Home | Prev | Next | Contents


The Italian peoples, of all races, have always had a wonderful capacity for enjoying themselves out of doors. The Italian festa of to-day, usually, as in ancient times, linked to some religious festival, is a scene of gaiety, bright dresses, music, dancing, bonfires, races, and improvisation or mummery; and all that we know of the ancient rural festivals of Italy suggests that they were of much the same lively and genial character. Tibullus gives us a good idea of them:

"Agricola assiduo primum satiatus aratro Cantavit oerto rustica verba pede; Et satur arenti primum est modulatus avena Carmen, ut ornatos diceret ante decs; Agricola et minio suffusus, Bacche, rubenti Primus inexperta duxit ab arte choros."[454]

It would be easy to multiply examples of such merry-making from the poets of the Augustan age, nearly all of whom were born and bred in the country, and shared Virgil's tenderness for a life of honest work and play among the Italian hills and valleys. But in this chapter we are to deal with the holidays and enjoyments of the great city, and the rural festivals are only mentioned here because almost all the characteristics of the urban holiday-making are to be found in germ there. The Roman calendar of festivals has its origin in the regularly recurring rites of the earliest Latin husbandman. As the city grew, these old agricultural festivities lost of course much of their native simplicity and naïveté; some of them survived merely as religious or priestly performances, some became degraded into licentious enjoyment; but the music and dancing, the gay dresses, the racing, the mumming or acting, are all to be found in the city, developed in one form or another, from the earliest to the latest periods of Roman history.

The Latin word for a holiday was feriae, a term which belongs to the language of religious law (ius divinum). Strictly speaking, it means a day which the citizen has resigned, either wholly or in part, to the service of the gods.[455] As of old on the farm no work was to be done on such days, so in the city no public business could be transacted. Cicero, drawing up in antique language his idea of the ius divinum, writes thus of feriae: "Feriis iurgia amovento, easque in familiis, operibus patratis, habento": which he afterwards explains as meaning that the citizen must abstain from litigation, and the slave be excused from labour.[456] The idea then of a holiday was much the same as we find expressed in the Jewish Sabbath, and had its root also in religious observance. But Cicero, whether he is actually reproducing the words of an old law or inventing it for himself, was certainly not reflecting the custom of the city in his own day; no such rigid observance of a rule was possible in the capital of an Empire such as the Roman had become. Even on the farm it had long ago been found necessary to make exceptions; thus Virgil tells us:[457]

"Quippe etiam festis quaedam exercere diebus Fas et iura sinunt: rivos deducere nulla Religio vetuit, segeti praetendere saepem, Insidias avibus moliri, incendere vepres, Balantumque gregem fluvio mersare salubri."

So too in the city it was simply impossible that all work should cease on feriae, of which there were more than a hundred in the year, including the Ides of every month and some of the Kalends and Nones. As a matter of fact a double change had come about since the city and its dominion began to increase rapidly about the time of the Punic wars. First, many of the old festivals, sacred to deities whose vogue was on the wane, or who had no longer any meaning for a city population, as being deities of husbandry, were almost entirely neglected: even if the priests performed the prescribed rites, no one knew and no one cared,[458] and it may be doubted whether the State was at all scrupulous in adhering to the old sacred rules as to the hours on which business could be transacted on such days.[459] Secondly, certain festivals which retained their popularity had been extended from one day to three or more, in one or two cases, as we shall see, even to thirteen and fifteen days, in order to give time for an elaborate system of public amusement consisting of chariot-races and stage-plays, and known by the name of ludi, or, as at the winter Saturnalia, to enable all classes to enjoy themselves during the short days for seven mornings instead of one. Obviously this was a much more convenient and popular arrangement than to have your holidays scattered about over the whole year as single days; and it suited the rich and ambitious, who sought to obtain popular favour by shows and games on a grand scale, needing a succession of several days for complete exhibition. So the old religious word feriae becomes gradually supplanted, in the sense of a public holiday of amusement, by the word ludi, and came at last to mean, as it still does in Germany, the holidays of schoolboys.[460] These ludi will form the chief subject of this chapter; but we must first mention one or two of the old feriae which seem always to have remained occasions of holiday-making, at any rate for the lower classes of the population.

One of these occurred on the Ides of March, and must have been going on at the moment when Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. It was the festival of Anna Perenna, a mysterious old deity of "the ring of the year." The lower class of the population, Ovid tells us,[461] streamed out to the "festum geniale" of Anna, and spent the whole day in the Campus Martius, lying about in pairs of men and women, indulging in drinking and all kinds of revelry. Some lay in the open; some constructed tents, or rude huts of boughs, stretching their togas over them for shelter. As they drank they prayed for as many years of life as they could swallow cups of wine. The usual characteristics of the Italian festa were to be found there: they sang anything they had picked up in the theatre, with much gesticulation ("et iactant faciles ad sua verba manus"), and they danced, the women letting down their long hair. The result of these performances was naturally that they returned home in a state of intoxication, which roused the mirth of the bystanders. Ovid adds that he had himself met them so returning, and had seen an old woman pulling along an old man, both of them intoxicated. There may have been other popular "jollifications" of this kind, for example at the Neptunalia on July 23, where we find the same curious custom of making temporary huts or shelters;[462] but this is the only one of which we have any account by an eye-witness. Of the famous Lupercalia in February, and some other festivals which neither died out altogether nor were converted into ludi, we only know the ritual, and cannot tell whether they were still used as popular holidays.

One famous festival of the old religious calendar did, however, always remain a favourite holiday, viz. the Saturnalia on December 17, which was by common usage extended to seven days in all.[463] It was probably the survival of a mid-winter festivity in the life of the farm, at a time when all the farm work of the autumn was over, and when both bond and free might indulge themselves in unlimited enjoyment. Such ancient customs die hard, or, as was the case with the Saturnalia, never die at all; for the same features are still to be found in the Christmas rejoicings of the Italian peasant. Every one knows something of the character of this holiday, and especially of the entertainment of slaves by their masters,[464] which has many parallels in Greek custom, and has been recently supposed to have been borrowed from the Greeks. Various games were played, and among them that of "King," at which we have seen the young Cato playing with his boy companions.[465] Seneca tells us that in his day all Rome seemed to go mad on this holiday.

But we must now turn to the real ludi, organised by the State on a large and ever increasing scale. The oldest and most imposing of these were the Ludi Romani or Magni, lasting from September 5 to September 19 in Cicero's time. These had their origin in the return of a victorious army at the end of the season of war, when king or consul had to carry out the vows he had made when entering on his campaign. The usual form of the vow was to entertain the people on his return, in honour of Jupiter, and thus they were originally called ludi votivi, before they were incorporated as a regularly recurring festival. After they became regular and annual, any entertainment vowed by a general had to take place on other days; thus in the year 70 B.C. Pompey's triumphal ludi votivi immediately preceded the Ludi Romani of that year,[466] giving the people in all some thirty days of holiday. The centre-point, and original day, of the Ludi Romani was the Ides (13th) of September, which was also the day of the epulum Jovis,[467] and the dies natalis (dedication day) of the Capitoline temple of Jupiter; and the whole ceremonial was closely connected with that temple and its great deity. The triumphal procession passed along the Sacra via to the Capitol, and thence again to the Circus Maximus, where the ludi were held. The show must have been most imposing; first marched the boys and youths, on foot and on horseback, then the chariots and charioteers about to take part in the racing, with crowds of dancers and flute-players,[468] and lastly the images of the Capitoline deities themselves, carried on fercula (biers). All such shows and processions were dear to the Roman people, and this seems to have become a permanent feature of the Ludi Romani, whether or no an actual triumph was to be celebrated, and also of some other ludi, e.g. the Apollinares and the Megalenses.[469] Thus the idea was kept up that the greatness and prosperity of Rome were especially due to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, who, since the days of the Tarquinii, had looked down on his people from his temple on the Capitol.[470]

The Ludi Plebeii in November seem to have been a kind of plebeian duplicate of the Ludi Romani. As fully developed at the end of the Republic, they lasted from the 4th to the 17th; their centre-point and original day was the Ides (13th), on which, as on September 13, there was an epulum Jovis in the Capitol.[471] They are connected with the name of that Flaminius who built the circus Flaminius in the Campus Martius in 220 B.C., the champion of popular rights, killed soon afterwards at Trasimene; and it is probable that his object in erecting this new place of entertainment was to provide a convenient building free of aristocratic associations. But unfortunately we know very little of the history of these ludi.

If we may suppose that the Ludi Plebeii were instituted just before the second Punic war, it is interesting to note that three other great ludi were organised in the course of that war, no doubt with the object of keeping up the drooping spirits of the urban population. The Ludi Apollinares were vowed by a praetor urbanus in 212, when the fate of Rome was hanging in the balance, and celebrated in the Circus Maximus: in 208 they were fixed to a particular day, July 13, and eventually extended to eight, viz. July 6-13.[472] In 204 were instituted the Ludi Megalenses, to celebrate the arrival in Rome of the Magna Mater from Pessinus in Phrygia, i.e. on April 4; but the ludi were eventually extended to April 10.[473] Lastly, in 202 the Ludi Ceriales, which probably existed in some form already, were made permanent and fixed for April 19: they eventually lasted from the 12th to the 19th.[474] After the war was over we only find one more set of ludi permanently established, viz. the Florales, which date from 173. The original day was April 28, which had long been one of coarse enjoyment for the plebs; like the other ludi, these too were extended, and eventually reached to May 3.[475] April, we may note, was a month chiefly consisting of holidays: the Ludi Megalenses, Ceriales, and Florales occupied no less than seventeen of its twenty-nine days.

When Sulla wished to commemorate his victory at the Colline gate, he instituted Ludi Victoriae on November I, the date of the battle, and these seem to have been kept up after most of Sulla's work had been destroyed; they are mentioned by Cicero in the passage quoted above from the Verrines, as Ludi Victoriae, but we hear comparatively little of them.

Before we go on to describe the nature of these numerous entertainments, it may be as well to realise that the spectators had nothing to pay for them; they were provided by the State free of cost, as being part of certain religious festivals which it was the duty of the government to keep up. Certain sums were set aside for this purpose, differing in amount from time to time; thus in 217 B.C., for the Ludi Romani, on which up to that time 200,000 sesterces (£16,600) had been spent, the sum of 333,333-1/3 sest. was voted, because the number three had a sacred signification, and the moment was one of extreme peril for the State.[476] On one occasion only before the end of the Republic do we hear of any public collection for the ludi; in 186 B.C. Pliny tells us that every one was so well off, owing no doubt to the enormous amount of booty brought from the war in the East, that all subscribed some small sum for the games of Scipio Asiaticus.[477] There was no doubt a growing demand for magnificence in the shows, and thus it came about that the amount provided by the State had to be supplemented. But the usual way of supplementing it was for the magistrate in charge of the ludi to pay what he could out of his own purse, or to get his friends to help him; and as all the ludi except the Apollinares were in charge of the aediles, it became the practice for these, if they aspired to reach the praetorship and consulship, to vie with each other in the recklessness of their expenditure. As early as 176 B.C. the senate had tried to limit this personal expenditure, for Ti. Sempronius Gracchus as aedile had that year spent enormous sums on his ludi, and had squeezed money (it does not appear how) out of the subject populations of Italy, as well as the provinces, to entertain the Roman people.[478] But naturally no decrees of the senate on such matters were likely to have permanent effect; the great families whose younger members aimed at popularity in this way were far too powerful to be easily checked. In the last age of the Republic it had become a necessary part of the aedile's duty to supplement the State's contribution, and as a rule he had to borrow heavily, and thus to involve himself financially quite early in his political career. In his de Officiis,[479] writing of the virtue of liberalitas, Cicero gives a list of men who had been munificent as aediles, including the elder and younger Crassus, Mucius Scaevola (a man, he says, of great self-restraint), the two Lueulli, Hortensius, and Silanus; and adds that in his own consulship P. Lentulus outdid all his predecessors, and was imitated by Scaurus in 58 B.C.[480] Cicero himself had to undertake the Ludi Romani, Megalenses, and Florales in his aedileship; how he managed it financially he does not tell us.[481] Caesar undoubtedly borrowed largely, for his expenditure as aedile was enormous,[482] and he had no private fortune of any considerable amount.

Our friend Caelius Rufus was elected curule aedile while he was in correspondence with Cicero, and his letters give us a good idea of the condition of the mind of an ambitious young man who is bent on making the most of himself. He is in a continual state of fidget about his games; he has set his heart on getting panthers to exhibit and hunt, and urges Cicero in letter after letter to procure them for him in Cilicia. "It will be a disgrace to you," he writes in one of them, "that Patiscus has sent ten panthers to Curio, and that you should not send me ten times as many."[483] The provincial governor, he urges, can do what he pleases; let Cicero send for some men of Cibyra, let him write to Pamphylia, where they are most abundant, and he will get what he wants, or rather what Caelius wants. Even after a letter full of the most important accounts of public business, including copies of senatus consulta (ad Fam. viii. 8), he harks back at the end to the inevitable panthers. Cicero tells Atticus that he rebuked Caelius for pressing him thus hard to do what his conscience could not approve, and that it was not right, in his opinion, for a provincial governor to set the people of Cibyra hunting for panthers for Roman games.[484] From the same passage it would seem that Caelius had also been urging him to take other steps in his province of which he disapproved, no doubt with the same object of raising money for the ludi. This letter to Caelius is not extant, but we may believe that Cicero had the courage to reprove his old pupil, and that the constant worrying for panthers was more than even his amiability could stand. But others were less sensitive; and it is a well known fact in natural history that the Roman games had a powerful effect, from this time forwards, in diminishing the numbers of wild animals in the countries bordering on the Mediterranean, and in bringing about the extinction of species. In our own day the same work is carried on by the big-game sportsman, somewhat farther afield; the pleasure of slaughter being now confined to the few rich and adventurous, who shoot for their own delectation, and not to make a London holiday.

Thus to all his ludi the citizen had the right of admission free of cost.[485] An Englishman may find some difficulty at first in realising this; it is as if cricket and football matches and theatres in London were open to the public gratis, and the cost provided by the London County Council. Yet it is not difficult to understand how the Roman government drifted into a practice which was eventually found to have such unfortunate results. It has already been explained that ludi were originally attached to certain religious festivals, which it was the duty of the State and its priests and magistrates to maintain. The Romans, like all Italians, loved shows and out-of-door enjoyment, and as the population increased and became more liable to excitement during the stress of the great wars with Carthage, it became necessary to keep them cheerful and in good humour by developing the old ludi and instituting new ones, for which it would have been contrary to all precedent to make them pay. The government, as we may guess from the history of the ludi which has just been sketched, seems to have been careful at first not to go too far with this policy, and it was some time before any ludi but the Romani were made annual and extended to the length they eventually reached. But the sudden increase of wealth after the great struggle was over was answerable for this, as for so many other damaging tendencies. We have seen that the people themselves in 186 were able and willing to contribute; and now it was possible for aediles to invest their capital in popular undertakings which might, later on, pay them well by carrying them on to higher magistracies and provincial governorships, where fresh fortunes might be made. The evil results are, of course, as obvious here as in the parallel case of the corn-supply (see above, p. 34); enormous amounts of capital were used unproductively, and the people were gradually accustomed to believe that the State was responsible for their enjoyment as well as their food. But we must be most careful not to jump to the conclusion that this was due to any deliberate policy on the part of the Roman government. They drifted into these dangerous shoals in spite of the occasional efforts of intelligent steersmen; and it would indeed have needed a higher political intelligence than was then and there available, to have fully divined the direction of the drift and the dangers ahead of them.

We must now turn in the last place to consider the nature of the entertainments, and see whether there was any improving or educational influence in them.

These had originally consisted entirely of shows of a military character, as we have seen in the case of the Ludi Romani, and especially of chariot-racing in the old Circus Maximus. The Romans seem always to have been fond of horses and racing, though they never developed a large or thoroughly efficient cavalry force. It is probable that the position of the Circus Maximus in the vallis Murcia[486] was due to horse-racing near the underground altar of Consus, a harvest deity, and the oldest religious calendar has Equirria (horse-races) on February 27 and March 14, no doubt in connexion with the preparation of the cavalry for the coming season of war. And in the very curious ancient rite known as "the October horse," there was a two-horse chariot-race in the Campus Martius, when the season of arms was over, and the near horse of the winning pair was sacrificed to Mars[487]. The Ludi Romani consisted chiefly of chariot-races until 364 B.C. (when plays were first introduced), together with other military evolutions or exercises, such perhaps as the ludus Troiae of the Roman boys, described by Virgil in the fifth Aeneid. Of the Ludi Plebeii we do not know the original character, but it is likely that these also began with circenses, the regular word for chariot-races. The Ludi Cereales certainly included circenses, and plays are only mentioned as forming part of their programme under the Empire; but on the last day, April 19, there was a curious practice of letting foxes loose in the Circus Maximus with burning firebrands tied to their tails[488],--a custom undoubtedly ancient, which may have suggested the venationes (hunts) of later times, for one of which Caelius wanted his panthers. Of the other three ludi, Apollinares, Megalenses, and Florales, we only know that they included both circenses and plays; we must take it as probable that the former were in their programme from the first. There is no need to describe here in detail the manner of the chariot-racing. We can picture to ourselves the Circus Maximus filled with a dense crowd of some 150,000 people,[489] the senators in reserved places, and the consul or other magistrate presiding; the chariots, usually four in number, painted at this time either red or white, with their drivers in the same colours, issuing from the carceres at the end of the circus next to the Forum Boarium and the river, and at the signal racing round a course of about 1600 yards, divided into two halves by a spina; at the farther end of this the chariots had to turn sharply and always with a certain amount of danger, which gave the race its chief interest. Seven complete laps of this course constituted a missus or race,[490] and the number of races in a day varied from time to time, according to the season of the year and the equipment of the particular ludi. The rivalry between factions and colours, which became so famous later on and lasted throughout the period of the Empire, was only just beginning in Cicero's time. We hear hardly anything of such excitement in the literature of the period; we only know that there were already two rival colours, white and red, and Pliny tells us the strange story that one chariot-owner, a Caecina of Volaterrae, used to bring swallows into the city smeared with his colour, which he let loose to fly home and so bear the news of a victory.[491] Human nature in big cities seems to demand some such artificial stimulus to excitement, and without it the racing must have been monotonous; but of betting and gambling we as yet hear nothing at all. Gradually, as vast sums of money were laid out by capitalists and even by senators upon the horses and drivers, the colour-factions increased in numbers, and their rivalry came to occupy men's minds as completely as do now the chances of football teams in our own manufacturing towns.[492]

Exhibitions of gladiators (munera) did not as yet take place at ludi or on public festivals, but they may be mentioned here, because they were already becoming the favourite amusement of the common people; Cicero in the _pro Sestio_[493] speaks of them as "that kind of spectacle to which all sorts of people crowd in the greatest numbers, and in which the multitude takes the greatest delight." The consequence was, of course, that candidates for election to magistracies took every opportunity of giving them; and Cicero himself in his consulship inserted a clause in his lex de ambitu forbidding candidates to give such exhibitions within two years of the election.[494] They were given exclusively by private individuals up to 105 B.C., either in the Forum or in one or other circus: in that year there was an exhibition by the consuls, but there is some evidence that it was intended to instruct the soldiers in the better use of their weapons. This was a year in which the State was in sore need of efficient soldiers; Marius was at the same time introducing a new system of recruiting and of arming the soldier, and we are told that the consul Rutilius made use of the best gladiators that were to be found in the training-school (ludus) of a certain Scaurus, to teach the men a more skilful use of their weapons.[495] If gladiators could have been used only for a rational purpose like this, as skilful swordsmen and military instructors, the State might well have maintained some force of them. But as it was they remained in private hands, and no limit could be put on the numbers so maintained. They became a permanent menace to the peace of society, as has already been mentioned in the chapter on slavery. Their frequent use in funeral games is a somewhat loathsome feature of the age. These funeral games were an old religious institution, occurring on the ninth day after the burial, and known as Ludi Novemdiales; they are familiar to every one from Virgil's skilful introduction of them, as a Roman equivalent for the Homeric games, in the fifth Aeneid, on the anniversary of the funeral of Anchises. Virgil has naturally omitted the gladiators; but long before his time it had become common to use the opportunity of the funeral of a relation to give munera for the purpose of gaining popularity.[496] A good example is that of young Curio, who in 53 B.C. ruined himself in this way. Cicero alludes to this in an interesting letter to Curio.[497] "You may reach the highest honours," he says, "more easily by your natural advantages of character, diligence, and fortune, than by gladiatorial exhibitions. The power of giving them stirs no feeling of admiration in any one: it is a question of means and not of character: and there is no one who is not by this time sick and tired of them." To Cicero's refined mind they were naturally repugnant; but young men like Curio, though they loved Cicero, were not wont to follow his wholesome advice.[498]

We turn now to the dramatic element in the ludi, chiefly with the object of determining whether, in the age of Cicero, it was of any real importance in the social life of the Roman people. The Roman stage had had a great history before the last century B.C., into which it is not necessary here to enter. It had always been possible without difficulty for those who were responsible for the ludi to put on the stage a tragedy or comedy either written for the occasion or reproduced, with competent actors and the necessary music; and there seems to be no doubt that both tragedies and comedies, whether adapted from the Greek (fabulae palliatae) or of a national character (fab. togatae), were enjoyed by the audiences. In the days of the Punic wars and afterwards, when everything Greek was popular, a Roman audience could appreciate stories of the Greek mythology, as presented in the tragedies of Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius, if without learning to read in them the great problems of human life, at least as spectacles of the vicissitudes of human fortune; and had occasionally listened to a tragedy, or perhaps father a dramatic history, based on some familiar legend of their own State. And the conditions of social life in Rome and Athens were not so different but that in the hands of a real genius like Plautus the New Athenian comedy could come home to the Roman people, with their delight in rather rough fun and comical situations: and Plautus was followed by Caecilius and the more refined Terence, before the national comedy of Afranius and others established itself in the place of the Greek. It is hardly possible to avoid the conclusion that in those early days of the Roman theatre the audiences were really intelligent, and capable of learning something from the pieces they listened to, apart from their natural love of a show, of all acting, and of music.[499]

But before the age with which this book deals, the long succession of great dramatic writers had come to an end. Accius, the nephew of Pacuvius, had died as a very old man when Cicero was a boy;[500] and in the national comedy no one had been found to follow Afranius. The times were disturbed, the population was restless, and continually incorporating heterogeneous elements: much amusement could be found in the life of the Forum, and in rioting and disorder; gladiatorial shows were organised on a large scale. To sit still and watch a good play would become more tiresome as the plebs grew more restless, and probably even the taste of the better educated was degenerating as the natural result of luxury and idleness. Politics and political personages were the really exciting features of the time, and there are signs that audiences took advantage of the plays to express their approval or dislike of a statesman. In a letter to Atticus, written in the summer of 59,[501] the first year of the triumvirate, Cicero describes with enthusiasm how at the Ludi Apollinares the actor Diphilus made an allusion to Pompey in the words (from an unknown tragedy then being acted), "Nostra miseria tu es--Magnus," and was forced to repeat them many times. When he delivered the line

"Eandem virtutem istam veniet tempus cum graviter gemes,"

the whole theatre broke out into frantic applause. So too in a well-known passage of the speech pro Sestio he tells from hearsay how the great tragic actor Aesopus, acting in the Eurysaces of Accius, was again and again interrupted by applause as he cleverly adapted the words to the expected recall from exile of the orator, his personal friend.[502] The famous words "Summum amicum, summo in bello, summo ingenio praeditum," were among those which the modest Cicero tells us were taken up by the people with enthusiasm,--greatly, without doubt, to the detriment of the play. The whole passage is one of great graphic power, and only fails to rouse us too to enthusiasm when we reflect that Cicero was not himself present.

From this and other passages we have abundant evidence that tragedies were still acted; but Cicero nowhere in his correspondence, where we might naturally have expected to find it, nor in his philosophical works, gives us any idea of their educational or aesthetic influence either on himself or others. He is constantly quoting the old plays, especially the tragedies, and knows them very well: but he quotes them almost invariably as literature only. Once or twice, as we shall see, he recalls the gesture or utterance of a great actor, but as a rule he is thinking of them as poetry rather than as plays. It may be noted in this connexion that it was now becoming the fashion to write plays without any immediate intention of bringing them on the stage. We read with astonishment in a letter of Cicero to his brother Quintus, then in Gaul, that the latter had taken to play-writing, and accomplished four tragedies in sixteen days, and this apparently in the course of the campaign.[503] One, the Erigona, was sent to his brother from Britain, and lost on the way. We hear no more of these plays, and have no reason to suppose that they were worthy to survive. No man of literary eminence in that day wrote plays for acting, and in fact the only person of note, so far as we know, who did so, was the younger Cornelius Balbus, son of the intimate friend and secretary of Caesar. This man wrote one in Latin about his journey to his native town of Gades, had it put on the stage there, and shed tears during its performance.[504]

When we hear of plays being written without being acted, and of tragedies being made the occasion of expressing political opinions, we may be pretty sure that the drama is in its nonage. An interesting proof of the same tendency is to be found in the first book of the Ars Amatoria of Ovid, though it belongs to the age of Augustus. In this book Ovid describes the various resorts in the city where the youth may look out for his girl; and when he comes to the theatre, draws a pretty picture of the ladies of taste and fashion crowding thither,--but

Spectatum veniunt: veniunt spectentur ut ipsae.

And then, without a word about the play, or the smallest hint that he or the ladies really cared about such things, he goes off into the familiar story of the rape of the Sabine women, supposed to have taken place when Romulus was holding his ludi.

It is curious, in view of what thus seems to be a flagging interest in the drama as such, to find that the most remarkable event in the theatrical history of this time is the building of the first permanent stone theatre. During the whole long period of the popularity of the drama the government had never consented to the erection of a permanent theatre after the Greek fashion; though it was impossible to prohibit the production of plays adapted from the Greek, there seems to have been some strange scruple felt about giving Rome this outward token of a Greek city. Temporary stages were erected in the Forum or the circus, the audience at first standing, but afterwards accommodated with seats in a cavea of wood erected for the occasion. The whole show, including play, actors, and pipe-players[505] to accompany the voices where necessary, was contracted for, like all such undertakings,[506] on each occasion of Ludi scaenici being produced. At last, in the year 154 B.C., the censors had actually set about the building of a theatre, apparently of stone, when the reactionary Scipio Nasica, acting under the influence of a temporary anti-Greek movement, persuaded the senate to put a stop to this symptom of degeneracy, and to pass a decree that no seats were in future to be provided, "ut scilicet remissioni animorum standi virilitas propria Romanae gentis iuncta esset."[507] Whether this extraordinary decree, of which the legality might have been questioned a generation later, had any permanent effect, we do not know; certainly the senators, and after the time of Gaius Gracchus the equites, sat on seats appropriated to them. But Rome continued to be without a stone theatre until Pompey, in the year of his second consulship, 55 B.C., built one on a grand scale, capable of holding 40,000 people. Even he, we are told, could not accomplish this without some criticism from the old and old-fashioned,--so lasting was the prejudice against anything that might seem to be turning Rome into a Greek city.[508] There was a story too, of which it is difficult to make out the real origin, that he was compelled by popular feeling to conceal his design by building, immediately behind the theatre, a temple of Venus Victrix, the steps of which were in some way connected with his auditorium.[509] The theatre was placed in the Campus Martius, and its shape is fairly well known to us from fragments of the Capitoline plan of the city;[510] adjoining it Pompey also built a magnificent porticus for the convenience of the audience, and a curia, in which the senate could meet, and where, eleven years later, the great Dictator was murdered at the feet of Pompey's statue.

In spite of the magnificence of this building, it was by no means destined to revive the earlier prosperity of the tragic and comic drama. Even at the opening of it the signs of degeneracy are apparent. Luckily for us Cicero was in Rome at the time, and in a letter to a friend in the country he congratulates him on being too unwell to come to Rome and see the spoiling of old tragedies by over-display.[511] "The ludi," he says, "had not even that charm which games on a moderate scale generally have; the spectacle was so elaborate as to leave no room for cheerful enjoyment, and I think you need feel no regret at having missed it. What is the pleasure of a train of six hundred mules in the Clytemnestra (of Accius), or three thousand bowls (craterae) in the Trojan Horse (of Livius), or gay-coloured armour of infantry and cavalry in some mimic battle? These things roused the admiration of the vulgar: to you they would have brought no delight." This ostentatious stage-display finds its counterpart to some extent at the present day, and may remind us also of the huge orchestras of blaring sound which are the delight of the modern composer and the modern musical audience. And the plays were by no means the only part of the show. There were displays of athletes; but these never seem to have greatly interested a Roman audience, and Cicero says that Pompey confessed that they were a failure; but to make up for that there were wild-beast shows for five whole days (venationes)--"magnificent," the letter goes on, "no one denies it, yet what pleasure can it be to a man of refinement, when a weak man is torn by a very powerful animal, or a splendid animal is transfixed by a hunting-spear? ... The last day was that of the elephants, about which there was a good deal of astonishment on the part of the vulgar crowd, but no pleasure whatever. Nay, there was even a feeling of compassion aroused by them, and a notion that this animal has something in common with mankind."[512] This last interesting sentence is confirmed by a passage in Pliny's Natural History, in which he asserts that the people were so much moved that they actually execrated Pompey.[513] The last age of the Republic is a transitional one, in this, as in other ways; the people are not yet thoroughly inured to bloodshed and cruelty to animals, as they afterwards became when deprived of political excitements, and left with nothing violent to amuse them but the displays of the amphitheatre.

Earlier in this same letter Cicero had told his friend Marius that on this occasion certain old actors had re-appeared on the stage, who, as he thought, had left it for good. The only one he mentions is the great tragic actor Aesopus, who "was in such a state that no one could say a word against his retiring from the profession." At one important point his voice failed him. This may conveniently remind us that Aesopus was the last of the great actors of tragedy, and that his best days were in the early half of this century--another sign of the decay of the legitimate drama. He was an intimate friend of Cicero, and from a few references to him in the Ciceronian writings we can form some idea of his genius. In one passage Cicero writes of having seen him looking so wild and gesticulating so excitedly, that he seemed almost to have lost command of himself.[514] In the description, already quoted from the speech pro Sestio, of the scene in the theatre before his recall from exile, he speaks of this "summus artifex" as delivering his allusions to the exile with infinite force and passion. Yet the later tradition of his acting was rather that he was serious and self-restrained; Horace calls him gravis, and Quintilian too speaks of his gravitas.[515] Probably, like Garrick, he was capable of a great variety of moods and parts. How carefully he studied the varieties of gesticulation is indicated by a curious story preserved by Valerius Maximus, that he and Roscius the great comedian used to go and sit in the courts in order to observe the action of the orator Hortensius.[516]

Roscius too was an early intimate friend of Cicero, who, like Caesar, seems to have valued the friendship of all men of genius, without regard to their origin or profession. Roscius seems to have been a freedman;[517] his great days were in Cicero's early life, and he died in 61 B.C., to the deep grief of all his friends.[518] So wonderfully finished was his acting that it became a common practice to call any one a Roscius whose work was more than usually perfect. He never could find a pupil of whom he could entirely approve; many had good points, but if there were a single blot, the master could not bear it.[519] In the de Oratore Cicero tells us several interesting things about him,--how he laid the proper emphasis on the right words, reserving his gesticulation until he came to them; and how he was never so much admired when acting with a mask on, because the expression of his face was so full of meaning[520].

In Cicero's later years, when Roscius was dead and Aesopus retired, we hear no more of great actors of this type. With these two remarkable men the great days of the Roman drama come to an end, and henceforward the favourite plays are merely farces, of which a word must here be said in the last place.

The origin of these farces, as indeed of all kinds of Latin comedy, and probably also of the literary satura, is to be found in the jokes and rude fun of the country festivals, and especially perhaps, as Horace tells us of the harvest amusements[521]:

Fescennina per hunc inventa licentia morem Versibus alternis opprobria rustica fudit, Libertasque recurrentis accepta per annos Lusit amabiliter, etc.

Epist. ii. 1. 145 foll.

These amusements were always accompanied with the music and dancing so dear to the Italian peoples, and it is easy to divine how they may have gradually developed into plays of a rude but tolerably fixed type, with improvised dialogue, acted in the streets, or later in the intervals between acts at the theatre, and eventually as afterpieces, more after our own fashion.

In Cicero's day two kinds of farces were in vogue. In his earlier life the so-called Atellan plays (fabulae Atellanae) were the favourites: these were of indigenous Latin origin, and probably took their name from the ruined town Atella, which might provide a permanent scenery as the background of the plays without offending the jealousy of any of the other Latin cities.[522] They were doubtless very comic, but it was possible to get tired of them, for the number of stock characters was limited, and the masks were always the same for each character--the old man Pappus, the glutton Bucco, Dossennus the sharper, etc. About the time of Sulla the mimes seem to have displaced these old farces in popular favour, perhaps because their fun was more varied; the mere fact that the actors did not wear masks shows that the improvisation could be freer and less stereotyped. But both kinds were alike coarse, and may be called the comedy of low life in country towns and in the great city. Sulla's tastes seem to have been low in the matter of plays, if we may trust Plutarch, who asserts that when he was young he spent much of his time among mimi and jesters, and that when he was dictator he "daily got together from the theatre the lewdest persons, with whom he would drink and enter into a contest of coarse witticisms."[523] This may be due to the evidence of an enemy, but it is not improbable; and it is possible that both Sulla and Caesar, who also patronised the mimes, may have wished to avoid the personal allusions which, as we have seen, were so often made or imagined in the exhibition of tragedies, and have aimed at confining the plays to such as would give less opportunity for unwelcome criticism.[524]

About the year 50 B.C., as we have seen in the chapter on education, there came to Italy the Syrian Publilius, who began to write mimes in verse, thus for the first time giving them a literary turn. Caesar, always on the look-out for talent, summoned him to Rome, and awarded him the palm for his plays.[525] These must have been, as regards wit and style, of a much higher order than any previous mimes, and in fact not far removed from the older Roman comedy (fabula togata) in manner. Cicero alludes to them twice: and writing to Cornificius from Rome in October 45 he says that at Caesar's ludi he listened to the poems of Publilius and Laberius with a well-pleased mind.[526] "Nihil mihi tamen deesse scito quam quicum haec familiariter docteque rideam"; here the word docte seems to suggest that the performance was at least worthy of the attention of a cultivated man. Laberius, also a Roman knight, wrote mimes at the same time as Publilius, and was beaten by him in competition; of him it is told that he was induced by Caesar to act in his own mime, and revenged himself for the insult, as it was then felt to be by a Roman of good birth, in a prologue which has come down to us.[527] We may suppose that his plays were of the same type as those of Publilius, and interspersed with those wise sayings, sententiae, which the Roman people were still capable of appreciating. Even in the time of Seneca applause was given to any words which the audience felt at once to be true and to hit the mark.[528]

Thus the mime was lifted from the level of the lowest farcical improvisation to a recognised position in literature, and quite incidentally became useful in education. But the coarseness remained; the dancing was grotesque and the fun ribald, and, as Professor Purser says, the plots nearly always involved "some incident of an amorous nature in which ordinary morality was set at defiance." The Roman audience of the early Empire enjoyed these things, and all sorts of dancing, singing, and instrumental music, and above all the pantomimus,[529] in which the actor only gesticulated, without speaking; this and the fact that the real drama never again had a fair chance is one of the many signs that the city population was losing both virility and intelligence.

Prev | Next | Contents