Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 8.

T.P. Wiseman, Roman Drama and Roman History. Exeter Studies in History. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1998. Pp. xii + 228, incl. 9 black-and-white figures. ISBN 0-85989-560-2. UKú13.99.

Tom Stevenson
Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Auckland

Professor Wiseman is of course well known and influential, and this volume is no disappointment, dealing as it does with two controversial and interlocking themes: the origin of the historical tradition on early Rome, and the nature of drama and dramatic festivals in the Roman Republic. It is intended as a sequel to Historiography and Imagination, where Wiseman argued that the Roman historical tradition was largely created and perpetuated in dramatic performances at the Roman theatrical games (ludi scaenici) -- not only the regular annual festivals in honour of the gods, but also ad hoc celebrations for triumphs, funerals and the dedication of temples.[[1]] The desperately scanty evidence is interpreted as suggesting that producers and performers were creating and recycling tales of the Roman past from the fourth century BC to the time of the emperors. In similar vein, Wiseman's Remus: A Roman Myth argues that Remus was invented in the late fourth century BC through 'topical and partisan' dramatic performances at the public ludi.[[2]] This 'drama hypothesis' (p. x), an alternative to the old banquet-songs theory, depends on the likelihood that non-literary drama was a component of the Roman games before the earliest texts of Livius Andronicus (c. 240 BC). Although Wiseman is convincing in general, a nagging doubt persists. Livy, for instance, offers no support in his account of the origins of Roman drama.[[3]] It is also worrying that Varro appears to have had not the slightest inkling of such non-literary productions. Wiseman's answer is that 'Plays without texts would leave no evidence' (p. x, cf. p. 52), and it's hard to argue with that. He said roughly the same thing in Remus: 'by definition, non-literary story-telling (dramatic or otherwise) leaves no textual evidence behind'.[[4]] Yet ancient writers were very much concerned with origins, so Varro's lack of imagination continues to cause concern. It certainly stands out against the background of Wiseman's sustained defence of imagination and speculation (controlled by evidence and argument) as legitimate elements of the historian's toolbox.

After the contents page (p. vii), a list of illustrations (p. viii), and an introduction (pp. ix-xi), this stimulating book is comprised of twelve chapters and two appendices. The notes are collected at the back (pp. 168- 220), a practice economical for publishers but annoying for the serious reader. There is a very full index (pp. 221- 28), which includes modern authors mentioned in both text and notes (though Harriet Flower's entry omits the important note on p. 176 n. 98). The absence of a bibliography is lamentable.

Chapter 1, 'The History of a Hypothesis' (pp. 1-16), traces the history of the idea that dramatic performances played an inspirational role in the creation of the Roman historical tradition. A comprehensive accumulation of impressive scholarly names, beginning with Leopold Ranke in 1849, is offered in illustration of the longevity and varying fortunes of this idea. It is interesting to note the amount of scholarly attention that has been devoted to the fabula praetexta ('historical play'), the Roman form of historical drama which celebrated both past and recent historical events and figures. Many scholars have accepted the importance of this dramatic form, but a fundamental problem continues to obtrude. Despite the fact that the praetexta flourished for nearly three hundred years, from Naevius in the late third century BC to Curiatius Maternus in the late first century AD, and although Horace confirms it as an important part of Roman dramatic festivals (Ars Poetica 285-88), Otto Ribbeck could find only fifteen titles of known fabulae praetextae ('Roman historical plays') for three hundred years of theatre (pp. 2-4). As a result, sceptics, beginning with Gaston Boissier in 1893, questioned whether the genre really did catch on. Muenzer added the point that 'not everything dramatic has to come from a drama' (p. 6). Wiseman is characteristically firm in his answer to what remain the major problems for acceptance of his own arguments:

'One possible answer, conceded but not exploited by Boissier, is that topical dramas created for a particular occasion, such as games put on for a victorious general's triumph, could influence the way people thought about an event without the text surviving to be consulted in libraries. That is, only a few praetextae, by the greatest practitioners, would become literary classics quoted by later writers, the necessary condition for the survival of their titles and "fragments" in Ribbeck's collection' (p. 5).
This seems reasonable, as is Wiseman's opposition to the assumption that anything not directly attested in a literary source cannot have happened, especially if we don't ask whether such attestation can be expected anyway (p. 16). The difficulty comes with testing the hypothesis. We are left with trying to find traces of something we know little about (drama) in something else (history) that was formed from many influences. At the very least this renders problematic Wiseman's assertion that 'If such plays did indeed exist, one should be able to detect the traces of them in episodes of extant historical narratives in our sources' (p. x).

Chapters 2-6 argue for some possible examples of the influence of drama upon history. Chapter 2, 'Tales Unworthy of the Gods' (pp. 17-24), begins by taking issue with Mary Beard's thesis that Rome had no arena for myth-making or remaking, no context for the shared re-presentation of mythic stories such as was provided by the dramatic festivals of classical Greece.[[5]] On the contrary, Wiseman takes the line of Elizabeth Rawson that Rome had regular theatrical games (ludi scaenici) and that these dramatic festivals did serve as a focal point, a unifying social force.[[6]] The trouble is that we know little about them in comparison to what we know of the festivals and plays of classical Athens (p. 17). Both Varro and Saint Augustine disapproved of the undignified portrayal of gods on the Roman stage in what the latter described as 'tales unworthy of the gods' (p. 19). Though it could be a problem for religious purists like Varro, or Christian apologists like Augustine or Arnobius (p. 21), Wiseman is surely right to argue that the Roman response to their gods was complex, flexible and tolerant. Romans of the late Republic 'could both laugh at the gods and at the same time take them seriously as benefactors and protectors' (p. 24). There was no necessary conflict between piety, patriotism and cheerful entertainment. In fact, given that plays incorporating divine figures were among the sources for Ovid's Fasti, the general laughter which is a feature of Ovid's sex narratives 'may represent the audience's reaction at the end of a mime or similar risque/ comedy' (p. 24, cf. p. 72).

Chapter 3, 'Ovid on Servius Tullius' (pp. 25-34), focuses on Ovid, Fasti 6.569-636. The foil is R.M. Ogilvie,[[7]] who thought that everything related to Tarquin in Livy was drama 'all of the historian's own making', and that Livy was 'writing tragedy not copying it' (p. 31). Wiseman's rebuttal takes this form:

'Ogilvie's authority is powerful, but it is directed, in part at least, against a straw man. The question is not whether Livy "copied an actual play", with all the pejorative overtones of that verb when applied to a great creative artist, but whether the story he knew, and told in his own way, was a story he knew from having often seen it on the stage' (p. 31).
The question, as always, is: do we have here a dramatic historian or an historical drama? Whereas Ovid's source for 'the Tullia story' is often taken to be Livy, Wiseman thinks he probably used a theatrical source (p. 32). Livy's account will have been known to Ovid, but his main source was theatrical (p. 33). I was especially impressed by Wiseman's emphasis upon the window as an element in the story and the clues that this might give for the staging of his putative play (pp. 27f.).

Chapter 4, 'Two Plays for the Liberalia' (pp. 35-51), deals primarily with Livy's long account of the Bacchanalia episode in 186 BC (Livy 39.8-19). P.G. Walsh[[8]] feels that the first part of this account, whose heroine is the freedwoman Faecenia Hispala, 'is unique in Livy's pages in its approximation to a dramatic performance' (p. 43). Three possible reasons emerge: (1) the nature of the consul Postumius' report to the Senate; (2) Livy's attempt to cast his narrative in the form of a New Comedy plot; or (3) a dramatic source employed by the patrician historian A. Postumius Albinus (cos. 151). In favouring the latter, Wiseman argues that:

'The impact of the suppression of the Bacchanals on the theatre people of Rome must have been very substantial. How could the playwrights and actors who worked for the Liberalia festival limit the damage? One might expect such a play as Livy's text implies -- respectful to the powers that be, but with a heroic role for just the sort of woman from the Aventine who might be an object of suspicion. See how the Roman plebs are loyal and faithful . . .' (p. 48).
The second play mentioned in the chapter's title derives from Ovid's aetiology of the Matralia, the Roman festival of Mater Matuta on 11 June (Ovid Fasti 6.483-550). The flight of the murderous and deluded Bacchae places this story once again in the aftermath of 186, so that Wiseman finds another stage performance which combined comic, even erotic, entertainment with a serious patriotic message at the end (pp. 48-51).

Chapter 5, 'The Tragedy of Gaius Gracchus' (pp. 52-59), supports the suggestion of Karl Meiser, made as long ago as 1887, that there was a play on the tragic end of Gaius Gracchus which served as the 'ultimate source' (p. 57) for Plutarch's account (Life of Gaius Gracchus 14.4- 16.5), rather than dramatic writing by a historian or the drama of real politics. As an appropriate context for the performance, Wiseman suggests the first Plebeian Games after L. Opimius' exile in 110 BC, which falls nicely between the tribunate of G. Memmius in 111 and the election of Marius to the consulship in 108. The two doors in Plutarch are once more suggestive of staging (p. 55).

In Chapter 6, 'Crossing the Rubicon' (pp. 60-63), a play is thought to lie behind the appearance at the Rubicon of an extraordinary apparition playing a reed pipe (Suetonius Divus Iulius 32). Wiseman further speculates that G. Vibius Pansa, who may have been present at the Rubicon, may have produced a satyr-play as aedile in 48 BC which depicted Pan as Caesar's divine authority at the momentous crossing (p. 62). The string of speculations is certainly erudite, even attractive, but it rests unashamedly on educated guesswork -- it isn't even certain that Pansa served as aedile in 48!

In Chapter 7, 'The Poet, the Plebs, and the Chorus Girls' (pp. 64-74), Wiseman finds evidence for a play in Ovid's aetiological passage on the festival of Anna Perenna (Fasti 3.523-696). Ovid is made to create, from a dramatic source, not historical narrative but an explanation of a Roman ritual, the rites of spring, which are nonetheless set in a historical context, the secession of the plebs. The girls who wear togas (easily thrown open and hence suggestive of availability), dance, and sing 'whatever they have learned in the theatres', derive from the common ground of show-business and prostitution (p. 70). They are mimae, meretrices ('glamorous prostitutes', pp. 71, 74). Wiseman suggests that the girls sang indecent songs 'learned in the theatre', and that the aetiological story of Mars and Minerva is the plot of a mime, probably that of D. Laberius called Anna Peranna (p. 72). The laughter at the end is in keeping with derivation from a mime (p. 72).

Harriet Flower's work on aristocratic funerals, triumphs and temple dedications as settings for dramatic or quasi- dramatic performances celebrating the history of a gens (`family, clan') provides the springboard for Chapters 8-10 [[9]]. Each of these chapters furnishes an example of the Roman historical tradition seen from the perspective of a noble family. The link with the preceding chapters is the need to familiarise the Roman people (who voted magistrates into office) with the glorious histories of particular noble families. For this purpose coins, monuments, epic poetry, funeral oratory and plays could be used; another medium was historiography, 'for there was evidently a mass audience for at least some types of history' (p. 77).

Chapter 8, 'Valerius Antias and the Palimpsest of History' (pp. 75-89) starts from the premise that the Valerii had been elaborating their ancestral story long before Valerius Antias took up his pen in the first century BC. Wiseman looks for 'the Valerian element in twelve well-known episodes of early Roman history' (p. 78): (1) the treaty of Romulus and T. Tatius (pp. 78f.); (2) the calling of Numa (p. 79); (3) the avenging of Lucretia (p. 80); (4) the conspiracy against Tarquin (pp. 80-82); (5) Tarquin's field (pp. 82f.); (6) Horatius Cocles (p. 83); (7) Cloelia (p. 84); (8) the coming of the Claudii (pp. 84f.); (9) the first dictator (p. 85); (10) the battle of Lake Regillus (pp. 85-87); (11) the secession (p. 87); and (12) Coriolanus (pp. 87f.). It is plain that each of these stories was rewritten so as to provide a starring role for a member of the patrician Valerii. However, Wiseman finds enough shared elements and other chronological clues to conclude that they are the work of one author, who was operating 'between the exposure of the Catilinarians in December 63 [story 4] and Cicero's rewriting of the Brutus in 46 [story 11]' (p. 89). None of these twelve stories features in the surviving fragments of Antias:

'But who else could the Valerian annalist have been? Muenzer was surely right to assume that it was Valerius Antias who contributed this particular element to the palimpsest of history' (p. 89).
Wiseman applies similar detective work to the histories of the Minucii (Chapter 9, 'The Minucii and their Monument', pp. 90-105) and the Aemilii (Chapter 10, 'Rome and the Resplendent Aemilii', pp. 106-20). His familiarity with the topographical development of the city of Rome in the Middle and Late Republics is an especially strong feature of these analyses. The Minucian monument turns out to be a family tomb of fifth or fourth century BC date (pp. 91-94, 102), which was nonetheless variously interpreted (as tomb, honorific monument, altar and shrine) by later generations and commentators, who connected it especially with the career of L. Minucius the reputed praefectus annonae ('prefect of the grain supply') of 440/39. Wiseman feels that Licinius Macer, the anti-Sullan tribune of 73, was probably responsible for making L. Minucius an anachronistic praefectus annonae (p. 100), whereas he was perhaps a merchant caught up in the late fourth century elaboration of distinguished ancestries for members of the new plebeian elite (p. 104). Incidentally, recognition of this latter process throws doubt on whether the names in the early fasti are as authentic as Broughton thought them to be (pp. 98f., 105).

Chapter 10 does a brilliant job in evoking both the ancient obsession with regal status and the second and first century BC monuments which caused Syme to coin the phrase, 'the resplendent Aemilii'.[[10]] The early pages in particular (pp. 106-10) show the speculative historian at his best. Wiseman shows how the phrase in medio foro ('in the middle of the forum') could have been used for the Basilica Paulli, and he argues well that the Basilica Iulia was in fact begun by L. Aemilius Paullus (cos. 50) in 54 BC (p. 110).

Chapters 11 and 12 deal with (respectively) E.S. Beesly's use of history in radical politics of the 19th Century ('E.S. Beesly and the Roman Revolution', pp. 121-34), and with Sir Ronald Syme's exploitation of the novelist's art ('Late Syme: a Study in Historiography', pp. 135-52). Both these historians, in their very different ways, were preoccupied with the creation of narrative and the relationship of history to fiction. At first sight these chapters might appear an ill-fit with those which precede them. They are, however, final statements of the necessity for the use of controlled imagination by the historian. Beesly railed against the novelist's idea of history 'as the history of men and women, and nothing else' (p. 122), and against 'the literary esprit de corps too common among historians' (p. 130). He preferred to push the twin themes of 'imperial misgovernment and the violence of authority' (p. 128), and in doing so 'read the Ciceronian evidence with a sensitivity to popularis thinking unparalleled in any historian before or since' (p. 134).

In stark contrast, Wiseman argues that Syme had come to accept the value of narrative and imagination in the latter part of his career, partly as a result of working on the Historia Augusta. This seems a bit odd at first glance, for Syme's writing style grew more dense, obscure, elliptical, even sibylline in his latter years. In terms of the competing claims of argument and narrative, the former is harder to find in the great man's later works, whereas The Roman Revolution, Tacitus and Sallust are characterised by 'ruthless control of the material and focus upon a single argument' (p. 139). The later works, and Wiseman focuses upon The Augustan Aristocracy in particular (pp. 139-51), are marked heavily by inference and assumption. In a sentence loaded with self-justification, Wiseman writes 'Syme was never afraid of speculation' (p. 147). Syme himself called it 'rational conjecture' (p. 148), and whilst he urged historians to aspire to the coherence of fiction in order to achieve a coherent and intelligible narrative in the absence of adequate evidence, his real message was '. . . aspire to the coherence of fiction while eschewing most of its methods' (p. 151).[[11]] Thus it emerges that his most intractable writing comes from a period when he was dealing with the most intractable evidence. Syme would not collapse the distinction between fiction and history as critical theorists are inclined to do nowadays (p. 151).

Appendix A is a translation of Hermann Reich's essay, 'On the Sources of Early Roman History and Roman National Tragedy' (pp. 153-64), 'the most confident statement of the "national drama" hypothesis [favoured especially by German historians of the nineteenth century]' (p. 5). Appendix B gives evidence for celebrations of the ludi saeculares ('Centennial Games', pp. 165-67).

Even accepting the argument that controlled speculation or imagination is necessary in the work of an historian, one cannot escape the general and the particular difficulties. Where does one draw the line, and who does one trust? It might be easier to trust the likes of Syme and Wiseman, who have shown extraordinary interpretative abilities over the course of long careers, but neither, I think, would find it easy to lay down objective rules for what constitutes a legitimate string of speculation. Every individual case would need to be considered on its merits. In regard to the present study, there is no way to overlook the near-silence of later literary sources in support of Wiseman's 'drama hypothesis', or the problems which attend 'the Ranke hypothesis, the attempt to identify lost drama plots from episodes in the historians' (p. 15). Is it convincing to argue that non-literary productions leave no literary trace? My own reaction is to find Wiseman's thesis extraordinarily suggestive but less than fully convincing. I am in general persuaded but cautious about the relationship between Roman drama and Roman history.

One thing which Wiseman and his critics have in common is the identification of aristocratic competition as the crucial social and political impetus. This seems worthy of note. Harriet Flower emphasizes games at the dedication of temples and at aristocratic funerals, yet she attributes the paucity of evidence for pretextae to 'state control of aristocratic competition' which meant that they were rarely performed.[[12]] Wiseman's reply (p. 176 n. 98) is to quote part of Flower's analysis against her: '[the] meaning and importance [of praetextae] was inextricably connected to the spectacle itself in the context of the immediate political climate, and this helps to explain their ephemeral interest and the few fragments quoted by later authors.'[[13]] So they could have been more common and less curtailed by the state but nonetheless have left few traces. It depends which imaginative reconstruction you feel inclined to follow.

Wiseman is a fine writer for many reasons. He produces interesting and compelling theories for the specialist and yet never loses the common touch. Indeed, this book, in which all Latin and Greek is translated, has a style which should appeal, as the publisher intends on the back cover, to 'anyone with an interest in the ancient world'.


[[1]] T.P. Wiseman, Historiography and Imagination: Eight Essays on Roman Culture (Exeter 1994).

[[2]] T.P. Wiseman, Remus: A Roman Myth (Cambridge 1995) 158.

[[3]] Livy 7.2; cf. the reservations of J.W. Rich, in Classical Review 45 (1995) 368.

[[4]] Above [[2]] 141.

[[5]] M. Beard, 'Looking (harder) for Roman myth: Dume/zil, Declamation and the Problems of Definition', in E. Graf (ed.), Mythos in mythenloser Gesellschaft: das Paradign Roms (Stuttgart 1993) 44-64.

[[6]] E. Rawson, Roman Culture and Society: Collected Papers (Oxford 1991) 581.

[[7]] R.M. Ogilvie, A Commentary on Livy Books 1-5 (Oxford 1965) 186, 196.

[[8]] P.G. Walsh, Livy Book XXXIX (Warminster 1994) 5.

[[9]] H.I. Flower, 'Fabulae Praetextae in Context: When were Plays on Contemporary Subjects Performed in Republican Rome?', Classical Quarterly 45 (1995) 170-90.

[[10]] R. Syme, 'The Year 33 in Tacitus and Dio', Athenaeum 61 (1983) 12 = Roman papers IV (Oxford 1988) 233, whence the title of chapter 8 of The Augustan Aristocracy (Oxford 1986).

[[11]] R. Syme, 'Fictional History Old and New: Hadrian' (James Bryce Memorial Lecture, Oxford 1986) = Roman papers VI (1991) 157-81 (at 165); 'Greeks Invading the Roman Government' (Stephen J. Brademas Lecture, Brookline Mass. 1982) 28 = Roman Papers IV (1988) 19.

[[12]] Above [[9]] 190.

[[13]] ibid.