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By the chronology of Varro, the greatest scholar of the Ciceronian and Augustan age, Rome's republic was 250 years old, and the city itself over 500, before the first literary event in its history. Until the third century, Romans seem to have used stylized language only for the formulae of religion and the law, and literacy was probably limited to the tiny elite who provided the city's priests, legal experts, and politicians. Thus, when literature was publicly welcomed at Rome, it was in a form that had been transferred from Greek culture by a Greek from South Italy; there was drama, which could be performed for a largely illiterate audience, and epic, which could be recited to them.
Despite this delayed flowering, drama and epic developed rapidly at Rome. And before the Republic degenerated into autocracy, poetry, oratory, and expository prose reached a level of achievement equal to the acknowledged greatness of Augustan literature. By 35 B.C. Romans not only heard but also read Latin prose and verse in virtually every genre except the novel; all other literary forms were already represented in the society in which Virgil and Horace, the oldest major poets of the principate, became adult.
Victrix causa deis placuit sed uicta … poetae. Despite a general assumption that Lucan kept the gods out of his epic, I would argue that he simply kept them out of engagement on the battlefield. If we are rightly curious about why he omitted divine causality from his opening enumeration of causes for the civil war, it is not long before his narrative provides portents in plenty to demonstrate divine anger to the Romans and to his readers. And the poet himself repeatedly reproaches the gods, but is far from consistent in his reproaches: at times he accuses them of active hostility to Roman liberty; on other occasions he seems only to blame them for inertia or indifference. Once, but only once, he will go so far as to assert that “they do not exist – or at least not for us,” the Romans: sunt nobis nulla profecto | numina (7.445–6). But within ten lines he has corrected himself. The gods do exist: they are simply Epicurean gods “who do not care about mankind”: mortalia nulli | sunt curata deo (454–5). Indeed Lucan ends the same outburst by holding them responsible for the Pompeian defeat, when he interprets the deified line of Caesars as the good republicans’ revenge upon the Olympians – retaliation for purposive divine action.
And purposive divine action is the norm before and after the poet's self-generated crisis in the thick of battle.
Let me start by quoting a paragraph from a century old edition of Terence, which will serve as a reminder of changes in our background knowledge of both comedy and this particular comic playwright:
Of the six extant Terentian comedies the Andria is the most pathetic, the Adelphoe in general more true to human nature than the rest, the Eunuchus the most varied and lively, with the largest number of interesting characters, and the Hecyra the one of least merit. All six are remarkable for the art with which the plot is unfolded through the natural sequence of incidents and play of motives. Striking effects, sharp contrasts and incongruities, which meet us in many plays of Plautus, are almost wholly absent. All is smooth, consistent and moderate, without any of the extravagance of exuberant humour or even creative fancy which characterizes the writing of the older poet. But Terence was essentially an imitative artist and his distinguishing feature was his artistic finish, a fact fully recognized by Horace (Epistle 2.1.59).
There is plenty here to question, if not correct. What does it mean to call Adelphoe more true to human nature? What defines an ‘interesting character’? And do present day readers still find Hecyra the play of least merit? As for the art with which Terence’s plots are unfolded, we still cannot guess how much of this is his own contribution rather than derived from Menander (whose plays were still unknown when this edition was written). However, scholars have used both the evidence given by Terence in the prologues and his commentator Donatus to identify where he has himself innovated in his plots—removing the expository prologues to replace irony with suspense, introducing a second lover and slave into Andria, working a braggart soldier and his parasite into Eunuchus and inserting an abduction scene into the second act of Adelphoe. And yet it was Terence’s immediate predecessor Caecilius whom Varro, most learned of ancient critics, praised for his superior plots. Certainly Terence does not indulge in the extravagance of Plautus, but is this because he is ‘essentially an imitative artist’? On the other hand I would not challenge the editor’s evaluation of his scripts as ‘smooth, consistent and moderate’ or his praise for the playwright’s ‘artistic finish’. Instead I would ask if this is what we want, or ought to want from comedy.