a truly popular art-form, and this is where his originality lies. Plautus’s inheritances from the New Comedy were the stock characters and the comic devices.
Among the stock characters were the clever slave, the braggart soldier, the desperate parasite and the lusty old man. The comic devices were usually based on role reversals and mistaken identity. Plautus worked these stock characters and comic devices towards maximum effect, and the effect desired was pure hilarity. According to Walter Juniper, “Everything, including artistic characterization and consistency of characterization, were sacrificed to humour. ” Such scant regard for form and consistency would no doubt have outraged the Greek sensibility.
The stagecraft was also modified drastically, and in the direction of increasing involvement of the audience. It stays very close to the stage, which was to facilitate hearing. In Greek theatre the orchestra intervened between the audience and the players, who accompanied the singing chorus. Wild gesticulation was needed to help the audience in the back follow the plot, and sometimes masks were necessary. All this was dispensed with in Roman theatre. The function of the chorus was largely taken up by the ‘Prologue’, which was usually an exposition addressed directly to the audience by the clever slave, or other lowly characters.
Characters frequently faced the audience to impart to them intimate asides. They even gesticulated towards local geographical features beyond the stage, usually towards the local shrine. All this was designed to make the play more and more accessible to the audience. Commenting on the stagecraft of the play Curculio T. J. Moore says, “all distinction between the play, production, and ‘real life’ has been obliterated. ” There is no attempt to hide the fact that the play is of Greek descent. Latin comedy is invariably in Greek settings, and the characters all bear Greek names. On top of this Greek words are littered throughout.
This is both for stylistic effect and to keep reminding the audience that this is all coming from Greece. In this way the accidental Hellenising influence of a Plautus play is in its capacity to teach the rudiments of Greek literature, philosophy and art. However, the deliberation of the playwright was quite the opposite. In the opinion of W. S. Anderson, Plautus “is using and abusing Greek comedy to imply the superiority of Rome, in all its crude vitality, over the Greek world. ” By making the farce take place in Greece Plautus is making a racist statement, intimating that such insolence could never have taken place in Rome.
We recall that during the period when Plautus wrote his plays Rome was in the process of colonizing Greece. The success of Plautus demonstrates that by the third century BC Rome was ripe to absorb the intellectual tradition of Greece, which the subsequent flowering of Latin literature bears out. It is a vigorous and conscious effort to emulate the Greeks, even though it never more than a superficial adherence. The Romans could never hope to follow the Greek in philosophy, but Lucretius (94? -55? BC) found a poetic meter in which to express the philosophy of Epicurus.
Cicero’s masterful treatises on rhetoric are resonant of Stoic values. Catullus (84? -54? BC) composed love poems of lasting value, and Sallust (86 – 34 BC) composed history with the precision of Thucydides. Finally, in the Aeneid the Roman poet Virgil was able compose an epic fit to put beside those of Homer and Hesiod. But the example of Plautus also shows us that Roman culture was fundamentally different from that of Greece. As already noted, Rome was a naturally evolved democracy, whereas the Grecian experiment was based on theory and philosophy.
This is why Roman theatre became democratic, while Greek theatre was always aristocratic. Plautus’ essential function is to take aristocratic material and turn it into a crowd-pleaser. The solemnity of the Greek theatre did not translate to the Roman stage. This is why they baulked from erecting permanent structures. The actors too were looked down upon, since everything concerned with the stage was tainted with immorality. It is also telling that the function of the chorus is taken over by the clever slave. In a Greek play the chorus held an elevated function. It was indeed the moral backbone to the play.
Its timely expositions, exonerations and opinions was instrumental in putting the characters into proper perspective, which meant framing them against the moral message of the play. For the lowly characters to take over this function points to a drastic shift in tenor. The general note is such that “those who enjoy authority and respect in the ordinary Roman world are unseated, ridiculed, while the lowliest members of society mount to their pedestals,” according to Segal. The sum effect is that “the humble are in face exalted. ” This again reflects the democratic nature of Roman theatre.