The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic

By W. Beare | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXVII
EPILOGUE: DRAMA UNDER THE EMPIRE

THE THEATRE was a characteristic part of Roman life and civilization. Consequently under the Empire we find Roman theatres, great or small, springing up in every province. When we ask what kinds of performances took place in these buildings, the answer is doubtful and disappointing. Such information as we possess suggests that the entertainment normally provided in the imperial theatres consisted of trivial or degrading performances, whether mime, recitation, pantomime or even gladiatorial combat.

The establishment of the Empire helped to confirm certain tendencies which had already become visible in Republican drama, and also to create others. Long before the end of the Republic the supply of new plays for the stage had practically ceased. The Augustan age gave birth to two famous tragedies, Varius' Thyestes and Ovid Medea (almost certainly these were original works, not translations). According to one scholiast the Thyestes was produced at the games in celebration of the victory of Actium; if this information is accurate, it appears to be our last record of the performance of a new Latin play. Otherwise such few performances of literary tragedy or comedy as are recorded are revivals of old plays. For example Seneca (ep.80) seems to speak of a contemporary performance of Accius' Atreus. Yet the inevitable change in literary style would make the works of the Republican tragedians seem more and more archaic as time went on. For Quintilian Pacuvius and Accius are the rude pioneers of Roman tragedy, which culminates in writers like Ovid. But as Ovid himself, long after the publication of the Medea, protests that he never was so depraved as to write for the stage, it would appear that Quintilian is here thinking of tragedy simply as a literary form, not as something intended for performance. Something of the spirit of tragedy may have survived in the dramatic recitations; Nero, we are told, 'sang' Orestes the Matricide,

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