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Literature and Theatres in Ancient Rome

The general understanding is that Roman literature and theatre was essentially a Greek derivative. Although that is not entirely true it is a good manner of approaching the subject:

Livius Andronicus was a Greek slave in southern Italy who taught his master's children Greek language through literature and poetry. Amongst his many works he translated and adapted works such as Homer's Iliad. Andronicus was freed by his patron Livy and in a sense this opened the way for a cultural revolution for the Romans. Thereafter the cultural influence of the Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy were to influence Roman morality, religion, art, customs and indeed Roman society as a whole.

Not surprisingly the first great names of Roman literature came from the provinces of southern Italy which had been under Greek influence. This happened around the 4th and 3rd Centuries BC, just around the time of the conquest of these areas and the Punic wars with Carthage (in north Africa).

Following the lead of Livius Andronicus many Greek works were interpreted into Latin and adapted for the taste of Roman audiences. The Roman audience was clearly not the same as the Greeks.

The bulk of the Roman population would hardly be moved by a Tragedy when individuals were so used to seeing the bloody shows of the circus or indeed had actively joined bloody battle at a very early age. It is hardly surprising that the Romans converted the theatre structure into the amphitheatre

It is difficult to cover a millennium of Roman literature in a paragraph. Names such as Cicero, Ovid, Horace, Livy, Virgil, Seneca, Pliny, Tacitus, Juvenal and many others are known to most, not to mention the many writers of Greece and other countries who were born, lived and worked under Roman rule.

Given the little space available we cannot forget to give special place to Virgil, despised by some critics for his obvious allegiance to the official line his skill in poetry has remained unquestionable through the ages. His influence on later literature was such that Dante was to use him as his guiding light in the fantastic Divine Comedy. His Aenid continues to be regarded a sister work of Homer's Iliad and Odissey.

Having said that, the Romans as a collective group remained attached to their love for shows of more immediate pleasure rather than the more intellectual works. Rather like nowadays theatre attendance is thin whilst cinema and game shows on the TV enjoy sustained popularity. Roman theatre lost its appeal whilst the Races, Gladiators and Satire thrived. Satire thrives to this day in many aspects of journalism, literature and cinema. A highly successful example being Fellini's version of Satiricon - as transgressive as required, it regularly gets top rate reviews since the 70s.
Ancient Roman Literature and Satire

Roman Satire

Roman satireSlap-stick, vulgar comedy, vitriolic jibe and public ridicule of personal traits or collective habits was a Roman favorite well before the discovery of Greek literature. We should add that satirical comments were generally harsh-but-fair rather than gratuitous, and as such they were regarded as salubrious for society as a whole.

To show annoyance could only be expected to attract even more attention and sniggering and no-one was spared as Julius Caesar himself found out. His own soldiers would jokingly shout things like "Romans, hide your wives away - the great adulterer returns!"

Caesar soon gave up fighting back as a lost cause and perhaps it isn't any chance that he later used the propaganda machinery to associate himself and his lineage to the Roman Goddess Venus as closely as possible.

The ancient Romans ascribed the earliest origins of Satire to the populations of  Faleria and Fescennium on the borderlands between Latium and Etruria, just to the north of Rome. The addition of other influences from around Italy, including Greek plots and theatrical structure absorbed from the colonies in the south of the peninsula gave rise to a strictly Latin-Roman genre.

Satire was therefore a sort of hotchpotch of acts and displays spiced up with a good deal of relatively basic obscenities and jokes which poked fun at public figures, society, politics and whatever else might strike the righter worthy of interest: A simple basic structure of poetry spiced up with double entendre, song and dance. The word itself "satira" is thought to come from the word "Satura" which was a kind of Minestrone soup of the day made with a large variety of ingredients all thrown into a single melting pot.

The Romans placed the formal beginnings of satire around the 2nd century BC. Presumably it was about then that the art began to jell into a specific, repeatable genre under which one could place a number of notable and highly respected writers.

A brilliant and enjoyable example of it in prose form is Petronius' "Satiricon" which looks at society of the day. It satirizes the relationship between the emerging nouveau riche and the weakening upper-crust Patricians who, through necessity, had to put up with them.

Horace gives us an idea of the public sparring which often went on:

Epode VI "Against Cassius Severus - An ill-natured and abusive Poet" (from Odes and Epodes)

"Why, good for nothing Dog, do you thus bark at harmless Strangers, but turn Tail at the Approach of a Wolf? Turn, Wretch, if you dare, your vain Threats against me, who know how to bite again. ...."

Interestingly for us Horace brings up two references to the (destructive) power of satire - interesting because he himself was a pretty good satirist:

"...for I am always ready to fall with triple fury upon the Wicked, as that despised Son-in-Law, who took so severe a Revenge upon the perfidious Lycambe, or Hipponax, the mortal Enemy of Bupalus...." T

Such was the power of satire. Or should we say, "the pen is mightier than the sword!"

There were many other Satirists of course and a special mention is deserved by Juvenal and Martial. A passage by Juvenal I often remember (dare I admit it) denounces the way in which married women and their daughters have come to prefer an ugly Gladiator and his sword to their husbands....

Martial - Marcus Valerius Martial - was a Pagan when Christianity was beginning to make itself noticed. He was particularly good at the job of satire and consequently attracted the authorities' anger. Fortunately a good sample of his works has survived.

Here are some of his most popular words (sorry for the very loose translations):

Was Satire a Roman invention?

As a result of the above considerations we inserted "Satire" amongst the inventions of Ancient Rome and thought little more of it until someone wrote in and raised the following, rather deeper issue, which in turn forced us to answer with a rather more in-depth look at Satire and its origins:

"Roman "satire" is not satire.  They use the word Satire, but in no way is it similar to what we mean by satire."

An excellent observation to which I wrote the following reply. I hope it may serve as a pointer to others pursuing the path of truth....

As you say the greeks had good examples of satirical literature/plays. I dare say there were even earlier examples in ancient Egypt and elsewhere. I would add however that the brilliant sparkles weren't brought together and developed into a singular form of literature until a variety of Romans, with a common environment had their way. It is interesting to note I think that the vast majority of "Romans" who did develop roman literature were in fact from the provinces: somewhat supporting your comment yet at the same time giving some credence to the important collective role of "Rome".

What I would say though is that the genre made its greatest progress and took its most stable form during the Roman period. Quintilian for example, fully aware and well learned in Greek literature, perhaps even more so than we are today, expressed the view that it was a Roman genre whilst for many others "inventions" the Roman's had certainly no problem in recognising what was of local or foreign provenance. I believe he coined the name we now use for it (it would be interesting to place the exact reference here!) and from this small perspective could be considered to have been the one who actually recognised that a form of literature existed about him which hadn't otherwise been described as an entity (the name-word itself derived from the Roman dish "satura" - a sort of minestrone dish made of a mixed variety of ingredients).

We might also give some thought as to what we are considering as "satire": what would Quintilian have seen about him when he decided there was a genre in its own right?

We shouldn't forget that satire in Rome wasn't only literature or the classical staged performances, but rather included the lower class public shows, more akin to a cabaret with a variety of ingredients: itself a product of local habits and popular customs. Possibly influenced by Etruscan, Latin, Greek presence but nevertheless as local and basically "Roman" as you could get.

In parallel with the above we should consider that within Greek literature there was no particular name for the genre> you might have considered it within the cynical approach perhaps or simply as "parody" (as in Aristophanes) but it wasn't as yet a genre in its own right, as the Romans made it and from whence we have what is considered the body of satire known to us today.

This last point might be supported by the fact that satire is nowadays commonly broken down into two, or three, main branches> Horatian and Juvenalian> interestingly the modern division refers to Roman, rather than Greek, examples.

Not wanting to undo the interesting debate, we could counter the above points by saying that the same Romans would likely have considered their Satirical work as a development not of Horace or Juvenal but of Lucilius' (perhaps to be more closely associated with the Juvenalian sharp tongued attack) and that they too would have been well aware of a third "type" ie the Menippean satire, of which the Satyricon Trimalchio dinner party seems a valid example> a wonderful and masterful example but as the name says, was a genre associated with the work of the cynic Menippus (Syrian)who also inspired the likes of Varro and Lucian. ie a foreign seed.

Having said that, the Menippean case seems to confirm the "genre" point I made earlier: it is also interesting to note that Strabo and Stephanus refer to him more in his use of jest in a phylosophical context -ie to take a stab at the Epicureans and Stoics. ie it was a method particular to him within philosophical discussion as opposed to a form of literature in its own right which might be used for a variety of purposes and a variety of writers.

Given the number of individual pre-Roman single, scattered, examples given above I cannot agree that "the Greeks" invented satire. There are cases of parody being used by individuals, but it wasn't as yet a genre, as the Romans made it.


Art in ancient Rome: | Art in Ancient Rome - Introduction | The decadence of classical art | Foreign influence | The Greek revolution | Ancient Roman Paintings | Painting Styles | Drawing | Ancient Roman Mosaics | ancient roman jewelry | Sculpture | roman statues | Architecture | Literature and Theatre |Ancient Rome Literature  | poems about Rome | roman music | roman pottery |

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This page about Literature and Theatres in Ancient Rome was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments