Wednesday, November 16, 2016


T. P. Wiseman, The Roman Audience: Classical Literature as Social History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 327. ISBN 9780198718352. $109.99.

Reviewed by John Van Sickle, Brooklyn College (

Version at BMCR home site


To orient his public, Wiseman charts Rome's centuries from 1300 BCE to 2015 CE, approximating dates—first public space implying performance and audition (ca 700 BCE); performed media first recorded ("literature": ca 250 BCE); "classic" literature, first permanent theaters (ca 100 BCE to 100 CE); pagan performance quashed, Rome sacked (ca 400-500 CE)—with six chapters for the "classic." Greeks got access to papyrus for writing ca 530s (epos soon conscripted); Romans only ca 273 established relations with Egypt (now Ptolemaic), obtaining papyrus to record "sung and spoken speech." Given the import's cost, Wiseman infers that "only the rich could collect books;" citing correlative evidence that literature presupposed performance, as when scholiasts refer to "hearers" not readers. He concludes that "the cultural heritage of the Greco-Roman world was transmitted through speech, song, and stage performance. You didn't have to be able to read."

Twitting bibliocentric predilection of the ilk of Kenny, Lowrie, Bing, Wiseman bolsters his performative premise with recent archaeological evidence for Greeks pervading Italic shores from ca 800—Rome's very name Greek "strength." By "reasonable inference," he populates the Hellenoid new polity's new public spaces with performances like those recounted by Homer,1 going on to relate Stesichoros' myth of Heracles-lionkiller to the terracotta Hercules from Sant'Omobono at Tiber's crossing. Wiseman also cites new evidence from Cerveteri of a "proto-theater" close to a cult site of Dionysius, Demeter, and Persephone; and he adduces abundant Dionysiac images from Rome (ca 500), along with signs of Pan and Evander's Arcadians.

Fostering audience in the forum, Gaius Maenius added rostra (338) and balconies (318), where audition alternated between "speaking" days (fasti) for official hearings and "non-speaking days (nefasti) for hearing "a prophet or a storyteller, or ... praises being spoken or sung from the same rostra from which a consul or tribune had addressed them the previous day."

Asking what was watched "from Maenius' balconies," Wiseman cites mythological performances illustrated on painted pots: "plots of Athenian drama, like those of Homeric epic, ... international, a cultural common ground familiar to speakers of Latin, Oscan, and Etruscan[, and] . . . dialects of Greek." He infers familiarity with performance types describable "equally as drama or Dionysiac ritual" with imitations of satyrs, silens, nymphs, auletes, Pan; and he evokes the lost phlyakes of Rhinthon, so-called "cheerful tragedies" or "fooleries," inferring for mid-third century audiences a melange of tragic parodies "in a Dionysiac context of revelry and eroticism."

To mid-third century Wiseman also traces Fabius Pictor's account for Greeks of the Ludi Romani (cited by Dionysius of Halicarnassus): including again Dionysiac displays. He reports expansive Rome's inceptive intercourse with Alexandria, where the librarian Eratosthenes of Cyrene knew Arcadian Evander introduced "Pan at the Lupercal" and the foundation myth—Romulus grandson of Aeneas; while library terminology—poets "taught" their works, used by Callimachus of Cyrene—was imported for the Roman literature that began with Livius. Around 240 BCE began the new games of Flora (27 April-3 May)—also spectacular and erotic. Wiseman cites reports of Livius' and Naevius' works stored in writing, the latter's Saturnian Bellum Punicum a scriptura continens later articulated into seven scrolls.

Texts now being recorded (viz too Plautus, Terence), Wiseman seeks to infer "the physical context of their performance." He emphasizes elite reaction against popular interests— suppressing bacchanals as alien (186 BCE, despite the Dionysiac tradition documented by archaeology), thwarting permanent theaters (154 and 107 BCE). Within the cultural practice adopted as Greek "theater" and "scene," along with Latin ludi, "games," the people's space was cavea, "cage" (or hive: implicit georgic metaphor?).

Wiseman supposes a contrast between playwrights—poets, sc. "makers," who invented characters to stage—and writers of epic, who likewise reached beyond elite to popular audiences, but by staging themselves as inspired singers—Latin vates—reincarnating the divine visionary of Greek epic, enthralling crowds—like the magnetic rhapsode of Plato's Ion (ironical though that was) or an Irish fiddler. To his performative premise, Wiseman bends philological industry, emphasizing Ennius' claim that his poemata will be famed latos per populos, though scanting the hexameter poet's scorn for old Saturnian—versibus quos olim fauni vatesque canebant — and claim to Alexandrian philology.2 No word of importing Muses' statues; yet the performative premise breathes breath into Ennius' neglected other works, fueling also attention to the praise oratory reported by Polybius and to Cato's emphasis on the populi Romani gesta.

In sobering detail, Wiseman recalls how "the historic compromise between the interests of rich and poor, patrician and plebeian" was destroyed by the aristocracy's murderous "avarice and arrogance" (by murders from the Gracchi to Caesar). He sketches the briefly restored equilibrium when Lucilius satirized the rich to the popular audience, succeeded by Varro addressing the crowd in modus scaenatilis ("stage style"): Varro lies behind Cicero's praise (argues Wiseman) of dramas where famous characters converse—Euripides with Menander, Socrates with Epicurus. Varro himself composed "a philosopher's banquet hosted by the narrator," again entertaining the crowd.

Wiseman fulfills his title's promise by vivifying the "polarized politics" of four decades after 70 BC, when the people defied the elite to confer extraordinary commands: Pompey and Caesar returned with extraordinary wealth that provoked the elite, prompting lively literature (Catullus, Lucretius), propelling Cicero to the rostra and forum: his letters (deftly mined) document disdain for popular festivals and strife with the patrician turned populist, Clodius. In 55 BCE Pompey used the wealth from conquest to give the people the first stone theater, taking a hint from Mytilene—his personal historian's hometown—where he heard poets celebrate his victories. Regarding the new theater's programs, lack of testimony forces inference: what ludi or mimes—"we know" Publilius, Laberius, Valerius Catullus, "evidently the famous poet." 3

Supposing the huge new permanent stage along with the customary venues (forum, circus, temporary scaffolds before temples), Wiseman applies his performative premise to classics: Lucretius (sweetening philosophical argument with Ennian honey), Caesar (commentaries no longer a proconsular report to the senate but a novel address to his source of power, the people), Catullus (reciting not just inter amicos but for a real matrimony, also staging—his Attis implying dancers and a virtuoso performer, his Peleus and Thetis apt to fill the new huge stage with Bacchic display and corps de ballet).

Wiseman highlights Caesar's games in 46 (celebrating victory over Pompey) in two theaters Latin and Greek (metonymy for languages)—to the latter Caesar assigned his sister's grandson and presumptive heir, Octavian, to give him production experience: Greek spectacles (ludi graeci flourished at Rome in the second and first centuries, insists Wiseman. Roman audiences would see, he infers, Syracusan classics—Epicharmus, Rhinthon, Sophron, Theocritus. Wiseman cites Pliny on magical spells from Theocritus, Catullus, Virgil, whom he imagines discovering Theocritus at the ludi Octavian organized, hence Virgil's claim to his first play (ludere) in Syracusan verse. (e6.1).

Capping his critique of elite arrogance, Wiseman argues that despite Caesar's clemency to foes, they murdered him, provoking his heirs to retort in kind, resorting also to broad seizure of rural properties. Cicero silenced, Wiseman seeks clues to the Roman audience (42-28 BCE) in eclogues, histories (Sallust and Livy), satires, georgics. The audience now included "desperate refugees" fleeing land seizure as well as "victorious veterans ...throwing their weight around," which Wiseman relates the first eclogue's bitter drama. As to the eclogues, later commentators "knew that they were sung on stage"; and, Wiseman adds, "we know" the sixth eclogue was sung by a "leading mime actress;"4 while "the poet as vates" in the fourth eclogue "promised ... an age of peace ... [in] conscious reversal" of Catullus.Yet Wiseman's masterful account of Pompey's theater neglects its attached portico, where Catullus' friends flirted, and sculpture garden stretching almost to the curia at Largo Argentina where Caesar was killed.5 Suggestively though he links Virgil's imagined watery palace of Cyrene to the monumental fountains with which Agrippa endowed Rome.

From glances at Horace, Ovid (Fasti in particular), the story turns ironical, after "Caesar Augustus has banished the People's favorite, and the 'three theaters' are policed by the Praetorian Guard." He draws hints of performance from Manilius, Tacitus, Persius, Statius, citing memory of "the great tradition of Roman popular power" in Octavia, and quoting Apuleius (Florida) on the power of performance. He sniffs out "evidence for mass audience history" across the empire and cites confirming evidence from Lucian, whose dialogues ("it is reasonable to conclude") were "performed on stage." In closing, Wiseman points to performance also of old classics, of mythological commonplaces on sarcophagi mediated by drama (Seethiasos), and cites Christian polemics not only against the traditionally erotic spectacles but even against the Aeneid more seen on stage than read.

Dense notes and original texts that support the argument appear at the end ordered by page and key themes, along with a generous index and bibliography—itself a monument to Wiseman's scholarship. Parsing turns up a minimal note: the oxymoron, "some who would secretly assert" (Livy 1.16.4), translates aliquos qui ... taciti arguerent, not argueret.

This book provokes and fuels productive dialogue, e.g., regarding Virgil's eclogues. Wiseman calls "2 and 8 dramatic with narrative frame," but 7 "fully dramatic." He thus ignores how Virgil deploys frame narrative in both 7 and 6, bringing back and revising for metapoetic ends both figures featured in the drama of 1. In 7 Virgil revised the figure of the unsettled citizen-farmer, Meliboeus, with metapoetic resonance for his entire oeuvre; but in 6, Virgil revised Tityrus, the figure for which Wiseman provides specific clues for "reasonable" inference: Tityrus shown at ease to play (ludere) thanks to "that god" at Rome, which plays to the Caesars' exploitation of theater, introducing the vatic, Caesarist vision that builds to "vatic" 4 and the dead and defied Daphnis of 5—gripping an audience used to topical, mythological, vatic, paratragic, comical, tragic variety in mimes. The crowd's clamor combined with Octavian's theater smarts would explain why performances were frequent (crebro).6 Moreover, Wiseman's reminder that Varro staged fictive dialogues between disparate figures invites reconsidering eclogues, where Virgil stages his friend Gallus once raised from erotic wandering to Helicon, yet again prostrate, lovelorn in Arcadia, visited by Menalcas, Apollo, Pan, told by a nymph of old Arcadia and meant to be read by a contemporary diva of the stage.


1.   Apt to add to the silva of citations would have been "Poetry and Ancient City: The Case of Rome," by Nevio Zorzetti, Classical Journal 86 (1991) 311-329.
2.   Cfr e.g., Sander M. Goldberg, Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic. Cambridge: The University Press, 2005: 24-25, and the Alexandrian stamp of dicti studiosus.
3.   Absent from M. Skinner, although allowing "convivial recitation": A Companion to Catullus. Blackwell, Oxford: 4.
4.   Rejecting "chronologically unlikely" link to Cicero, rationalized as scholiastic play by R. Höschele, "From Ecloga the Mime to Vergil's Eclogues as Mimes: ein Gedankenspiel. Vergilius 59 (2013) 37-60, who doubts the performance for which Wiseman offers cogent background.
5.   Neglecting too the portico fountain with its oblique Virgilian cadence, flumina sopito quaeque Marone cadunt ("streams that fall from slumbering Maro," Propertius 2.32.11-14).
6.   Cfr my Virgil's Book of Bucolics. The Ten Eclogues Translated into English Verse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2011: 28-35.

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