The beginning of Latin literature was a datable event. At one moment it didn’t exist, and then after the production of a play in Latin by a man called Livius, it did. That at least is what Cicero seems to say two hundred years later, in his dialogue with Brutus of 46 BC on the history of oratory. In order to justify his view that the speeches of the elder Cato, though early, were even so admirable, Cicero pointed out that none of the creative arts reached perfection straightaway:
There must have been poets before Homer, as we can tell from the songs sung at the banquets of the Phaeacians and of the suitors on Ithaca in the Odyssey. And where is our own ancient poetry ‘that once the Fauns and prophets sang’? … The Latin Odyssey is like some archaic sculpture by Daedalus, and Livius’ plays aren’t worth reading twice. This Livius was the first to produce a play – it was in the consulship of Gaius Claudius, Caecus’ son, and Marcus Tuditanus, the year before Ennius was born, in the 514th year from the foundation of the city.
Cicero’s friend Atticus had found out the date only recently, using documentary evidence (‘we find it in ancient records’). His discovery was striking enough for Cicero to mention it again the following year in his Tusculan Disputations when justifying the use of Latin for philosophical argument:
The Greeks used to surpass us in learning and in all types of literature. It was easy to win against no opposition, because while poets were the earliest authors in Greece, and Homer and Hesiod lived before Rome was founded and Archilochus during the reign of Romulus, we Romans were latecomers to poetry. It was in about the 510th year from the foundation of the city that Livius produced a play in the consulship of Gaius Claudius, Caecus’ son, and Marcus Tuditanus, the year before Ennius was born.
The ab urbe condita date is different (the system was not yet standardised), but the consuls’ names alone are enough to date the event firmly in what we call 240 BC. That was the first year of peace after Rome’s 25-year struggle with Carthage, a conflict described by a Greek historian as the longest, most continuous and most extensive war on record. No doubt, at a time of national rejoicing, the annual Roman Games – the Ludi Romani – were more lavish than usual that year. But what was the discovery that Atticus made two centuries later?
According to Denis Feeney’s new book, it was ‘an extraordinary phenomenon’, ‘one of the strangest and most unlikely events in Mediterranean history’, something we shall only be able to understand when he has ‘defamiliarise[d] the terms of comparison’ and ‘denaturalise[d] our assumptions’. The subtitle is deceptively innocuous: Feeney’s chosen term for what happened in 240 BC is ‘the translation project’, a phrase he uses roughly once every five pages. He takes as a given ‘the reform in the year 240 of the great annual festival of the Roman state, the Ludi Romani, to allow for the staging of a Latin play translated from a Greek original’, and he refers frequently to the early Latin dramatists Livius, Naevius, Plautus and Ennius as ‘the poet-translators’ or ‘the translator-poets’.
Feeney is such a brilliant scholar, his combination of great erudition with readability so rare and so admirable, that it feels almost discourteous to apply the norms of empirical argument. But it has to be done. Cicero reports that Livius was the first person to produce a play, and thus the first known poet in Latin; he mentions no reform of the festival and no translated dramas (only Livius’ ‘Latin Odyssey’). Neither he nor any other ancient authority ever calls the plays of Livius, Naevius and Ennius ‘translations’. When Plautus mentions Greek originals, he is referring to plots, not texts; the words are all his own, as were, no doubt, those of the tragedians, whose mythological plots didn’t have to be invented. But Feeney insists that the early Latin poets were ‘writing translations of canonical Greek scripts’, that ‘the programme of the new translation project, with its ambition to go directly to particular sources for sustained adaptation, was qualitatively different from what had happened before’ – and for that he offers no evidence, only eloquent assertion. What’s needed is an old-fashioned chronological argument.
Rome was situated at the lowest practical crossing point on the Tiber, where the river-valley route into the mountains intersected with the land route from Etruria south-eastwards to the Campanian plain and the bay of Naples. By the time a city-state developed there – identified as such by its agora, the Forum, probably created in the seventh century BC – Greek-speaking traders and prospectors had been exploring the whole west coast of Italy and its hinterland for many generations. The city-state took its name from the Greek word for strength, ROMA in Latin, a transliteration of the Greek ‘PΩΜΗ. Its earliest identifiable inhabitant was a Greek man whose name, which can be read as either ΚΛΕΙΚΛΟΣ or KTΕΚΤΟΣ, was scratched on the seventh-century Corinthian oil-flask he was buried with at the Esquiline cemetery. In Etruscan Caere, just 35 kilometres away, his contemporary and compatriot AΡΙΣΤΟΝΟΘΟΣ, a vase-painter, produced a mixing bowl with a sea battle on one side and the blinding of Polyphemus on the other – this is the earliest evidence we have of knowledge of Homer’s Odyssey. According to Hesiod, at about this time, Odysseus and Circe had a son called Latinos, ‘ruler of the famed Etruscans’.
By the sixth century BC, Homer and Hesiod had a rival, Stesichoros of Himera, whose home on the north coast of Sicily was just across the water from the land of the Latins and Etruscans. His best-known work was about Herakles’ defeat of the monstrous Geryoneus in the far west, and the driving of Geryoneus’ cattle all the way back to Argos. The Romans had an ancient altar to the deified Herakles, and there is now evidence that the story of Herakles bringing the cattle through Rome was already current by about 530. That’s the date archaeologists have given for the construction of a temple near the Cattlemarket (Forum bovarium, after Geryoneus’ herd) that contained a splendid terracotta statue of Pallas Athene escorting the deified hero to Olympus. Herakles is portrayed wearing the lionskin, a detail that Stesichoros introduced into the legend.
Stesichoros also referred to Euandros, who was exiled from his native Arcadia and ruled Pallantion (the Roman Palatine) when Herakles arrived with the cattle. Later Greek authors knew that Euandros introduced the cult of Pan to the Lupercal in Rome. Certainly, the Lupercal ritual was archaic, as were the sacrifices at the argea, sites believed to be the burial places of Argives (argei in Latin, a transliteration of the Greek argeioi), who had stayed behind when Herakles moved on with the herd. One detail of the story that appeared at a demonstrably early date was a joke about the name of a Roman family, the Pinarii, who arrived too late for the dedication of Herakles’ altar and were forbidden from sharing the sacrificial meat. ‘You will go hungry,’ Herakles said to them in Greek – peinasete, a pun on ‘Peinasioi’, which is how their name was spelled in archaic Latin before the rhotacism of the intervocalic ‘s’.
Many other fragments of information about Rome in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BC, from archaeology or from Greek sources, give the impression of a community quite at home with the Greek language and Greek legends. The ruler of Rome himself, Tarquin ‘the Proud’, was a Corinthian by descent; the new horse racing festival at the Circus Maximus, like the Isthmian Games at Corinth, was in honour of Poseidon Hippios, but Latinised as Neptunus Equester. The Volcanal cult site dedicated to Vulcan the fire god contained a high-quality Athenian black-figure mixing bowl depicting the return of Hephaistos to Olympus. The wooden image in Diana’s temple on the Aventine was a replica of the image of Artemis brought from Ephesos by the Phokaians of Greek Asia Minor when they left their home and founded a new one at Massilia (Marseille).
Not long after the expulsion of Tarquin ‘in the 28th year before Xerxes crossed into Hellas’ (as a Greek historian precisely noted), a magnificent new temple was put up in the Forum to the Spartan Dioskouroi, Kastor and Polydeukes. An inscription from a nearby coastal site allows us to see that ΠΟΛΥΔΕΥΚΗΣ was transliterated as PODLOVQVES centuries before it was tidied up into ‘Pollux’. Another newly built temple, to Ceres (the Greek Demeter), was inscribed with the signatures of Damophilos and Gorgasos, the Greek artists who had decorated it in paint and terracotta. A popular technique at the time was the use of terracotta antefixes shaped like satyr masks; examples have been found at five different sites in Rome. Romans were also among the non-Greek converts who joined Pythagoras’ philosophical cult in the Greek cities of southern Italy, and a Greek author claiming to be the Syracusan playwright Epicharmus even alleged that Pythagoras was granted citizenship of Rome.
Throughout this period, the Romans were enthusiastic importers of Athenian black-figure and red-figure painted pottery. There’s little evidence for these imports after 450 BC, which has led archaeologists to infer a serious economic downturn at Rome. The worst of the bad times came in 387 BC, when the city was captured and sacked by a Gallic war band. That was world news: as the philosopher Herakleides of Pontus put it in Athens a generation later, ‘An army of Hyperboreans came from the ends of the earth and captured Rome, a Hellenic city situated somewhere on the shore of the Great Sea.’ His contemporary Aristotle, though much better informed about Rome, also thought of it as a Greek city, founded by Achaeans who had been blown off course on their way back from the Trojan War. According to Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Lyceum, the Roman colonists at the coastal site of Circeii – modern Monte Circeo, once Circe’s island in the Odyssey – pointed out the tomb of Odysseus’ young companion Elpenor, who fell off the roof of the witch-goddess’s palace when he was drunk.
The evidence is there, but few classicists even notice it, much less try to work out its implications. They are similarly uncurious about the extraordinarily rich body of visual art from fourth-century Italy. Red-figure painted pottery in the Athenian manner was produced widely, not only in the old Greek cities of Sicily and the south coast of Italy, but also in non-Greek-speaking Apulia, Lucania, Campania and Etruria, with one production centre, Falerii, only 40 kilometres north of Rome. There don’t seem to have been any red-figure painters in Latium itself, but there were workers in bronze whose engraved scenes on mirrors and caskets reveal exactly the same world of mythic iconography.
Potsherds can and do survive anywhere, but bronzes get melted down unless they’re buried with the dead. Most of the surviving engraved bronzes from Latium were found at Praeneste (Palestrina), where the ancient cemeteries were discovered and ransacked in the 18th and 19th centuries. By good fortune, one magnificent cylindrical casket, decorated on the frieze with a Dionysiac version of the tale of the Argonauts, has an inscription on the plate that attached the handle – a statuette of the young Dionysus with two satyrs – to the circular lid. It reads NOVIOS PLAVTIOS MED ROMAI FECID, which in classical Latin would be Nouius Plautius me Romae fecit: ‘Novius Plautius made me in Rome.’ How many of the other hundred or so surviving engraved caskets were made in Rome, nobody knows.
The only other bronze with a signature is a mirror showing the satyr Marsyas dancing with ‘little Pan’ (Paniskos), on which the artist has inscribed their names and added VIBIS PILIPVS CAILAVIT. In classical orthography that would be Vibius Philippus caelauit: ‘Vibius Philippus’ – a man with a Greek name writing in Latin – ‘engraved [this].’ Satyrs are identified by their horse-tails, but the Marsyas on the mirror has taken his off and is brandishing it about; that suggests he’s a human performer impersonating a satyr, and the garlanded wine jar on the stand next to him may be the competition prize. We don’t know where Vibius Philippus was working, but Marsyas had a statue in the Forum in Rome, where he was seen as a symbol of liberty.
Dionysiac imagery appeared on vases and bronzes all over Italy at this time, as did scenes of theatrical performance. A cylindrical casket from Palestrina features a scene presided over by two satyrs (one dancing, the other playing the pipes) and a young woman, naked but for her jewellery, who is admiring her face in a mirror. She is probably a performer: another such young woman is seen playing Iphigenia at Aulis, while vengeful Artemis (Latin Diana) watches the events through a window in the stage set. The plots of the Attic tragedians, like those of Homer and the epic poets, were clearly well known and regularly staged.
Euripides didn’t use actresses, or show his heroines naked, but in Italy a hundred years later the performance conventions were evidently different. In the early third century BC the Greeks of Taras (Latin Tarentum, modern Taranto) pioneered a dramatic form called ‘cheerful tragedy’ or ‘fooleries’ (phlyakes) that recycled tragic plots as ‘Italian comedy’. The acknowledged master of the genre was Rhinthon of Syracuse; much later, Latin literary scholars listed ‘Rhinthonic’ among the multifarious styles of Roman drama. That shouldn’t be a surprise: the Romans had always been open to Greek cultural influence, a part of ‘pan-Hellas’, as Callimachus put it at about the time that ‘Livius’ produced the first documented Latin play at Rome. The dramatist’s proper name was Livius Andronicus and he was born Andronikos of Taras; he was a younger contemporary of Rhinthon.
Denis Feeney knows all this, and systematically discounts it. Yes, ‘the Romans lived in close dialogue with various manifestations of Hellenic culture for centuries’; but then ‘a distinctive set of circumstances launched them on their strange experiment of taking over into their own vernacular one of the most prestigious aspects of that culture.’ For Feeney, pre-Livian Roman drama can only have been some sort of ‘improvisatory medley’, ‘slapstick farce’ or ‘balletic and musical shows’, whereas the ‘translation project’ deliberately targeted literary high culture. But that won’t do. When Cicero, whose admiration for Greek literature was boundless, said that Livius’ plays weren’t worth reading twice, he didn’t mean they were bad translations, he meant they weren’t good plays. They were Livius’ plays, not translations of classic texts.
We can be sure there were Latin poets and playwrights before Livius, just as there were bronze engravers besides Novius Plautius and Vibius Philippus; but they are now nameless. Someone at some point put together a collection of ‘very ancient poems predating anything written in Latin’, according to one ancient author; it included a ‘song of Neleus’ and a ‘song of Priam’, presumably mythological narratives. But no authors’ names could be put to them. The one apparent exception is the ‘Pythagorean poem’ referred to by Cicero and attributed to Appius Claudius Caecus, consul in 307 BC – but the attribution may well have been guesswork.
The innovation during the consulship of Caecus’ son Gaius Claudius and Marcus Tuditanus was not a willed cultural policy shift or a major reform of the games, but the simple fact of documentation. Papyrus, which had to be imported from Egypt, can’t have been easy to obtain while the great Carthaginian war was raging. Now that the seas were open again, the victorious Romans had the means, as well as the patriotic motivation, to dignify their dramatic festivals with an Athenian-style public record of the works performed. This is how Atticus, two centuries on, was able to date Livius’ play using ‘ancient records’. It also became more practical now to make fair-copy texts and keep them stored, which was what made ‘Latin literature’ possible. The year 240 BC was indeed a turning point, and what made it so was peace, pride and paper.
For all its learning and its subtle reflections on cultural appropriation, Feeney’s book seems to me to get the history wrong. Sceptical readers may worry about the slippery abstractions (‘The translator-poets were working from within the interstices between groups who were undergoing profound change, and within institutions and protocols that were likewise in rapid transition’); they may deplore the evasive term ‘the elite’, which is repeatedly used to identify instigators of cultural change; they may even wonder what Feeney’s title means. But it matters much more fundamentally that Feeney never establishes the premise of his argument, that the revolutionary ‘translation project’ ever took place.