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

By W. Beare | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVI
POPULAR FARCE: THE FABULA ATELLANA

IN TRAGEDY the Romans of the Republican period were content to adapt Greek originals; for the Roman historical play seems to have had little importance. But in the restless search for new means of amusing the public, the Roman dramatists gave literary form to certain popular forms of farce, which had existed from early times as improvised performances but were now, perhaps for the first time, to be set down on paper and, in due course, published. Our information concerning the Atellana and the mime is fragmentary; their importance in literature was probably small; but we have reason to believe that in the life of the common people, from early times to the end of the Roman Empire, popular farce played a greater part than all the literary forms of Roman drama put together.

In antiquity, as in modern times, the Campanians had a reputation for jest and merriment. Horace has left us an account of how two Campanian buffoons indulged in a sparringmatch which was marked by high spirits, lively repartee and merciless personalities. At an early period there seems to have been developed in Campania a rustic farce which displayed certain traditional characters in ridiculous situations. The fabula Atellana is said by Diomedes to have derived its name from a town of the Osci called Atella, where it had its origin. Atella was about nine miles from Capua, on the road to Naples; Oscan was an Italic dialect, akin to Latin, which was spoken by the population of the southern Apennines who, in the fifth and early fourth centuries, overran the greater part of southern Italy, including Campania. It would seem, therefore, that the Atellana was a form of entertainment popular among the Oscan-speaking people of Campania, including the inhabitants of Atella, and that the Romans, on becoming acquainted with it, called it either 'Oscan farce' after the district as a whole, or 'Atellane' after the town in that

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