The general simplistic understanding is that Roman literature and theatre were essentially a Greek derivative, but there is more to the subject than the influences of style. Roman literature and theatre intercepts with aspects of literacy, wealth and wealth distribution across social classes. Roman literature can only have reached us because there was sufficient educated readership to cause its publication, positive criticism and resource commitment for its reproduction. The fact that it has reached us attests to the successful intersection of quality, audience and environment. Likewise Roman theatre went through periods of development, hand in hand with the development of writing, increasing Roman wealth and a sufficiently educated population to enjoy it. It could only thrive so long as there was an appreciative and numerically sufficient public to consume it. Formal theatre declined once those conditions were no longer met.
Roman society developed from an archaic period when literacy was minimal and writing was not commonly used for the production of literature (since there was no public to appreciate it) through to one where education was readily available to most.
A Taste for Literature acquired from their neighbours
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, hence his name Livius, and in a sense this opened the way for a cultural revolution for the early 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. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Romans converted the Greek 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, Martial, 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
Well before the discovery of Greek literature, Roman satire, slap-stick, vulgar comedy, vitriolic jibe and public ridicule of personal traits or collective habits was a Roman favorite.
Satirical commentary was regarded as salubrious for society as a whole and generally harsh-but-fair rather than gratuitous.
Showing annoyance could only be expected to attract even more attention and sniggering and no-one was spared irrespective of status, 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 themselves 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….”
The story of Archilochus and Lycambe: The first was a poet (commonly believed to have invented Iambic verses) and the latter to have promised him his daughter in marriage. When Lycambe broke his promise Archilochus took terrible revenge by writing a satirical poem against him (in Iambic verse of course). To cut the story short both men ended up hanging themselves.
The story of Hipponax and Bupalus: Bupalus and Anthermus were two brothers. They also happened to be artists and painted a rather unflattering portrait of the poet Hipponax. The poet happened to have a poor sense of humor it seems and stung back with a satirical poem about the artists. Surprise surprise it all ended in tears.
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….
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):
- “Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba” – My pages are lascivious but my life is chaste (he was trying to get the emperor to be lenient towards him).
- “Laudant illa sed ista legunt” – They praise those but read these. Should be Hello Magazine’s motto don’t you think?
- “Homo bonus semper tiro est” – A good man is always a sucker.
- “Fortuna multis dat nimis, satis nulli” – Lady luck gives too much to many but not enough to any. ie however much luck people have they are never satisfied.
- “Non bene olet qui bene semper olet” – He who always smells of perfume doesn’t always smell good. You can imagine how the rich and politicians took to Martial.
- “Quid Nerone peius? quid thermis melius Neronianis” – What could be worse than Nero and what could be better than his public baths?
- “Simpliciter pateat vitium fortasse pusillum: quod tegitur, maius creditur esse malum” – Show your defects unashamedly as they might not be so important: a hidden evil will be taken to be worse than it actually is.
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 philosophical 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.
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