Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 15.

A. J. Boyle, Roman Tragedy. London: Routledge, 2006. Pp. ix + 303. ISBN 0-415-25103-6. UK£12.99.

Mairead McAuley
King’s College, Cambridge

A. J. Boyle has dedicated a generous portion of his career to reviving, advancing, and invigorating scholarly interest in the tragic compositions of Seneca the Younger. With Senecan drama currently basking in the glow of a number of sophisticated studies,[[1]] his latest foray into Roman tragedy, this time a general overview of the genre and its evolution, is thus both timely and valuable. On the back of Seneca’s rehabilitation, Roman tragedy has lately become the object of (limited) attention: the recent books by Florence Dupont (1985) and Mario Erasmo (2004) stress the genre’s cultural importance in Rome,[[2]] but, as Boyle points out, offer little guidance to the scholar or student unfamiliar with the fragmentary material and the historical contexts in which pre-Senecan tragedy developed. His introduction seeks to fill this gap, to provide ‘a cultural and theatrical history of Roman tragedy which not only plots the history of theatrical techniques and conventions, of generic formation and change, of the debt of playwright to playwright and text to text, but traces the birth, development and death of Roman tragedy within the case of Rome’s evolving institutions, ideologies and political and social practices’ (p. x). No mean task, but one in which the book largely succeeds, against considerable odds.

Boyle wisely adopts a chronological approach to the largely fragmentary evidence of tragic texts and tragic performance in Rome. Eight chapters trace the maturation of tragedy from its primitive beginnings in Etruscan and Greek performance to its acme with Accius during the Republic and Seneca in the early empire, and culminate in the ‘death of serious tragedy’ (p. 221) in the second and third centuries CE. Boyle’s general approach is conventional enough for an introduction -– he carefully places each playwright and theatrical or literary innovation in social, political, and historical context -- but the picture that emerges is complex and frequently fascinating. Unlike Erasmo and Dupont, Boyle refrains from pushing a single over-arching argument about Roman tragedy; instead he develops selected themes across the book while accumulating a plethora of individual insights.

Chapter 1, ‘Staging Rome’ (pp. 3-24), charts the archaic birth of Roman drama and its establishment as a central feature of Roman life by the third century BCE. Boyle posits that the pedigree of Roman drama was more ancient than the legend of the first performance of a play in 240 BCE (Cic. Brut. 72) and assesses evenly the conflictual evidence. He gives an assured account of the hazy origins and functions of Roman dramatic genres such as the fabula praetexta and emphasises the important religious aspect of the ludi scaenici, frequently overlooked. A key component of his general thesis is also introduced: that theatricality pervaded Roman culture even before the birth of Roman drama itself. Boyle (p. 250, n. 26 and p. 252, n.73) contests Mario Erasmo’s argument[[3]] that it is anachronistic to apply the concept of theatricality to Roman life ‘offstage’ until the emergence of Roman theatre (since, prior to that theatricality could not have been recognised as such). For Boyle, Rome was ‘always already theatrical’ (p. 3); from its inception, the city’s social and political life was conducted through a complex series of displays and performances which enacted and validated hierarchical power relations, individual authority, and civic identity. The fluid and unstable relationship between tragic performance, tragic audience, and political elite is here established as a central theme of the book: as theatre became a core feature of Roman public life, the populace’s growing thirst for spectacle becomes apparent in the increasing splendour of the productions and theatrical space (although permanent theatres in Rome were forbidden until 55 BCE). In 194 BCE this culminated in the edict prompted by Scipio Africanus, reserving seating in the orchestra for senators only, thus marking the point at which the theatre becomes, in Boyle’s words, ‘a mirror of the city’s social hierarchy’ (p. 23). The theatre audience itself has become a part of the display.

Chapter 2, ‘Founding fathers’ (pp. 27-55), and Chapter 3, ‘The Second Wave’ (pp. 56-108), examine the careers and extant fragments of the first Roman tragedians: Livius Andronicus and Gnaeus Naevius in Chapter 2, and Ennius and Pacuvius in Chapter 3. From existing source-texts, Boyle plausibly hypothesizes a variety of Livian and Naevian innovations, among them Livius’ adaptation of the plots and metres of Greek tragedies into Latin and Naevius’ practice of contaminatio and invention of the fabula praetexta. The pace picks up in Chapter 3, in line with the (comparatively) more plentiful material: quotations and discussions of fragments are fleshed out intelligently with to-the-point historical and cultural detail on how aristocratic patrons, military victories and the social and moral climate of the time will have affected the contemporary reception and meaning of each play. The author sticks to his brief, repeatedly stressing the centrality of the theatre in Roman public life and the increasing sophistication of the Roman audience, which, by Ennius’ time, was clearly conversant with the generic conventions, plots and styles of both Roman and Greek tragedy. In underscoring their engagement with contemporary reality, Boyle succeeds in making the remnants of Ennian and Pacuvian drama come across as urgent and topical as well as stylistically inventive. He alerts the reader to the way in which Ennian adaptations of Greek plays (for example, his Medea Exul) incorporate terms ‘central to the Roman elite’s political and moral image’ (p. 87) like virtus or libertas, and contextualises Pacuvius’ philosophising in terms of the ‘flood of ideas, philosophies and ideologies now entering Rome from the East’ (p. 91).

The oeuvre of Accius, the dominant figure of Republican tragedy, forms the topic of Chapter 4 (‘Tragic Apex’, pp. 109-42). Boyle brings his expertise in Senecan drama to bear on Accian tragedy, arguing that it articulates its world through a ‘self-displaying language’ (p. 119), glorying in high and often gruesome spectacle, such as cannibalism (Thyestes) or ritual self-sacrifice (Decius). Boyle is particularly interesting on the terms of Accian tragedy’s engagement with contemporary concerns of the late Republic: for example, Accius’ dramas of the Theban and Argive cycles, Boyle suggests, ‘confirm[s] the genealogical pride of the Roman nobility by presenting . . . its negative mirror image, sagas of inherited evil blood’ (p. 125) -– but if so, they surely hold a mirror up to its more dysfunctional elements in this period too: the internecine jostling for power, the escalating anxiety about class and gender transgressions. Boyle notes how tragedy began to permeate political reality, as figures such as Scipio Aemilianus appropriated literature for self-enhancing ends (p. 123), surrounding themselves with a grex (‘herd’ -- but also ‘theatre company’) of intellectuals and writers. The complex infiltration of tragedy into politics and politics into tragedy is a theme that is developed compellingly in the remaining chapters of the book. It is a relief, however, that Boyle rarely deploys the term ‘metatheatrical’;[[4]] although a useful concept, which he explored illuminatingly in Seneca (1997), it is too often applied carelessly to Roman tragedy to describe any kind of interrelation between onstage reality and that of the audience.[[5]]

Chapter 5, ‘Canonisation and Turmoil’ (pp. 143-88), outlines the political function of tragedy at the end of the Republic. Boyle’s treatment of the interplay between theatre and audience in constructing a play’s contemporary meaning is particularly successful: he cites, for example, how in 57 BCE the actor Aesopus transformed his performance of Accius’ plays, Brutus and Eurysaces, into an appeal for Cicero’s recall from exile, to uproar from the audience (Cic. Sest. 120-24). Even Caesar’s assassins, executing their tyrant in the portico of the Theatre of Pompey, showed consciousness of tragic precedents (Cic. Phil.. 2.28, p. 158). During this period, the audience, if not the actors, ensured that politics were never far removed from the events depicted onstage: Cicero describes the theatre as tantamount to ‘an assembly and court of the people’ (Ad Att. 2.19.3) in a passage which forms the epigraph to Boyle’s whole book. In Chapter 6, ‘Roma theatrum: the early empire’ (pp. 160-88), the melodramatic politics of the late republic morphs into the theatricality of public life under the Julio-Claudians. Augustus’ exploitation of the power of spectacle sets the paradigm for the rest of the Principate. But while the number and splendour of ludi scaenici were increased (or restricted) by successive emperors, it seems that fewer tragedies were written. Under autocrats like Caligula or Nero, public life itself became a form of performance and the ludi a volatile and dangerous space used by both princeps and spectatores for political ends (p. 178). Boyle’s discussion of Tacitus and Seneca’s (biased) accounts of the collapsing boundaries between public and theatrical reality under Nero is particularly incisive.

Chapter 7, ‘Seneca's Tragic Theatre’ (pp. 189-219), as expected, is richest in literary exegesis and insight. Boyle commences with an account of Seneca’s career, then tackles the question of authorship, the debate on Stoic elements in the dramas, and his favourite thesis that the plays were written to be performed. Unlike the other chapters, which treat (fragments of) individual plays, this chapter elaborates a thematic approach across the corpus. Many analyses are adapted from Boyle’s previous publications on Seneca and fit well into this general digest, although a few passages, particularly those describing the ‘palimpsestic world’ of Neronian culture (pp. 206f.), are composed in rather confusing and hyperbolic language,[[6]] and sit less well with the otherwise lucid political and historical detail of the rest of the chapter (and book). This is a minor quibble, however; the chapter as a whole is a nuanced and informative introduction to Seneca. The final chapter, ‘Tragedy and Autocracy’ (pp. 221-38), discusses the demise of the genre and the only surviving tragedies after Seneca: Hercules Oetaeus and Octavia -- the latter treated most extensively. Boyle covers the scholarly debates surrounding Octavia, advancing arguments with regard to its date, generic features, literary merit and ‘political semiotics’ (p. 226), not least the ‘metahistorical’ (p. 229) act of putting ‘Nero’ onstage. Although spectacle and theatricality were of fundamental social significance in the new dispensation, evidenced by the construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre, writing became an increasingly risky business and popular preference was for mime, Atellan farce, gladiatorial battles and ‘fatal charades’.[[7]] Boyle eloquently articulates how the fate of Roman tragedy is sealed in the second and third centuries CE, as the theatre’s function as political space was subsumed by the increasingly brutal powerplay of the arena.

A significant merit of this book is that a major part of each chapter on the pre-Senecan tragedians comprises quotes, accurate and often resonant verse translation and astute commentary on many of the extant fragments from the authors’ plays. Boyle does not shy away from analysis of individual fragments: with especially truncated ones, he restricts himself to prosody or rhetorical figures, while others are pressed harder (but always judiciously) for historical, linguistic, or imagistic significance. This makes the book of great practical value to undergraduates and graduates, while its cultural and historical focus, which manages to encompass broad contextualisation and significant detail, consolidates its usefulness to students of literature and history. Naturally, questions remain: why is it, for example, that the only complete surviving Roman tragedies are those of Seneca or ‘pseudo-Seneca’? Boyle does not address this issue and, indeed, rarely alludes to the context in which an individual fragment itself has survived. Even a general introductory discussion of the vagaries of transmission would flesh out the story of Roman tragedy’s afterlife in post-antiquity, besides highlighting problems and techniques for explicating such fragmentary texts. That aside, Boyle’s scholarship (particularly the useful footnotes and bibliography) cannot be faulted; his vividly-written and well-executed book is a valuable -– indeed essential -– intervention in the study of Roman tragedy.


[[1]] See, for example, A. J. Boyle, Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition (London 1997); A. Schiesaro, The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama (Cambridge 2003); C. A. J. Littlewood, Self-representation and Illusion in Senecan Tragedy (Oxford 2004).

[[2]] F. Dupont, L’acteur roi: le theatre dans la Rome antique (Paris 1985); M. Erasmo, Roman Tragedy: Theatre to Theatricality (Austin 2004). Others include O. Ribbeck’s foundational study, Die römischer Tragödie in Zeitalter der Republik (Leipzig 1875; repr. Hildesheim 1969); R. C. Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience, (Cambridge, Mass. 1992); G. Manuwald (ed.), Identität und Alterität in der frührömischen Tragödie (Würzburg 2000).

[[3]] Erasmo [2] 18.

[[4]] Boyle himself seems to fall into this trap on pp. 65f., although he defines precisely what he means in his footnotes (p. 250, n.26 and p. 252, n. 73).

[[5]] A problem occasionally encountered in Erasmo [2], who nevertheless also makes many interesting points about metatheatre in Rome.

[[6]] They are lifted almost verbatim from the introduction to his commentary on Troades: A. J. Boyle, Seneca’s Troades (Leeds 1994). See also Boyle (1997), Chapter 5.

[[7]] Cf. K. M. Coleman, ‘Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments’ JRS 80 (1990) 44-73.