March 15, 2009

Plays and Decline

Livy is not merely a historian, he is a geneaologist of the customs and mores of the Roman people. We can see this trend within his history at its most explicit in the beggining of Book VII. Livy deals at this point with a fearful plague that struck Rome, carrying off amongst others Praetors, Tribunes and Marcus Furius Cammillus. The Romans as a way of stopping the plague sought to appease the Gods, they held a lectisternium, bringing out draped chairs from houses for the Gods. They then imported players from abroad, from Etrusca, to 'dance to the strains of the pipe without any singing or miming of songs', young Romans joined them 'exchanging jokes at the same time in crude improvised verse'. Livy takes a break from his main story and then tells us how the players gradually became mimers, and singers sang over their acting, and then how the customs degenerated into the 'folly' present in his own time. (VII 2)

It is easy to forget how ancient drama originated in religion- whether at Athens or at Rome, drama was a means of appeasing the Gods, appealing to them in time of need or even seeking to supplicate annually to them. Religious festival was a crucial part of Ancient Polytheism. But it is equally important to understand this practice as Livy wrote it, rather than as we might see it. For what emerged for Livy from Rome and Etrusca as a religious practice to confront a plague, becomes eventually a folly which draws in a licentious and libertine population. His argument is directed against the mores of his own day- plays originally began with a 'modest' purpose and now have been deformed. Livy, the traditionalist, sees the Republican era as holding within it a more credulous, more religious, less luxurious mentality: and the story of Roman drama allows him to make his point. Furthermore he ties the religious decline to increasing wealth- as the folly increased so did its proffessionalisation, so did young Roman nobles stop performing and the task fall to a variety of proffessional players. The shadows of the court of Augustus are present throughout Livy's work: here no less than anywhere else.

The story of drama in Rome is a means for Livy to show his readers how far Rome has declined. She has fallen from a pious and poor Republic, to an irreligious and rich Empire. Conquest, wealth and decline are tied together in an inexorable nexus that means that Rome's rise will be the cause of its fall.


Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

So you back again in business.

Sometimes I wonder if it would not be a smart move to reactivate these old religions. They were so much for fun than those today's monopolistic gods (there is only One and that's Me).

It must have been splendid to assist and be part of a Government sponsored orgy.


James Hamilton said...

28 of the extant books still to go - of an original 142: some things just aren't going to turn up on the internet, no matter how long you wait.

I rather like the idea of reviving religions from this period too. Imagine the amusing campaigns one could run to liberate the holy relics from the British Museum. And complicating the bunfight over Middle Eastern sacred sites.

It would even call for a revival of the old Greats curriculum. Let's do it.

Gracchi said...

I was never really not in business Georg- just had to go for work to foreign climes where I didn't have the internet. But yes I'll be around for a while yet.

James you've forgotten that I've done a PhD- it might take a long time but there is a lot of will power here to finish the bloody thing! ANd yes I do promise to do Thucydides and Tacitus afterwards at some point.

And on reviving- I've always been taken with C.S. Lewis's vision of sacrificing a white heifer on Tower Hill or Hyde Park- not sure about the animal rights angle though :)

James Hamilton said...

Don't know about the white heifer: I'll ask Temple Grandin. She'll know. My own idea of the perfect religious ceremony takes the heart-removal scene from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and follows it, outside the church, with polite rectorial handshakes and a splendid lunch in the pub.