Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
Origins of Greek Theater
The ancient Greeks had a love of pageantry and formalized ritual that permeated their entire society. The poet Homer composed long ballads orally, narratives of great warriors and great human themes. Wandering rhapsodes (“recitors of poetry”) memorized these poems and performed them for audiences at banquets and festivals that were public performances in and of themselves. Religious rituals involving all aspects of what we now call drama were performed publicly as well: weddings, funerals, celebrations to honor the gods, and victories in performative competitions of all kinds. Most of the formal elements of theater—people acting out specific roles, appropriate costumes, a set order of events, as well as audience expectation and participation—already existed in the religious rituals the Greeks had been performing for hundreds of years. For the Greeks, performance was an integral part of all aspects of their life. Athenian democracy involved the entire adult male population, and at several meetings a month on the Pnyx, a hill standing opposite the Acropolis of the city, these men performed speeches in front of thousands to persuade or to inflame. To distill the origins of the “theater” from such a culture of performance is impossible, but at the same time it is easy to see how an art form that focused specifically on the performance of all Athenian customs, laws, rituals, government, and religion attained such heights. This art form was theater.
The theater festivals celebrated by the Athenians in the city and rural folk in outlying areas of Attica were all dedicated to the god Dionysus. One of the earliest performers in tragedy was said to have complained that the City Dionysia had nothing to do with Dionysus. In fact, it seems especially appropriate for formal rituals of performance to be dedicated to the mysterious god of wine, fertility, and agricultural growth. Though the name “Dionysus” can be found in the earliest written form of ancient Greek, Linear B, there is a sense throughout the stories of this god in classical mythology that he was an outsider, a foreigner, essentially “un-Greek” in some fundamental way. Dionysus is related to gods from the Near East and Egypt, such as Osiris, but his presence in the Greek pantheon is no intrusion. While Apollo represented qualities the Athenians prized most—such as rational thought, ordered musical and poetic composition, and civic justice—the Greeks were also aware that human nature is two-fold. For every rational thought, there is an irrational desire. For every beautifully composed paean or song on the lyre, there is a wild and unformed song of pure, raw human emotion. In the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, the god displays his unpredictable nature and demonstrates how he creates “enthusiasm,” literally “the inspiration of the god,” in his followers. The women who worship him, known as maenads, or “mad women,” gave themselves up completely to the intoxicating power of the god, power that could bring ease and comfort from life’s suffering but also brought the consequences of inhibition. An individual could become another person entirely through Dionysiac worship—a person could behave and “act” as another character. The half-man, half-animal creatures known as satyrs represent human nature at its most basic and uncivilized: the satyr lives to satisfy his primal urges for sex, wine, and food and has no thought for others. Thus the Athenians produced dramas written and staged according to ancient and well-defined guidelines, but expressive of the most terrifying aspects of the uncivilized human psyche: lust, betrayal, rage, incest, excruciating desire. The audiences who experienced these dramas were meant to undergo a catharsis, a cleansing of the soul. The very process of theatrical production was an essential ritual of life for the Athenians because it demonstrated the reintegration of the savage elements of human nature, represented by Dionysus and his retinue, with the civilized and ordered society defined by the tragic form.
The mighty thalassocracy, or “sea power,” of the Minoans, based on Crete, gave way to the Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland in the mid-seventeenth century B.C.E. The Mycenaeans, whose name comes from the city of Mycenae, built huge palace complexes on the Greek mainland with thick protective walls and ruled through possession of land rather than number of ships. This civilization, from which monumental architecture, magnificent tombs filled with valuable grave gifts, and written documents remain, was wiped out by some kind of catastrophic event around 1100 B.C.E. Greece then entered a period in which there was a widespread deterioration of material culture and no new cultural production at all. Beginning in the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E., there was a migration from the mainland of Greece to lands in Asia Minor, the islands in the Mediterranean, and Sicily and the southern parts of Italy. During this period of regrowth, poets and artists once again began to create, including the poet known to modern scholars as Homer, who composed two massive epic poems about the Trojan War, which he presented as a cosmic event from Mycenaean times. Other poets composed hymns to various gods in Homeric style. As the Greeks began to trade with merchants from around the Mediterranean, they came into contact with the Phoenicians, a literate Semitic people with a functional system of writing. The Greeks began to adapt this Phoenician alphabet to the Greek language, and literacy spread once more, this time from outlying areas into the mainland. The Greeks began to write down songs previously transmitted orally, and they developed games and competitions, more occasions for the production of art and poetry. The various poetic genres took shape: epic, wedding songs, dirges, choral odes, and poetry for victorious athletes, musicians, and performers. In the sixth century B.C.E., under the rule of Pisistratus, the Athenians began to develop the democratic civilization that modern governments admire and emulate. To celebrate their monumental achievements both in conquest and in culture, they established dramatic festivals and began a building program to demonstrate their supremacy to the world. Although they were almost constantly embroiled in warfare during the century of their greatest accomplishments, they used the strife and suffering that war brings to strengthen their patriotism and their artistic expression, until their patriotism turned to megalomania and their attempts to bring peace inspired instead greed and merciless colonialism.
The Development of the Dithyramb
The first performers of songs in praise of Dionysus were said to have been his closest followers, the satyrs. The satyrs played pipes, and the maenads banged on timbrels (tambourine-like drums) in the production of Dionysiac music. Unlike the sober and ordered melodies dedicated to the god Apollo, Dionysiac songs expressed the emotional need to be free from social constraints and conscious rationality. From these earliest musical and verbal expressions of divine ecstasy (literally “a standing outside of oneself”) inspired by Dionysus arose a form of lyric poetry called the dithyramb.This word is not Greek and is of unknown origin, but the poetic form became the primary way for a chorus composed of fifty men and boys to praise Dionysus. Arion of Corinth is credited with the development of the dithyramb as an established poetic genre in the seventh century B.C.E., and a poet named Lasus brought it to Athens. The Athenians embraced it and began including it as part of their dramatic competitions in 509 B.C.E. According to Aristotle in his Poetics (fourth century B.C.E.), a poet named Thespis was part of a chorus performing a dithyramb when he decided to step out in front of the chorus and speak lines of his own, thereby “inventing” the actor and the form of tragedy as a whole. In English, a “thespian” is an actor on the stage. Thespis was commonly held as the winner of the first dramatic competition at the City Dionysia around 534 B.C.E. The word “tragedy” is derived from two Greek words meaning “goat-song,” another reference to the earliest forms of Dionysian worship. The goat was sacred to Dionysus because he had been disguised as a goat when he was a child to protect him from the jealous anger of his stepmother Hera. The dithyramb thus became the center of Greek tragedy, which was built upon the foundation of a chorus who sang and danced in between solo songs (monodies) and exchanges of dialogue between characters on the stage.
Festivals and Theaters
The Fragments of Theatrical Creation
Athens was not the only place where plays were written or performed, but after the establishment of the City Dionysia, where formal competitions of drama were held beginning in the late sixth century B.C.E., it was the center of dramatic production. Unfortunately, only a tiny portion of the theatrical output of this time survived. The names Choerilus, Pratinas, and Phrynichus, the first tragic playwright to include female characters in his dramas, in addition to Thespis as predecessors of Aeschylus are known, but all of their works are lost. Of the eighty or ninety plays Aeschylus wrote, only six survive. (The authorship of a possible seventh, the Prometheus Bound, is hotly contested; it has been attributed to Aeschylus but also to his son Euphorion, another tragedian.) Sophocles, in his remarkably productive career, wrote some 130 plays, of which only seven are accessible to modern readers. Ion of Chios and Achaeus of Eretria were his contemporaries. Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians whose works have survived, produced 92 plays, but only 19 of these made it to modern times. The titles of several other tragedies are known and some fragments from them exist. The names of other playwrights are also known, such as Critias, Plato’s uncle and the leader of the notorious “Thirty Tyrants” who controlled Athens briefly after the Peloponnesian War, and Agathon, the host and one of the central figures of Plato’s Symposium, whose victory at the Lenaia in 416 B.C.E. was the reason for the party.
The most important theatrical festivals in Attica during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. were the City or Great Dionysia, the Rural Dionysia, and the Lenaia. The Great Dionysia was held every year in the month of Elaphebolion, corresponding to March in the modern calendar. Pisistratus either founded or expanded the City Dionysia around 536 B.C.E. by introducing the cult of Dionysus of Eleutherae to the celebration. The Rural Dionysia took place in the month of Poseidon (December), and the Lenaia in the month of Gamelion, or January (in Ionian Greece, the month was known as Lenaion). A special archon (an elected Athenian official) oversaw all aspects of dramatic production at the Dionysia. This archon selected the three tragedians who would present a trilogy of tragedies, not necessarily connected by theme, along with a satyr play, a lighthearted farcical drama, during the days of competition. There were five days allotted for dramatic and choral competition except during the Peloponnesian War, when it was cut back to three days. On the first three days, a tragic trilogy and satyr play were performed, followed by a comedy (beginning in 486 B.C.E.). On the final two days, choral dithyrambs were followed by a comedy. In his Laws, Plato suggests that the playwrights read portions of their dramas to the archon who based his choice on these mini-performances. The archon was also responsible for lining up a choregos for each production. The choregos was a wealthy Athenian citizen who paid for the outfitting and rehearsal of the chorus—the polis or city-state of Athens supported the dramatic poets and the leading actors. Playwrights were known to act in their own dramas—Sophocles is said to have stopped acting when his voice became too weak—but as the festivals developed, professional actors were hired. Later, in 449 B.C.E., competitions were held for actors as well as dramatists. Before the theatrical productions proper began, aproagon or “pre-contest” was held in which the playwrights appeared with the casts of their plays to explain the sources and themes of their dramas. In a time before theatrical placards or programs, it would have been most useful to have some guidance along these lines from the playwright himself. Athens was divided into ten phylai or tribes, and one man was chosen as a judge from each one of the ten. The ivy wreath bestowed upon the first-prize winner signified the admiration and adulation of the entire Athenian populace.
The Enactment of the Dionysiac Festival
The City Dionysia began with a lengthy procession that reenacted the original journey of Dionysus from Eleutherae to Athens. The Athenians maintained an image of Dionysus within the ancient temple precinct of the god on the south slope of the Acropolis, where a permanent theater was constructed under Pisistratus in the sixth century B.C.E. A few days before the festival procession, this image was taken to a temple of Dionysus outside the city, and during the opening festivities, the Athenians carried it by torchlight back to its rightful home. The choregoi marched in fancy costume along with citizens who carried large phalluses, which signified the agricultural aspects of the god’s character, to the temple precinct. There the ten generals, elected officials of the city, performed sacrifices and libations. Following the proagon, the five days of competition began.
The Structure of Theatrical Space
The space for performance and the manner of performance were well-defined by the time tragedy reached its peak in Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. The structure of the Greek theater actually influenced the way actors performed the dramas. Originally, the performance space was probably little more than a flat semi-circular area where the chorus performed the dithyramb, next to a sloping hillside where spectators could sit with an unobstructed view of the show. The flat area for choral performance was called the orchestra, which derives from a Greek word for “dance” rather than the production of music. At the back of the orchestral space stood an altar to Dionysus, for whom the dithyramb was sung. On either side of the orchestra was a path, called a parodos. Both spectators and actors used these entrance ways to enter and exit the theatrical space. As first one and then two and more actors were added, the skene, meaning simply “tent,” was added on a small platform behind the orchestra. This simple hut served as a dressing and waiting room for the actors as well as the primary stage setting of the drama, whether a palace, temple, cave, or tomb was required. Theskene soon transformed into a permanent building with a number of doors, which would open into the performance space. The skene could be painted to convey more vividly the location of the drama. Inside the skene was housed an important piece of equipment called the ekkyklema, a platform on runners that could be rolled out of the skene at critical moments, such as when the display of dead or dying characters murdered off stage was necessary. A crane-like device, called the mechane, was employed to display gods in the heavens or humans hovering above the stage, as when Medea makes her escape in Helios’ chariot at the end of Euripides’ Medea. The Latin phrase deus ex machina, literally “god from the machine,” refers to the appearance of a god via the mechane who offers a divine solution to the human entanglements in the drama. Seating was erected in the hollowed out hillside for up to some 15,000 spectators at the Theater of Dionysus, with wooden benches for the common folk and specially reserved stone chairs for important officials. The acoustics of such an arrangement are excellent, and some of Greece’s best preserved ancient theaters, such as the one at Epidaurus south of Athens, remain in use for modern performances. All theatrical performances took place in daylight, beginning at dawn and running until dusk. The thousands of theater-goers would have been perfectly visible to their neighbors, and would have had to eat, drink, talk to each other, and move around during the lengthy shows. This level of audience visibility would have created a much different atmosphere than the typically hushed and darkened theater in which modern viewers commonly watch dramatic spectacles.
Elements of Performance
Because the structure of the Greek theater remained static, acting style conformed to the theatrical space and exploited its most attractive features. All actors were male, and some men and boys seem to have specialized in performing female roles although most would have had to play roles of both genders. Because there were only two and sometimes three actors, each would have had to take multiple roles. This was more easily accomplished by the use of theatrical masks and costumes that covered the body completely. The mask had a wig attached to it and a large opening at the mouth, perhaps to amplify the voice. The actors also wore a common lace-up boot called a cothurnos, to which high platforms were added in the Hellenistic period to provide greater visibility. Thus, acting style could not be subtle. No facial expressions or small gestures could be seen by the audience, and stage whispers or low voices would not have been heard. It must also be remembered that ancient theater was more like opera than a modern stage play, since the chorus and actors sang many of their parts, accompanied by dance, and even spoken dialogue was constructed in complex poetic rhythms called “meters” that influenced the method of delivery. Actors employed large gestures that became iconic. An actor’s skills were expressed by the emotive qualities of his voice, and his rhetorical techniques, the same ones orators used in the government assembly and public forums. The plots of most tragedies were taken from the stories now known as “mythology.” In fact, Plato in his Republic called Homer “the first tragic poet,” not only because his subject matter was revisited in tragedy but because of the many dramatic interactions between major characters in the epic. Only a few plays that are known were not based on myth—Aeschylus’ Persians, reflecting his experiences in the Persian War and produced in 472 B.C.E., is one of them.
Types of Greek Drama
Tragedy Takes Shape
During the sixth century B.C.E., as Greece awoke from the dark years of illiteracy and cultural deterioration, tragedy as a dramatic form began to take shape. In a performance space that consisted of a central location, known as the skene(“tent”), a half-circle called the “orchestra” in front for the chorus, and entrances on either side, tragic drama was first performed. In Poetics Aristotle describes how Thespis added an actor to the chorus who would deliver a prologue relating the content of the play and speeches separate from the choral songs. Aeschylus is said to have added a second actor, thereby allowing an exchange of dialogue between two characters, despite the fact that in some of his surviving plays, the main actor, or “protagonist,” still speaks primarily to the chorus. Aeschylus’ younger contemporary, Sophocles, added a third actor and painted scenery and expanded the chorus from twelve men to fifteen. The movement of the tragic form can thus be seen as the growth of choral song and dance to a series of choral songs relating to spoken interludes of dialogic narration of a story delivered by two or even three actors. The Greek word for actor is hypocrites, meaning “interpreter” or “responder,” which suggests that the actor’s earliest role may have been to explicate the cryptic and elusive odes performed by the chorus. In its fully developed form, tragedy followed a generic form. There were two basic styles of communication in a tragedy: the choral ode in poetic meter with musical accompaniment; and spoken dialogue, also in meter, but without music. An actor could perform a solo song, or monody, set to music. Exchanges between an actor and the chorus were also written in special meters. A tragedy usually began with a prologue, spoken by one or two actors, which described the setting and the circumstances of the play. The chorus then entered, singing and dancing, and it remained in the orchestra for the entire drama. Then a series of “episodes,” sometimes culminating in a central agon, or debate between irrevocably opposed sides, followed. The chorus divided the episodes with songs called stasima (the plural of stasimon, meaning “standing in one place”). Sometimes the choral songs were obscure and had only the most arcane connections to the plot of the play, but at other times the chorus sang plaintively about the troubles that swirled around them or rejoiced, ironically, in the peace and happiness that can be foreseen, but which will not materialize. After the last stasimon came the exodus or final scene and exit, during which the action of the drama was summed up or its results were delineated. Some standard features of tragedy, which appear in some but not all of surviving tragedies, and sometimes in altered forms, are as follows: a chorus of powerless individuals (the elderly, foreigners, women, even slaves); violent action that takes place offstage and is described in detail by a hurried minor character, perhaps a messenger or household member; and a number of silent supernumeraries on stage, such as heralds, guards, servants, children, and other non-speaking roles as necessary.
Most tragedies drew on a fund of shared lore that bound Greek-speaking peoples together. We refer to these stories as “myths” and “legends.” Stories of the creation of the cosmos and the battles for control of it; the Olympian gods and the formation of their cults; the many children of the gods, both mortal and immortal; and their numerous tales of daring and adventure, love and conquest, great journeys, the Trojan war and its aftermath all resurfaced in tragedy as settings for the great fifth century B.C.E. tragedians to dramatize the problems facing their city and the eternal questions of human life. The heroes of mythology were called upon to face danger and repel threats by dint of physical force and mental acuity: they literally voyaged to the ends of the earth and even into the Underworld itself to face down monsters and restore order to their society. In comparison, the heroes of tragedy must still confront danger and take perilous journeys, but these are often represented by the internal struggles of the hero as he or she ruthlessly seeks the truth and determines to find answers. The tragic hero, like the hero of myth, takes the ills of his or her society, often represented by the family unit, upon himself and works tirelessly to bring resolution. Human beings must face the horrors of life: the cruelty of divine will; the greed, lust, and brutality of human interaction; the desire for revenge or power; and the senseless suffering people undergo and inflict on each other. In most tragedies, a terrible deed or event is the catalyst, and we watch as the characters face ultimate catastrophe or, in attempting to thwart it, create new misfortune for themselves. Tragedies did not depend on suspense, since audiences knew well the plots of the stories treated by the playwrights. The excitement and power of the tragedy lay instead in the manner in which the story unfolded, the language employed, and the inevitable realizations of the characters. The Athenian audience would also have felt very deeply the associations the playwright drew between the adversity of the noble family on the stage and their own pressing issues. When Sophocles’ audience was presented with the specter of the plague threatening Thebes at the beginning of Oedipus the King, they would have shuddered in acknowledgment, since a horrendous plague struck Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, during the time period this tragedy would have been performed. Matters of individual rights, tyranny, the possibility of justice, and the right way to live were the subjects treated by Athens’ philosophers, politicians, and historians as well as their playwrights. For the ancient Greeks, divisions of genre were not that strict: tragedy was meant to educate, to pose difficult questions, and to offer potential solutions as well as to entertain.
The Satyr Play
After an audience at the Great Dionysia had experienced several hours of the intense performance of tragedies, they were eased back into daily reality by means of a “satyr play,” a coarse and farcical play that followed the formula of tragedy. The same playwright who produced the tragic trilogy also produced this satyr drama, which may have echoed some of the themes raised in his tragedies. Aristotle believed that satyr drama was the genesis of tragedy, although others think that satyric drama arose as a separate theatrical form. The playwright Pratinas, a predecessor of Aeschylus, turned this ancient cult performance consisting of a group of satyrs who sang and danced in honor of their patron into a dramatic form, with a chorus comprised of actors dressed as men with horse ears and tails led by Silenus, the chief satyr. In the fourth century B.C.E., artists began to represent satyrs as half-goats rather than half-horses. The standard costume for the actors in a satyr play would have been quite obscene from a modern perspective: over a typical bodysuit, they wore short, rough pants with a very large and erect penis attached in front and a horsetail attached behind. Masks portrayed the “ugly” facial features of the uncivilized man-beast: balding, rounded foreheads with snub noses, pointy ears, and black hair and beards. Silenus, as their leader, wore a similar mask with older features and white hair. Although Pratinas wrote over thirty satyr plays, none survive. There are very few examples of this genre: Euripides’ Cyclops, essentially the same story Homer tells in the Odyssey about Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus (with the addition of a chorus of satyrs), is the only complete satyr play to survive. Fragments from Aeschylus’ Net-Men and Sophocles’ Trackers also survive.
Origins of Greek Comedy
In ancient Greece, a komos was a drunken parade of carousing revelers who staggered through the streets of their town dancing and singing bawdy and insulting songs. The same form can be seen in the Dionysiac processions that began the theatrical festivals. This familiar kind of inebriated group behavior gradually took shape as a genuine dramatic form, which followed many of the elements of the tragic genre: a chorus, a limited number of speaking parts for actors, the same theatrical structure, and the same modes of production. Comedy, however, as a latecomer to the dramatic competitions, had several unique characteristics as well. The level of invective and insult in comedy is related to the similarly-themed poetics of authors like Hipponax and Archilochus, who flourished during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. during the diaspora from the mainland, as well as to the types of verbally abusive songs sung at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the secretive cult worship of the goddess Demeter, centered at Eleusis, a town south of Athens. Comedy was introduced to the City Dionysia around 487 B.C.E. and was performed after the tragic trilogy and the satyr play. At this time a comic poet named Magnes was on the rise, and for some time he alone remained prominent in the genre, winning a total of eleven first prizes at the City Dionysia. Magnes was particularly well known for the wonderful musical accompaniments to his plays as well as for his imitations of barnyard animals. In the middle of the century, other comedic poets began to gain prominence: Cratinus, held to be a great drinker; Crates, whom Aristotle said invented actual plots for his comedies rather than producing a series of caricatures; Pherecrates; and Eupolis. Aristophanes is the only comic playwright whose works have survived. Modern scholars know more than 32 titles of his plays, and eleven of them have survived along with some fragments. It is clear from the writings of Aristotle and other historians that playwrights did not write in both the comic and tragic genre.
The Structure of Old Comedy
Modern scholars must rely on the plays of Aristophanes to determine the structure of ancient Greek comedy also known as “Old Comedy”—those plays written and produced between the mid-sixth century and late fifth century B.C.E. Most of Aristophanes’ plays begin with a prologue spoken by an actor or the playwright himself. In the prologue the author could air grievances, talk about his audience or the government, and describe the circumstances of the comedy to follow. Next the 24-man comic chorus—rather than the twelve-or fifteen-man tragic chorus—entered singing and dancing, often dressed in wild and fantastical costumes. The chorus introduced the audience to the comedy proper and outlined the setting for the play. The chorus usually took sides, either for or against the hero of the play. The agon, as in a tragedy, was the centerpiece of the play, in which the two opposing sides argued for their cases, with additions by the chorus. The first speaker in the debate was almost always the loser. The word parabasis means “a stepping aside,” and was the time in the play when the chorus, after the actors had exited the stage, held the theatrical space alone and, performing a special song and dance unconnected to the rest of the plot, addressed the audience directly. After this, a series of scenes called “episodes” took place, which illustrated the results of the central debate. Finally, the play ended with a rowdy celebration of marriage or reconciliation.
Freedom of Speech and Obscenity in Old Comedy
Just as the masks worn by comic actors were grotesquely exaggerated, and their costumes were excessively padded with comically enlarged genitalia, so also were the types of humor, both physical and verbal, garish and vulgar. Athenian democracy guaranteed liberty to its citizens (adult males only), which included freedom of speech (parrhesia in ancient Greek). This freedom to speak one’s mind, whether in a public assembly or in a private gathering, naturally applied to Athenian playwrights as well. Therefore, the comic poets like Aristophanes were perfectly free to criticize or mock any aspect of their city-state: public figures, wars, laws, treaties, citizens’ rights, intellectual movements—all could be, and frequently were, treated in satiric form on the comic stage. Even the gods and religious rituals could be parodied, though Aristophanes never presents the gods with serious skepticism. Excretive humor and obscenity were rampant in Old Comedy as well. Aristophanic comedy is all-inclusive and included elements that every level of the demos (the citizen population) could enjoy, from highest political satire to the most juvenile jokes about flatulence and bodily functions.
Role of Women
In ancient Greece, wealthy women led lives that would be considered restrictive by modern standards. It is likely that women in poorer families had more freedom, but unfortunately there is not much information about the lives of the poor. The vast majority of evidence about the lives of women in antiquity comes from sources, objects, and monuments created by men, from a male perspective. Young girls of noble heritage were educated mostly at home, in the arts of housekeeping, weaving, and food preparation and preservation. Young women remained in their fathers’ households until their marriage, usually at the age of fourteen or so. Married women must have spent considerable amounts of time in the oikos or private family space, and lived in special secluded areas. This does not mean that women were never permitted to go about in public: women were active participants in religious rituals, and they undoubtedly visited friends and family, shopped for food and household necessities, and attended public events. But women did not have public lives as men did. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that female characters are featured so prominently in Greek tragedy and occupy center stage in some of Aristophanes’ comedies. In order to understand this, it must be remembered that the creative setting of the theater was itself sacred space, within the temple precinct of Dionysus, and the performances reflected and commented upon Greek culture by artistically depicting events that could occur in real life. Tragedies borrowed their subject matter from mythology and utilized the family unit, at least in part, as a microcosm for the functioning city-state. Since women were central to family life, they could represent certain values on stage that women in society may not have been allowed to articulate. For instance, Antigone in Sophocles’ play of the same name represents a strict religious view and upholds the duties of individual families rather than the laws of the state, in direct opposition to her uncle Creon, the male head not only of her own family but also of the state itself. In Euripides’ play, Medea, a foreigner and suspected witch, eloquently expresses the hardship she has suffered at the hands of Jason, a Greek hero, and even gets away with multiple murders, including the killing of her own children. On the comic stage, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred, sometimes even non-existent. The requirements of the stage necessitated that all female roles be played by male actors. Aristophanes enjoyed playing with this convention by having male characters disguise themselves as women, as in the Women at the Thesmophoria, and by having female characters, already being played by men, disguise themselves as men to attend a political gathering in Assembly-Goers. Just as in tragedy, women were an accepted part of the polis, and could express political and social discontent through their behavior. In Lysistrata, the women of Athens and Sparta, in despair about the length of the Peloponnesian War and the absence of the menfolk, declare a sex strike in order to hasten a resolution to the conflict. The fantastical element of comedy can make allowances for such an event as a metaphor for the Athenians’ dissatisfaction with their political leadership.
After the Peloponnesian War ended in 404 B.C.E., the zenith of Athenian creativity passed as well. As first the Spartans and then the Macedonians gained ascendancy, Athens continued its cultural production but on a lesser scale. A canon of tragedies was established and revivals of these plays were performed, but no new tragedies were written. As Athenian democracy faded, so did its civic freedoms, and the comic poets were compelled to tone down the overtly political content in their plays. This period defined the transition from “Old” Comedy to “Middle” Comedy, a term possibly coined by Aristophanes of Byzantium, the librarian at Alexandria, to describe the comedies created between 404 and 321 B.C.E.Some scholars have seen the beginnings of Middle Comedy in the romantic tragedies of Euripides, like Ion and Helen, and in the later comedies of Aristophanes, including the Assembly-Goers and Wealth. The material becomes less inherently political and much more broadly-based. The role of the chorus is diminished substantially; the parabasis is completely absent, and only occasional songs meant for the chorus are indicated. Most of the names of authors and fragments of so-called Middle Comedy that survive come from the work of one author: the Educated Dinner-Party, written by Athenaeus around 200 C.E., and no complete examples of Middle Comedy exist after Aristophanes. Hence assumptions must be made about the content of Middle Comedy based on the comments of ancient scholars and the titles and fragmentary remains, but even these extrapolations are telling. Although the political subject matter may be less explicit and the obscenity and scatological humor less evident, there still seems to have been a wider range of plot-types in Middle Comedy than there came to be in the last stage of ancient comedy known as “New” Comedy. Playwrights still wrote political plays parodying public officials and intellectuals like Plato and the Pythagoreans. Mythological lampoons were still popular, especially when figures from mythology were placed in more contemporary settings. The riotous celebratory feasts featured at the end of many Old Comedy plays are found in Middle and New Comedy as well, and the theme of anagnorisis (“recognition”) figured prominently in many Middle comedies. This type of “recognition” plot often involved a child separated from his or her parents at birth (sometimes by exposure), who is later recognized by the real parents by means of tokens, specific knowledge, or the child’s name. Contemporary mores, characteristics, and manners were also satirized, according to some of the references to figures like the “criticizer,” “lyre-player,” “shoemaker,” and the “lover of Thebes.” Plays about daily family life (romantic entanglements, debts, conflicts between generations) as well as more alarming themes (such as scam artists, illegitimate children, and rapes) were popular in the New Comedy of Greece and later Rome; they are also recognizable in Middle Comedy, as were stock figures like the sycophant, the prostitute and the pimp, the crabby cook, the boastful soldier, grumpy old men, and amorous young men. Athenaeus mentions nearly sixty playwrights and over 800 plays belonging to the period of Middle Comedy; some of the most well-known authors were Alexis, Eubulus, and Anaxandrides.
The period of “New” Comedy began in the fourth century B.C.E. but its peak was in the mid-third century B.C.E. The names of more than eighty playwrights who were writing in the late fourth and third centuries B.C.E. and an assortment of fragments survive, but many of them are unidentifiable. The best-known names of this era are Menander, Diphilus, Philemon, Posidippus, and Apollodorus. Although much of their work was lost during the Byzantine era (seventh-eighth centuries C.E.) because their Greek was considered inferior, in twentieth-century excavations in Egypt, archaeologists uncovered several significant fragments, and one nearly complete play of Menander, to whom the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence were indebted for many of their “adapted” plots. Plautus also named Diphilus and Philemon as sources for some of his plays. The themes of New Comedy are recognizable from Middle Comedy: the plots focus on family life and its daily complications, and include many of the stock characters that were fixed by the playwrights of Middle Comedy. The chorus, whose role was already diminishing in Middle Comedy, was reduced to providing musical intervals between the five acts of the play. New Comedy was originally written and performed in Athens, and its focus is the law and mores of Athens, particularly in regards to citizenship and marriage laws. One could not become a naturalized Athenian citizen: both parents had to be proven Athenian citizens in order to pass the privileges and duties of citizenship on to their children. New Comedy often addressed social problems like casual rape and resultant pregnancy, children separated from their parents and lost, and love between citizens and “foreigners,” all of which ultimately arrived at the question of legal marriage. Lost children and victimized young women had to be revealed as real Athenian citizens by means of the “recognition” plot, possession of mementos, and other devices, in order to resolve the plot happily with a celebration of marriage. The topics treated in the comedies had broad enough appeal, however, that the plays were popular all over the Greek world despite their Athenian focus. In addition to plots about love, New Comedy treated fundamental social conflicts—between parents and children, rich and poor, neighbors, and city and rural folks. Menander was especially aware of problems of bigotry, misunderstanding, and lack of tolerance, as can been seen from the subjects found in surviving fragments. New Comedy remained popular for hundreds of years, as Plautus and Terence continued the tradition in their plays, which borrowed the Athenian plots but translated them into Roman plays.
The Beginning of Roman Theater
The period between the death of Alexander the Great of Macedon (323 B.C.E.) and the beginnings of the Roman Empire (31 B.C.E.) is known to scholars as the Hellenistic era. Even though Athens had undergone a major political downfall, its cultural production remained steady, and its influence on first the Etruscans, from the region of Etruria in northern Italy, and later the Romans is incalculable. The Greeks continued to be highly invested in theater and its performance. Around 300 B.C.E., an actor’s union, called the Artists of Dionysus, was established throughout Greece and other Hellenistic sovereignties, a sign of the continuing attraction of the presentation of Greek tragic and comic drama. This powerful guild functioned as a religious organization that was politically independent, with its own priests and sanctuaries (of the god Dionysus) as well as their own elected officials. This was the last era that actors would enjoy such privilege and protection, since performers of all kinds were eventually disenfranchised under Roman law. The Greeks had colonies in southern Italy and Sicily since Homer’s time, and they built many permanent performance spaces based on Greek prototypes. Syracuse on Sicily had a theater dating from the fifth century B.C.E., and many other archaeological remains have been excavated throughout the area of colonization. Acting troupes toured the region often, and revivals of ancient plays by authors like Euripides and Aristophanes were popular. In the western colonies, another tradition developed as well: the phlyax play, a farcical genre in which tales from myth and everyday life were performed on a special type of stage, with grotesque masks and obscenely padded costumes recalling those worn in Old Comedy, and perhaps involving extemporization and lewd action. A number of vases from this region and era survive depicting the performance of phlyakes, and it is from these that most of the modern knowledge about the genre comes. Beginning in the third century B.C.E., a poet named Rhinthon from Tarentum began to write phlyax plays as well. The stage consisted of a raised wooden platform covered by a roof and decorated with painted scenery, altars, porches, and other elements necessary for the depiction of the play. It is quite likely that the Romans were influenced far more by these bawdy farces than they were by the performances of “high” drama like tragedy and Old Comedy, but both kinds of theater were well established in Italy.
The Etruscans, an indigenous people from the north of Italy who had power over Rome until the late sixth century B.C.E., seem to have been aware of Greek drama to a greater extent than the early Romans were. There is much artistic evidence for Etruscan shows, since various performers like musicians, dancers, actors wearing masks, and tumblers, as well as audiences, are found in wall paintings. Etruscan vases from the late sixth century B.C.E. depict performers dressed as satyrs, leading scholars to posit that satyr drama, which was developing in Athens during this period, was the form of theater that most affected the Etruscans, since the satyr play combined coarse farce with a religious element. The Roman historian Livy (59 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) reported that the Etruscans were the first to introduce enacted performance to the Romans in the mid-fourth century B.C.E. Livy, however, was obsessed with identifying “firsts” in Roman history, as evidenced even by the title of his work, From the Foundation of the City, and as a result may have exaggerated a bit. The satyr play would probably have appealed to the Romans more than other types of formal drama due to native rituals relating to the harvest that included satirical and vulgar jokes, songs and dances, and good-natured abuse and mockery. Whether the Etruscans were truly the first to introduce acted shows to the Romans or not, their influence was prevalent not only in the lively arts but also in the way the Romans structured their society and government.
Existing primary sources for early forms of Italian performance are the historian Livy and the Augustan poet Horace (65-8 B.C.E.). Horace traced the development of “Fescennine” poetry to early harvest or wedding celebrations involving sacrifices, libations, and an exchange of playful insults, which Horace says degenerated into cruelty and abusive slander (it was a common lament in Latin letters that society had deteriorated since the innocent days of the early Republic). The term “Fescennine” may derive from the Etruscan town of Fescenna, apparently a place known for these verses, or from the Latin word fascinum, having to do with the phallus. This agricultural ritual recalls the legendary origins of Greek drama from lascivious songs and dances, and parades of phallic representations, in honor of Dionysus. Fescennine verses may have developed into an early kind of dramatic performance involving improvisation, rude humor, and rustic music. There was another type of farcical performance already developing in the region of Atella, Campania, called the Atellanae or “Atellan farces.” The peoples of this region spoke Oscan, an Italic language, and so Latin speakers were unable to understand any of the dialogue in these lampoons, although the mimetic gestures of the actors would have been clear enough. In fact, most Atellan farce lacked extensive dialogue anyway, and relied more on crude physical comedy and charade. The character types depended on a dominant emotion or quality like anger or stupidity or appetite for food or sex, and stock types carried the same names in every farce: Pappus the old man; Bucco the boaster; Maccus the buffoon. Scholars have suggested the famous Roman comedian Titus Maccus or Maccius Plautus took his familial (middle) name from this last character. The Romans also had a performance tradition of the satura, a mixture of genres and content, the precise nature of which remained a mystery even to ancient scholars. One ancient commentator derived the name satura from “satyr,” and described the genre as a musical medley written for the pipes and involving the same kind of shameless dialogue and stage action as Greek satyr plays. The Romans derived their own genre of “satire” from this term, and perhaps from the performative tradition as well. Hence, there were a multitude of dramatic influences for the development of the Roman theater, and these influences shed light on why the Romans may have preferred comedy and “light” musical drama such as mime and pantomime to “heavier” dramatic genres, like tragedy and politically driven satire.
Roman Theaters, Playwrights, and Actors
Structure of the Roman Theater
The Romans did not construct a permanent theater until Pompey sponsored one in 55 B.C.E. Instead, as the Roman architect, engineer, and writer Vitruvius (last half of first century B.C.E.) described, the Romans built temporary wooden structures as performance spaces, and continued to do so even after the advent of permanent theaters. There may have been several political reasons for this. Conservatives argued that theater promoted immoral behavior and fought to prevent the building of permanent structures. As class divisions and personal sponsorship of occasions for performance arose, such as the annual Ludi Romani (“Roman Games”), circuses and other spectacles, and funeral celebrations for the wealthy and notable, the building of provisional theater spaces allowed for luxury seating and elaborate decorative elements. There was also a fear of seditious behavior, again due to the growing divide between the aristocracy and theplebs or common people, and permanent theaters provided a made-to-order space for public assemblies and mass communication. As needed for festivals and other celebrations, theaters could be erected in public spaces like the Forum, the Campus Martius, or the Circus. These wooden edifices affected the development of the Roman theater as much as the theatrical influences of the Greeks, Etruscans, and early Roman displays and rituals. The ephemeral nature of these wooden theaters allowed the Romans to modify the buildings as needed rather than blindly follow the Greek and Hellenistic models, resulting in a performance space that diverged in distinct ways from its Greek predecessors. Theaters in Magna Graecia and on Sicily seem to have followed models from Greece, as might be expected: built into a hillside for ready-made tiered seating, for the most part with a raised stage, an orchestra dividing the acting platform from the spectators, and side entrances. There were also the phlyax stages depicted on painted vases—elevated and covered platforms with scenery and accouterments added as needed for individual plays. No remains of the temporary wooden theaters survive, but based on the stage directions implicit in the comedies of Plautus and Terence as well as Pompeian wall paintings and references to the stage in other works, modern scholars can postulate what these Roman performance spaces might have looked like. There was a raised stage with a roofed structure at the rear and usually a public byway running in the front of the stage building. No space for a chorus was necessary. This building could be adapted to suit specific plays, with an altar in front to serve as a temple, or rocks in front of a cave, or a separation between two citizens’ homes. The stage building probably had at least three doors and an off-stage back alley to allow for unseen action and to accommodate the frenetic entrances and exits required in a chaotic comedy. Roman audiences included all strata of society, from aristocrats in special and secluded seats to common folk and slaves. Some playwrights lamented the short attention spans of their spectators, who could easily lose interest in a performance if sidetracked by a high-energy display of physical skill or combat.
Even though Roman theaters were not permanent until 55 B.C.E. actors were amassed into solid unions and groups by the late third century, something that did not occur until late in the history of Greek theater. In 207 B.C.E., Livius Andronicus—who produced the first plays adapted from Greek originals at the Ludi Romani in 240 B.C.E.—oversaw the establishment of the first performers’ union in Rome, called the Collegium Scribarum Histrionumque, or the Association of Theatrical Authors and Actors. This union was probably modeled closely on the “Artists of Dionysus,” the theatrical association formed in Greece in the third century B.C.E., which was treated as a religious organization exempt from political or military service. This Roman union was associated with the goddess Minerva (Athena in the Greek pantheon), whose temple on the Aventine Hill housed their headquarters. It seems that early on in Roman theatrical history, actors and writers of drama may have had a certain amount of respectability in society that was lost altogether later on. The legal status of actors has been a subject of much debate among scholars. They may have been slaves owned by the company manager, foreigners, freedmen, or even freeborn Romans. At any rate, in the later Republic and Roman Empire, all stage performers, along with gladiators and workers in the sex industry, were deprived of civil rights and designated by the term infamia, which indicated legal disenfranchisement. The Romans may have had a choragus who supported an acting troupe, much like the choregia system in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens (the different spelling comes from the Doric-dialect spoken in the Greek colonies of southern Italy). The magistrates who organized the Roman Games and other opportunities for performance may also have assumed financial responsibilities for some of the dramatic shows held at the annual festival. Many troupes had a dominus gregis or “company manager,” an actor-director who staged the dramas in conjunction with the playwright himself. Lucius Ambivius Turpio acted in and directed many of the Roman comic playwright Terence’s plays in the 160s B.C.E. In the Greek tradition, Roman actors on the formal stage of tragedy and comedy were probably all male, and wore masks and costumes suitable for their roles. The obscene costumes of Old Comedy were long gone, however.
Famous Roman Actors
Although the Romans did not hold full-fledged dramatic competitions as in Greece, there is some evidence that individual actors may have participated in contests with prizes. One of the most famous actors in the first century B.C.E.was Quintus Roscius Gallus. Roscius was born to an equestrian family in Latium and was a close friend of Cicero, who defended Roscius in court on a charge of business fraud around 69 B.C.E. It seems that women were allowed to perform in mimes, and various other productions, such as pantomime, private parties, and festivals. Some famous mime actresses are known, like Lycoris, the stage name of Volumnia Cytheris, who was the mistress of some of Rome’s most prominent citizens in the first century B.C.E. Toward the end of the Roman Empire, women were known to perform in revivals of Roman comedy as well as in mimes and other skits, sometimes wearing scandalously scanty clothes. Theodora, a sixth-century C.E. mime actress in the eastern Roman Empire, was described as an especially outrageous and lewd woman by her contemporary Procopius in his Secret History. She was raised by theater folk, became a prostitute early in her life (it was a common conceit that mime actresses were also prostitutes), and was something like a modern-day “performance artist”; she paraded through the streets of Constantinople wearing see-through clothing and allowed birds to eat seeds nestled between her thighs. When she married the emperor Justinian in 525 C.E. and became empress of the Eastern Empire, it caused a terrific scandal.
Plautus and Terence
Even though playwrights often took a backseat to actors and other spectacles that occurred in Roman theaters, two Roman playwrights that were known throughout the Roman Empire were Plautus and Terence. Titus Maccius Plautus, a comic playwright perhaps originally from Umbria, was the first to make Greek New Comedy a truly Roman genre. His career stretched from the late third to the early second centuries B.C.E., but his legacy and popularity lasted much longer. Playwrights after Plautus’ time could ensure the success of a comedy by attaching the name of Plautus to it, and eventually the number of plays attributed to him grew to more than 130 titles. In the first century B.C.E. the Roman scholar Varro limited that number to 21, and most of these still survive. Plautus freely admitted to borrowing titles, plots, and character-types from his Greek New Comedy predecessors, particularly from Diphilus, Philemon, and Menander, but he gleefully modified these plays to suit his Roman audience. Plautus referred to his method of adaptation from Greek originals as vortere barbare (“to turn into another language”), but the adverb barbare also has the connotation of “barbarically, inelegantly, roughly.” Plautus took the themes of New Comedy—concerns about marriage, family, citizenship, and disputes—and turned them upside down, relying on the influence of Atellan farce and bawdy harvest rituals as much as on his Greek forerunners. Whereas many Greek New Comedies seem to have ended with a marriage, Plautus overwhelmingly preferred to end with a wild debauch, often in the house of a prostitute. Young men, with the help of their cunning slaves, regularly thwarted their mean-spirited parents and ended up not with the proper and respectable young female citizens, but instead with the prostitutes they have been patronizing. Those who had authority in Roman society or those who exploited the weak—such as fathers, money-lenders, and pimps—were the villains, while the underdogs—those who held little power or social status such as the young man still under his father’s control, the slave, and the prostitute—were empowered and made comic heroes. Plautus frequently employed many themes that can be traced back to Old and Middle Comedy, such as “recognition” dramas, amatory mis-adventures, and long-lost children. Plautus’ “comedies in Greek dress” could lampoon Roman mores and present a reversal of social structure because they were part of a festival atmosphere, and the fact that they were ostensibly set in Greece (despite the use of purely Roman legal and idiomatic language) helped to displace any sense of Roman impropriety. Plautus’ brand of comic chaos remained unfailingly popular for hundreds of years. Even Shakespeare used one of Plautus’ comedies of recognition, The Twin Brothers Named Menaechmus, as the source for his Comedy of Errors and inspired the Broadway musical and film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Terence, on the other hand, did not aim for such mass appeal, nor did he receive it. A former slave from Africa, Terence rose socially to enter the elite “Scipionic Circle,” as the friends and clients of Scipio Africanus (c. 185-129 B.C.E.) were called. The Scipio family was fond of Greek culture, and they stood in opposition to conservatives like Cato the Elder, who promoted traditional Roman values and perceived Hellenism as a bad influence. Terence adapted four of his six plays (all of which survive) from Menander, and overtly adhered much more closely to the form and language of his originals than Plautus did. Terence, too, was aiming to please an audience of elite philhellenes and in that he may have succeeded, but he certainly failed to please the masses as Plautus did. He complains bitterly in some of his prologues that his Roman audiences were frequently distracted by displays of spectacle, such as gladiatorial fights and acrobats. Terence was also criticized for contaminatio—combining plot elements and characters from more than one play to create something new. The tensions surrounding Terentian drama reflect the contemporary concerns about the possible infestation of Greek culture and its ability to defile Roman purity during a time when Rome had just vanquished Greece and was inundated with Greek art and culture. Terence’s tendency to celebrate and honor his Greek originals as works of art in their own right made him less admired than his older contemporary Plautus. Nevertheless, Terence’s talent was considerable: his language is fluid and elegant and his philosophical interest in the human condition lends a global appeal to his plays.
Other Types of Roman Theater
Mime and Pantomime
Mime was a genre of theatrical performance lying outside the formal boundaries of tragedy and comedy. It originated in Greece, where it probably began as the informal performance of imitative gestures, impressions, dances, and songs. Mime actors did not wear masks or shoes, and performed mimetically, as the name of the genre implies, improvising the expression of simple but ribald plots from mythology or daily events through gestures, dance, and facial expressions, accompanied by music. In Greece, mime performers were included in the same class as acrobats, much lower socially than the state-sponsored actors, directors, and producers of tragedy, comedy, and the dithyramb. In Rome, performances of mime were at first connected to the Floralia, a raucous and bawdy festival for the goddess Flora, which was established in the late third century B.C.E. Flora was a goddess of blooming plants and was thought to be suspiciously Greek by conservative Roman traditionalists. The Floralia was patronized by prostitutes: in fact, mima or “mime actress” was a euphemism for a prostitute, and women in mimes often displayed their bodies provocatively. Sulla, the Roman dictator in the early part of the first century B.C.E., elevated the status of mime by socializing with mime performers. Mime eventually became a literary genre in the first century B.C.E., written by such authors as Laberius and Publius Syrus, a former slave who was freed because of his talent in the genre of mime. Historical sources relate that Julius Caesar asked Publius Syrus to compete in the Roman Games of 46 B.C.E., and he challenged his fellow producers of mime to a contest of improvisation, of which Caesar declared him the winner. Roman mime was known for its inclusion of proverbial expressions and pithy moral teachings (despite its reputation for indecency), which were excerpted and collected by Seneca the Elder, among others. This genre reached its peak of popularity in the last years of the Roman Republic, but continued to be enjoyed throughout the remainder of the Roman Empire. A connected genre, “pantomime,” meaning “one who mimes everything,” became popular in the Roman Empire. It was brought to Rome from the Hellenistic east in 22 B.C.E. by the actors Pylades, who was said to have a more dramatic tragic style, and Bathyllus, who preferred comic themes. A single, silent performer who wore a mask and loose clothing to permit free movement, accompanied by musicians and singers, acted out pantomime, and sometimes an actor spoke while the pantomime described the action physically. Prominent authors like Lucian (39-65 C.E.), an epic poet, wrote lyrics for pantomime, and because of its greater demands on the performer, was deemed to be of higher status than mime. Pantomime remained fashionable in both the Roman and Eastern Roman empires well into the sixth century C.E.
Gladiatorial Games and Other Spectacles
Scholars posit that fights between armed opponents at Etruscan funerals were the origin of the Roman gladiatorial combats, dating from the third century B.C.E. Whatever the source, the gladiator became a truly Roman figure, who could earn wealth, admiration from the ladies, and even freedom if successful in the amphitheater. Candidates for Roman office often funded gladiatorial contests as they did performances of other Roman entertainments, like theater, mime, and acrobatic shows, in order to gain popularity among the masses and win votes. Their original connection to funerals was superseded quickly by the desire of politicians and officials to appease the often rowdy and fickle Roman population. Gladiators probably fought in the Roman Forum before permanent amphitheaters were constructed beginning in the early Roman Empire. The most famous amphitheater in Rome is the Colosseum, whose remains still stand. The building of this massive and complex structure was undertaken during the reign of Emperor Vespasian and finished up under Titus in 80 C.E. The amphitheater has an extensive basement with waiting areas for gladiators, criminals about to be executed, and others unlucky enough to be sent out to face danger and death in the arena, as well as holding pens for wild animals, like lions and tigers, for beast-fights and brutal executions of criminals, slaves, and other undesirables. There were many amphitheaters all over the Roman Empire, as the Romans eagerly exported their favorite entertainments to the furthest reaches of their colonies. As the Roman lust for larger and more elaborate spectacles grew, officials sponsored contests featuring thousands of gladiators and victims. There were four types of gladiator. The Thracian used a round shield and curved dagger. Both the Samnite—dressed to resemble a warrior from the Oscan town of Samnium—and the murmillo—identifiable by a fish on his crest—were armed with a long shield, helmet with a visor, and sword. The retiarius (“net-man”) had little body armor and relied on agility and speed with his net and trident. Most gladiators were slaves, prisoners of war, or criminals who were pressed into service. Free citizens could also sell themselves to a keeper of a gladiatorial team. The combats were often gruesome affairs, resulting in amputated limbs, horrendous wounds, and death. Not all Romans relished these bloody exhibitions: the great Roman statesman Cicero bemoaned the popularity of these brutal entertainments. The poet Juvenal (first-second century C.E.) was disgusted when a dog ran past with a human hand in its mouth after a night of gladiatorial combats. Other types of popular public spectacle, most involving a high level of risk, were wild-beast hunts, executions, chariot-racing, athletic competitions, military triumphal processions, numerous religious holidays and festivals, and religious rituals.
Nero and Seneca
One era of the Roman Empire deserves special mention here. When Nero became emperor in 54 C.E. he introduced a new level of interest in the performing arts. He had been tutored by Seneca the Elder and fancied himself as a talented artist, author, musician, and actor. He developed his own version of Greek games called “The Neronia,” instituted in 60 C.E., and he himself performed in the second year of the games. Nero often traveled to Greece to perform in games and to give recitals of music and drama. His refusal to heed the traditional laws of Rome, which forbade members of the upper classes to perform on the public stage, outraged many Romans. Seneca, son of Seneca the Elder, became one of Nero’s advisers. He had been a senator and held other political offices, but was renowned for his skills as a public speaker and author. He amassed a great fortune while serving under Nero, but his position in the emperor’s court also meant that he had to accept the emperor’s unsavory and cruel methods, including several assassinations, while at the same time espousing moral values. His works are comprised of several philosophical and didactic treatises, a book on natural science, a comedy parodying the emperor Claudius, and nine tragedies based on Greek mythology. These plays were modeled explicitly on Greek tragedies: they were written in tragic meters and in episodic form, and they included choral songs and dances. His style has often been called “Euripidean” since he explored the psychology of his characters, portrayed individuals as blameless victims of fate or the gods, and focused on some of the most gruesome and shocking events portrayed in myth. At the same time, his treatment of themes and characters is so exaggerated it may have been intended as parody. Scholars have argued for centuries about whether Senecan drama was meant to be staged or only recited in private performances or public acting contests. Some have pointed out that the plays would have been impossible to stage realistically, since they portrayed murders, funeral pyres, animal sacrifices, and other scenes of ferocious violence—events that always took place off stage and were only described during the course of a Greek tragedy. Others have argued that the unstageable events could have been performed mimetically, or that the dramas were not intended to be staged as a whole, since many individual scenes are performable. Still others have suggested that Seneca wrote these gory dramas only to be read as an evening’s entertainment at court or to provide “set pieces” for Nero and others to perform at recitals or in contests. Not surprisingly, Seneca’s plays featured beautifully written speeches with fine rhetorical turns, extensive descriptive passages, moralizing and pithy epigrams, or short sayings. Senecan drama had great influence on theater in the Renaissance and in Tudor and Jacobean England.