Aspects of Roman civilization, including language, popular culture, science, and religion, are given considerable amount of study in many modern undergraduate degrees. Drama was a significant part of Roman culture, and Edith Hamilton believes that much of the spirit of the Roman people can be found in this drama they loved so dearly. For some, the word “Roman” conjures immediately images of stuffy, stodgy old men garbed in togas speaking anachronistically in British English or valiant soldiers fighting tirelessly to secure the Western world for Caesar. This is the representation that Edith Hamilton hopes to replace with a more enlightened view.
What we know of Rome, Hamilton explains, is expressed a great deal through the remaining comedies, many of which were founded upon the already existing popular Greek comedy. Hamilton believes that comedy is a mirror, reflecting the public consciousness of the audience. For the Greeks, the transition from stories passed through word of mouth into substantial, written works was a natural and logical procession. The Romans’ transition would have seemed entirely backwards to their Greco-counterparts: Roman literature came before creative spirit. The progenitors of Roman comedy come from the Greek Aristophanes and Menander, who, as Hamilton implies, were simply not that funny. Their humor was matter-of-fact, unexciting, and appealed to a rational, average audience.
The writings of Romans Plautus and Terence provide us a glimpse at Roman comedy, which attempted to present the familiar, to punish the wicked and reward the virtuous, to reinforce the status quo and uphold current morality, and to provide the audience with something to laugh at and someone to sympathize with. The Roman audience wanted, in true dialectic form, life-inspired art to condition, sculpt, and reinforce its reality by reaffirming their societal practices and conditions. The audience wanted reassurance that they would be applauded for doing the right thing and that those who would do evil unto them would receive their just desserts, and they wanted to know that the Roman manifestation of justice was ever-vigilant and would always be on its side. The plays were almost a form of sacrifice: a sacrifice of time to watch and to applaud justice, an offering that would ensure them a fair hearing, should the need ever arise.
Most insightful is the presentation of gender that Hamilton provides. Plautus attempted to do away with the “deceived husband” archetype that populated the European stage. The construction of the Roman woman as dramatic agent did not share much with that of the Greek woman: the woman’s method would not triumph over the intelligence of the man this time around. Perhaps this was an attempt to further propagate the superiority of Roman wit when compared to the Greek’s alleged dullness of the mind; the Roman man was not eluded or fooled by the charms of the woman, where the Greek man was so easily lured.
At home, there was strict virtue for all parties. Outside of the home, however, the plays depict men as receivers of permission to pursue all of their “pleasant vices” and women as receivers of a supreme, inherent duty to remain chaste both in and outside of the domestic sphere. Men were to appreciate and utilize their fecundity, and women were conditioned to believe they were to be uncorrupted or die, a sentiment reinforced by the morals of such stories as Lucretia, praised for killing herself after having been raped, and a father, lauded for killing his daughter instead of allowing her to be un-pure. Whether this was a misogynistic double-standard or a genuine attempt at a perverse egalitarianism that veered off-course into bastardization is for the revisionist historian to interpret.
Still so, the woman’s role in the Roman comedy was to be looked at, and the young man in love with her was to be the hero. This exercise of objectification still perverts our own society. The fact that we are able to feel decently repulsed at these seemingly obvious inegalitarian gender roles should make us hopeful that we may one day yet extinguish similar unfair societal conditions as we see them in our status quo, rather than merely musing on moral ineptitude in hindsight.
Hamilton believes that the character that stands out the most in Roman drama, more so than the patriarchal authority or the chaste wife, is the slave. He is portrayed as intellectually superior to the other characters and “the only one with brains”. This renders him similar to the archetype of the trickster; however, despite his dramatic role as the wittiest one of the bunch, his societal role as “less-than” continued to be reinforced. The master holding punishment over the slave was seen as a comic device instead of a morally questionable act. Antiquity was never particularly famous for an abundance of human compassion, and it’s not hard to imagine a Roman audience guffawing at the sight of another’s pain.
Edith Hamilton is not here to draw moral judgments, however. She does not excuse the Romans for their actions nor does she chastise them. From what we have discovered, it can be inferred that the Roman people were “fairly decent”, who remained virtuous in the home and, even outside of it, did not commit odious amounts of debauchery, and who wanted to see good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When viewed as such it’s easy to draw parallels with the modern American audience who finds delight in sensationalism and watching people get their just desserts. Between a Roman play and a Broadway spectacle, Hamilton muses, there is hardly a very wide gap, and, truly, if one takes the time to think about it, not much has changed except for superior technology and remarkably higher standards of living. Hamilton thinks the world is not nearly as dynamic as our fast-paced culture would have us believe.