Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.13

Gesine Manuwald, Fabulae praetextae: Spuren einer literarischen Gattung der Römer. Zetemata, Heft 108.   München:  C.H. Beck, 2001.  Pp. 399.  ISBN 3-406-48160-4.  EUR 76.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by T.P. Wiseman, University of Exeter (
Word count: 1288 words

Dr Manuwald's thorough and sensible monograph is accurately subtitled: 'traces of a literary genre' are precisely her subject. Whether that is the best way to investigate a type of dramatic performance may perhaps be doubted; but what she has chosen to do she has done admirably.

The first chapter (A) deals with the phrase fabula praetexta itself, with careful analysis of the ancient sources: Diomedes Ars grammatica 3 (who cites Varro), Euanthius De fabula 4.1, Festus 249L and 480L, Donatus De comoedia 6.1, Lydus De magistratibus 1.40, Donatus on Terence Adelphoe 7, Horace Ars poetica 285-8, and the scholiasts on the Horace passage. Varro categorised drama as either 'Greek' or 'Roman', with fabula praetexta as the tragic version of the latter; others, followed by Donatus and Lydus, categorised it as either 'tragedy' or 'comedy', with fabula praetext(at)a as the Roman version of the former.

M. takes this scholarly theorising as the basis of her discussion. 'Now that the concept praetexta has been explained, and the formal criteria for allocating a drama to this genre have been established, the facts that can be ascertained from ancient references to praetextae may be put together and examined' (53). So begins her second chapter (B), the first part of which analyses the surviving references to particular fabulae praetextae: Cicero Ad fam. 10.32, Cicero Pro Sestio 123 (and scholiast), Varro De lingua Latina 6.18, Horace Epistles 2.1.193 (and scholiasts), the anonymous Life of Persius, and Tacitus Dialogus 2-3. Given the protean nature of show business, one might think that this material should have priority over the grammarians' schematic categories, rather than vice versa. In the Varro passage, for instance, the patriotic sex-romp of the Nonae Caprotinae play can hardly be imagined as a tragedy; and it is surely significant that Horace's scholiasts interpreted the spectacle of the play on the fall of Corinth as a sort of pompa triumphalis. But given her procedure, M.'s analysis is sensible and judicious: on the Varro passage, for instance (66), she rightly dismisses attempts like that of the Loeb editor to avoid the problem by emendation. (I am not so sure she is right also to dismiss the idea of a Nero play at Tac. Dial. 11 (85-6).)

The third chapter (C) is similarly systematic, an annotated re-edition of all the surviving praetexta fragments. Here, as elsewhere, M.'s bibliography is exhaustive, her discussion thorough and well argued. What she is best at is what one might unfairly describe as traditionally conservative classical scholarship -- setting out clearly what is known or can be securely inferred, and reporting what has been written about it. As a work of reference, a lucid account of what Ribbeck achieved 130 years ago and the few details added since then, M.'s book is a very valuable resource. But that no-risk method cannot advance knowledge.

At this point I must declare an interest. In her discussion of my argument that lost plays may account for the treatment of certain historical or quasi-historical episodes in Ovid, Livy, Plutarch and elsewhere (Historiography and Imagination [Exeter 1994] 4-5, 12-21, 32-6; Remus: a Roman Myth [Cambridge 1995] 130-43; Roman Drama and Roman History [Exeter 1998] 1-74), M. begins by declaring it 'not a reliable method' (91, cf. 161), and concludes with the observation that 'no generally applicable statement about the character of praetextae can be made on the basis of plays that are merely assumed' (94). Perfectly true, if your aim is only to report what is known for certain. But it might be thought more useful to discuss the plausibility of hypotheses rather than rule them out a priori.

On one issue M. does attempt a refutation. At Fasti 4.326, in his narrative of the arrival of the Great Mother at the Tiber mouth and the miracle of Quinta Claudia freeing the ship from the sand-bank, Ovid comments: 'mira, sed et scaena testificata, loquar.' What should sound method deduce from this datum? That there was a play about the coming of the Great Mother which included the miracle scene? Or that there was no play, because 'that would be unusual subject-matter for a praetexta', and Ovid's parenthetical line merely describes what happened next as the sort of incredible thing you might see on the stage (93-4)? I rest my case.

That argument comes in the latter part of the second chapter, a long section entitled 'Systematic discussion of aspects relevant to the genre' (87-127), where I think M.'s scholarly virtues are least in evidence. Is it likely, for instance, that the tradition of plays on Roman themes should have changed from being 'affirmative' and celebratory under the Republic to being 'critical' and hostile to the political conditions of the day under the Principate? That idea is not only counter-intuitive, it is also contrary to what evidence we have about the public ludi scaenici under Augustus and his successors: see for instance Phaedrus 5.7.23-8, Suetonius Div. Aug. 89.3, Pliny Paneg. 54.1-2. But M. insists on it (94-7), even forcing the relative chronology of the praetextae of Cassius Parmensis and Cornelius Balbus to make them fit her scheme. Then there is the argument about the supposed non-existence of pre-literary drama (99-103), which is effectively a petitio principii, depending as it does on the known evidence for the praetexta as a literary genre: no source tells us there were non-literary predecessors, therefore there weren't any. Even weaker is M.'s explanation for the comparatively small number of known praetextae, compared for instance with tragedies on Greek themes (123-5): the social and financial situation must have militated against such plays (what this means is not explained), and in any case there weren't enough available plots.

The final chapter (D) is entitled 'Octavia -- eine Praetexta?'. Why the question mark? Well, P.L. Schmidt ('Die Poetisierung und Mythisierung der Geschichte in der Tragödie "Octavia"', ANRW II.32.2 [1985] 1421-53) argued that the play should be classed as a tragedy, because its attack on Nero's tyranny is in contrast with the celebratory nature of the known praetextae (259). M. solves that problem by applying her own categorisation: yes, the play is a praetexta, but of the supposedly 'critical' post-republican kind. The idea that hostility to a dead and disgraced emperor might celebrate his opponent and successor seems not to have occurred to M., who devotes eighty pages to the Octavia without once mentioning Galba.

There are two choruses in Octavia, the first of which consists of the Roman citizens who at line 689 rush off to attack the palace. M. identifies the second chorus, who sing Poppaea's praises at lines 762-79, as a rival party within the citizen body and defies the communis opinio by attributing to them the final choral odes, sung in antiphony with Octavia at lines 878-982. As she sees it, there is a 'Praetextachor' concerned with public issues in the first part of the play, and a 'Tragödienchor' concerned with personal issues in the second (292-6). But that is surely untenable: despite M.'s special pleading (300), the song about the people's martyrs at lines 877-98 has the same political Tendenz as the first chorus' songs at lines 291-308 and 676-82. I think it makes nonsense of the action to have two choruses with opposing viewpoints both representing the people (323-31): Poppaea's supporters must be courtiers, and they sing only twice, at lines 762-79 and 806-19.

In short, this is a book with many virtues, and some significant shortcomings. It does what the title announces, but no more. If the 'traces of a literary genre' are what you want, you will find them here, well and thoroughly discussed. But if you are interested in the history of performance, or the impact of the praetexta tradition on Roman life, you may be disappointed.

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