While the Greeks granted drama great dignity and importance f in their festivals, the Romans officially regarded drama as merely entertainment to keep people amused. Yet, the Romans produced some of the most important playwrights in the Western tradition.
During Rome’s early years, the Romans did not develop their own artistic standards or works. Instead, they borrowed from the peoples they conquered and whose cultures they absorbed. They regarded the sacred dances of the Etruscans, their neighbors to the north, as the origins of their theater, although they also adopted plots and whole plays from the Greeks. Greek plays translated and adapted into Latin became the staple of Roman drama.
Both tragedies and comedies were popular during much of the Roman Republic*. Roman tragedies are serious plays about heroic figures and important moral issues. Comedies are more light-hearted plays that focus on the drama of family relationships; these generally have happy endings in which the young man usually wins his bride. For the most part, the writers of Roman tragedies used Greek plays as their models, although some of their works were also based on themes from Roman history and mythology. Plays based on Roman themes were deeply patriotic and appealed to the Romans’ serious view of their own importance.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
Unlike the Greeks, who maintained high standards for their theatrical works, the Romans considered drama to be valuable only as entertainment, not as art. They borrowed extensively from the Greek dramatists, often reworking earlier plays for Roman audiences. Roman theatrical masks like these demonstrate one way in which the Romans continued Greek traditions.
After about 85 B.C., tragedies were rarely performed in Rome. Roman audiences had come to prefer comedies. Unlike the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes, the Roman comic poets avoided making direct political commentary. Their plays provided a pleasant escape for their audiences, featuring singing, dancing, and even acrobatics. As in Greek theater, the actors wore masks. The chorus, a central feature of Greek drama, disappeared almost entirely from Roman comedy, but music remained important. Flute players provided background music, while the main actors sang solos during the play, somewhat like modern musical comedy.
Theatrical companies operated as businesses. Each acting troupe was headed by a dominus, or manager, who played the main roles, haggled over fees and scripts with playwrights, and negotiated with civic authorities for permission to stage plays in temples, marketplaces, or arenas. Until Pompey built his theater in 55 B.C., Rome did not have a theater specifically for plays. To keep costs low, theatrical companies depended on the labor of both slaves and poor free men. Managers kept their companies small, and each performer had to play two or even three parts in a single play. In addition, actors had to sing, dance, and perform stunts, such as acrobatics and pratfalls*. As all farce* tends to be, Roman comedy was physically demanding.
Roman drama was also a means of attracting voters. Officials or wealthy individuals who wanted to win votes in an upcoming election sponsored lavish festivals, including plays, for the public. Other entertainments, however, were drawing audiences away from the theater. Unable to compete with such crowd-pleasing spectacles as combats between gladiators*, wild-animal shows, and other games, Roman drama eventually disappeared. The rise of Christianity during the Roman Empire dealt a death blow to drama, since Christian critics regarded any imitation of life in the theater as immoral.
Three writers provide the best surviving examples of Roman drama. Plautus, the most popular author during the Roman Republic, wrote comedies, as did Terence, a slave who was eventually freed by patrons* who recognized his comic genius. Many of their plays portrayed the comic side of family life, much as television situation comedies do today. The tragedies of the philosopher and statesman Seneca (the Younger), which were based on Greek models, were probably intended to be read to private assemblies. Although they are effective in the theater, there is no evidence that they were performed for public audiences. (See also Drama, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Games, Roman; Literature, Roman; Theaters.)
* pratfall a fall on one’s buttocks
* farce light dramatic composition marked by broad comedy and an improbable plot
* gladiator in ancient Rome, slave or captive who participated in combats that were staged for public entertainment
* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter