Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.43

Gesine Manuwald, Roman Republican Theatre.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xii, 390.  ISBN 9780521110167.  $105.00.  

Reviewed by Jarrett Welsh, University of Toronto (


Almost fifty years have passed since the third edition of William Beare’s The Roman Stage (1964) appeared, and although his enthusiastic, detailed, and idiosyncratic treatment had long been showing its age, it has prompted little in the way of imitation. Readers seeking up-to-date introductions have had to piece together the stories of Roman drama in the republican period from more recent treatments of particular dramatic genres or from scholarship on individual questions and topics.1 Gesine Manuwald, who has written extensively on the field, here gives a valuable overview and synthesis of research on a wide range of questions relating to what she aptly calls “the sweeping and imprecise term ‘Roman Republican drama’” (vii). Her treatment addresses questions about the history, archaeology, performance, poets, and contents of the diverse varieties of dramatic performance in the republican period, and, although some gaps in its coverage will doubtless be felt, there can be no questioning its value on what our texts say, what was said in antiquity about drama, and especially what modern scholarship has to say. This book has much to contribute to the contemporary flourishing of scholarship on Roman drama, and for that Manuwald deserves our thanks.

Only a brief summary of the contents of this detailed book can be attempted here. A short introduction sets Manuwald’s approach in the context of scholarship on the diverse areas of Roman drama, aiming to combine traditional philological research with insights from new ways of thinking about the performative, literary, and cultural contexts of drama. Part I, “Cultural and Institutional Background,” first explores the traditions of Greek, Etruscan, and Italic drama and situates the ‘emergence’ of scripted Roman drama against that backdrop, before proceeding to examine the conditions shaping performance and reception (festivals, magistrates, performance spaces, dramaturgical aspects, actors, playwrights, audiences and readers, to name just some of the topics). Part II, “Dramatic Poetry,” fully covers the traditional topics of genres (with the laudable inclusion of the pantomime) and known poets; a further section, on “dramatic themes and techniques,” gives a selection of topics treated more summarily. The final section, “Overview and conclusions,” offers a provocative, and rightly tentative, outline of the history of republican drama, drawing together the conclusions reached throughout the study and attempting to provide a unified view of the diverse developments discussed throughout. An index and detailed table of contents will facilitate consulting the book for information on specific topics.

In a book of such ambitious scope that is founded on what is ultimately limited and difficult evidence, some topics and methodological questions inevitably fall by the wayside, and perhaps it is even desirable that they should have done so. An overview of this sort should provoke interesting questions, and there is no doubt that Manuwald succeeds in giving the reader the evidence to ask such questions. Since her stated aims include drawing connections and sketching the larger history of republican drama, more perhaps could have been said to explain why and how our evidence is limited and difficult, for these problems bear directly upon the reliability of the resulting descriptions and indeed on how this book will contribute to discussions on drama. I hasten to emphasize that I mention these points not with any intention of criticizing what has been ‘left out,’ but rather of raising some of the questions that I think readers of this book will want to have in mind when working through its riches.

Manuwald’s account emphasizes productive contexts and dramatic contents, and in particular how those contents changed in the hands of different artists at different times. How the serious dramatists differentiated their treatments of myths and how the lighter dramatists expanded and extended ‘comedy,’ to pick only two examples, are issues of tremendous importance, but they also can tell only part of the story. There is little here about meter and language (indeed very little Latin is quoted), but these aspects of technical artistry are no less important in understanding how the dramatists positioned their work. It is of some significance, for example, that Turpilius’ long verses are metrically more similar to those of Terence than to those of Plautus (and yet polymetric cantica are far from absent), or that Accius’ language shows some signs of having picked up elements that had previously been confined to the sermo comicus; but information like this is generally very sparse. Part II, section 5.6, “Language, style, metre, music”, occupies just five pages, and some of the most innovative recent work on dramatic meter and metrical artistry (I am thinking especially of the work of Soubiran, Gratwick, and Fortson) is not mentioned.

The brittle quality of our primary evidence about fragmentary dramas is not always kept insistently in the foreground, although Manuwald is scrupulous about phrasing her claims cautiously throughout. When it comes to working with the fragments, we are in the first instance at the mercy of our editions. Although editions of fragmentary dramatists have come with some frequency in the past decades, many have been deeply unsatisfactory; in all but a few cases Ribbeck’s editorial qualities, for better and for worse, still cast a long shadow over the field. Thus when fragments are made to reveal linguistic, metrical, or dramaturgical points, we are sometimes still talking about Ribbeck’s decisions. To take a very minor but revealing example: on p. 69 it is said that one of the stage doors could represent stables, on the evidence of Pacuvius 121. Such, indeed, is a logical conclusion from the demonstrative in Ribbeck’s text Delphos uenum pecus egi, inde ad stabula haec itiner contuli; but the Nonian archetype had Delphos uenum pecus secunde ab stabula ac itiner contuli. With Buecheler’s more attractive hac in place of Ribbeck’s haec, the stables are not necessarily represented on stage, and it would be possible to defend ab, putting them even farther away. Similarly, if Afranius’ fragments seem to offer less of the metrical variety most familiar from Plautus (p. 263; the reviewer is not inclined to agree), we cannot forget that such assessments still depend partly on Ribbeck’s decisions about those fragments, and partly on what kinds of verses happen to have been preserved. However some evidence suggested to Marius Victorinus (see Gramm. VI 79.1–6 Keil) that Afranius’ scripts were quite like those of Plautus (and Naevius) in this respect.

Manuwald is rightly cautious when using Ciceronian evidence about drama, emphasizing that his interpretations may reflect variously his particular arguments or indeed the conditions of performance in the first century BCE. However other claims, anecdotes, and special pleadings from antiquity are sometimes presented without adequate signaling that they are tentative, unreliable, or perhaps even wrong. As with primary evidence, such claims are phrased with due caution, and yet in the absence of some debunking it may well be wondered whether some scholar in the future will need to take up anew Vahlen’s apparet non tenuiter creuisse fiduciam rei narratae.2 The story of Naevius and the Metelli is acknowledged as problematic, but the story of Cato’s bringing Ennius to Rome in 204 BCE (pp. 94, 204) is presented rather differently, without mention of Badian’s dismantling of it.3 It is said that Gellius ‘records’ and ‘reports’ that Plautus revised the works of earlier playwrights which were then attributed to him (pp. 110, 291; cf. p. 153), but this seems more like ancient scholarly fiction than reliable fact.

More generally, the complicated processes by which dramatic scripts became fragmented are kept largely in the background. Owing to their technical nature these issues are perhaps least suitable for the kind of overview and synthesis Manuwald here gives, and yet they are fundamental to almost every question we can ask about fragmentary drama. The titles of plays that we assign to Naevius or Caecilius, for example, depend largely on what titles appeared on copies circulating at later dates; if certain fragmentary dramatists now seem to prefer Greek titles to Latin ones (e.g., pp. 175, 198, 235), we should also remember that already Sinnius Capito was quoting Plautus’ Phasma (better known as the Mostellaria), and Verrius Flaccus quoted the same dramatist’s Nervolaria (Stichus) and apparently his Synaristosai (Cistellaria). Some properly cautious remarks explain why Pomponius’ verses seem full of “unusual words, forms or constructions” (p. 270)—these features are precisely why Pomponius was quoted at all. But conversely the observation that our fragments of serious drama show outsized interests in (for example) philosophy, religion, and grand spectacle needs to be assessed against the interests of our sources for many of these substantial fragments, sources that were normally quoting for content rather than for language alone. Readers will thus want to dig deeply into Manuwald’s rich presentation of the evidence: did philosophy, for example, emerge as a new topic of conversation in the plays of Ennius and Pacuvius, or does it merely seem that way because Cicero was interested in that topic, and Cicero quotes often from those dramatists but not equally from Livius poeta? Such questions cannot be answered here, nor indeed could they have been within the scope of this book, which directs its attention over so wide a subject. But they are questions that very much need to be asked.

Again, I raise these issues not because I would claim that these are flaws in this book, but rather in order to emphasize some aspects of the ongoing discussions about republican drama alongside which this contribution must be read. Indeed one of the signal virtues of Manuwald’s presentation of the evidence, and her attempt to draw out from it what new stories might be told about ‘Roman Republican drama,’ is that readers will find themselves investigating and questioning, whether for the first time or with fresh eyes, what was and could be said about the traditions and practitioners of that vibrant performance culture. Viewed from that perspective, this book makes a very welcome contribution to current scholarship on Roman drama indeed.4


1.   For tragedy, particularly A. J. Boyle, 2006, Roman Tragedy (London); for comedy the yet older G. E. Duckworth, 1952, The Nature of Roman Comedy (Princeton), with the broader treatments of, e.g., R. L. Hunter, 1985, The New Comedy of Greece and Rome (Cambridge) and N. J. Lowe, 2008, Comedy, Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics 37 [2007].
2.   I. Vahlen, 1903, Ennianae Poesis Reliquiae, 2nd edition (Leipzig), xix.
3.   E. Badian, 1972, “Ennius and his friends,” in Ennius, Fondation Hardt Entretiens 17 (Vandoeuvres), 151– 208, at 154–163.
4.   Readers will doubtless find places where they disagree with Manuwald’s arguments or interpretations, and I would not presume to offer here my personal and partisan list. Nevertheless two points seem to call for comment. (1) ‘Allusions’ are often identified (e.g., pp. 211, 312); since the Latin is not quoted, the threshold for identifying them is not made clear and readers checking the texts may find that they are not convinced. (2) The remark accusing Menander of appropriating Antiphanes’ Oionistes for his Deisidaimon is assigned to Caecilius Statius (pp. 237, 249, etc.), rather than Caecilius Calactinus (see fr. 164 Ofenloch), the reasons for which still have not, to my knowledge, been put on record.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2012
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 22:23:40, Monday, 23 July 2012