These plays included:
After Livius Andronicus first translated Greek plays for Roman audiences in 240 BC, many dramatic performances in Rome over the next century would be adaptations of Greek plays. These were typically literary dramas and would inspire notable Roman playwrights to begin writing their own productions rather than translating and adapting those from ancient Greece.
While learnings from ancient Greece remained an integral part of many Roman performances, by 100 BC, Roman-style plays had begun to develop and establish themselves.
Instead of drama and storytelling, the focus was firmly on entertainment, with Roman plays almost being what we’d call a circus performance today. Citizens of Rome wanted a spectacle! Singing and dancing was a significant feature of performances, along with mime.
Singing and dancing was a significant feature of
performances, along with mime.
The biggest Roman tragedy of all? No early Roman tragedy plays survive today. It’s only through the work of historians and other documentation that we know how highly regarded tragic productions were in Roman theater throughout the Roman Republic.
Earlier Roman tragedies were notable for their use of chorus, a device not widely used in other genres at the time. This development was in direct contrast to Greek theater, which typically featured chorus sections regardless of the genre of play. Other than the use of chorus, early Roman tragedies aren’t believed to have followed a specific format. However, several different plot devices are thought to have been used.
With a selection of Seneca’s works surviving, more is known about the devices he used to captivate and entertain audiences.
Although it is known that Roman comedy based in Roman settings was popular during the Roman Republic era, none of these works survive today. Instead, all surviving Roman comedies are either direct adaptations of Greek plays or plays written in Latin but with Greek settings or subjects.
However, adapted plays would often have been unrecognizable from the shows performed in Greece, owing to the level of changes made before they were presented to Roman audiences.
Scenes were often set in the street, outside of the home of the main character or characters. This gave playwrights an easy device for creating comedy out of characters being frustrated; they could simply go “into their house!”
A typical plot device was using a minor character who would eavesdrop – intentionally or otherwise – on a conversation. These characters would then inform the main characters, advancing the story. This act itself would sometimes be unintentional, giving playwrights another device for creating humorous situations and audience engagement.
In terms of individual playwrights, several Roman comedies written by Plautus and Terence survive today.
At the time, Plautus was regarded as the founder of modern on-stage comedy. As a result of his work, plays again grew in popularity and became a feature of Roman festivals and celebrations.
Terence was born around the same time Plautus died and started writing plays at a relatively early age compared to most Roman playwrights. While Terence is equally celebrated and influential, he was also heavily criticized for much of his work. A trademark of Terence’s plays was combining the plots of several Greek plays into one. This often led to convoluted, complex, and sometimes nonsensical plots that audiences didn’t enjoy.
As well as the use of familiar scenery and plot devices, it was also typical for Roman comedies to utilize a "stock" cast of characters. While this gave all comedies a similar structure and made it easier for audiences to identify the specific roles being played, it didn't lead to plays feeling repetitive. If anything, it helped playwrights of the age showcase their expertise in taking the same characters and telling new stories in each production.
In total, there were seven characters routinely found in Roman comedies.
A typical Roman comedy would see the adulescens spending his time pursuing love, often of a girl thought to be a street prostitute or slave, known as the virgo. The girl would later be revealed as being “free-born,” meaning she could marry the adulescens.
Sometimes, the adulescens would have a sidekick. This was usually a slave character who would try and solve the adulescens' problems or prevent him from getting into trouble. As you can imagine, in a Roman comedy, this wasn't always successful!
At face value, he always seems to have his son's best interests at heart. He wants to do everything to maintain and improve his relationship with him.
However, the role of the senex wouldn’t always be clear cut.
Depending on the play and the story being told, he might:
- Discourage his son from pursuing the girl he’s in love with
- Help his son win the love of the girl he’s in love with
- Be in love with the same girl as his son, although he’d never win her love
Typically, the senex’s involvement in a Roman comedy ended when his angry wife, the matrona, found him and dragged him back home, a scene that was always good for raising a laugh from the audience!
This character would often create a moral dilemma for the audience. They would never break the law but would generally be seen as immoral and unpleasant individuals.
Typically, this character is a soldier who projects an arrogant attitude while, in reality, being a gullible coward.
However, while the parasitus was a suck-up, he wasn't loyal and would be happy to turn to wherever he could get attention, cash, or food and drink.
The parasitus would often take advantage of the gullible nature of the miles gloriosus for selfish ends.
The matrona would be considered a hugely sexist depiction today! She was presented to the audience as annoying, temperamental, and nagging her husband. However, she was usually concerned with making sure he wasn't pursuing love interests elsewhere, rather than nagging him for the sake of it.
When the matrona did find the senex in the company of another woman, or his affairs came to light through the eavesdropping plot device we highlighted earlier, she would usually be forgiving.
In contrast to her manner towards her husband, the matrona displays unconditional love to her children and always does what she can to help them achieve their desires.
Despite being a central character in many Roman comedies, the matrona often wouldn’t be a speaking part!
She's a unique character, as she doesn't usually feature in the play as a visible performer. Instead, the virgo is spoken of throughout.
The virgo would typically come to prominence at the end of a play with the revelation that the adulescens could marry her. In some productions, it is at this point she would be revealed to the audience, but there would often not be anyone playing the role at all.
Despite very few Roman plays surviving to this day, many notable Roman playwrights were influential at the time, with many seeing their influences live on for centuries.
It is known that he was born in Italy. Still, more comprehensive details of his life's journey around the Mediterranean are unknown. Livius initially worked for a wealthy family in Rome, translating notable Greek works into Latin. He later founded a school where his translations were a critical component of children's education. His translations and productions were later performed for the Roman public and became hugely popular.
Livius was a significant influence on Plautus, who would often take famous Greek plays and re-work them to be relevant and appealing to the humor and tastes of citizens of Rome. Around 20 works of Plautus survive today, with English translations of all of them widely available.
All of Seneca's works were tragedies, although he wrote various other materials such as essays and letters that covered a wide range of societal and moral issues.
While around a dozen plays are attributed to Seneca, it's widely accepted he wrote only eight 100% himself. At least two plays, Hercules Oetaeus and Octavia, are generally accepted to have not been written by Seneca. However, he may have written an earlier version or at least have been the inspiration for these writings.
A handful of Seneca's works survive today, with even those not believed to have written being attributed to him in many modern translations!
Unfortunately, Gaius' influence isn't as strong as it may have been, as other playwrights' attempts to mimic his work often ended in failure, which perhaps led to people unfairly dismissing his work. That said, he remained popular himself, and his plays would attract substantial audiences throughout the 1st century CE.
If something wasn’t the work of God, binary thinking and attitudes at the time meant it was the work of the Devil!