On such occasions song would never be wanting; and the circumstances under which such pastimes were exhibited, chiefly at public festivals and marriages, as well as the mainly practical shape which they certainly assumed, naturally suggested that several dancers, or sets of dancers, should take up reciprocal parts; so that the singing thus came to be associated with a species of acting, which of course was chiefly of a comical and often of a licentious character. In this way there arose not merely alternative chants, such as afterwards went by the name of Fescennine songs, but also the elements of a popular comedy--which were in this instance planted in a soil admirably adapted for their growth, as an acute sense of the outward and the comic, and a delight in gesticulation and masquerade have ever been leading traits of Italian character.

No remains have been preserved of these -incunabula- of the Roman epos and drama. That the ancestral lays were traditional is self-evident, and is abundantly demonstrated by the fact that they were regularly recited by children; but even in the time of Cato the Elder they had completely passed into oblivion. The comedies again, if it be allowable so to name them, were at this period and long afterwards altogether improvised. Consequently nothing of this popular poetry and popular melody could be handed down but the measure, the accompaniment of music and choral dancing, and perhaps the masks.


Whether what we call metre existed in the earlier times is doubtful; the litany of the Arval Brethren scarcely accommodates itself to an outwardly fixed metrical system, and presents to us rather the appearance of an animated recitation. On the other hand we find in subsequent times a very ancient rhythm, the so-called Saturnian(6) or Faunian metre, which is foreign to the Greeks, and may be conjectured to have arisen contemporaneously with the oldest Latin popular poetry. The following poem, belonging, it is true, to a far later age, may give an idea of it:--

Quod re sua difeidens--aspere afleicta

Parens timens heic vovit--voto hoc soluto ___ Decuma facta poloucta--leibereis lubentis ____ _____ Donu danunt__hercolei--maxsume--mereto _____ Semol te orant se voti--crebro con__demnes.

__--'__--'__--'__^/ __--'__--'__--'_^

That which, misfortune dreading--sharply to afflict him, An anxious parent vowed here,--when his wish was granted, A sacred tenth for banquet--gladly give his children To Hercules a tribute--most of all deserving; And now they thee beseech, that--often thou wouldst hear them.

Panegyrics as well as comic songs appear to have been uniformly sung in Saturnian metre, of course to the pipe, and presumably in such a way that the -caesura- in particular in each line was strongly marked; and in alternate singing the second singer probably took up the verse at this point. The Saturnian measure is, like every other occurring in Roman and Greek antiquity, based on quantity; but of all the antique metres perhaps it is the least thoroughly elaborated, for besides many other liberties it allows itself the greatest license in omitting the short syllables, and it is at the same time the most imperfect in construction, for these iambic and trochaic half-lines opposed to each other were but little fitted to develop a rhythmical structure adequate for the purposes of the higher poetry.


The fundamental elements of the national music and choral dancing in Latium, which must likewise have been established during this period, are buried for us in oblivion; except that the Latin pipe is reported to have been a short and slender instrument, provided with only four holes, and originally, as the name shows, made out of the light thighbone of some animal.


Lastly, the masks used in after times for the standing characters of the Latin popular comedy or the Atellana, as it was called: Maccus the harlequin, Bucco the glutton, Pappus the good papa, and the wise Dossennus--masks which have been cleverly and strikingly compared to the two servants, the -pantalon- and the -dottore-, in the Italian comedy of Pulcinello--already belonged to the earliest Latin popular art. That they did so cannot of course be strictly proved; but as the use of masks for the face in Latium in the case of the national drama was of immemorial antiquity, while the Greek drama in Rome did not adopt them for a century after its first establishment, as, moreover, those Atellane masks were of decidedly Italian origin, and as, in fine, the origination as well as the execution of improvised pieces cannot well be conceived apart from fixed masks assigning once for all to the player his proper position throughout the piece, we must associate fixed masks with the rudiments of the Roman drama, or rather regard them as constituting those rudiments themselves.

Earliest Hellenic Influences

If our information respecting the earliest indigenous culture and art of Latium is so scanty, it may easily be conceived that our knowledge will be still scantier regarding the earliest impulses imparted in this respect to the Romans from without. In a certain sense we may include under this head their becoming acquainted with foreign languages, particularly the Greek. To this latter language, of course, the Latins generally were strangers, as was shown by their enactment in respect to the Sibylline oracles;(7) but an acquaintance with it must have been not at all uncommon in the case of merchants. The same may be affirmed of the knowledge of reading and writing, closely connected as it was with the knowledge of Greek.(8) The culture of the ancient world, however, was not based either on the knowledge of foreign languages or on elementary technical accomplishments. An influence more important than any thus imparted was exercised over the development of Latium by the elements of the fine arts, which were already in very early times received from the Hellenes. For it was the Hellenes alone, and not the Phoenicians or the Etruscans, that in this respect exercised an influence on the Italians.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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