The pestilence lasted during both this and the1
following year, the consulship of Gaius Sulpicius Peticus and Gaius Licinius Stolo.
In the latter year nothing memorable occurred, except that with the [p. 361]
object of appeasing the divine displeasure they made2 a lectisternium,
or banquet to the gods, being the third in the history of the City;3
and when neither human wisdom nor the help of Heaven was found to mitigate the scourge, men gave way to superstitious fears, and, amongst other efforts to disarm the wrath of the gods, are said also to have instituted scenic entertainments.
This was a new departure for a warlike people, whose only exhibitions had been those of the circus; but indeed it began in a small way, as most things do, and even so was imported from abroad.4
Without any singing, without imitating the action of singers, players who had been brought in from Etruria danced to the strains of the flautist and performed not ungraceful evolutions in the Tuscan fashion.
Next the young Romans began to imitate them, at the same time exchanging jests in uncouth verses, and bringing their movements into a certain harmony with the words.
And so the amusement was adopted, and frequent use kept it alive. The native professional actors were called histriones,
the Tuscan word for player; they no longer —as before —alternately
threw off rude lines hastily improvised, like the Fescennines,5
but performed medleys, full of musical measures, to melodies which were now written out to go with the flute, and with appropriate gesticulation. [p. 363]
was the first, some years later, to abandon7
and compose a play with a plot.
Like everyone else in those days, he acted his own pieces; and the story goes that when his voice, owing to the frequent demands made upon it, had lost its freshness, he asked and
obtained the indulgence to let a boy stand before the flautist to sing the monody, while he acted it himself, with a vivacity of gesture that gained considerably from his not having to use his voice.
From that time on actors began to use singers to accompany their gesticulation, reserving only the dialogue parts for their own delivery. When this type of performance had begun to wean
the drama from laughter and informal jest, and the play had gradually developed into art, the young men abandoned the acting of comedies to professionals and revived the ancient practice of fashioning their nonsense into verses and letting fly with them at one another; this was the source of the after-plays which came later to be called exodia,
and were usually combined with Atellan farces.
The Atellan was a species of comedy acquired from the Oscans,8
and the young men kept it for themselves and would not allow it to be polluted by the professional actors; that is why it is a fixed tradition that performers of Atellan plays are not disfranchised, but serve in the army as though they had no connexion with the stage.9
Amongst the humble origins of other institutions it has seemed worth while to set down the early history of the play, that it might be seen how sober were the beginnings of [p. 365]
an art that has nowadays reached a point where10
opulent kingdoms could hardly support its mad extravagance.