Dance, Music, And Song In Latium

From the defectiveness of our traditional information it is not possible to trace the development of artistic ideas among the several groups of nations in Italy; and in particular we are no longer in a position to speak of the poetry of Italy; we can only speak of that of Latium. Latin poetry, like that of every other nation, began in the lyrical form, or, to speak more correctly, sprang out of those primitive festal rejoicings, in which dance, music, and song were still inseparably blended. It is remarkable, however, that in the most ancient religious usages dancing, and next to dancing instrumental music, were far more prominent than song. In the great procession, with which the Roman festival of victory was opened, the chief place, next to the images of the gods and the champions, was assigned to the dancers grave and merry. The grave dancers were arranged in three groups of men, youths, and boys, all clad in red tunics with copper belts, with swords and short lances, the men being moreover furnished with helmets, and generally in full armed attire. The merry dancers were divided into two companies--"the sheep" in sheep-skins with a party-coloured over-garment, and "the goats" naked down to the waist, with a buck's skin thrown over them. In like manner the "leapers" (-salii-) were perhaps the most ancient and sacred of all the priesthoods,(1) and dancers (-ludii-, -ludiones-) were indispensable in all public processions, and particularly at funeral solemnities; so that dancing became even in ancient times a common trade. But, wherever the dancers made their appearance, there appeared also the musicians or--which was in the earliest times the same thing--the pipers. They too were never wanting at a sacrifice, at a marriage, or at a funeral; and by the side of the primitive public priesthood of the "leapers" there was ranged, of equal antiquity although of far inferior rank, the guild of the "pipers" (-collegium tibicinum-(2)), whose true character as strolling musicians is evinced by their ancient privilege--maintained even in spite of the strictness of Roman police--of wandering through the streets at their annual festival, wearing masks and full of sweet wine. While dancing thus presents itself as an honourable function and music as one subordinate but still necessary, so that public corporations were instituted for both of them, poetry appears more as a matter incidental and, in some measure, indifferent, whether it may have come into existence on its own account or to serve as an accompaniment to the movements of the dancers.

Religious Chants

The earliest chant, in the view of the Romans, was that which the leaves sang to themselves in the green solitude of the forest. The whispers and pipings of the "favourable spirit" (-faunus-, from -favere-) in the grove were reproduced for men, by those who had the gift of listening to him, in rhythmically measured language (-casmen-, afterwards -carmen-, from -canere-). Of a kindred nature to these soothsaying songs of inspired men and women (-vates-) were the incantations properly so called, the formulae for conjuring away diseases and other troubles, and the evil spells by which they prevented rain and called down lightning or even enticed the seed from one field to another; only in these instances, probably from the outset, formulae of mere sounds appear side by side with formulae of words.(3) More firmly rooted in tradition and equally ancient were the religious litanies which were sung and danced by the Salii and other priesthoods; the only one of which that has come down to us, a dance-chant of the Arval Brethren in honour of Mars probably composed to be sung in alternate parts, deserves a place here.

-Enos, Lases, iuvate! Ne velue rue, Marmar, sins incurrere in pleores! Satur fu, fere Mars! limen sali! sta! berber! Semunis alternei advocapit conctos! Enos, Marmar, iuvato! Triumpe!-

Which may be thus interpreted:

To the gods: -Nos, Lares, iuvate! Ne veluem (= malam luem) ruem (= ruinam), Mamers, sinas incurrere in plures! Satur esto, fere Mars!

To the individual brethren: In limen insili! sta! verbera (limen?)!

To all the brethren: Semones alterni advocate cunctos!

To the god: Nos, Mamers, iuvato!

To the individual brethren: Tripudia!-(4)

The Latin of this chant and of kindred fragments of the Salian songs, which were regarded even by the philologues of the Augustan age as the oldest documents of their mother-tongue, is related to the Latin of the Twelve Tables somewhat as the language of the Nibelungen is related to the language of Luther; and we may perhaps compare these venerable litanies, as respects both language and contents, with the Indian Vedas.

Panegyrics And Lampoons

Lyrical panegyrics and lampoons belonged to a later epoch. We might infer from the national character of the Italians that satirical songs must have abounded in Latium in ancient times, even if their prevalence had not been attested by the very ancient measures of police directed against them. But the panegyrical chants became of more importance. When a burgess was borne to burial, the bier was followed by a female relative or friend, who, accompanied by a piper, sang his dirge (-nenia-). In like manner at banquets boys, who according to the fashion of those days attended their fathers even at feasts out of their own houses, sang by turns songs in praise of their ancestors, sometimes to the pipe, sometimes simply reciting them without accompaniment (-assa voce canere-). The custom of men singing in succession at banquets was presumably borrowed from the Greeks, and that not till a later age. We know no further particulars of these ancestral lays; but it is self-evident that they must have attempted description and narration and thus have developed, along with and out of the lyrical element, the features of epic poetry.

The Masked Farce

Other elements of poetry were called into action in the primitive popular carnival, the comic dance or -satura-,(5) which beyond doubt reached back to a period anterior to the separation of the stocks.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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