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of action, voluptuous and vicious, but, from all that can
be learned of it, performed with uncommon skill and
significance. It may be believed, however, on strong
grounds of likelihood, that throughout the whole period
of the empire, the mimes or Atellan farces, with their
masked and unchangeable characters, their old costumes,
and their unpremeditated ribaldry, lingered in their
native Campania and among the villages of other rural
districts ; and that, as the modern Italian Zanni receives
his name from the ancient Sannio, so the Neapolitan
Pulcinella is, in a direct and uninterrupted line, the
descendant and representative of the Oscan Maccus,
whose costume is still to be seen in the paiirtings of
Pompeii.* But in Rome, as early as the Mithridatic
triumph of Pompey, we see that to the other degrada-
tions of the theatre had been added, in theu- coarsest
and most sensual form, the glare of decoration and
variety of spectacle which belonged to the circus and
the amphitheatre ;+ and if Cicero was disgusted then.

* There's many a part of Italy, 'tis said,

Where none assume the toga, but the dead.

There, when the toil foregone and annual play

Mark from the rest some high and festal day.

To theatres of turf the rustics throng,

Charm'd with the farce which charm 'd their sires so long ;

While the pale infant, of the mask in dread,

Hides in his mother's breast his little head.
Gifford's Juvenal, Sat. iii. v. 251-258 (original, v. 171-176)
Bullenger De Theatre, cap. 44, ap, Graevium, torn. ix. Quadrio
Storia d'ogni Poesia, torn. v. p. 212-220.
■f Cicero Ad Familiares, lib. vii. epist. 1 (a.u. 269).


other men of refinement must much more readily have
been so afterwards. Indeed all the men of genius
despairingly left the drama to its fate ; and poets or
patrons like Nero were unlikely to reform it either in
taste or morality. The actors, although infamous by
law, amassed fortunes and were loaded with imperial
favour and popular applause ; for the inscription quoted
below is only one of many cases in which public honours
were prostituted to vicious slaves.* But the tragic
gesture of Bathyllus or Paris, and the lascivious dances
of Greek youths and Spanish girls, became at length
wearisome to the pampered Romans ; and before the
empire had endured three centuries, the populace de-
serted the theatres for the booths of the forum, and even
brought on the stage troops of fire-workers and mounte-
banks. Before the days of Constantine, elephants, we
are assured, walked on the tight-rope ; learned dogs
told fortunes ; vaulters exhibited feats of strength, and
thi*ew innumerable somersets ; satyrs danced on stilts ;
and conjurers swallowed swords, tossed and caught
daggers, and played at thimble and ball.

The Usual spectacles of the circus and amphitheatre
were of four kinds : — Chariot-races ; Combats of Gladia-
tors ; Venationes, wherein wild beasts fought with
men or with each other ; and Naumachise, in which,
on the arena of the circus or amphitheatre temporarily
flooded, or in a permanent lake dug and fenced for the
purpose, small galleys engaged in races or imitations of

The chariot-races were the oldest of the games ; and
the circuses, originally constructed for them, seldom
witnessed any of the other sports after permanent amphi-

• " The Municipal Senate and Burgesses of Lanuvium attest,
that, by an act of the corporation, the freedom of their city has
been conferred on Acilius Septemtrio, Freedman of Marcus Aure-
lius Augustus, the First Pantomimist of his Age, Priest of the
Synod of Apollo, Imperial Client of Faustina, Introduced to the
Stage by the Fortunate and August Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Commodus Antoninus Pius."— BuUenger De Theatre, p. 94S.


theatres had been built. The emperors allowed these
exhibitions to act as a safety-valve for the fiery pas-
sions of the multitude. The pharioteers were divided
into four Companies or Factions, — the Green, Blue, Red,
and White. Their stables, near the Flaminian Circus
in the Campus Martins, were a fivourite haunt of the
people and of many nobles, as well as of some emperors ;
and the mob, splitting into parties which favoured each a
particular colour (the green and blue being the favour-
ites), fought out their quarrel even to bloodshed. The
charioteers were slaves, or at best freedmen ; but as
early as the reign of Alexander Severus, it was found
prudent to explain authoritatively, as not extending to
them, the law which made actors and other ministers of
the public pleasures infamous.*

The gladiators were kept in large buildings, usually
called Ludior schools. The ^milian School was very
near the Forum ; the Mamertine was beside the old
prison ; the Great School and the Dacian (named from the
people which furnished its usual inmates) were in the
quarter of the Baths of Titus ; and the Gallic and Matu-
tinal were on the Caelian Mount.t Each gladiator was
lodged in a separate cell like the ordinary slaves, and
every school had its arena and apparatus for exercise,
its surgeon, and numerous attendants. Its Lanista
or superintendent, usually a veteran gladiator himself,
was in some cases the servant of the emperor or of a
rich noble, but was more frequently the proprietor of
the establishment, making his profits by letting out his
men for the public games or for the entertainment of
private parties. He recruited his band in various ways.
He either purchased young slaves (usually refractory
ones), prisoners of war recently taken, and exposed chil-
dren, or he received from the magistrates condemned

* Dig. lib. iii. tit. 2. , De his qui infamia notantur.

+ Lipsii Saturnalium Sermonum lib. i. cap. 14; ap. Graevium,
torn. ix. Panvinius et Pancirollus De Urbe Roma; ap. Graevium.
torn. iii. pp. 285, 298, 333.


criminals ; but lq the worst times of the empire many
profligate persons voluntarily sold themselves to those
dealers in blood. The unhappy captives looked on the
arena with the utmost horror, and, careless as the Romans
were about their fate, writers have preserved some pain-
ful stories which prove the vehemence of their despair.*

The gladiatorial combats were for some time con-
fined to funerals, and were first introduced into Rome
from Etruria in 490, when Marcus and Decius Brutus
made three pairs of swordsmen fight, at their father's
interment, in the Forum Boarium. In Cicero's time
Milo and Clodius each kept his troop ; and the two bands,
defying the power of the magistrates, fought daily in the
streets of Rome. Julius Ca?sar in his sedileship is said
to have produced 640 combatants ; and several of the
emperors exhibited them in thousands. Wild beasts
were first brought into the Roman circus in 502, the
elephants taken from the Carthaginians being the animals
then introduced. Lions and panthers soon succeeded ;
bears were also produced in the republican era, and tigers
for the first time in the reign of Augustus.t The human
victim, usually allowed weapons to sell his life dear, vras
sometimes thrust amongst the famished beasts unarmed,
or even tied to a stake.

All those huge tanks which the emperors excavated
for naumachiae in and near Rome have disappeared ; but,
in pomp as well as in atrocity, every spectacle of this sort
was eclipsed by one which Claudius exhibited in the 52d
year of the Christian era, on a natural stage, the pictur-
esque Fucine Lake, surrounded by the snowy peaks of
the Abruzzo. On the mountain-sides, as on the steps of
a colossal theatre, were thronged multitudes of country-
people, burghers from the neighbouring to^^^ls, visiters
from Rome (includhig the elder Pliny), and the swarm
of satellites which composed the imperial court. Nineteen

* Seneca, epist. 70. Taciti Annal. lib. xv. cap. 46. Zosi
Historiarum lib. i. cap. 71. Symmachi lib. ii. epist. 46.
-f- BuUenger De Venatione Circi; ap. Grsevium, torn. ix.


thousand slaves and criminals manned two fleets of
galleys of fifty sail each ; the nondescript emperor, half
a learned man and half an idiot, sat with his infamous
wife Agrippina, his stepson Nero, and his minion Nar-
cissus, near the bank of the lake, at the mouth of the
vast tunnel already described, which was that day to be
opened. The combatants were marched along the shore
by their guards the Praetorian cohorts ; and, as they
passed the imperial gallery, the whole army of wretches
caught up and repeated the shout of some one amongst
them, " Hail, emperor ! dying men salute thee !" The
blundering dotard answered the greeting ambiguously ;
the unhappy convicts, imagining that he had pronounced
their pardon, broke out into tumult and exultation ;
and the provoked Claudius himself, gouig down to the
water's edge, had to assure the victims that they had
mistaken his meaning, and to make his troops goad
them on board. The guards, posted thickly on scaffold-
ings round the place of battle, prevented escape ; the
disappointed prisoners slaughtered each other valiantly ;
and when the royal party was sick of blood the fight was
stopped. But after the canal was opened, the levels
were found to be wrong, and the water, undermining the
bank on which the court sat, drove them away in conster-
nation. Agrippina reproached Narcissus with greed and
incapacity ; the spoilt slave retorted by charging her
with presumptuous meddling, and with plotting to
make her son emperor ; the weak Claudius in vain strove
to reconcile his two domestic rulers ; and the first act of
the empress, when Nero ascended the throne, was to
revenge herself for the affront of that morning by
starving the favourite to death in prison.*

These various spectacles, each in its own way demora-
lizing, were a passion with the Romans, which theu* rulers,
afraid lest their minds should turn to more dangerous
thoughts, anxiously encouraged. We can scarcely trace

• Taciti Annal, lib. xii. cap, 56, 57 ; lib. xiii. cap. 1. Suetonius
in Claudio, cap. 21. Dionis Cassii Historiarum lib. Ix. cap. 33.
Plinii Hist. Nat. lib. xsxiii. cap. 3.


any attempt by anemperor to check this popular fondness.
When Marcus Aurelius once ventured to enrol a large
number of gladiators in the army, the measure had
almost excited an insurrection ; and we see the prince
immediately obliged to atone for his imprudence by
renewed liberality to the public shows.* In Rome the
games were exhibited on innumerable pretexts, of reli-
gious festivals, imperial births, marriages, triumphs, and
funerals, or (with permission) remarkable occurrences
in the person or family of wealthy nobles. But scarcely
any considerable town in Italy wanted its theatre or
amphitheatre, and many possessed both, in which the
rich burghers treated the populace with shows of
gladiators, athletes, or wild beasts. When the place had
no theatre a temporary scaffold served the pui-pose.
The persons wlio gave the entertainments advertised
them beforehand, by distributing written bills, and
chalkmg up inscriptions in the streets, which intimated
the day of the proposed exliibition, its nature and dura-
tion, and the conveniences which would be furnished,
such as awnings and perfumes ; and similar bills, naming
the gladiators and other pcrfonners, were circulated
among the spectators while the sports were proceed-
ing. The Court of the Baths at Pompeii stUl contains
one of the public announcements. The attention of the
public was yet more anxiously courted, by pamtings on
canvass stretched out on frames like those of our booths
at fairs, and set up in porticos or at the comers of streets ;
and for these there were occasionally substituted rude
drawings in chalk or coal, representing the same subjects,
fights of swordsmen, or the like.+ The spectators were
admitted on presentmg tablets of bone or other mate-
rials previously distributed among them, on which was
engraved a notice of the nature of the exhibition, and of

* Capitolinus in Marco Antonino Philosopho, cap. 21, 23.

-f- Lipsii Saturnalium lib. ii. cap. 18. Ciceronis Philippica Se-
cunda, cap. 38. Ovidius De Arte Amandi, lib. i. v. 23. Plinii
Hist. Nat. lib. xxxv. cap. 7. Horatii lib. ii. Satir. vii. v. 96.
Library of Entertaining Knowledge, Pompeii, vol. i. p. 148.


the day on which it was to take place. The inscription
wliich is copied below is taken from a small bone ticket
of this sort, and announces for the 4th of March in the
year of the city 673, the appearance of a favourite
Etruscan gladiator.* Pompeii, in its own ruins, and in
the pages of Tacitus, curiously illustrates the import-
ance which the people attached to their spectacles. A
coarse schoolboy group of figures, scratched on a wall in
the street of the Mercuries, is explained by an inscrip-
tion in an almost illegible hand and in bad Latin, as re-
ferring to a story told by the historian.t About three
years before the first earthquake which shook Pompeii,
a quarrel took place, at an exliibition of gladiators there,
between the townsmen and some visiters from the
neighbouring Nuceria. Several of the strangers were
killed, and their municipality complained to Nero and
his senate, who found the Pompeians in the wrong, and
gravely punished them by depriving their city of all
public spectacles for ten years. These bloody dissen-
sions of the circus had likewise their comic side. The
newspapers related that, at the funeral of a favourite
charioteer of the Red Faction, one of his partisans, in
despair, threw himself into the pile, and was consumed ;
but the other factions, jealous of so triumphant a testi-
mony to the merit of the deceased, spread a malicious
report that the man, having been made giddy by the
perfumes, had fallen into the flames by accident.;}:

When we turn to those recreations that consumed the
time of the rich and noble in the empire, we find the
common spectacles of the theatres and circus as eagerly
attended by them as by the poor. But there still
remained a taste for literature, which, never extinct,

* BATO-ATTALENI. SVectatus Ante Bie^n IV ^onas
MAR^m.v Lucio SVL/a Quinto METello ConsuHhus. Catalogue
du Musee Dodwell, Rome, 1837. The Roman capitals alone are
on the tablet : the Italic letters are those which we have to supply
in order to complete the sense.

■f Taciti Annal. hb. xiv. cap. 17.

X Plinii Hist. Nat. lib. vii, cap. 53.



acquired great power during some reigns, and these
not always the best. The gazettes already described,
the constant pasquinades, and the scandalous memoirs
which speedily arose, ministered a debasing aliment to
the taste for reading ; though the libraries were gradually
less frequented by the nobility in general, and fewer
auditors were attracted by those recitations of poetry,
which Horace describes with such affected hoiTor,
Juvenal with such morosely-sincere contempt, and Pliny
with so much quiet pleasantry.*

But the recitations subsisted longer in a peculiar form,
which is too curious to be left unnoticed. There w^ere
many Improvvisatori among the ancient Italians as well
as among the modern : and the drama was not the only
species of extemporaneous poetry, nor the low actors the
only fluent declaimers. "We can trace the improvised
versification at court and in the palaces of the great
through the whole duration of the empire, and the list of
its votaries includes several illustrious names.t We find
among them the old satirist Lucilius, the emperors
Augustus and Titus, the poet Lucan, and, as the most
famous and most ready of all, the poet Statins. Tlie
Eumolpus of Petronius, by his impassioned recitations in
the picture-gallery and at the banquet, fills up the only
link required to complete the analogy between the classi-
cal and the modern improvvisatori, by showing that the
ancient extemporized verses were occasionally declaimed
on the spot without being written down. When they
were committed to -writing, they formed such collections
as the Sylvae of Statius, which are genuine specimens of
this class.

It is interesting to remark one other feature in the
favourite amusements of the palace and the nobles,
namely, their theatrical turn and aspect, which are well
illustrated by the court-pageants in the reign of Nero.

* Horatii lib. i. Satir. iii. v. 85-89. Javenalis Satir. i. ad init.
Plinii lib. i. epist. 13.

■\- Raoul-Rochette, L'Iraprovisation Poetique chez les Romahis
Memoires de Flnstitut Royal : Classe d'Histoire, torae v., 1821.


"We may take, as the first instance, a sort of masque
which that ingenious debauchee exhibited shoi-tly before
he set fire to the city ; and though the licentiousness of the
scene must be passed over without description, its pic-
turcsqueness was very striking. In the Gardens of
Agrippa, covering tlie ground behind the Pantheon, lay
a large excavated lake, skirted by groves and pleasure-
houses. Nero launched on the water an artificial float-
ing island, representing a foreign landscape, through
which he and his courtiers wandered amidst groups of
exotic birds and rare quadrupeds. Galleys adorned with
gold and ivory, and rowed by beautiful youths, towed
the raft round the lake, on whose margin, as evening
fell, innumerable lamps were suddenly lighted up, and
illuminated the green alleys, where nymphs appeared
singing and sporting beneath the shade.* The rage
ibr masking which then prevailed is caricatured with
great force in Trimalchio's feast in Petronius; and
one other example will set it in a difi^erent light. A
good many women of rank, weary of restraint, and not
indisposed for the wildest license, caused booths to be
erected in the avenues of trees which lined the wharf of
Augustus, between the Aventine and the city- wall ; and
they then opened these booths as public taverns, in
which they themselves attended, disguised as waiting-
girls. Nero, delighted with the whim, not only carried
his whole court to patronize the new pleasure-gardens,
but distributed money with injimctions that it should
be spent there. The disgraceful incidents which accom-
panied this wicked jest, were beheved by contemporaries
to have done more than any other folly of that reign to
deteriorate the morality of Rome.t

Industry and Commerce.
We may now glance at the industry of the ancient

• Taciti Anna), lib. xv. cap. 37.
•f Ibid. lib. xiv. cap. 15.


Romans, and, in the first place, at their rural eco-

The state of the laws in relation to agriculture must
be understood before we inquire as to the practice of
the art. In every respect but one the Roman legislators
left husbandry unfettered ; and this partial freedom
enabled every branch of rural industry, except that on
which the burden directly pressed, to bear up for
centuries against many disadvantages. All over Italy
the chase was free; there were frequent markets in
every considerable village, but no one was obliged to sell
his crops there ; the transport of produce from one part
of the country to another was subject to no taxes, tolls,
or prohibitions ; the roads were numerous and excellent ;
and the system of posts established under the empire,
though it did not directly help any one besides the rulers,
was beneficial indirectly by enforcing the preservation of
the highways. But unfortunately those ancient lawgivers,
like many modern ones, had no conception of the inde-
pendent energy possessed by commerce and agriculture,
when both are exempted from the interference of govern-
ments. Alarmed by the early experience of the republic,
without being able to discern where the root of the evil
IdLj, they lived in constant terror of famine ; and, to avert
this scourge, they adopted in legislation a principle as
unlike as possible to what might have been expected
from a senate of landholders, but yet as injudicious as
any body of men could have possibly invented. They
were much given indeed, at all periods, to fixing maxi-
mum prices on provisions of every sort, but in respect to
com they did what was even worse. Turning their atten-
tion exclusively to the means of procuring the imme-
diate supply, and being most easily able to effect this
end by importations from their own dependencies abroad,
they not only unhesitatiogly adopted this method, in

* Consult the Scriptores Rei Rusticcp (Cato, Varro, Columella,
and Palladius), and Plinii Historia Naturalis. Dumont, Re-
fherches sur TAdininistration des Terras chez les Remains, 1779.
Dickson's Husbandry of the Ancients, 1788.


itself unobjectionable, but blindly sacrificed, in order to
maintain their system, all tlie interests of the cultivators
and owners of land in Italy. As early as the third cen-
tury of Rome the senate began to import large quanti-
ties of foreign grain, which they either distributed gra-
tuitously among the great mass of the people, or sold at
a heavy loss, sustained by the exchequer. This measure
was practised with extreme frequency, and with an
undiscriminating liberality that prevents us from regard-
ing it in the light of an ordinary poor-law ; the Gracchi
attempted to make the gratuitous supply permanent by
law ; and Cicero's enemy Clodius effected the purpose
by two acts which, passed in the year of the city 695,
were kept in force by the emperors, and probably ex-
tended to several towns besides the metropolis. The
direct loss to the treasury was the least evil. The
price of Italian corn was never allowed to rise so high
as to yield a fair profit ; its cultivation was always
more and more neglected ; and, in the first age of the
empire, Italy was already dependent on foreign countries
for her very subsistence. The latest attempt that need
be noticed, for reviving the culture of grain by statute,
was of a piece with all which had gone before it. It
was an edict of Domitian (which of course remained
inoperative), that in the peninsula no new vines should
be planted, and in the provinces half of those already
growing should be cut down.*

Those who would trace Roman agriculture through
all its stages from the point at which it was first syste-
matically developed, may do so in the works of contem-
j)orary writers. Cato the Censor describes the art in
the sixth century of the republic, when the imperfection
in rural economy was more than compensated by the
smallness of the estates, — the usual residence of the pro-
prietors, — and the existence of a free peasantry. Varro
treats of the seventh century, when the production of

• Contarenus De Frumeotaria Romanorum Largitione, cap. 2, 3"
ap. Graevium, torn. viii.


wine and oil was at its height, the rearing of fruit-trees
in rapid advance, and Italy, planted from sea to sea and
from Calabria to the Alps, looked like one beautiful
orchard ;"^ but when, also, the growing of corn was
rapidly sinking, the landholders were crowding to the
towns, and the rural districts were covered by an increas-
ing population of slaves. Columella wrote his treatise
in the first century of the empire ; and to his description
Pliny has added from the succeeding age much curious
information, and Palladius a few details.

The great evil of the imperial times was considered
by the most intelligent Romans themselves to be the
overgrown size of estates, which certainly had reached
an extravagant pitch, when, as in the reign of Nero, half
of the coast of Barbary belonged to six men. But Pliny
and others af»suredly overrated the had. effects of this
circumstance, which, by itself, may be quite consistent
with high agricultural prosperity. The relation, how-
ever, which this fact bore to others in the state of society,
did in truth render it most powerful in effecting the
ruin of the country, for it was one compartment of a
structure rotten from the foundation. The class of
petty landholders whom the princely aristocracy of the
empire had annihilated, might, with great benefit to the
state, have either sunk into the position of agricultural
tenants, or migrated into the towns, there to become
artisans, manufacturers, or traders. But no such outlet
was open for them. Most of them settled as paupers in
Rome and the other great cities, while the lands which
they had been compelled to abandon were tilled by thou-
sands of slaves. All the parts of this system, it is true,
hung together as necessary concomitants, but the evils

Online LibraryWilliam SpaldingItaly and the Italian islands, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) → online text (page 32 of 35)