In Focus: Was Roman literary drama ‘cosmopolitan’?

The blog series ‘In Focus‘ is conceived as a way to show the scope and diversity of the RELICS research group. Each month one of us will reflect on a current or recently finished project, and how it connects to the aims and vision of RELICS. Through this, by drawing from our own personal experience, we want to show in which ways Latin cosmopolitanism came to the fore from antiquity until modern times.

by Elodie Paillard (University of Basel, University of Sydney)

After spending many years during my PhD working on Sophocles and Athenian Classical drama, my research recently moved to a much later timeframe. Thanks to two grants from the Swiss National Science Foundation, I have been able to study Greek dramatic performances (understood as theatrical performances of all genres in Greek language) that took place in Rome and Roman Italy during the Republic and Early Empire. Although we generally remain ignorant about what exactly was performed in this context, there is clear evidence that at least some performances were in Greek language: beside full revivals of ancient Greek tragedies or comedies, extracts are also likely to have been presented, and early pantomime dances, although deemed a ‘truly Roman’ form of entertainment, were probably accompanied by libretti in Greek.

In the context of this research project, I came across what was an entirely new field of exploration for me: the relation between Greek and Latin literatures, two highly cosmopolitan literatures in Greco-Roman Antiquity. More precisely, I became interested in the interactions between Greek and Latin drama, and in their possible competing against each other around the Mediterranean. This made me wonder whether Latin drama had ever succeeded in becoming a real cosmopolitan form of literature in a multicultural world where Greek drama was already well established before its rival’s arrival. In other words, how much did Roman literary drama in its performed form transcend the boundaries of Rome and Italy?

Drama in Latin language emerged in 240 BC, at first as translations, or rather adaptations, of Greek original tragedies and comedies. Beside what it owes to Greek models, Roman drama was also influenced by local Italic form of theatrical entertainment such as the Atellane (a sort of Oscan farce) and other Etruscan models.

The genres of formal tragedy and comedy in Latin, however, disappeared from the stages quite quickly: a couple of centuries after its ‘invention’, Latin literary drama does not seem to have been performed widely anymore. Scholars even still debate about whether Seneca’s tragedies were meant to be performed on stage!

This leaves little time for Latin comic and tragic theatre to really become cosmopolitan in their performed shape. There is indeed very little evidence (if any at all) that tragedies and comedies in Latin were performed, for example, in Greece or in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean at the time. This is in itself partly a mystery that would require more thorough research. There is, after all, no reason why Rome, after the ‘invention’ of drama in Latin language might not have wanted to spread its own performative art all around the newly conquered territories.

Greek drama, and Greek dramatic performers, were, of course, well-established in the East, and even in Southern Italy, and it seems that Latin literary drama never succeeded into establishing itself as a new mass communication medium, replacing Greek theatre, at least in these areas. During the Early Empire, Emperors themselves seemed to have found an interest in promoting dramatic performances in Greek rather than in Latin on the global stage, for various reasons. Hutchinson (2013, 31-32) has spoken of a ‘literary war’ between Latin and Greek authors. Especially during the Republic, when Rome was in the process of defining its identity (cultural and literary) in relation to the Greek world, but also later, Roman intellectuals and authors were interested in promoting the ‘new’ Latin culture/literature and used various strategies (adaptation, modification, satirical/comical use and presentation, silencing of the sources) in order to try to diminish the reputation of Greek literary works. It seems that with regards to tragedy and comedy (understood as the public performances of these literary genres), Latin drama may have lost the war rather quickly. Another reason for this might have been the fact that Latin comedy and tragedy might have been more valued by audiences who spoke Latin well enough to appreciate the highly literary character of the plays. Within the Roman empire, vast numbers of people did not speak Latin, and Greek was more widely understood throughout the Eastern part of the Mediterranean.

Some other forms of Roman entertainment, however, became widespread in the Roman empire: circus games, animal hunts, or gladiatorial fights, for example. Other kinds of theatrical entertainment, of a less literary nature than tragedy and comedy, such as mimes and pantomimes, also encountered a more cosmopolitan success.

Borghese Gladiator Mosaic (320 CE), licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Paradoxically, the influence of such very visual and performative art forms on later European dramatic production is harder to trace, as they were closely tied to their performance conditions. Latin tragedy and comedy, although they failed to remain truly cosmopolitan during many centuries after they were invented and performed in Rome, nonetheless became cosmopolitan in their written form and have had a long-lasting influence on European literary dramatic production, as Chrysanti Demetriou explains in her own blog post.

Whether or not a literary form can become cosmopolitan depends on the linguistic command of its target audience/readership. For ancient Roman theatre, its performative nature meant that its survival was closely tied to the existence of an audience sufficiently able to understand the plays. This parameter somehow prevented Latin drama from becoming truly cosmopolitan in its performed shape. As a written genre, however, it was widely studied and transmitted over the longue durée, and its influence is easily traceable in many later European production and further. But when looking at the influence of Roman drama on later European literature, are we not rather looking at the influence of Greek drama, through the prism of the Romans? After all, Greek models were for a long time mainly known through Roman eyes.

Further reading

Interactions Greek-Latin literature:
  • Feeney, Denis. Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature, Cambridge (MA)/London, 2016
  • Hutchinson, Gregory. Greek to Latin. Frameworks and Contexts for Intertextuality, Oxford, 2013
Interactions Greek-Latin drama:
  • Paillard, Elodie. ‘Between Greek and Roman Theatre: Reciprocal Influence and Re-definition of Theatre’ In Paillard/Milanezi, Greek Theatre and Metatheatre: Definitions, Problems, Limits, de Gruyter, 2021 (forthcoming)
  • Paillard, Elodie. ‘Greek Theatre in Italy: From Elite to Autocratic Performances’. In E. Csapo / J. R. Green / B. Le Guen / E. Paillard / J. Stoop / P. Wilson (eds.), Theatre and Autocracy in the Ancient World, de Boccard, 2021 (forthcoming)
  • Paillard, Elodie. ‘Note Sur l’étymologie d’histrio’, Cahiers de l’Institut de Linguistique et des Sciences du Langage 60, 2020, 103-107.
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