The Legend Of How A Plague Led To Rome’s Interest In Performance Arts

Livy (c. 59 BCE-17CE), the Roman historian who wrote the definitive narrative of Rome’s ancient monarchy and early republic, curiously claimed that the Roman people had no interest in performance arts before the mid 4th century BCE. Prior to that time, Livy proposed, the Romans cared neither for attending plays, nor did they desire to hear musicians harmonize and melodize with complex orchestrated tunes. According to the tradition that Livy wrote down, the Romans, before their mid-century artistic shift, had only occupied themselves with sports and athletics, while in regards to vocal arts, Romans kept to the most primitive and un-luxurious forms of rhyme and song. This boycott on music, literary art and non-athletic entertainment only ended, according to Livy’s origin tale, due to the direst of circumstances—an uncontainable plague.

As the legend goes, Rome was ravaged by a terrible plague around 365 and 364 BCE, and Rome’s citizens became quite distressed when their usual prayers and ceremonies did nothing to clear out the illness. Morale in Rome paricularly sank after the pestilence claimed the life of the legendary figure, Marcus Furius Camillus, who had been saving Rome in its times of need for decades. With their own religious ceremonies failing and their hero, Camillus, defeated by the unceasing plague, the Romans allegedly began scouring the cultures of their neighbors for new ways to please the gods. Presumably hoping to cultivate favor with godly patrons of the arts (such as the muses, Dionysus/Bacchus and Apollo), the Romans allegedly began frantically importing all sorts of performance arts. Once these artistic practices were imported, the Romans—youths especially, it seems—were loath to see these new forms of entertainment disappear after the plague subsided. Therefore, despite protestations from the older generations, the performance arts stayed. Livy’s account of this odd tale was as follows:

“Amongst their other ceremonies intended to placate divine wrath, they are said to have introduced scenic entertainments, something quite novel for a warlike people whose only previous public spectacle had been that of the circus. These began only in a modest way, as most things do, and were in fact imported from abroad. Players were brought from Etruria to dance to the strains of the pipe without any singing or miming of song, and made quite graceful movements in the Etruscan style. Then the young Romans began to copy them, exchanging jokes at the same time in crude improvised verse, with gestures to fit the words. Thus the entertainment was adopted and became established by frequent repetition. The native actors were called histriones, because the Etruscan word for an actor is ister; they stopped bandying ribald improvised lines, like Fescennine verses, and began to perform saturate or medleys amplified with music, the singing properly arranged to fit the pipe and movement in harmony with it” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.2).

Curiously, Livy would go on to admit that these imports of performance arts from Etruria did not ultimately save Rome from their plague. Quite the opposite, he claimed that a flood of the Tiber interrupted one of the new performances, which was an omen of godly disapproval that made the people more stressed than ever. According to the tale, it was a traditional ceremony in which a Roman Consul hammers a nail into a temple wall that lessened the impact of the plague—or perhaps the illness had just run its course by then. Nevertheless, the imported performance arts were there to stay.

Livy’s tale here is a strange one, to be true, but folklore and legend usually have a grain of fact bundled within the layers of fiction. The story admits to Rome’s ample borrowing of features that they fancied from surrounding cities and cultures. And, indeed, Rome did long lag behind the Greeks in fields such as literature and history. Greeks, such as Homer and Hesiod, were writing poetry in the 8th century BCE, and later Greek scholars, such as Herodotus and Thucydides, were producing histories in the 5th century BCE. It was not until the second half of the 3rd century BCE, however, that the Romans produced their own first wave literary trailblazers—the Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) and the first known Roman historian, Quintus Fabius Pictor, who published his text around 200 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Greco-Roman Ritual Dance, created by Angelo Monticelli (1778-1837) and engraved by Paolo Fumagalli, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the New York Public Library Digital Collections).



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