Plautus, Terence. The Roman Stage.

Lecture 5, Thursday 1st February 2018

Religious festivals & Roman drama 

Religious Festivals.png

[printable pdf] CL 102 Religious Festivals in Rome (sources: Manuwald 2011, Boyle 2006) 

Theatre at Rome

Villa of Cicero c. 100 BCE Menander Pompeii Carole Raddato

c. 100 BCE villa of cicero Menander Synaristosai inv. 9987Two mosaics c. 100 BCE from the ‘Villa of Cicero’, Pompeii. Both signed by in Greek by an artist from Samos: “Dioskourides of Samos made this.” Taken to be scenes by the Greek comic playwright, Menander. Characters in the mosaic are wearing theatrical masks. Top: musicians playing tibiae, mini-cymbals, drum, with an attendant; perhaps Menander’s Theophorumene, “The Possessed” (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli inv. 9985). Image: wikimediaBottom: three women sit around a table with a slave attending them; perhaps Menander’s Synaristosai, “Women at Breakfast” (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli inv. 9987). Image: wikimedia.

Actors and stagecraft

Roman stage conventions.jpg
Image: basic conventions for staging Roman plays, Čulík-Baird 2018 based on Manuwald 2011: 69ffNota bene: even though the above is usually said to be the convention, we have examples of reversal of direction. Not all three doors were used in every play.



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1: Image, Richard Beacham; 2-4: Images, didaskalia.net.

  • actors seem to have worn masks, although evidence is not clear about when exactly this practice began (Manuwald 2011: 79-80); we have evidence for both 3rd and 2nd c. BCE
    • theatrical masks appear in a number of Roman art forms, but they are not necessarily representative of specific dramatic practice
    • a late source (Diomedes, 4th c. CE?) writes: “the Romans previously used wigs, not masks, in order that age might be indicated by its appropriate colour, as they were either white or black or red. The first to use a mask was the great actor Roscius Gallus, because he had a squint; even when wearing a mask he was not handsome enough for the role, except when he played the part of the parasite.”
  • actors in comedies also wore specific footwear:
    • fancy sandals for a foreign-looking disguise (Plautus, Pers. 464)
    • in Roman comedy slaves and free men and women wear sandals or slippers (socci); “various types of footwear become synonyms for specific types of drama, the ‘slipper’ (soccus) representing comedy” (Manuwald 2011: 77)
  • actors werelike prostitutes and gladiators, infames = disenfranchised citizens (Edwards 1997)

Staging Roman Drama

  • no permanent stone theatre at Rome until Theatre of Pompey: completed 55 BCE after his triumph in 61 BCE
    • Temple of Venus Victrix (‘the Victorious’) on top of auditorium; steps up to the temple acted as the seats (Gellius Attic Nights 10.1.7)
    • perceived to be enormous by the Romans, and to have changed something profoundly in Roman custom (Tac. Ann. 14.20)
  • several attempts to erect permanent theatres in 2nd century: 179 BCE, 174BCE, 154 BCE, 107 BCE — all either blocked or demolished; “it was not the performances that they opposed, but the permanence of physical structures” (Manuwald 2011: 59) .
  • every performance erected temporary wooden theatre in the Circus Maximus, the Forum, or in front of the temple of the god of the festival
    • Manuwald 2011: 56: “However, ‘temporary’ in this context literally means ‘erected for a limited period of time’ and is not to be equated with ‘simple’: the structures evolved over the centuries, and in the late Republic theatre buildings were rather elaborate.”
    • additionally, there were stone theatres outside of Rome during this period, e.g. Syracuse, Sicily ; Pompeii had a stone theatre from 200 BCE
  • at Rome, stone steps of temples used as an auditorium to provide seats to spectators (Cic. Har. Resp. 24)



Left: Theatre of Pompey in Rome shown on a fragment of the Severan Marble Plan (forma urbis, early 3rd c. CE, cf. Sear 2006 fig. 30a). Image: wikimedia. Right: reconstruction of the Theatre of Pompey by A. Schill (1908). Image: wikimedia.

Excesses of spectacle

Pliny (NH 36.113-115): “During his aedileship (58 BCE), and only for the temporary purposes of a few days, M. Aemilius Scaurus executed the greatest work that has ever been made by the hands of man, a work that surpassed not only those erected for a limited time, but even those intended to last forever: his theatre. This building consisted of 3 storeys, supported upon 360 columns…the ground-storey was of marble, the second of glass, an extravagance unparalleled even in later times, and the highest of gilded wood. The lowermost columns were 38 feet high and placed between these columns were 3, 000 bronze statues. The area of this theatre afforded accommodation for 80, 000 people; and yet the Theatre of Pompey, after the city had so greatly increased, and the inhabitants had become so vastly more numerous, was considered abundantly large, with its 40, 000 seats.* The rest of the fittings of it, with dresses of cloth of gold, scene paintings, and the other stage-properties, were of such enormous value that, after Scaurus had had conveyed to his Tusculan villa the parts which were not required for the enjoyment of his daily luxuries, the loss was no less than 30,000,000 sesterces when the villa was burnt by his slaves in a spirit of revenge. The consideration of such wasteful behaviour as this quite distracts my attention, and compels me to digress from my original purpose.”

*modern scholarly estimates = closer to 11, 000 or 12, 000 — see Boyle 2006: 150

Cicero (Letter to Friends, 7.1 — to M. Marius, 55 BCE): “You know all about the rest of the games, which hadn’t even that amount of charm which games on a moderate scale generally have: for the spectacle was so elaborate as to leave no room for enjoyment, and I think you need feel no regret at having missed it. What’s the pleasure of a train of 600 hundred mules in Accius‘ tragedy, the Clytemnestra, or 3,000 bowls in Naevius‘ tragedy, Trojan Horse, or multi-coloured armour of infantry and cavalry in some battle? These things roused the admiration of the vulgar; to you they would have brought no delight… I don’t suppose you wanted to see Greek or Oscan plays,… Why, again, should I suppose you to care about missing the athletes, since you disdained the gladiators? There remain the two wild-beast hunts, lasting five days, magnificent—nobody denies it—and yet, what pleasure can it be to a man of refinement, when either a weak man is torn by an extremely powerful animal, or a splendid animal is transfixed by a hunting spear? Things which, after all, if worth seeing, you have often seen before; nor did I, who was present at the games, see anything the least new. The last day was that of the elephants, on which there was a great deal of astonishment on the part of the vulgar crowd, but no pleasure whatever. There was even a certain feeling of compassion aroused by it, and a kind of belief created that that animal has something in common with mankind…”

Rejection of Excess

Tertullian (De Spect. 10.3-9): “At first the theatre was properly a temple of Venus; and, to speak briefly, it was owing to this that stage performances were allowed to escape censure, and got a footing in the world. For often the censors, in the interests of morality, put down above all the rising theatres, foreseeing, as they did, that there was great danger of their leading to a general profligacy… Accordingly Pompey the Great, less only than his theatre, when he had erected that citadel of all impurities, fearing some time or other censorian condemnation of his memory, superposed on it a temple of Venus; and summoning by public proclamation the people to its consecration, he called it not a theatre, but a temple, “under which,” said he, “we have placed tiers of seats for viewing the shows.” So he threw a veil over a structure on which condemnation had been often passed, and which is ever to be held in reprobation, by pretending that it was a sacred place; and by means of superstition he blinded the eyes of a virtuous discipline. But Venus and Bacchus are close allies.”

Competition for Attention Spaces

Terence was a Latin comic playwright writing in the mid 2nd century BCE: we have 6 of his plays. He is believed to have been a Carthaginian slave educated and freed by his Roman master. Six of his plays have survived: Andria (166 BC), Hecyra (165 BC), Heauton Timoroumenos (163 BC), Eunuchus (161 BC), Phormio (161 BC), and Adelphoe (160 BC). Terence’s Hecyra (“Mother-in-Law”) was twice a failure (165 BCE, 160 BCE) because of rival events. Finally performed at Ludi Romani in 160 BCE.

Terence Hecyra (39-42): Now for my sake listen to my request with open minds. I am presenting “The Mother-in-Law” to you again, which I have never been allowed to play in silence; it has been so dogged by disaster. But your good sense, allied to my efforts, can mitigate the disaster. The first time I tried to perform the play, I was forced off the stage early; there was talk of boxers—and added to that a promise of a tightrope walkercrowds of supporters, general uproar, and women screaming. I decided to use my old practice on this new play and continue the experiment: I put it on a second time. The first act went well. But then a rumour arose that there was going to be a gladiatorial show: crowds rushed in, with much confusion, shouting, and fighting for places, and in these circumstances I couldn’t preserve my place.

Sarsina Plautus next to RomeSarsina, birthplace of the comic playwright, Plautus; with its position relative to Rome. Generated with the AMWC’s à-la-carte map.

Plautus (254-184 BCE)

  • comic playwright, author of fabulae palliatae (“play in a Greek dress” — fabula = “play”, “drama”; pallium = “Greek cloak”)
  • active as playwright between c. 205-184 BCE
    • Stichus staged for 1st time 200 BCE,
    • Pseudolus staged in 191 BC
    • Casina refers to suppression of Bacchanalia in 186 BCE
  • “The Braggart Soldier”= Miles Gloriosus probably dates c. 205 BCE, refers to 206 BCE
  • Plautus = earliest complete literary works of Latin to survive
  • his entire surviving output = 21 plays
    • corpus equal in size to Vergil’s Aeneid or Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • developed from Greek New Comedy (Menander, Philemon, Diphilus) — but, adapted rather than “translated”
    • Miles Gloriosus lines 84-87 (Segal trans. p6):
      I’ll tell you why we’ve gathered in this festive spot,
      What comedy we will enact, its name and plot.
      This play is called the Alazon in Greek,
      A name translated ‘braggart’ in the tongue we speak.
    • Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus = based(?) on a (lost) Greek play called Alazon (ἀλαζών)
  • social status of Latin authors in 3rd-2nd c. BCE = Italians, former-slaves, lower class
    • Fantham 2013: 2: “Is is also important to understand the author’s background: his social class — senatorial, or from the wealthy and established equestrian order — and civil status. He might be an outsider, a noncitizen of free birth like the Calabrian Ennius or the Greek Archias, who were rewarded with citizenship by their Roman patrons, or an Italian with citizen rights like the comic dramatist Plautus from Sarsina in Roman Umbria. As a third possibility, the poet or author might be freeborn and enslaved through kidnapping or as a prisoner of war; such prisoners of war sometimes lived as privileged slaves…but most often earned their freedom. We can assume that the third-century BCE Livius Andronicus of Tarentum, the first poet to translate Greek drama into Latin plays, and Terence, the ‘African’ whose comedies were staged between 166 and 160 BCE, were freed by their aristocratic masters.”
  • Roman comedy was written by using a certain number of specific, well-defined roles — “stock characters” — in combination together;
  • Plautus was influenced by Atellan farce, a native Italian dramatic form, which had the following roles:
    • Bucco (‘the fool’),
    • Dossennus (‘the glutton’),
    • Maccus (‘the clown’),
    • Manducus (‘the chewer’, an ogre or bogeyman, thought by many to be an alternative name for Dossennus),
    • Pappus (‘the old gaffer’).
  • the Plautine stock characters:
    • senex iratus — old man
    • adulescens amator — young man in love who rebels against authority
    • seruus callidus — cunning slave
    • seruus stultus — stupid slave
    • parasitus — flatterer
    • meretrix — prostitute
    • leno — pimp
    • miles gloriosus — braggart soldier

A scene from Terence’s Eunuchus (“the Eunuch”, lines 739-816) performed in Latin at the 2012 NEH Summer Institute: Roman Comedy in Performance. A braggart soldier and his crew of sycophants attempt to besiege the house of a courtesan but fail when she handles them very coolly.


[word doc] NEH summer institute’s English translation of this scene
[pdf] NEH summer institute’s provided Latin for this scene

Further Reading:

  • For a detailed account of the Roman theatre, see: Gesine Manuwald, Roman Republican Theatre 2011 [Mugar: PA6067 .M36 2011]; also available somewhat cheaply as a kindle version. More to do with the history of the development of the Roman theatre and its specific technical aspects rather than the content of plays, or the value of play-making in Rome. 
  • A. J. Boyle, Roman Tragedy 2006. Detailed, sophisticated, and short overview of Roman tragedy with incidental remarks about drama in general (Atellan farce, mime, comedy).
  • W. Beare, The Roman Stage, 1968 (=3rd edition). [Mugar: PA6067 .B4 1977] Standard and classic treatment on the topic — somewhat outdated, but good overviews of primary evidence, with plot summaries of plays of Plautus.   
  • For a short account of Plautus, see Elaine Fantham Roman Literary Culture (2013) pp21-26 [Mugar: PA6003 .F36 2013]
  • For a longer account of Plautus, see Conte’s Latin LiteratureA History (1999) pp49-64. [Mugar: PA6008 .C6613 1994]
  • Read the Met Museum’s account of Roman theatres.