Reference address :

ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature
Constantinople Home Page  

Please note that Mommsen uses the AUC chronology (Ab Urbe Condita), i.e. from the founding of the City of Rome. You can use this reference table to have the B.C. dates


IV. The Revolution

From: The History of Rome, by Theodor Mommsen
Translated with the sanction of the author by William Purdie Dickson

The History of Old Rome

Chapter XIII - Literature and Art


Icon of the Christ and New Testament Reader

» Contents of this Chapter

Page 19


The farce appeared afresh at this period in the field of Roman literature. It was in itself very old:(9) long before Rome arose, the merry youths of Latium may have improvised on festal occasions in the masks once for all established for particular characters.

9. Cf. I. XV. Masks

These pastimes obtained a fixed local background in the Latin "asylum of fools," for which they selected the formerly Oscan town of Atella, which was destroyed in the Hannibalic war and was thereby handed over to comic use; thenceforth the name of "Oscan plays" or "plays of Atella" was commonly used for these exhibitions.(10)

10. With these names there has been associated from ancient times a series of errors. The utter mistake of Greek reporters, that these farces were played at Rome in the Oscan language, is now with justice universally rejected; but it is, on a closer consideration, little short of impossible to bring these pieces, which are laid in the midst of Latin town and country life, into relation with the national Oscan character at all. The appellation of "Atellan play" is to be explained in another way. The Latin farce with its fixed characters and standing jests needed a permanent scenery: the fool- world everywhere seeks for itself a local habitation. Of course under the Roman stage-police none of the Roman communities, or of the Latin communities allied with Rome, could be taken for this purpose, although it was allowable to transfer the -togatae- to these.

But Atella, which, although destroyed de jure along with Capua in 543 (Cf. III. VI. Capua Capitulates, III. VI. In Italy), continued practically to subsist as a village inhabited by Roman farmers, was adapted in every respect for the purpose. This conjecture is changed into certainty by our observing that several of these farces are laid in other communities within the domain of the Latin tongue, which existed no longer at all, or no longer at any rate in the eye of the law-such as the -Campani- of Pomponius and perhaps also his -Adelphi- and his -Quinquatria- in Capua, and the -Milites Pometinenses- of Novius in Suessa Pometia--while no existing community was subjected to similar maltreatment. The real home of these pieces was therefore Latium, their poetical stage was the Latinized Oscan land; with the Oscan nation they have no connection. The statement that a piece of Naevius (d. after 550) was for want of proper actors performed by "Atellan players" and was therefore called -personata- (Festus, s. v.), proves nothing against this view: the appellation "Atellan players" comes to stand here proleptically, and we might even conjecture from this passage that they were formerly termed "masked players" (-personati-).

An explanation quite similar may be given of the "lays of Fescennium," which likewise belong to the burlesque poetry of the Romans and were localized in the South Etruscan village of Fescennium; it is not necessary on that account to class them with Etruscan poetry any more than the Atellanae with Oscan. That Fescennium was in historical times not a town but a village, cannot certainly be directly proved, but is in the highest degree probable from the way in which authors mention the place and from the silence of inscriptions.

Previous / First / Next Page of this Chapter

Do you see any typos or other mistakes? Please let us know and correct them

The History of Old Rome: Contents ||| The Medieval West | The Making of Europe | Constantinople Home Page

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Receive updates :

Learned Freeware

Reference address :