What is Roman Comedy?

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Roman Comedy

There are very few plays extant from this period of Ancient Comedy

The only complete Romans Comic plays that we have are twenty plays by Plautus and six plays by Terence (these authors were writing in the third and second centuries BC)

Although tantalizingly we have many fragments of plays from other authors which indicate that this period was particularly vibrant

The play of this period that you will be studying is Pseudolus by Plautus

Plautus and Terence both wrote plays called palliatae or Roman adaptations of Greek New Comedy plays

The Origins of Roman Comedy

Plautus and Terence were influenced by the writing that had come before

There were influenced by the Latin and Greek traditions of comic writing

The Latin tradition

Plautus and Terence were influenced by the Latin comedies that were written and performed in Italy before the Greek influence began to spread  to the Roman World in the middle of the third century BC.

None of these Latin comedies survive in their entirety but we know a few titles and phrases.

Despite this, we can sort these comedies into two main categories: (1) unsophisticated Fescennine verses and saturae and (2) more elaborate sketches called Atellan plays

 Fescennine Verses and Saturae

Fescennine Verses used no music or dancing

These were short scenes in verse at country festivals

The received their name from two possible sources: either the town where they were invented (Fescennium) or from the Latin word for black magic (fascinum) since their main purpose was religious, to ward off evil spirits

They may have been made up on the spot or handed down by word of mouth from performer to performer. They were sometimes performed by amateurs

The jokes (often local jokes) were coarse and rude and made fun of well-known people. Horace says that they became so slanderous and obscene at one point that  a law was passed to retrain them

Saturae are harder to sort out but Livy (writing at end of first century BC) described its beginnings

He wrote that there was a plague in 364 and 363 BC, which nothing could abate. The Romans began to hold stage shows (a new idea) as a way of appeasing the gods and giving away to their fears. At first they were on a small scale and imported from outside Rome. There was no singing/gestures imitating singers. Dancers were invited from Etruria  and performed Etrurian grave dances to flute accompaniment. Romans began to imitate them and made crude jokes in the cross-talk style. The idea caught on. The impromptu cross-talk soon ended to be replaced by performed entertainments (saturae) in mixed metres with songs and danced organised with the flute.

  Atellan Plays

Satura is one step nearer Plautus and Terence, one step more than Fescennine verses but Atellan plays influenced later comedy the most

Atellan plays were called after the town of Atella and was popular with the Oscans, another tribe conquered by the Romans

These plays were short (400 lines approx.) and often in the Oscan dialect

Cheating and trickery were an important part of the plays and the plots were often obscene

The stories were carefully worked-out, which could be written down and used again, unlike Saturae or Fescennine verses 

Atellan plays survived long after Plautus and Terence had died. Cicero watched them, nearly 100 years after Terence’s death. 200 years after that they were still being performed at the imperial court

  Most important development in Atellan plays was the use of masks and therefore the creation of easily recognisable characters. There were four main characters in every play; Maccus the fool/clown, Bucco the greedy boastful coward, Pappus the silly old man and Dossennus the cleaver cheat. In this way one might liken them strongly  to Punch and Judy shows.

Plautus, Terence and Roman influences 

From all three influence Plautus and Terence learnt the stock “routines”, puns, jokes and business that had become traditional

The actors were professional and added to their companies and made great use of flute players

Obscenity was common in their plays especially those Plautus as were references to local festivals, seashore and market-place and xenophobia (the latter may be typically Roman)

Main difference that disappeared was the satirising of famous people. This was possible because of the influence of New Comedy/ because of law banning satire mentioned by Horace

Greek influences

At this stage Roman Comedy was in a crude state but in the second half of the third century progress speeded up greatly because of the influence of Greece

In 240 BC as part of a massive Games held to celebrate the defeat of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar, the Roman Senate commissioned translations of Greek tragedies and comedies from the writer Livius Andronicus

This was done because during the campaign Roman troops had spent a large part of their time in the Greek cities of Southern Italy and got used to comedy in the Greek style

It was essential that the Roman audience had the plays translated into their own language (these translations became known as palliatae). The task for Livius was immense because the Latin of the time was very crude for writers since not much prose/verse had been produced  and so there was nothing to imitate. Not only that but he had to organise the whole performance from the details of staging to costumes . There were also not many professional actors in Rome (none trained in the Greek style)

Another poet was Naevius (270-201 BC) who improved and built upon Livius innovations. Fragments that survive suggest that his style was smoother and easier to follow and speak. This style was not much different to that of Plautus. Naevius’ content and subject-matter seems to have been taken from Greek New Comedy; clever slaves , young lovers, boastful soldiers, silly old men and beautiful slave girls   (see notes on Greek Comedy)

Women in Society

Women today have as many rights and privileges as men but in the Ancient World this was not true. No woman risked her reputation by going out onto the streets alone. She was expected to rear children and keep the house tidy and cook the food.

The only women who could make their mark in public life were slaves, ex-slaves or prostitutes or women of noble birth who did not care what men thought of them.

 This gave the writers of New Comedy a superb basis for plots. Suppose a rich noble man falls in love with a girl and want to marry her but she is a slave-girl? All sorts of tricks could be invented to have the noble and slave meet. Then at the end of play it is proved that the girl is no slave but a noble lady stolen at birth by pirates, who found her in a box full of trinkets proving her identity. She can now marry the man and the plotting slaves can be forgiven and everything can end happily. This plot outline is very typical of Plautus and Terence         

What did Plautus and Terence get from New Comedy?

This is a difficult question to answer especially if his plays do not survive or are fragmented

Many elements of Plautus and Terence’s plays can be found in earlier Latin plays. However Plautus was born in 254BC and started writing not long before the first adaption of a Greek play was performed in 240 BC. The career of Plautus must have started not long of the beginning of the palliatae (translated Greek plays)

From Greek comedy they probably learnt:

 style and form

how to make plots instead of random pieces of dialogue

how to work in different metres and so keep the audience interested

how to control a play adjusting the speed of dialogue so the audience was neither overwhelmed with jokes nor bored by them

the grace and elegance of Greek

Instead of the impromptu and simplistic farces of earlier Latin poetry, they could provide varied and sophisticated plays using a wide range of characters and plots

Therefore plenty of devices came from Latin comedies but the form and style was learnt from Greek New Comedy  

The festivals

Plays were only performed publically at festivals, sometimes  these festivals were private such as marriage festivals but they were usually public organised by the state and entry was free

There were five main festivals in April, May, July, September and November, for example the one held in September was called the Ludi Romani or the Roman Games, held in honour of Jupiter. The number of performances a day during the festivals is unknown 

In the time of Plautus and Terence there were probably twelve festival days on which plays were performed  and the actors normally had other jobs on the remaining days of the year. The rest of the days were filled with other events such as gladiatorial games, wrestling, boxing and rope walking. Sometimes these other events were put on at the same time as the Comedies, which meant the actors had to vie for the audience’s attention 

 However there were possible more days on which plays were performed because of the odd habit of instauratio  – if any part of the play was badly or incompletely performed the Romans believed the whole play had to be performed again from beginning to end. An example is the play Miles Gloriosus by Plautus which was performed no less than 8 times in 205 BC  until the priest got everything right  

More performance days were added to the calendar as the art of drama spread. The number of private festivals also increased massively. This meant that by the time of the Emperors there was hardly a day in the summer when plays were not performed. For example in the first century AD there were 43 days given up for festivals but this number could have been as high as 150.

There were no performances during the winter since all plays were performed outdoors

As well as dramatic festivals there were also private indoor shows using small scale pieces of ballet or mime but sometimes complete plays were performed 

The Theatre buildings

In the time of Plautus and Terence there were no permanent theatre buildings, because plays were performed on so few days of the year

There were probably temporary theatres with seats built on scaffolding and the actors performed on small wooden stages. Sometimes performances were given in stadia such as the Circus Maximus, which was a hippodrome not a theatre. In these cases a stage was specially built in the area    

In the early times stages were all built to the same pattern;

A wooden platform was built about 1 ½ metres high but sometimes very long (50m) and wide (5m).

 At the back was a stage-building with a stage setting painted on the front. This always had three doorways in it with double doors .

In front of the stage was a flat space called an orchestra, which was no used very much by the actors (sometimes seating was put here for distinguished guests but was generally left empty. A flight of steps led there from a stage).

There was no roof to the stage and an altar was  the only piece of scenery used

When stone theatres were built, the basic plan was kept. The first theatre was the Theatre of Pompey built in 55 BC

The theatre of Sabratha in Libya is a prime example of the stone built theatres (built 175-200 AD); the house fronts on the stage building are carved but are the same as on the wooden stage. The seating is also marble, the orchestra has been paved but no change in shape have taken place



Some theatres even had curtains that could be raised and lowered (it went in a slot in the ground not up to the ceiling and so went down at the start and up at the end)

Another good idea was the invention of an awning to cover the stage and the spectators on hot day

Plautus and Terence would have been amazed at these later advances in technology

During the rest of the year, some actors went on tour round the country and would be perform in carts to a standing audience

The acting company

The acting company or grex (meaning “flock of sheep”) was led by a producer-manager, who was sometimes the playwright himself

There were usually five actors (all men), a flute player, apprentices and a few extras to help with costumes, props etc. (no more than 10 people needed)

The manager bought permission from the writer to perform his play (Terence is said to have been paid 8,000 sesterces for Eunuchus but that was an unusually large sum – enough to buy a fair-sized house). Then it was up to the manager to arrange the performances with the authorities, to hire costumes, arrange rehearsals (and to stand any losses the performances might make)

Prizes were awarded at official festivals and there was keen competition between different companies

One can easily imagine a manager buying plays that suited themselves and their company the best  e.g. if a manager had an actor who was very good at playing woman’s roles he would choose his plays accordingly/ if he had good singers he would choose a play with lots of singing

If a particular writer’s plays made good profits, the managers would keep going back to him for more e.g. Terence was lucky enough to have all his plays taken up by the famous manager Ambivius Turpio, who put on the first performances

The social standing of actors was low and in the times of the early emperors reached the point when being an actor (like being a gladiator) meant that you gave up your right to be a Roman citizen and became a slave

The emperor Nero put an end to this in the first century AD since he himself enjoyed acting and the theatre.

Actors began to become more respected, until the time of the Christian emperor, when the theatre was looked upon with distain   

Costumes and masks

The Roman comedies that survive are called palliatae (which translates as “wearing Greek dress”- this is a testament to the influence of Greek New Comedy

The actors simply wore ordinary clothes; a tunic, a pallium (a cloak pinned at the shoulder), sandals/slippers with low heels. Sometimes they wore nothing but a tunic but other times they wore costumes appropriate to the character they were portraying over the  top of the tunic e.g. soldiers, girls, fishermen. If they were portraying foreigners, they would have worn distinctive clothing 

Actors did not wear hats because of their masks. These masks covered the whole face and head and distinguished one character from another

The masks were made of stiffened cloth/wood/terracotta and were usually cheap. They had wide open mouths to help project the actor’s voice to the back of the theatre

The hairstyles also help to distinguish the characters – old men wore masks with white/bald heads, young men had dark hair, slaves often had red hair

The great advantage of masks is that they can be taken off and replaced very quickly. This meant that one actor could play many different characters in one play just by changing masks (especially if only the mask was a distinguishing feature between characters)    

The great disadvantage of masks is that they only show one expression. A grumpy character must stay grumpy for the whole play and if a sad character starts sad he must stay so. This suited the style of New Comedy where many characters were types and not individuals. However brief changes of expression could be shown in the text

The Audience

Audiences were of both sexes and seem to have included all classes of people from slave to aristocrat. Anyone could come since the seats were free

The performances took place on holidays when people would expect to be entertained

There is evidence of chattering housewives, screaming children, thieves, drunks and people at the back shouting that they cannot here

Special seats could be reserved for distinguished visitors and different professional groups sat in special areas of theatre

The spectators sat for a whole day’s entertainment and either brought their food with them or bought it from one of the stalls outside the theatre. Often people would be able to move out of their seats very easily.  

Giles P. GCSE Latin tutor, A Level Latin tutor, GCSE Classical Greek ...

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