BMCR 2007.01.39

Roman Tragedy

, An introduction to Roman tragedy. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. xi, 303 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0415251028 £12.99 (pb).

Are we really content with research on Roman tragedy so far? Seneca is certainly held in greater esteem than before, since in the last twenty-five years in particular there has been massive improvement in the quantity and quality of scholarly research on him. In contrast to Seneca, the last representative of Roman theatre, the fragmentary works of Livius, Naevius, Ennius, Pacuvius and Accius are treated either as texts having a special poetic style or as reconstructions of plot outlines. Some good recent work has been produced on these texts,1 but now we have in the book of Boyle (hereafter B.) a solid and thorough discussion of these tragedies not only as texts of literary and poetic importance but also as serious performative events. In this respect, Roman Tragedy takes a course different from most of the other studies, since it offers “a cultural and theatrical history of Roman tragedy which not only plots the history of theatrical techniques and conventions but traces the birth, development and death of Roman tragedy within the context of Rome’s evolving institutions, ideologies and political and social practices” (p. x).

Roman Tragedy begins with a general discussion of the birth of Roman drama and the Roman stage and theatrical space (Part I, Ch.1 “Staging Rome”), and is followed by chapters divided chronologically. Beginning with Livius (Ch. 2 “Founding fathers: the appropriation of Greece”), whose tragedies seem to be adaptations of Greek originals, B. discusses the onset of real drama in Rome in the work of Naevius. Through the Roman practice of contaminatio, tragedy acquires not only a Romanized subject with the so-called fabulae praetextae, but also a Romanized form. This Romanization goes hand in hand with the politicization of tragedy. According to B. the performance of drama and the choice of its subject-matter lean on a political or historical dimension along with the religiosity that was ascribed to the annual ludi scaenici.2

After a general discussion of Ennius’ life and the influences that affected his work,3 B. outlines the political background of the production of tragedy and especially the moral and political developments of Ennius’ age, as moral values come more to the fore (Ch. 3 “The second wave: generic confidence”). The importance B. gives to this field is demonstrated through the choice of the fragments he includes in his book. He starts with “Medea exul”, whose dramatic technique and metatheatrical allusion are more apparent than any other play. He goes on with a play beloved to Cicero, “Thyestes”, and finally presents two fabulae praetextae. Pacuvius, on the other hand, strives not so hard for complete audience identification with his characters and therefore his work seems to allude to the serious art of drama in Rome.

With Chapter 4 (“Tragic apex: poetic form and political crisis”), devoted to Accius, B. presents the gradual evolution of Roman tragedy, with majestic rhetoric and the preference for plots of a violent, melodramatic nature (which reach their apogee in the plays of Seneca).4 It is tempting to think that the turbulent period during which Accius lived, marked by persistent warfare and intensive social struggle, was also reflected in his work. It is not a coincidence that in the political context of Roman tragic production we necessarily hear Roman debates in the speeches of mythic figures, which, along with the rhetorical display and “performing language”, seem to tend towards greater dramatization. The same trend is broadly conspicuous in the evolution of classical tragedy from the fifth-century, and it seems that Boyle has omitted an important factor: that the Roman writers are both reflecting and carrying on a process found in the works of the Hellenistic playwrights.

Ch.5 (“Canonisation and turmoil: the end of the republic”) functions as an interlude, focusing on the theatrical evolution of Republican drama and outlining the political role theatre played at the end of the Republic even though tragedies were no longer solely destined for performance. With Ch. 6 (” Roma theatrum : the early empire”), B. turns to the next period of literary production, which was marked by the artistic taste of Augustus. From Augustus onward theatrical performances were promoted or restricted by each emperor. At the time of Nero, theatre reached its acme, and the emperor himself becomes an art-loving spectator as well as an enthusiastic actor. The theatre provided ambitious politicians with invaluable opportunities for propaganda, and the audience-citizens transferred the corrupt imperial Rome into their own world. Yet the exploration of public issues was never of central importance in Roman theatre, as it was in classical Athens, nor did poets seek to instruct their audience. The audience may well have been capable of sensitive and critical appreciation, but their theatre failed to appeal to or stimulate them very profoundly on an intellectual level.

Chapter 7 (“Seneca’s tragic theatre”) concerns Seneca’s dramaturgy, and Boyle’s analysis is excellent. Questions such as theatrical situation and contemporary practiceare well handled, and B. does not omit to emphasize, by means of recent resources and bibliographies, a believable thesis for Senecan drama: The tragedies were performed. Especially important and characteristic not only of Seneca but of the other playwrights is the role of rhetoric. Through reference to Ciceronian rhetoric B. manages to present the changed Roman style of expression, which operated as index of the new attitudes produced by the changed social and political circumstances of imperial Rome. Last but not least, he gives a brief description of the ideas and views with which each tragedy is textured and closes the chapter with an interesting and potentially exciting perspective on the genre: the distinction between on-stage and off-stage reality. The audience’s reality becomes theatricalized, and in turn tragedy becomes self-conscious of its own theatricality and as a result turns into metatragedy.

In the last chapter (Ch. 8 “Tragedy and autocracy: the liberty of silence”) concerning the death of tragedy, B. turns his attention to the two remaining post-Senecan samples of Roman dramaturgy, “Octavia” and “Hercules Oetaeus”. Taking Octavia as the more interesting, B. comes to no definite conclusion with regard to the authorship and date of the play, while surveying scholarly studies and attacking those that seem implausible. At the same time, he underscores the differences between Senecan and post-Senecan dramaturgy and traces the changes in the genre, and the predilection for prose works, whilst making it obvious that Flavian Rome is fond of the arena and its spectacles, thus condemning tragedy to its fatal collapse. Roman tragedy was no longer a political instrument.

To sum up, this book is a well-thought-out and original piece of scholarship, which will advance considerably the debate on these tragedies and enhance their understanding. Thorough but succinct, it covers all periods of Roman tragedy but manages to present the political, literary and dramaturgical phases of both tragedy proper and fabulae pretextae. It has a rich bibliography and commentary, unfortunately in the form of endnotes, and every fragment is coupled with B.’s excellent translations. I can warmly recommend the book both to experts who wish to have an up-to-date account of the latest studies in Roman tragedy and to undergraduate and graduate students who can mine this useful volume for relevant paper and even dissertation topics.


1. Especially the essays in Gesine Manuwald ed., Identität und Alterität in der frührömischen Tragödie (Würzburg: Ergon, 2000). See also Mario Erasmo, Roman Tragedy: Theatre to Theatricality (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004). Still important remains the study of O. Ribbeck, Die römische Tragödie im Zeitalter der Republik (Leipzig, 1875).

2. Michael von Albrecht in his “Geschichte der römischen Literatur” also puts emphasis on the role of religion in Roman performance: “Der kultische Zusammenhang darf also nicht ausser acht gelassen werden” (Bd. 1, p. 79).

3. Especially the fact that he was not from Rome. Ennius himself notes that: non sumus Romani, qui fuimus ante … (Ann. 377 Vahlen (525 Skutsch)).

4. “The similarities between Accian and Senecan drama are striking — like Senecan drama, the extant fragments of Accius’ plays feature many passages containing the use of spectacle to effect pathos” (Mario Erasmo, 2004, p. 45).