Latin literature, popular
- Luca Graverini
Any attempt at defining popular literature with some precision is fraught with difficulties. A flexible and pragmatic approach is the most rewarding, since it allows one to look at the subject from a few different viewpoints: “popular” can be understood as referring to the Roman people as a whole, or only to its lower social strata; a text can be defined as popular because it has been composed in a popular milieu, and/or because it addresses a popular audience. A mode of reception of literature can also be labelled “popular.” The traditional Roman elite only conceived literature as something useful, which could and should contribute to the instruction of its readers and to the well-being of the State. However, gradually a different attitude emerged: one that appreciated literature, and especially narrative, mostly or even only for its pleasurable and escapist qualities, sometimes even without any concern for its cultural sophistication.
This rather loose definition allows us to discern a popular streak in many literary forms. For example, it is often surmised that ancient drama addressed the Roman people as a whole, without distinction of social class or cultural level. Other forms of theatre, such as Atellanae, mime, and pantomime, had a more farcical nature and were especially favoured by a less sophisticated public, but at least on some occasions they made some demands on the education of their audiences and contributed to the diffusion of traditional Roman culture. Non-elite social classes had literary activities of their own, especially during the Empire, when literacy increased. These texts are extant especially thanks to epigraphical sources, and are often written in an unsophisticated and colloquial language. Narrative in its various forms could address very different audiences, but the possibility of reading a good tale for entertainment more than for instruction was always open, for sophisticated novels such as Apuleius’s Metamorphoses as well as for simpler tales and collections of mirabilia. Edifying Christian narratives were programmatically written in order to be understandable to and appreciated by a large and not necessarily cultured public, whose faith they intended to strengthen and promote. Playful poetry and didactic literature also had a space among midlevel literary activities.
Horace’s famous odi profanum vulgus et arceo (C. 3.1.1: “I hate the profane crowd, and keep them away”) is certainly one of the most commonly quoted lines of Latin poetry—so much so that it is difficult to avoid some sense of paradox when speaking about “popular Latin literature.” Yet it could be argued that Latin literature was born as a popular phenomenon. Livius Andronicus, normally considered the first Latin author, translated the Odyssey into Latin; the archaizing and solemn language he adopted cannot completely obscure the fact that translating a text is also a way of popularizing it. The same is true for Roman theatre, initiated by Livius himself; the plays by Plautus and Terence, for example, are clearly connected to a very learned and sophisticated Greek tradition, but (just like their Greek models) they probably addressed a large and not necessarily learned audience; more or less the same can be said about tragedies, despite their lofty language and content. The separation between elitist sophistication and popular tastes appears to be a later phenomenon, more evident during and after the late Republic, and one that never affected Latin literature as a whole.1 While there certainly existed, during both the Republic and the Empire, a literary production that did not compromise on the cultural demands it made of its readers, the ever-increasing diffusion of schooling and literacy contributed to blurring the distinction between sophisticated and popular. On the one hand, especially during the Empire, education created a larger potential audience for literature of various kinds (and in some cases, as we will see, not even illiteracy was an insuperable obstacle to the circulation of literary themes); on the other, it allowed the emergence of amateurs who “played” at literature.
It is therefore difficult to specify precisely what the field of popular literature is. A rather restrictive definition would include only texts both produced and read in a literate but non-scholarly and unsophisticated milieu, characterized by themes and language that can be described by one or more adjectives such as informal, low, vulgar, dialectal, rough, frivolous, minor, or peripheral. Owing to the selective nature of textual transmission in the Middle Ages, we have only very fragmentary knowledge of a few of these texts, mostly through indirect tradition or inscriptions, and their authors’ identities are often lost. A less restrictive selection, however, would also include texts produced by learned authors but addressed to, or at least enjoyable by, a wide audience. “Popular,” then, is what addresses the people as a whole, a composite public encompassing different social and cultural strata and characterized by different preferences. Another approach, finally, would be to consider the motivations behind the production and/or consumption of literature. The traditional Roman aristocratic ideology valued only literature with useful content (promotion of civic values, moral or philosophical education, etc.), but different and less committed audiences could appreciate the entertainment value over the usefulness (the dulce over the utile) of a written text: it was also possible to read for pleasure more than for instruction.
It is necessary to point out that the boundaries of the literary space these three definitions of popular literature characterize, both individually and as a group, are somewhat nebulous. A very flexible and pragmatic meaning of “popular” will be adopted in this article: on different occasions, one or more aspects will be considered, such as the style and language of a text, the breadth and composition of its intended audience, and the mode of its reception. The following sections, therefore, are not rigidly organized according to these criteria; generally speaking, and with more than a few exceptions, the first and fourth sections consider texts addressed to a popular audience; the second section includes some texts produced in a popular milieu; and the third section deals with a non-elitist mode of consumption of literature with a particular focus on narrative.
The same difficulties arise with the term “literature,” which also seems to resist any precise definition: again, a very flexible approach will be adopted, in which literature is considered as any written text that goes beyond the simple needs of daily communication. Especially the second section will discuss some texts so remote from the canon that they are rarely or never anthologized in standard textbooks.
The exact composition of theatrical audiences—both intended and real—in the age of Plautus and Terence is the subject of much scholarly debate; for the limited scope of this essay, however, we can generically assume that they included men and women from various social and cultural strata. Recent studies especially emphasize the high sophistication and even Callimacheanism of ancient comedies, but playwrights and actors apparently had to cater to very different tastes and needs, and to compete for their audiences with less cultured entertainments such as those provided by boxers, tightrope walkers, gladiators, and hunting games. Comedies mostly used easily understandable language and included elements that could appeal to a rather unsophisticated crowd, such as slapstick scenes, obscenities, and wordplays; but they could also display a more literary style and a good deal of artistry in the construction of the plot, in the formation of the characters, and often in the language itself. Tragedies, cothurnatae or praetextae, were also likely to address diverse audiences; in fact, we can surmise that the same people who attended the ludi sat (or stood) in theatres for both comedies and tragedies. Drama was not only focused on entertainment: as Horace (Ars 343 f.) points out, instruction was also an integral part of theatrical poetics. For example, the more aristocratic and conservative spectators (but not necessarily only they) would have been pleased by the typical gnomic wisdom and the many serious and thought-provoking passages that distinguished both comedies and tragedies. In short, ancient drama was popular because it addressed the Roman people as a whole and kept it united. It both reflected and supported the Roman social and political structure: it is not by chance that the ludi were promoted by public officials (mainly the aediles), and publicly funded—although the organizing magistrates, in order to garner praise and to support their political careers, usually supplemented those funds with their own. The audience itself, at least after 194 bce (Livy 34.54), reflected the hierarchical organization of the state, since the senators were assigned a privileged, separate seating area. The same privilege was often given to magistrates, knights, and benefactors: Senatus Populusque Romanus, all together but each one in his place, in life as well as in the theatre.2
Indeed, Roman theatre combined laughter and entertainment with abstract ethical and social reflection. As compared to Classical Greek theatre, however, it was much less prone to engage explicitly in contemporary political debate; a notable exception was apparently Naevius’s famous satirical attack on the Metelli, fato Metelli Romae fiunt consules, “by fate the Metelli become consuls at Rome” (playing on the ambiguous meaning of fato, “fate/doom,” and in any case excluding the possibility that the Metelli could actually deserve the power they exercised). Roman theatre “could please and impress, but ought not to unsettle the audience by raising troublesome issues or questioning fundamental principles as understood by those exercising social and political hegemony.”3 Its implicit support for the establishment and political power, together with its popular character, became even more evident during the Empire, when the Emperor mostly assumed direct control of munera and ludi—perfect occasions to garner popular favour and to convey subtle (or not so subtle) ideological messages.4
The creative era of literary Roman theatre did not last long, but theatre itself lived on and thrived during the late Republic and the Empire: old plays were occasionally revived, and mime, pantomime, and other popular shows attracted large and ever more enthusiastic audiences. The focus was most of all on the virtuoso acting of performers; the text, and therefore the literary aspect of drama, usually was either unoriginal or reduced to a rough plot outline used as a guide for the actors’ improvisation. Yet some literary texts of a clearly popular character were still produced for the stage. Old Atellanae (comic sketches much shorter and less complicated than comedies), Oscan in origin, acquired a Latin literary form at the beginning of the 1st century bce with Pomponius and Novius, by whom a number of titles and fragments survive. The genre was also practised during the Empire, not only by staging revivals of old plays but also with new and original performances. Information about these later authors and their work is scarce, but they clearly found great favour with the people despite featuring jokes that were often unacceptable to those in power: Tacitus (Ann. 4.14.3) reports that Tiberius brought forward a motion before the Senate according to which “the old Oscan farce, once a wretched amusement for the vulgar, had become at once so indecent and so popular, that it must be checked by the Senate’s authority”; Suetonius (Gai. 27) tells us that Caligula sent a poet of Atellanae to the stake right in the middle of the amphitheatre, because of an ambiguous line he had delivered.5
The wide popularity of mime encouraged some writers, such as Publilius Syrus and Decimus Laberius, to push the genre beyond its improvisational nature and produce mimic texts, several fragments of which are extant. The focus on virtuoso acting, the intensive use of farcical situations, and the exploitation of vulgarities and even obscenities did not obliterate a more reflexive and even cultural side of mimes, which was perhaps more appealing to some in the audience, but rejected by none. In fact, the bulk of what we know of Publilius Syrus is a collection of his sententiae, moral maxims which were excerpted from his mimes and arranged in alphabetical order; Seneca was particularly fond of their high moral and philosophical qualities (Tranq. 11.8; Epist. 8.9 and 108.8). A fragment of Laberius (50a Panayotakis = 90–97 Bonaria) even mentions “Democritus of Abdera, the natural scientist,” and one must assume that some or even most in the audience could have at least a rough idea of who he was. Unfortunately, we do not know much about ancient pantomime libretti, but they apparently existed: music and dance could be accompanied by a narrated and/or sung text, which could be written down although it was not usually intended for autonomous consumption. The poet Statius, for example, wrote an Agave for the pantomime Paris (see Juvenal 7.86 f.). An example to the contrary is the show described by Apuleius (10.30–34), which does not involve any narration. Surviving titles and secondary evidence attest to a variety of bucolic and mythological subjects, and to several reworkings of themes treated by such poets as Virgil and Ovid. Despite their often humorous and farcical character, despite their large and popular audiences, all these popular theatrical genres contributed to the preservation and diffusion of Rome’s cultural memory.6
Popular Entertainments and Culture: Rhetoric, Epigraphical Texts, Colloquial Latin
A theatrical audience was not necessarily literate, since no reading was involved,7 and it was likely also comprised of people with little or no schooling. Yet, as we have seen, at least some degree of culture was clearly needed for a full appreciation of what was said and done on stage. The same seems to hold true if we move to different contexts. Rhetoric is a highly performative genre, and it is not by chance that many of Apuleius’s speeches, anthologized in the Florida, were given in in the theatre of Carthage in front of large crowds. His pieces, writes Keith R. Bradley, “have to be regarded as a form of mass popular entertainment comparable to that provided by the other performers he situates in the theatre with the philosophus: the mime and the pantomime, the tightrope walker and the juggler, the comic actor and the tragedian.” Although in Flor. 9.7 Apuleius says he expects his audience not to forgive him a single solecism, the crowds who assembled to listen to him were probably as heterogeneous as those in front of which the plays by Plautus and Terence were performed, and “must … have comprised to a large extent the working population of Carthage and its environs.”8
Apuleius, of course, was by no means an isolated case: already Cicero had emphasized the almost natural critical attitude of the vulgus who listened to his speeches (De Or. 3.198; Orat. 168), and we know that poets, philosophers, and sophists declaiming in front of large crowds were not uncommon in the ancient world. The necessary, though generalized, conclusion is that at least some illiterate or semi-literate Romans had some interest in what we would now consider cultured discourse, and could have at least some understanding of it.9 Highly refined literature did not happen in a vacuum: mid- and low-level culture created a context that also allowed the existence of highly sophisticated and scholarly activities, and at least on some occasions provided a larger audience to them.10
In fact, a high degree of elitism has apparently influenced the transmission of ancient literature more than its production and circulation, so that our knowledge of lower-level texts is very fragmentary. Stones and walls, however, have preserved samples of what has not survived on paper. Thanks to inscriptions and graffiti we have some lines, and sometimes even the names, of otherwise unknown poets, the most studied of whom is probably Tiburtinus.11 He, or some of his fans, evidently thought that casual passersby could read and understand his poems transcribed on the wall of the theatre in Pompeii (CLE 934–935), and perhaps even appreciate his use of language and themes typical of the Latin tradition of love poetry. Most authors, however, remain anonymous, and their work is less sophisticated than that of Tiburtinus and a few others. It is quite common, for example, to notice prosody mistakes, uncertain syntax, and non-literary language in verse inscriptions; yet, for all these faults, these texts still have a literary character and display an intense and creative—if sometimes naïve—dialogue with better-known Latin poetry. CLE 950 (= CIL 4.5296, Courtney 92) is a good specimen of this kind of poetic inscription: the less-than-perfect prosody and some garbled sentences do not obscure a rather developed literary texture, which includes quotations from and allusions to Ovid and Lucretius. The person who scratched these verses on the wall is very likely responsible for most of their flaws, rather than their anonymous author, so this graffito also testifies to the diffusion of literary products through different cultural levels. The poem is followed by an incomplete line, written by a different hand, which contains another partial quotation from Ovid. It was apparently intended as a commentary on the poem, left by a casual passerby; literary dialogues, it seems, could take place even on the internal wall of a small private house in Pompeii. If we consider that these lines were probably composed by a woman addressing a female friend, or possibly a female lover, we can get an idea of the wealth and variety of literature that has been obscured by mainstream Latin culture, where relationships between women do not find much space; graffiti allow us at least a glimpse of this lost treasure.12
The works of Lucretius, Catullus, Vergil, Ovid, and other great poets did not live a secluded existence confined to the bookshelves of a narrow elite. Ancient cities swarmed with enthusiastic amateurs who were eager to recycle and adapt in their own verses the topoi and phrases used by the famous poets they had read at school or in their leisure time. Even those who were not able to compose original poetry could always reproduce, and in a way appropriate, the lines of the most celebrated authors: Virgil’s illustrious beginning arma virumque cano appears at least fifteen times among Pompeian graffiti, and quotations from other poets are also very common.13 This certainly does not mean that most inhabitants of Pompeii possessed a high and refined culture, yet it is at least a good indicator of the rather wide circulation of sophisticated literature in popular contexts.
Prose inscriptions as well can sometimes stand out and qualify as literature. Among the most extensive and interesting texts is the so-called Laudatio Turiae (ILS 8393, from the Augustan age), the encomium of an unknown woman who lived through the troubled times of the collapsing Republic and bravely protected her husband’s life and well-being. The latter, who commissioned or perhaps authored the encomium, was clearly a person of high rank; yet the plain style of the inscription does not appear to correspond to his elevated social status—being a member of the aristocracy did not necessarily imply possessing high rhetorical skills, or wishing to display them on every occasion. ILS 5795 is a remarkable example of narrative and technical writing: the report of an engineer, Nonius Datus, who designed and supervised the construction of an aqueduct in Algeria in the 2nd century ce. His prose is simple, but correct and clear; it shows the pride Datus takes in his work, and in the quasi-Odyssean (or, more appropriately, quasi-novelistic) character of his travel misadventures. Inscriptions like these were publicly displayed, and their simple language made them readily accessible to any literate passerby. Indeed, they were part of the cultural background of all the Romans, no less than the lofty elogia that adorned the forum in Rome.14
Inscriptions also reveal some features of colloquial Latin. Now, “colloquial” is a term whose definition is no less difficult than “popular” and “literature”; here it is used very generally in order to identify a kind of language which, for various reasons (related to e.g., orthography, vocabulary, morphology, and syntax), is distant from that used by the main classical authors. The language used in many inscriptions is apparently closer to the one used in their daily life by common people who were not particularly preoccupied with a strict adherence to the rules of formal communication. Some features of colloquial language appear in literary authors such as Plautus, Terence, Cicero (cf. e.g., Fam. 9.21.1, verum tamen quid tibi ego videor in epistulis? nonne plebeio sermone agere tecum?), Petronius, and Apuleius. And yet, inscriptions (as well as some papyri and wooden tablets) provide us with a more direct and less artificial source for these linguistic varieties.15
The inscription CLE 1559 (= CIL 6.13528, Courtney 188) is a sixteen-line epitaph for Bassa, “wife of the poet Laberius,” who authored the text. The poem is polymetric, including trochaic tetrameters, iambic senarii, hexameters, and distichs; this extreme variety already suggests the learned but unprofessional nature of these lines. They also contain several colloquialisms, due either to the author or to the inscriber, such as frugeus for frugifer (l. 1), varum for uvarum (l. 9), amplesast for amplexast (l. 10), and procaeram for proceram (l. 12); perhaps also itidest for eadem est (l. 16). The poem itself is simple, and mostly built around the usual topoi of tombstone inscriptions: the dichotomy between body and soul, the reunion of husband and wife in the same grave, the identity of death and birth. Epitaphs, of which we have abundant examples of various kinds, can in fact be considered an established and extremely widespread literary genre, characterised by its own conventions.16
Reading for Pleasure and Playful Instruction
The diffusion of literacy beyond the narrow circles of a learned elite, especially noticeable during the 2nd and 3rd centuries ce,17 created a new market for literature. Although literacy was never a mass phenomenon in the Roman Empire, a number of people outside the ruling class gained access to an education that allowed them to read and write confidently, beyond what little was needed for the narrow scope of managing a small business. These people were less attached to the ideal of “useful” literature than were the old aristocracy, and they did not see anything wrong in reading mainly, or even only, for entertainment and escape. Ancient novels also addressed this kind of audience; it is very likely, for example, that Apuleius’s intended readership (as well as that of most of the main ancient novelists known to us) comprised a variety of people, from those only interested in reading a good story to the most learned and sophisticated, who were attracted by the literary and philosophical qualities of the Metamorphoses.18
Generally speaking, we can say that narrative had a potential audience as large and heterogeneous as the one that can be envisaged for ancient theatre. For most Latin narrative, including Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, a vast readership is only an educated guess, but for at least one case there are very solid grounds to support this hypothesis. The late Historia Apollonii, written in a simple though not unrefined style, grew immensely popular from the late antiquity to early modern times, being attested in as many as 114 manuscripts and with a vast number of translations, adaptations, quotations, and allusions. Conversely, one must also take into account that a good part of the papyri and codices containing narrative texts are of good quality, apparently professional products for competent readers. Some Greek papyri also suggest that some narrative texts could be used for school teaching, together with the main authors of the classical tradition—another clue to their large popularity. This was probably true for Latin schools too, although proof is scarce. The main codex for Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, for example, contains a subscriptio at the end of Book 9; it shows that, at least at the end of the 4th century ce, the novel was used in rhetorical schools in both Rome and Constantinople.19
Less sophisticated readers also were the target audience of less sophisticated narratives than Apuleius’s novel, which simply offered fascinating stories of love, sex, and adventure. Their authors did not achieve long-lasting renown, but papyrus findings let us see that some Greek novelists obtained good success over a rather short period of time, almost like modern best-seller authors. It was indeed letteratura di consumo, literature conceived as a short-lived consumer good, written and read in order to offer occasional entertainment and escape. Information about the production and circulation of this kind of narrative is scarce, even more so for Latin culture, for which papyri offer little or no support. Yet we know that the passion for mirabilia was widespread, at Rome no less than in Greece, and at various cultural levels. Gellius is a good example of learned interest: at 9.4.1–5 he narrates how, at the end of a passage back from Greece, he found in the harbour of Brundisium a treasure of old books for sale containing fantastic Greek tales (libri Graeci miraculorum fabularumque pleni, res inauditae, incredulae), written by such authors as Aristeas, Ctesias, and Hegesias, which he immediately bought and read avidly. In less cultured contexts, fabulatores, circulatores, and aretalogoi often entertained their audiences on the streets with live performances that included the narration of good stories. Their repertoire drew from the mythical and literary tradition of the past, which they made more easily accessible by disseminating those stories orally among large and casual audiences. In a sort of closed circle, literary narrative, whether it addressed sophisticated readers or not, often took inspiration from the oral and folkloric tradition. We are rather ill-informed about ancient folklore, but abundant literary material, whose sources can be traced back to popular narrative, is available. Apuleius’s famous story of “Cupid and Psyche” (Met. 4.28–6.24), for example, is usually praised as a very sophisticated literary creation, but its folkloric roots have been recently reassessed. Despite its length and its highly refined literary texture, “Cupid and Psyche” can give us an idea of an ancient fairy tale: a popular narrative genre, especially practised in familiar contexts. Apuleius’s novel also contains several stories of magic and mystery, and at least for some of them a connection with folkloric narratives is hard to deny. The same can be said, for example, of the story of Chione in Ovid (Met. 11.291–345), a sort of Snow White tale presented in a mythical form. Even clearer is the popular connection of the ghost stories in Pliny’s Epistle 7.27, or those in Petronius 61–63. It is very likely that Apuleius, Ovid, Petronius, and Pliny (among many others) present us with literary versions of popular stories that could circulate both orally and in writing.20
In fact, there are remarkable traces of a learned interest in strange and marvellous events—natural phenomena, (pseudo-)historical facts, but also fantastic stories. Antonius Diogenes’s novel The Marvels beyond Thule is mentioned in learned contexts such as Servius’s commentary on Virg. Ge. 1.30 and Porphyry’s Life of Pythagoras (10–17; 32–45; 54–55), where it was apparently considered as a quotable source of information. Varro and Cicero wrote paradoxographical treatises, of which we have only fragments. The respectability of paradoxographical research, however, did not necessarily extend to fictional narrative, which was often regarded with suspicion and disdain by learned authors: Plato’s prejudices on the subject were often echoed by philosophers and scholars, who labelled incredible myths and fabulous stories as aniles fabellae, “old wives’ tales” that lacked any real educational value (see e.g., Plato, Resp. 2.377a–378d; Tht. 176b; Lg. 10.887c–e; Seneca, Ben. 1.4.5–6; Macrobius, Somn. 1.2.8). Narrators, of course, could not share this austere view. Old wives’ tales, for example, play an important role in Horace (e.g., the tale of the two mice in Sat. 2.6.77 ff.), Phaedrus (e.g., viles nenias at 3 pr. 10), and Apuleius, whose long tale of “Cupid and Psyche” is labelled an anilis fabella at 4.27.8. There is self-irony in the use of these expressions by narrators, who clearly valued their own work much more than a real old wives’ tale; yet, at least for Phaedrus’s poems, a circulation outside the narrow circles of the most learned elite is very likely (at least, he often complains he is not well accepted in those narrow circles: see e.g., 3 pr. 23).21
Narrative was not the only literary genre that could be practised at a low level and mainly for entertainment. It was common for a poet in false modesty to qualify his own work as nugae (“trifles,” e.g., Catullus 1.4), but sometimes this self-irony actually implied, if not necessarily a lower literary refinement, a more occasional nature and a less select audience for a poem. The December festivities, the Saturnalia, allowed people some free time which could also be used to read and write books on many subjects. Martial’s Xenia and Apophoreta (Books 13 and 14 of his Epigrams) are collections of short poems intended to accompany the presents that friends typically exchanged on those days. His verses could be appreciated both for their sophisticated, Alexandrian taste for short and witty descriptions and for their practical use; their readers were clearly not selected only among the members of narrow literary circles, although they were obviously literate and possessed some degree of culture.22 In a progressively more literate society, it is certainly not a surprise that books were also among the presents exchanged during the Saturnalia. Those mentioned by Martial in 14.183–196 are all classics, although not necessarily of serious and austere content (Homer, the Batracomyomachia, the Culex, Virgil, Menander, Cicero, Propertius, Livius, Sallust, Ovid, Tibullus, Lucan, Calvus). However, Ovid (Tristia 2.471 ff.) informs us of the existence of a different kind of literature that was very popular as a December gift. He lists treatises on how to play dice and several other games; on the different kinds of balls, and how to throw them; on how to practise different sports; on how to make a wine cup, and how to select the appropriate earthenware for different wines. On an even less sophisticated level were collections of jokes. The only one preserved to us is the Greek Philogelos, but Plautus twice has a character refer to similar books (Persa 392; Stichus 400).
According to Ovid, this playful didactic literature was mainly composed as a pastime during the long December holidays; and we can certainly imagine that such books, perhaps with an epigram like Marial’s Apophoreta attached to them, were commonly used as gifts during the same period. We do not know anything of their literary qualities. Perhaps at least some were sophisticated and well finished, but the fact that almost none of their authors’ names survived to us might be a sign that they were not deemed worthy of mention. Exceptions are few: we know that Suetonius wrote a book On the Games of the Greeks, and Isidorus (Etym. 69) mentions a Dorcatius who wrote On the Different Kinds of Balls, and Their Weights.
Edifying and Christian Narratives
Mirabilia were not only read for entertainment, curiosity, and diversion: a certain degree of instruction or edification often went with them. A particular kind of marvellous story was that which told of the miracles worked by Asclepius and other gods to the advantage of their followers. Reports of these wonders were often inscribed on votive tablets or on the walls of the temples, but sometimes they were also collected in books that could circulate freely; Aelius Aristides’s Sacred Tales is an example of how a sophisticated Greek rhetor could engage in this genre. These books and inscriptions were clearly meant for education much more than for entertainment; yet, since they were programmatically available and rather easily readable for everybody (and even illiterates could listen to public readings of them), they can certainly be catalogued as popular narrative. Latin sources are less numerous than the Greek ones here, but the custom of recording miracles is attested for both pagans and Christians in the western part of the Empire too. For example, the late Passio SS. Quattuor Coronatorum reports that in 303 ce Diocletian “entered Rome and immediately ordered that the temple of Asclepius in the Baths of Trajan be restored … and when this had been done, he instructed that all the cures achieved in this very temple be inscribed publicly in bronze and posted.” Christian culture took on this tradition quite naturally: Augustine (Civ. 22.8.1 and 21) reports that accounts of miracles were collected, written down in books, and publicly read in order to strengthen the faith of the congregation.23
Hagiography is a more extensive exercise in a very similar narrative genre. The Apocryphal Acts, for example, clearly show a tendency towards fantastic stories, such as the miracle contest between Peter and Simon Magus in the Acts of Peter, performed in front of large crowds that attend to them in amazement. In episodes like this, Christian narrative offers its audience a kind of substitute theatre and an alternative to beast fights and gladiatorial games. Hagiography exploits many themes, both folkloric and literary, already popular in earlier narrative: magic (practised by Simon Magus, though it is not always easy to separate magic and religious miracles), exoticism and the gruesome customs of strange peoples (e.g., the Acta Andreae et Matthiae apud anthropophagos), anagnorisis (Rufinus’s Recognitiones), trial scenes (extremely frequent in all stories of martyrdom), and, generally speaking, the Odyssean theme of the travelling hero who has to undergo many ordeals. The main purpose of Christian narrative was to spread and reinforce faith; in order to achieve that, it masterfully exploited the widespread passion for fantastic stories, constantly trying to impress and amaze its audience the same way as pagan novels did. Many of these narratives were translated from Greek to Latin, which can be considered solid proof of their wide circulation. Their popular character is also suggested by the simple language and style they usually adopted, in order to be easily understood by as many people as possible—an attitude well described by Augustine’s well-known comment, melius est reprehendant nos grammatici quam non intelligant populi, “it is better for us to be berated by scholars than not to be understood by people” (Enarr. in Psalm. 138.20).24
Discussion of the Literature
There has been a good deal of scholarly activity on Roman popular culture in recent years; especially worth mentioning are the monographs by Nicholas Horsfall (2003), Jerry P. Toner (2009), Timothy P. Wiseman (2009), Emanuel Mayer (2012), and Cyril Courrier (2014).25 Terminology and focus are essential to the issue at hand. Wiseman, for example, focuses on the ideology and political action of the people much more than on their literary tastes (but see the last paragraph below on his 2015 monograph). Mayer aims at studying the culture of the “middle classes,” something that is very hard to define in Roman society; a good assessment of this difficulty is in Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s (2013) review of Mayer’s volume.26 Wallace-Hadrill also points out that, at least considering the available sources, it is impossible to draw a sharp differentiation between the artistic and literary tastes of upper and lower social milieux, an approach also adopted in the present essay, where differences in the production and consumption of literature have not been necessarily connected to different social contexts. Horsfall, Toner, and Courrier favour the use of terms like plebs and “popular” to circumscribe the cultural activities they discuss; their clear focus is on the lower strata of Roman society, and as a consequence they deal with socio-historical analysis, visual culture, shows, performances, and orality much more than with literary activities (with the partial exception of Horsfall).
However, focussing on popular literature implies dealing with written texts and with (mostly) literate audiences; popular literature, therefore, is necessarily something different and more selective than popular (or plebeian, or even middle-class) culture. The only thorough approach to popular literature has been offered by a collective volume edited by Oronzo Pecere and Antonio Stramaglia (1996).27 In his Premessa, Pecere points out that the diffusion of literacy originated a reading public which was much larger and more differentiated than that addressed by traditional, aristocratic literature: the various literary forms discussed here mainly addressed this new and composite audience, without necessarily excluding more sophisticated readers. A few years later, Stramaglia28 (1999) collected and studied a large number of Latin ghost stories, an overwhelmingly popular narrative genre. Around the same years, William F. Hansen published an anthology of Greek popular literary texts29; he mainly focussed on texts that reflected “an aesthetic that values easy and continued engagement, minimizing features that encourage detachment” (p. xv).
Narrative itself, in its various forms, constitutes the bulk of popular literature. Novels proper (a somewhat arbitrary definition that includes the five fully extant Greek novels, Petronius, and Apuleius) have a rather ambiguous status in this respect: modern scholarship first marginalized them, considering them as a low-level entertainment for unsophisticated readers, but then reassessed the literary texture and polish of at least some novels that seem to solicit the attention of a more cultured audience. The most recent approaches are especially attentive to nuances and differences between single texts, and in most cases advocate for a rather heterogeneous audience.30 Tomas Hägg has recently stressed the possibility of an oral diffusion of narrative, which of course would make it spread easily even to illiterates.31 Folklore scholars, without rejecting the literary refinement of ancient narrative, emphasize its many connections with oral tradition.32 New studies also tend to apply a similar approach to Christian narrative and hagiography, whose narratological elaboration is frequently highlighted, as well as the thematic intersections with ancient novels and pagan narratives.33
The popular nature of ancient Roman comedy and of its audience is the subject of much debate, especially in recent years. A classic, if somewhat extreme, position can be represented by George E. Duckworth, who maintained that “many of the so-called difficulties which some critics find in the comedies of Plautus and Terence emerge only upon minute and scholarly examination of the comedies.… The plays were written for single productions before audiences which desired entertainment and which viewed the plays far less critically than does the modern scholar.”34 While allowing a much higher degree of literary awareness in ancient playwrights, later studies often assume that theatrical audiences had a very heterogeneous composition which included the most learned elite but also people only provided with a basic education.35 Wiseman goes even further and maintains that not only drama but almost all Latin literary products had a performative nature and were written (at least in the first instance) for oral delivery to a large general public.36 Other scholars instead emphasize the high cultural sophistication, the rich intertextuality, and even the Callimacheanism of theatrical texts, and consequently argue for mainly aristocratic audiences.37
As for ancient tragedy, the traditional view that it addressed large and diverse audiences is widespread in contemporary scholarship.38 A recent assessment of its language and style by Hilla Halla-Aho and Peter Kruschwitz points out that “Roman tragedy needed to use elements of elevated speech that would be recognisable to the heterogeneous audience, which consisted not only of the educated upper classes of Roman society,” and that especially in emotional passages it frequently adopted a stylized and literary representation of common, conversational language.39
Primary Texts and Links to Digital Materials
A growing selection of relevant texts, including almost all those mentioned in the present essay, is available (both in the original language and English translation) on Luca Graverini’s Popular Latin Literature, which also supplies links to useful materials.
- Anderson, Graham. Fairytale in the Ancient World. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Beacham, Richard C. The Roman Theatre and its Audience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
- Citroni, Mario. “Marziale e la letteratura per i Saturnali (poetica dell'intrattenimento e cronologia della pubblicazione dei libri).” Illinois Classical Studies 14 (1989): 201–226.
- Courrier, Cyril. La plèbe de Rome et sa culture (fin du IIe siècle av. J.-C.–fin du Ier siècle ap. J.-C.). Rome: École Française de Rome, 2014.
- Courtney, Edward. Musa Lapidaria: A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995.
- Cugusi, Paolo. Aspetti letterari dei Carmina latina epigraphica. 2d ed. Bologna: Patron, 1996.
- Duckworth, George E. The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.
- Fusillo, Massimo. “Letteratura di consumo e romanzesca.” In Lo spazio letterario della Grecia antica, Vol. I: La produzione e la circolazione del testo; part 3, I Greci e Roma. Edited by Giuseppe Cambiano, Luciano Canfora, and Diego Lanza, 233–271. Rome: Salerno, 1994.
- Graverini, Luca. “Ovidian Graffiti: Love, Genre and Gender on a Wall in Pompeii, a New Study of CIL IV 5296–CLE 950.” Incontri di Filologia Classica 12 (2012–2013): 1–28.
- Graverini, Luca. Literature and Identity in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. Translated by Benjamin Todd Lee. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012. [Le Metamorfosi di Apuleio. Letteratura e identità. Pisa: Pacini 2007].
- Graverini, Luca, Wytse Hette Keulen, and Alessandro Barchiesi. Il romanzo antico: Forme, testi, problemi. Rome: Carocci, 2006.
- Hägg, Tomas. “Orality, Literacy, and the Readership of the Early Greek Novel.” In Contexts of Pre-Novel Narrative. Edited by Roy Eriksen, 47–81. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1994.
- Horsfall, Nicholas. The Culture of the Roman Plebs. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2003.
- Johnson, William A., and Holt N. Parker, eds. Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Pecere, Oronzo, and Antonio Stramaglia, eds. La letteratura di consumo nel mondo greco-latino. Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino, 1996.
- Rawson, Elizabeth. Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic. London: Duckworth, 1985.
- Scobie, Alexander. Apuleius and Folklore: Toward a History of ML 3045, AaTh 567, 449A. London: Folklore Society, 1983.
- Stramaglia, Antonio. Res inauditae, incredulae: Storie di fantasmi nel mondo greco-latino. Bari: Levante, 1999.
- Wiseman, T. P. The Roman Audience: Classical Literature as Social History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
1. See e.g., Mario Citroni, Poesia e lettori in Roma antica: Forme della comunicazione letteraria (Bari: Laterza, 1995), 31 ff.
2. For the scholarly debate about the composition of theatrical audiences see the section “Discussion of the literature.” On the organization of the ludi see C. W. Marshall, The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 20 ff., and 73 ff. on the heterogeneous composition of theatrical audiences. For the other shows organized during the ludi see Rush Rehm, “Festivals and Audiences in Athens and Rome,” in The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, eds. Marianne McDonald J. Michael Walton (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 193 ff. On the more literary style sometimes adopted in comedies, see George E. Duckworth, The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), 360. For an overview of seating privileges in ancient theatres see Frank Sear, Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3 ff.
3. Richard C. Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 16.
4. See e.g., Richard C. Beacham, “The Emperor as Impresario: Producing the Pageantry of Power,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus, ed. Karl Galinski (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 151–174.
5. On Atellanae see Gesine Manuwald, Roman Republican Theatre (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 169 ff.; on their history in Imperial times, S. Monda, “La cosiddetta Atellana imperiale,” Rationes Rerum 6 (2015): 121–147.
6. On Roman mime see Luciano Cicu, Problemi e strutture del mimo a Roma (Sassari: Gallizzi, 1988); G. F. Gianotti, “Forme di consumo teatrale: mimo e spettacoli affini,” in La letteratura di consumo nel mondo greco-latino, eds. Oronzo Pecere and Antonio Stramaglia (Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino, 1996), 265–292; and Costas Panayotakis, Decimus Laberius: The Fragments (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009). On pantomime, see Edith Hall and Rosie Wyles, eds., New Directions in Ancient Pantomime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
7. On ancient literacy see William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); and William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker, eds., Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
8. Both quotations are from K. R. Bradley, Apuleius and Antonine Rome: Historical Essays (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 142.
9. See e.g., Elizabeth Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic (London: Duckworth, 1985), 53.
10. See the section “Discussion of the Literature.”
11. On Tiburtinus see Paolo Cugusi, Aspetti letterari dei Carmina latina epigraphica (2d ed.; Bologna: Patron, 1996), 25 ff., with further literature.
12. On CLE 950 now see Luca Graverini, “Ovidian Graffiti: Love, Genre and Gender on a Wall in Pompeii. A New Study of CIL IV 5296–CLE 950,” Incontri di Filologia Classica 12 (2012–2013): 1–28; Kristina Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 191 ff. An anthology of epigraphical poems with English translation and commentary is provided by Edward Courtney, Musa Lapidaria: A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995).
13. See e.g., Marcello Gigante, Civiltà delle forme letterarie nell’antica Pompei (Naples: Bibliopolis, 1979); Kristina Milnor, “Literary Literacy in Roman Pompeii: The Case of Vergil’s Aeneid,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, eds. William Johnson and Holt N. Parker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 288–319.
14. On the Laudatio Turiae see Nicholas Horsfall, The Culture of the Roman Plebs (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2003), 119, with further literature. On ILS 5795, see Horsfall, Culture, 124 ff., and S. Cuomo, “A Roman Engineer’s Tales,” Journal of Roman Studies 101 (2011): 143–165.
15. For theoretical background on colloquial Latin and several concrete approaches, see Eleanor Dickey and Anna Chahoud, eds., Colloquial and Literary Latin (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Standard textbooks are Johann Baptist Hofmann, Lateinische Umgangssprache (3d ed.; Heidelberg: Winter, 1951); Veikko Väänänen, Introduction au latin vulgaire (2d ed.; Paris: Klincksieck, 1967).
16. On CLE 1559 see Courtney, Musa Lapidaria, 389; Cugusi, Aspetti lettari, 53 ff. For a linguistic approach to non-literary inscription see Veikko Väänänen, Le latin vulgaire des incriptions pompéiennes (3d ed.; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1966).
17. On ancient literacy seen. 7. Harris’s extreme claim that “there was no such thing as “popular literature” in the Roman Empire, if that means literature which became known to tens or hundreds of thousands of people by means of personal reading” (227) is rather self-evident, if one considers that there never was real mass production and mass diffusion of books in antiquity. His stress on “personal reading,” though, is important: as he points out (228), “the rustic and the uneducated,” such as those mentioned by Quintilian (5.11.19), probably listened to fiction more than reading it themselves. See also T. P. Wiseman, The Roman Audience: Classical Literature as Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
18. See Luca Graverini, Literature and Identity in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012), 198–200, on the intended readership of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses; and Luca Graverini, Wytse Hette Keulen, and Alessandro Barchiesi, Il romanzo antico: Forme, testi, problemi (Rome: Carocci, 2006) (an English translation is planned) for a general approach to the ancient novel. On the readership of the ancient novels see also Richard Hunter, “Ancient Readers,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel, ed. Tim Whitmarsh (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambdirge University Press, 2008), 261–271.
19. For the average quality of narrative papyri and the use of narrative texts for school teaching, see the various essays in Pecere and Stramaglia, Letteratura di consumo. The style of the Historia Apollonii has been recently reevaluated by Stelios Panayotakis, The Story of Apollonius, King of Tyre: A Commentary (Berlin and Boston: de Gruyter, 2012), 9 ff.; on its diffusion and Nachleben see e.g., Gareth L. Schmeling, “Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri,” in The Novel in the Ancient World, by Gareth L. Schmeling (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996), 550 ff. On Sallustius’s subscriptio see Antonio Stramaglia, “Apuleio come ‘auctor’: premesse tardoantiche di un uso umanistico,” in Studi Apuleiani, eds. Oronzo Pecere and Antonio Stramaglia (Cassino: Università, 2003), 129 ff.
20. For a definition of “letteratura di consumo” see Pecere and Stramaglia, Letterature di consumo. On fabulatores, circulatores and aretalogoi, Pliny’s Epistle 7.27, and other ancient popular tales, see Antonio Stramaglia, Res inauditae, incredulae: Storie di fantasmi nel mondo greco-latino (Bari: Levante, 1999); Horsfall, Culture of the Roman Plebs, 57; Cyril Courrier, La plèbe de Rome et sa culture (fin du IIe siècle av. J.-C.–fin du Ier siècle ap. J.-C.) (Rome: École Française de Rome, 2014), 578 ff. On ancient folklore, Graham Anderson, Fairytale in the Ancient World (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 43–60 on Snow White stories; William F. Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002). The most recent study on the folkloric origins of “Cupid and Psyche” is Emanuel Plantade and Nedjima Plantade, “Libyca Psyche: Apuleius’ Narrative and Berber Folktales,” in Apuleius and Africa, eds. Benjamin Todd Lee, Ellen G. Finkelpearl, and Luca Graverini (New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2014), 174–202. More generally, on Apuleius and folklore, see Alexander Scobie, Apuleius and Folklore: Toward a History of ML 3045, AaTh 567, 449A (London: Folklore Society, 1983).
21. On ancient paradoxography see G. Schepens and Kris Delcroix, “Ancient Paradoxography: Origin, Evolution, Production and Reception” in La letteratura di consumo nel mondo greco-latino, eds. Oronzo Pecere and Antonio Stramaglia (Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino, 1996), 428 ff.; Stramaglia, Res inauditae, 58 ff. For the literary topos of aniles fabellae see Graverini, Literature and Identity, 95 ff.
22. On the origin and readership of Martial’s Xenia and Apophoreta see Mario Citroni, “Marziale e la letteratura per i Saturnali (poetica dell’intrattenimento e cronologia della pubblicazione dei libri),” Illinois Classical Studies 14 (1989): 201–226.
23. On ancient collections of mirabilia see Marco Dorati and Giulio Guidorizzi, “La letteratura incubatoria,” in La letteratura di consumo nel mondo greco-latino, eds. Oronzo Pecere and Antonio Stramaglia (Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino, 1996), 346 ff. For the testimony offered by the Passio SS. Quattuor Coronatorum see Gil H. Renberg, “Public and Private Places of Worship in the Cult of Asclepius at Rome,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 51/52 (2006–2007): 87–172, 105 f.
24. See Gerlinde Huber-Rebenich, “Hagiographic Fiction as Entertainment,” in Latin Fiction: The Latin Novel in Context, ed. Heinz Hofmann (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 158–179. On Christian Latin, see e.g., Väänänen, Introduction au latin vulgaire, 17 ff.
25. Horsfall, Culture of the Roman Plebs; Jerry Toner, Popular Culture in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2009); Timothy P. Wiseman, Remembering the Roman People: Essays on Late-Republican Politics and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Emanuel Mayer, The Ancient Middle Classes: Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE–250 CE (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012); Courrier, Plèbe de Rome.
26. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, “Trying To Define and Identify the Roman ‘Middle Classes’,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 26 (2013): 605–609.
27. Pecere and Stramaglia, Letteratura di consumo.
28. Stramaglia, Res inauditae.
29. William F. Hansen, Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
30. See e.g., Massimo Fusillo, “Letteratura di consumo e romanzesca,” in Lo spazio letterario della Grecia antica, vol. 1, La produzione e la circolazione del testo; part 3, I Greci e Roma, eds. Giuseppe Cambiano, Luciano Canfora, and Diego Lanza, 233–271 (Rome: Salerno, 1994); Graham Anderson, “Popular and Sophisticated in the Ancient Novel,” in The Novel in the Ancient World, ed. Gareth Schmeling (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996), 107–113; and Graverini, Keulen, and Barchiesi, Romanzo antico, and Hunter, “Ancient Readers,” with further literature.
31. Tomas Hägg, “Orality, Literacy, and the Readership of the Early Greek Novel,” in Contexts of Pre-Novel Narrative, ed. Roy Eriksen (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1994), 47–81.
32. Scobie, Apuleius and Folklore.
33. Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, eds., Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005); and Marília P. Futre Pinheiro, Judith Perkins, and Richard Pervo, eds., The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections (Ancient Narrative Suppl. 16; Groningen, The Netherlands: Barkhuis, 2012).
34. Duckworth, Nature of Roman Comedy, viii.
35. See e.g., Beacham, Roman Theatre, 25 et passim; Manuwald, Roman Republican Theatre, 98. Amy Richlin, “Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience,” Classical Antiquity 33 (2014): 175–226, strongly argues for a large presence of slaves in theatrical audiences.
36. T. P. Wiseman, The Roman Audience: Classical Literature as Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
37. See e.g., Michael Fontaine, Funny Words in Plautine Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 184 ff.; Michael Fontaine, “The Terentian Reformation: from Menander to Alexandria,” in The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy, eds. Michael Fontaine and A. C. Scafuro (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 538–554; Alison Sharrock, Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Alison Sharrock, “Terence and Non-comic Intertexts,” in A Companion to Terence, eds. Antony Augustakis and Ariana Traill (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 52–68.
38. Besides the monographs mentioned at n. 35, see e.g., Robert Cowan, “240 BC and All That: The Romanness of Republican Tragedy,” in Brill’s Companion to Roman Tragedy, ed. George W. M. Harrison (Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2015); and Rehm, “Festivals and Audiences”.
39. See Hilla Halla-aho and Peter Kruschwitz, “Colloquial and Literary Language in Early Roman Tragedy,” in Colloquial and Literary Latin, eds. Eleanor Dickey and Anna Chahoud (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 127 ff.