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

By W. Beare | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
THE GENERAL CHARACTER OF ROMAN TRAGEDY

THERE IS a widespread belief that tragedy was never popular at Rome. For this belief no better evidence is usually offered than a jest in the prologue of the Amphitruo: 'I will tell you the plot of this tragedy. What? Are you wrinkling your foreheads because I said it would be a tragedy?' The real reasons for the modern view are perhaps that only fragments of the tragedy of the Republican period have survived, and that the rhetorical style of these fragments makes little appeal to modern taste, especially when we compare them, as we sometimes can, with the originals by the great Greek masters. It must be remembered, however, that Roman tragedy continued to be performed for more than two hundred years, that the Romans regarded Ennius, Pacuvius and Accius as great tragic writers, that the tragedies of Ennius were sufficiently well known to the common people to induce Plautus to burlesque their style, that from the three leading writers alone over seventy titles have come down to us, that performances of tragedies in the time of Cicero were attended by eager crowds, some of whom knew the classics of the stage so well that at the first notes of the flute they could tell what performance was to follow, and that on one occasion, when an actor failed to take his cue, 'twelve hundred' voices echoed the words 'mater, te appello'. In fact Graeco-Roman tragedy had at least as long a career on the Roman stage as any other form of literary drama, and its effect on the popular mind must have been far-reaching.

For the modern reader, however, Roman tragedy has little appeal. To begin with, it was almost wholly derivative. We have seen that the introduction of the native historical play proved a failure, only five or six fairly certain examples being recorded for the entire Republican period. In dealing with Greek tragedy Latin translators seem to have shown even less

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