The living tradition of Atellane comedy

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by Costas Panayotakis

For some years now I have been conducting research on farcical and rather uncouth Latin comedies conventionally called “Atellane plays” (in Latin, fabulae Atellanae), the scripted incarnation of which is now known to us only through the “fragments” (or, more precisely, literary citations) of plays composed by the playwrights Novius, Pomponius, Mummius, Aprissius, and others during the Republican and early Imperial eras. We do not have much in terms of evidence for this theatrical form of entertainment, but one of its distinctive features was the appearance of four stock characters in the plot of the plays: Maccus “Mr Stupid”, Bucco “The Glutton”, Pappus “The Grandpa”, and Dossennus “The Hunchback”. Some of these characters may well go back in time (to the third century BC) and it has been suggested that they are the distant literary ancestors of stock characters from the commedia dell’arte. In addition to the literary quotations—about 270 very short fragments in verse—which give a skewed and potentially misleading impression about what Atellane comedy truly was, we have a handful of decorative masks found in a workshop in Pompeii (one of them is made of terracotta and the rest of gypsum), now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (not on public display), and half a dozen epigraphical pieces of evidence, some of which have a dubious connection with Atellane drama.

In November 2023, thanks to funding from The Leverhulme Trust, I spent a splendidly productive month at The British School at Rome, researching the material culture of Atellane comedy. I used to think that few people nowadays know even the words “Atellane comedy”, let alone what they represented in ancient cultural discourse, especially since undisputed evidence of material culture of the Republican period related to theatre (for example permanent theatrical fixtures) is yet to be found in Atella. I had to qualify my views, though, when I travelled to the ancient Atella (most of which falls within the boundaries of the comune of Sant’Arpino in the province of Caserta) in Campania. Excavations have brought to light several parts of the ancient city, including a private house with a peristyle, dated to the first century BC, as well as baths with a mosaic pavement of the second century AD, with fourth-century modifications. However, the archaeologist Stefano De Caro in his guidebook La terra nera (p. 91) also mentions that the perimeter of a theatre (teatro) has been identified next to the North Gate or “Porta Nord”. This was not immediately clear/visible to me when visiting the large area in question, now a spacious green park with trees, outside the ancient city boundaries, but the belief in the existence of the theatre in that location is strong in the community. For very near this park there are several small streets leading to it, and they are named (as you can see in the photos below) Via Fabulae Atellane, Via Pomponio, Via Novio, Via Dossenus, and Via Pappus. This for me was a remarkable indication of the will of the citizens of that territory to maintain their tradition alive, even though it is doubtful that the archaeological evidence accurately supports historical facts.  

Photograph of street signs in Sant’Arpino, Italy taken by C. Panayotakis
Photograph of street signs in Sant’Arpino, Italy taken by C. Panayotakis

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