Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.12.14

T. P. Wiseman, Roman Drama and Roman History.   Exeter:  University of Exeter Press, 1998.  Pp. xii, 220.  ISBN 0-85989-560-2.  

Reviewed by Gary Forsythe
Word count: 4344 words

In recent years T. P. Wiseman (hereafter W.) has been exploring possible connections between performances on the Roman stage and the development of Roman historical traditions. His basic working hypothesis has been that in a society in which literacy was not widespread, public spectacles at annual festivals or which accompanied triumphs, temple dedications, and aristocratic funerals constituted an important medium for creating, adapting, and propagating popular traditions, and in some instances these traditions were taken over by Roman historians and woven into the literary historical tradition of the Roman state. Perhaps the logical starting point of W.'s study of this postulated phenomenon can be taken to be the 1993 Ronald Syme Lecture at Oxford University entitled "The Origins of Roman Historiography," which was published as Chapter 1 of W.'s Historiography and Imagination: Eight Essays on Roman Culture, Exeter Studies in History vol. 33, University of Exeter Press 1994. In this essay W. argues that Roman society was open to Greek and Etruscan influences from very early times, and he uses archaeological finds to suggest that Greek myths and related stories were in circulation in central Italy during the archaic period. W. further surmises that despite the silence of our all too faulty sources, public performances of some sort existed at Rome much earlier than is generally supposed; and he conjectures that the stage was the place where the Roman community in large measure created and shaped its self identity.

In 1995, the year after the publication of Historiography and Imagination, W. published Remus: A Roman Myth (Cambridge University Press), which was twice reviewed in this journal (see BMCR 1997.5 and 1997.6). In chapters 8-9 of this book W. applied what we may term for convenience his drama hypothesis to the explication of Rome's foundation story. By persistently seeking the answers to a series of simple questions W. developed a fascinating and complex tapestry of scholarly argumentation which offered cogent explanations for why there were twin founders, why one was named Remus rather than Romus, and why this twin was killed off. W. argued that the element of twin founders came into being during the middle of the fourth century B.C. and reflected the patricio-plebeian duality of the Roman nobility and the power-sharing arrangement of the reinstated consulship of the period. Remus, whose name was linked in the ancient tradition with remorare (= 'to delay') and with the aves remores of Roman augury, represented plebeian noble families as late-comers to political prominence. Moreover, the story of his murder while leaping over his brother's new city-wall came into being about the time of the Sentinum campaign of 295 B.C. and the dedication of the temple of Victoria on the western edge of the Palatine in the following year. According to W., Remus' death originally represented a form of human sacrifice designed to render Rome's walls invulnerable to enemy attack and was suggested by the Romans' recourse to human sacrificial victims in a desperate attempt to enlist divine aid to overcome the formidable coalition of Samnites, Etruscans, Umbrians, and Gauls which confronted Rome in northern Italy in 295 B.C. W. postulates that public stage performances, which reflected current issues and attitudes, played an important role in the creation, early evolution, and propagation of Rome's standard foundation story. In this reviewer's opinion W.'s overall explanation for the genesis of the tale of Romulus and Remus is quite credible, and it can be taken as a detailed case study forming the foundation of much of the contents of the book under review here.

Roman Drama and Roman History is largely a collection of previously published work. Only three of the twelve chapters are new, but since many of these pieces have appeared in a wide variety of publications, their collection into a single volume performs the useful service of presenting them all together in one place where they can be more conveniently scrutinized and evaluated by other scholars. The first seven chapters represent a further elaboration of W.'s drama hypothesis, and all three of the new pieces (Chapters 1, 3, and 4) have obviously been written in order to provide greater cohesion and focus to this section of the book. Chapter 1 is a lively and interesting essay in which W. traces the history of the drama hypothesis in modern scholarship during the past 150 years, including both proponents and opponents. W. himself admits that before researching the modern history of this theory, he was quite unaware of its persistence. Indeed, one of the more enjoyable and enlightening aspects of this book is W.'s not uncommon habit of reaching back into scholarship of the nineteenth century to contextualize his own work. It emerges from W.'s overview in this chapter that the drama hypothesis was formulated at least in part in reaction against Niebuhr's postulated connection between supposed early Roman ballads and historical traditions. To Otto Ribbeck's list of fifteen fabulae praetextae known from our woefully inadequate ancient sources on Roman drama and distributed over 300 years W. wishes to add two more: one concerning Quinta Claudia and the arrival of the Magna Mater in Rome in 204 B.C. and another which explained the peculiar rites of the Nonae Caprotinae of July 7 in terms of the heroism of Roman female slaves in the aftermath of the Gallic capture of Rome. The former is certainly to be accepted, but the latter, although possible, is much more problematic and depends upon an uncertain rendering of Varro De Lingua Latina 6.18. W. concludes his survey of modern scholarship by siding with recent work which suggests that public drama in southern Italy (and therefore also in Rome) during the Hellenistic period was far more varied and unhampered by strict generic boundaries than had been the case in classical Athens.

Appendix A, one of two appendices placed between the last chapter of the book and the endnotes, is to be read along with Chapter 1. It is an English translation of Hermann Reich's contribution to a Festschrift published in 1896 in honor of Oskar Schade. Its inclusion in this book is justified by the fact that it is one of the most forceful nineteenth-century defenses of the drama hypothesis. In support of the notion that many Roman historical traditions were theatrical in origin, Reich points out that many of the famous stories of early Roman history (e.g. the Horatii and Curiatii, the death of Servius Tullius, Horatius Cocles, Coriolanus, and Verginia) were readily cast into modern plays and operas. In recapitulating the standard tale of Romulus and Remus as found in Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Plutarch, both of whom cite Fabius Pictor as their principal authority, Reich remarks upon the theatrical attributes of the narrative. He then offers his own reconstruction of Naevius' fabula praetexta entitled Alimonium Remi et Romuli, divided into acts and scenes, which described the capture of Remus by the royal herdsmen of Alba, the fortuitous discovery of the twins' true identity, their overthrow of the evil Amulius, and their reinstatement of their grandfather Numitor on the Alban throne. Reich concludes that this play of Naevius, whose dramatic power and emotion were worthy of Euripides, formed the basis of Pictor's account of Romulus and Remus.

Chapter 2 takes its title, "Tales Unworthy of the Gods," from VI.5-6 of Augustine's Civitas Dei, where the North African bishop criticizes public dramatic enactments of mythology involving undignified behavior of the gods. Similar criticisms of pagan stage performances occur in the earlier Christian polemicist Arnobius. By combining evidence from Ovid's Fasti with Arnobius' citation of Valerius Antias W. makes the plausible argument that the tale of King Numa's conjuring of and interview with Jupiter Elicius formed the plot of a public drama, which explained the origin of the Salii and their shields. Yet, for the sake of completeness it should perhaps be pointed out that this story represents a Roman adaptation of a Greek tale concerning King Midas' capture of and interview with Silenus.1 In any case, W. adduces other corroborating evidence (e.g. Plautus' Amphitruo) to support the conclusion that the Roman people of the late republic were regularly entertained with stage performances of a mythological nature, which encouraged them to laugh at the antics of the gods and at the same time to take them seriously as the benefactors and protectors of the Roman state. To various important testimonia from Livy, Plutarch, and Pausanias, which W. cites in this and the preceding chapter in support of the view that there existed in classical antiquity a close connection between presentations on the stage and the representation of events in historical works, we may add Livy's famous observation in s.6 of his Praefatio, where the traditions surrounding Rome's foundation are characterized as more suitable for poetic tales than to the uncorrupted records of events.

In Chapter 3 W. analyzes the ancient traditions concerning the murder of King Servius Tullius and the downfall of Tarquinius Superbus, especially as found in the accounts of Ovid's Fasti and Livy. He contends that this story was presented on the Roman stage as a tragedy, which had an impact on the way in which it has been treated in our surviving literary accounts. In the course of this treatment W. postulates that the Porta Fenestella, which is associated with Servius Tullius and the goddess Fortuna in the ancient sources, was simply another name for the Porta Mugonia on the northern slope of the Palatine.

In Chapter 4, "Two Plays for the Liberalia," W. first traces the origin and history of the Liberalia down to the Bacchanalian affair of 186 B.C. and then offers the plots of two plays which might have been performed at this festival during the early second century B.C. not long before the Liberalia in W.'s view was deprived of its stage performances. One play is the famous tale found in Livy XXXIX.9-13 concerning the young man Aebutius, his prostitute girl friend Hispala Faecenia, and how the Bacchanalian affair was uncovered by Sp. Postumius Albinus, the consul of 186 B.C.; and the other play is Ovid's story of how Ino and her son Melicertes fled to Latium and came to be worshipped as Mater Matuta and Portunus (Fasti VI.483-550).

Although the arguments made in this chapter are plausible, they are far from certain, and this is particularly the case in reference to the postulated play concerning the revelation of the Bacchanalian affair. W. conjectures that in the aftermath of the Roman state's crackdown on Bacchic worship throughout Italy a play involving the characters of Aebutius and Hispala Faecenia was performed on the Liberalia as a testimony to the loyalty of the plebs to the Roman state, and that the philhellenic Roman historian A. Postumius Albinus (consul 151 B.C.) played a major role in the shaping of the ancient tradition by incorporating the plot of this drama into his historical account of how his uncle uncovered these nefarious religious activities. Indeed, in his treatment of the origin and early history of the Roman worship of Liber W. suggests that the same philhellenic historian is the ultimate source for the vowing of the temple of Ceres, Liber, and Libera by the dictator A. Postumius Albus on the eve of the battle of Lake Regillus in 496 B.C. as recorded by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (VI.17 and 94). Moreover, since Livy's narrative fails to mention the vowing or dedication of this temple, W. surmises that the actual date of the temple's construction and dedication is in doubt. Yet, given Livy's verbal economy and his habit of ignoring minor details which do not fit with his own thematic designs in individual episodes, little weight should be attached to Livy's silence on this matter. Moreover, we need not invoke the historian Postumius Albinus to account for the temple's vow and dedication in Dionysius' narrative. Like the contemporary dedications of the temples to Saturn in 497 (Livy II.21.2), to Mercury in 495 (Livy II.21.7 and 27.5-6), and to Castor and Pollux in 484 B.C. (Livy II.42.5), the dedication date of the temple of Ceres, Liber, and Libera is likely to have been recorded in pontifical records. In addition, W.'s view that the variant versions of Dionysus' parentage recorded by the imperial writer Ampelius in 9.11 of his Liber Memorialis reflect different interpretations of Greek Bacchus vs. Roman Liber in the aftermath of the Bacchanalian affair is highly dubious. Nevertheless, W. is right to point out that earlier modern scholars have detected dramatic elements in Livy XXXIX.9-13, which W. himself regards as evidence for the dramatic origin of this material rather than simply being the product of dramatic historical writing.

In the next two chapters W. applies his drama hypothesis to two major political events of the late republic: the death of C. Gracchus and Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon. Chapter 5 treats the former subject in the larger context of Roman plays which dealt with contemporary themes, such as Naevius' Clastidium, Ennius' Ambracia, and the pseudo-Senecan Octavia. W. neatly illustrates the exiguous and fortuitous nature of our evidence on ancient Roman drama by noting: "We happen to know, from a letter of Pollio's in Cicero's correspondence [ad Fam. X.32.3], that one of the plays put on at the provincial ludi in Cordoba in 43 B.C. was a praetexta by the quaestor L. Cornelius Balbus, on the subject of his own experiences in the civil war, which moved him to tears as he watched it." After observing that Karl Melser in 1887 proposed the stories of Sophonisba, the conspiracy of the Campanian Pacuvius Calavius during the Hannibalic War, the tragic quarrel between the Macedonian princes Perseus and Demetrius, and the death of C. Gracchus as forming the bases of dramatic performances, W. analyzes in detail Plutarch's account of Gracchus' death and shows how it could have been presented on the stage. Furthermore, W. makes the interesting suggestion that this play might have been performed at the Ludi Plebeii during the Jugurthine War soon after L. Opimius had been driven into exile by the Mamilian commission. In Chapter 6 a prodigy, recorded by Suetonius as having occurred while Caesar and his retinue were debating his decision at the bridge over the Rubicon, forms the central element in W.'s conjectured contemporary satyr play concerning this momentous event, possibly enacted in 48 B.C. under the superintendence of the Caesarian aedile C. Vibius Pansa.

Chapter 7, "The Poet, the Plebs, and the Chorus Girls," focuses on the festival of Anna Perenna of March 15 as described by Ovid in his Fasti III.523-696. The analysis treats us to a very interesting glimpse into Roman popular culture of the Augustan age. W. argues persuasively that one element in this springtime celebration involved young men of the Roman upper class pairing up with pretty and talented glamour-girls from the Roman stage to spend the day in partying and love making outside the city on the Via Flaminia. Nevertheless, W. misinterprets Martial's characterization of Anna Perenna's sacred grove as rejoicing in the blood of virgins as referring to some aetiology involving human sacrifice (see Martial IV.64.16-7). On the contrary, Martial is wittily alluding to young women's loss of their virginity. W. enlists the rites of the Nonae Caprotinae of July 7 (which he mistakenly dates to July 5 [see p.68]) to strengthen his erotic interpretation of the popular celebration of Anna Perenna. He also surmises that Laberius' play entitled Anna Perenna had as its plot Ovid's story of how this minor divinity tricked Mars into thinking that she was arranging his marriage with Minerva.

Chapters 8-10 form the second major theme of this book. Whereas the first seven chapters pertain to W.'s drama hypothesis and concern the theme of how popular drama shaped Roman historical traditions, these three chapters deal with the subject of how Roman aristocratic families shaped and promoted their family's history and its role in Roman public affairs. In Chapter 8 W. illustrates a historiographical phenomenon which is widely assumed by modern scholars: namely, that Roman historians of the republic, such as Fabius Pictor and Licinius Macer, enhanced the roles of their family members in Roman public affairs of the past through exaggeration and/or fabrication. After introducing this topic with some general remarks about the nature and evolution of Roman republican historiography, as well as the observation that Roman coin types of the last two centuries B.C. progressed from general motifs of the Roman state to ones reflecting the interests and propaganda of moneyers and their families, W. quotes Friedrich Muenzer's defense of his 1891 dissertation, De Gente Valeria, to the effect that despite their unquestioned prominence in early Roman affairs, this family's importance was to a considerable degree further magnified through numerous falsehoods set forth in the history of Valerius Antias. W. then proceeds to adduce twelve instances (two from the regal period and ten from the first few decades of the republic) in which the prominence of Valerii is conjectured to be the product of Antias' fertile imagination. Although these episodes are nowhere attested among any of Antias' numerous extant fragments, a situation which could easily lend itself to the worst kind of modern Quellenforschung, W. handles the ancient material and develops his arguments judiciously and thereby constructs a strong case for the general thesis stated at the beginning of the chapter. In Appendix B, which is devoted to the variants in the early chronology of the Ludi Saeculares, W. concludes that Antias is likewise responsible for the attribution of these games to the first year of the republic.

Chapter 9 concerns itself with the complex and tangled history of the Minucii during the early republic and chiefly centers around three topics: the location of the Porta Minucia, the significance of the archaic Columna Minucia depicted on the coins of two Minucian moneyers during the late second century B.C., and the story of L. Minucius, Sp. Maelius, and the grain shortage of 440-439 B.C. as it evolved from Cincius Alimentus to Licinius Macer. W. conjectures that the Porta Minucia was quite close to the Porta Trigemina, not one of the latter's arched openings as sometimes surmised, and that outside these two adjacent gates stood the Minucian monument, whose structure W. likens to the Volcanal as reconstructed by F. Coarelli. By pointing out other instances in which Roman aristocratic clan names and cognomina c.300 B.C. were given Greek etymologies, W. suggests that at this same time the Minucii derived their name from the Greek word μήνυσις. Moreover, since M. Minucius Faesus was one of the first plebeians to become an augur under the Ogulnian Law of 300 B.C., the original intended meaning of this derivation was 'information' in the sense of divine revelation, but by the time of the Hannibalic War when Cincius Alimentus first recorded the story of L. Minucius and Sp. Maelius, it was or already had been reinterpreted to mean providing information of criminal activities. In addition, W. sees the tradition of Cincinnatus' dictatorship at the time of the Maelian sedition as the handiwork of Licinius Macer and as reflecting his interest in the office of dictator due to its revival by Sulla. On the other hand, W. is probably incorrect in surmising as a Sullan accretion to the story the public display of Maelius' head at the Lacus Servilius, where the heads of Sulla's proscribed enemies were exposed. Rather, to this reviewer it seems more likely that the Lacus Servlius had long been the site where the heads of beheaded criminals were put on public display, and the Sullan practice was no innovation. If so, this could account for the presence of Servilius Ahala as Maelius' executioner in the earliest recorded tradition of the story.

Chapter 10, "Rome and the Resplendent Aemilii," is a detailed survey of the history of the Aemilian family from middle republican times to their final demise under the Julio-Claudian emperors. Although W. makes excellent use of standard historical and prosopographical data preserved in the ancient literary sources, central to this treatment is his study of ancient Roman topography and monuments to indicate the family's great preeminence by the end of the second century B.C. and its struggle during the closing decades of the republic to rival the magnificent public buildings of the dynasts Pompey, Caesar, and Augustus. Moreover, a key element in W.'s argument is his interpretation of Cic. ad Att. IV.16.8 concerning the public building plans of L. Aemilius Paulus in 54 B.C. as referring not to one but to two different buildings: one was his rebuilding of a basilica along the northern side of the Forum, which had been originally commissioned by M. Fulvius Nobilior during his censorship of 179 B.C.; and the other was not the much smaller basilica at the eastern end of the Forum discovered in 1987 by Margareta Steinby but was a large and magnificent structure along the southern side of the Forum, which we know as the Basilica Iulia of Julius Caesar. In W.'s view Steinby's basilica should be attributed to L. Aemilius Paulus, the victor of Pydna, who contracted for the building's construction during his censorship of 164 B.C. Thus, according to W., if the Paulus of Cicero's day had succeeded in bringing his ambitious plans to completion, three sides of the Roman Forum would have been enclosed by basilicas bearing the Aemilian family name. Since Paulus completed the rebuilding of Nobilior's basilica only with the considerable financial assistance of Caesar, W. conjectures that the deal reached between the two men also included Paulus handing over to Caesar the former's other uncompleted basilica to become part of the latter's own public building scheme for commemorating his great achievements.

The last two chapters form the book's third major theme, the history of modern scholarship. Chapter 11, "E. S. Beesly and the Roman Revolution," surveys the public life and scholarly work of Edward Spencer Beesly (1831-1915), who held a position as a Roman historian at the University College of London during the late nineteenth century. What makes him notable in W.'s opinion is how the interaction between his professional scholarship and his views on contemporary political and social issues foreshadowed that of Ronald Syme and his Roman Revolution. Beesly was a staunch supporter of the labor movement, as well as an outspoken critic of the English class system and of its political monopoly; and his views on these matters are clearly reflected in his writings on the principal figures and issues of the late Roman republic. Beesly regarded the political system of the late republic as the most vile, corrupt, and oppressive form of government which the ancient Mediterranean world had seen; and he viewed Julius Caesar and Augustus (although the latter was far inferior to the former) as great men responsible for tearing down this evil system of oligarchical oppression and for replacing it with a monarchy, which ruled the ancient world much more in accord with the general welfare of the governed. Although he was not unaware of Catiline's shortcomings as a Roman aristocrat shaped by the corrupt political culture of the late republic, Beesly wrote in his defense and refused to be hoodwinked by Cicero's carefully crafted and one-sided portrait of his conflict with Clodius and the Roman plebs. W. shows how Beesly's critical reading of the ancient sources went hand in hand with his political awareness with respect to his own times.

The book's twelfth and final chapter, "Late Syme: A Study in Historiography," examines how Syme changed over time in the ways in which he handled his material in his various books and presented their contents to his readers. W. (p.136) states the basic problem as follows:

For the historian, the artistic dilemma is always the same: how to combine, in the same text, argument about the legitimacy of inference from inadequate information with a historical narrative that is chronologically coherent and intelligible. Syme's mastery of the detailed literary and epigraphic evidence was unparalleled, as was his finesse of judgement in making inferences from it. But his method of combining such technical argument with the necessary narrative underwent a detectable change, which I think one can date to the late Syme.

Having stated this dilemma, W. proceeds to show how Syme's earliest books, The Roman Revolution (1939), Tacitus (1958), and Sallust (1964), maintained a balance between narrative and analysis, although the latter two works showed signs of what was to come. Then, after discussing the absence of clear organizational principles in his Emperors and Biography (1971), History in Ovid (1978), and above all in The Augustan Aristocracy (1986), W. (p.138) concludes: "Syme's treatment of his readers was becoming increasingly cavalier." The remainder of this essay is W.'s detailed exegesis of the organization, structure, recurring themes, and analytical methodology of Syme's Augustan Aristocracy, including a very thought provoking discussion of the similarities and differences between the writing of fiction and the historian's use of rational conjecture to reconstruct past events out of imperfect source material.

This collection of essays demonstrates great depth and breadth of knowledge in the areas of Roman history, literature, culture, and archaeology, as well as exceptional analytical skill and creative imagination, which contemporary historians of republican Rome have come to associate with the name of T. P. Wiseman. Moreover, since many of W.'s interpretations rest upon matters of topography or ancient monuments, the text of the first ten chapters are accompanied with a number of relevant and illustrative figures. Each reader will, of course, have his or her own favorite essay, but there can be no question that the single most important concept to emerge from this book is W.'s drama hypothesis. Even though many of his arguments will be challenged, it is only fair to note that W. himself is often quite candid about the unavoidably speculative nature of this work, and that it is often difficult to decide whether a passage in one of our ancient texts is the product of historical drama or of dramatic historical writing. Yet, the drama hypothesis offers modern scholars of ancient Rome a new paradigm with which old and familiar issues can be reexamined from a fresh perspective.


1.   Hdt. VIII.138.3, Xen. Anab. I.2.13, Paus. I.4.5, and Philostratus Vita Apollonii VI.27. Greek philosophers at least as early as Aristotle transformed the interview between Midas and Silenus into a philosophical discourse between an inquiring mortal and a sagacious immortal (Plut. Consolatio ad Apollonium 27 and Cic. Disp. Tusc. I.114; cf. Vergil Ecl. VI.13ff). Silenus' cosmology is most fully set forth by Aelian in Var. Hist. III.18 = F 75C of Theopompus (Jacoby II.B 115).

Read Latest
Index for 1998
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:01, Friday, 03 April 2009