Nine complete Latin tragedies, and two disconnected scenes from another, survive from the first century A.D. This is all the dramatic literature that remains from Imperial Rome: for that period, there are no comedies. From Republican times, we have 26 comedies and fragments from about 100 Republican tragedies. These fragments add up to more than 1500 Unes - but most are only single lines, or even half-lines, and no fragment is more than 12 lines long.
Merely as bulk, this is not much to set beside the corpus of drama surviving from 5th and 4th century Athens; and the unquestioned greatness of the Athenian dramatists makes it impossible for us to compare Greek and Roman in terms o f bulk only. The Latin playwrights have in every sense been put in second place. From Renaissance times to the present day, readers and critics have almost invariably judged Roman drama as altogether slighter than the Greek: a derivative, somewhat uneasy genre, in the Republic comparatively crude, and in the Imperial age already decadent.
Derivative Roman tragedy certainly was in its origins, fo r both content and form; but the manner and style of our surviving Republican fragments can be called crude only if we assume that the writers must have worked with the same aims as those of earlier Greek dramatists, and imitated them badly. Similarly we can call the Imperial tragedies decadent only if we employ an Attic yardstick to measure all their qualities.
The critical assumption that an Attic yardstick is appropriate for Roman drama is one that post-Renaissance Readers have found hard to avoid. The lineaments of the well-made play, la pièce bien faite, can be seen in the work of European critics long before Sarcey. This model was derived, as everyone well knew, from Aristotle's Poetics. The derivation was not unassailable; what was erected into a canon of dramatic practice was frequently what Aristotle was thought to have meant rather than anything he is known to have said.
To apply supposedly Aristotelian canons is not always appropriate even for Greek tragedies, some of which are not at all "well made"; but it is certainly true that the Roman ones that we have are even less amenable to measurement by such standards. This comparison is, however, irrelevant to the real merits of the texts we are going to discuss. The Greek influence on Roman drama has to be recognised and defined, and it proves to consist in elements surprisingly external to the plays themselves. An Attic or Aristotelian yardstick cannot usefully be applied to them at all.
What we wish to do, in this study, is to look directly at the surviving Roman tragedies and appraise them as works sui generis.
That so small a quantity of Latin tragedy has survived is a misfortune that must make our judgments cautious; but we do know a good deal more than the fragments themselves would tell us.
We know the names of more than 30 playwrights, and of about 150 lost tragedies, written during the three centuries from 240 B.C. onwards. (240 was the year when the first play in Latin, an adaptation by Livius Andronicus from a Greek original, was presented at Rome).
This production is recorded for us by Livy the historian (1), who describes Andronicus' use of a narrative structure as a bold innovation. Livy says nothing about what kind of plot the play of 240 B.C. had, but it must certainly have been a version of some Greek text. Of the 8 or 9 titles of Andronicus' tragedies that are known to us, five deal with Trojan War subjects, and the rest with legends of raped or tormented women (Danae, Tereus, Andromeda, perhaps Ino). Livius Andronicus was, it seems a Greek by birth (2); but the themes chosen by native Roman writers such as Ennius, Naevius, and Pacuvius in the next century show a similar fidelity to the traditional Greek range of plots: Trojan War, the Theban cycle, and afflicted heroines (occasionally an afflicted hero such as Telephus). The few exceptions to the use of Greek material in tragedy were the plays known as praetextae, whose plots were drawn from Roman history. Legend and mythology were at all periods the regular sources for tragic plots. The extant tragedies from the Imperial age, with one exception, use the same kind of material.
In form also it is clear that Roman dramatists followed Greek tragedy very closely, though there is reason to think that the lost plays of the Republican theatre used Greek formal elements more flexibly than the writers of the early Empire did. The surviving plays of Imperial date adhere strictly, at almost every point, to Greek forms. 'Episodes', in iambic trimeters, using no more than three actors, alternate with Choruses in lyric metres. Sometimes the Chorus takes a minor part also in the dialogue of an Episode. There is regular use of traditional items such as the narrative messenger-speech, and the Agon or scene of confrontation between two antagonists, often partly conducted in stichomythia (the rapid exchange of single-line speeches). Experiments in dramatic form were not of interest at this time, though to Naevius and Ennius, three centuries earlier, they evidently were (3). These men wrote for a theatre which was native and rapidly developing; in the first century A.D. this was no longer true.
The Roman adherence to Greek models, in subject and form, suggests a continuity of dramatic tradition, smoothly adapting itself to a different language and milieu. But in the course of this adaptation the nature of the material, and o f the form, did change in essential ways. ............................