Roman Eloquence: Rhetoric in Society and Literature

By William J. Dominik | Go to book overview

10

Melpomene's declamation (rhetoric and tragedy)

Sander M. Goldberg

In the late summer of 55 BCE, Cicero sweltered through the inaugural ceremonies for Pompey's new theater complex in the Campus Martius. The vast structure itself was in many ways a marvel: Rome's first stone theater, designed to hold perhaps 40,000 spectators, incorporated a temple of Venus Victrix above the cavea, flanked by four ancillary sanctuaries to revered abstractions like Honos and Virtus, while behind the stage building stretched an elaborate portico and formal garden connecting the theater with a new senate-house some 200 meters to the east. It was all very impressive, but not the surroundings nor the awnings nor the innovative water-courses of the new building itself could relieve the heat of that Roman August or the tedium of that inaugural display. 1 Cicero described the program with wry distaste in a famous letter to his friend Marcus Marius, himself comfortably installed in a villa on the Bay of Naples.

The entertainments staged in the new theater included mimes, plays, and farces. Performances were in Greek as well as Latin and employed both local and imported talent. Some distinguished veterans of the stage had also been invited out of retirement for the occasion, and some, says Cicero, unwisely accepted the invitation: old Aesopus, the famous tragic actor of the late republic, actually lost his voice in mid-sentence, to the embarrassment of all. Related shows in the Circus included races and wild animal displays performed over a five-day period-memory of an elephant hunt there lingered down to Pliny's day-but the most notorious spectacle on the program, or at least the spectacle that most exasperated Cicero, was the lavish staging of two classic Roman plays, Accius' Clytemnestra and the Equus Troianus of (we think) Naevius (Fam. 7.1): 2

-166-

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