From Ritual Drama to Ancient Theater – Italy

Etruscan Dancing Man Fresco

No evidence has been found that shows a tradition of ritual drama in Italy prior to the seventh century BCE. It is possible that the ritual dramas performed by the Phoenicians were passed on to the early Italian civilization called the Etruscans. The Phoenicians practiced many of the same types of religious rituals as cultures in the Ancient Near East, including the Sacred Marriage. Besides the Phoenicians, Greek religion and myth became a strong influence on the Etruscans and Greek gods were adopted as their own.[1]

Etruscan rituals were an influence on early Roman theater. Ritual dancers called ludiones performed at Etruscan festivals wearing conical hats and pointed beards, similar to this Dancing Man fresco. The ludiones were sent to Rome to perform a ritual dance to save the city from the plague.[2] This Etruscan ritual eventually was incorporated into the Roman religious festival called the Ludi Romani, or the Roman Games. The Ludi Romani also included formal competitive games such as chariot racing.[3] No texts have been found describing specific Etruscan rituals but frescoes show spectators watching the performances of masked performers, dancers, musicians, and athletic competitions.[4]

Roman Death Masks

Rome did have some early ritual traditions, but they cannot be considered true ritual drama. The Fescennine verses were a satiric form of bawdy poetry which likely developed into early Roman comedy. Early Romans also performed a funeral ritual where the masks of deceased ancestors were displayed while the family history was recited. Another ritual was the dance of the Salii, or the Leaping Priests.[5] The Salii were a group of twelve priests who paraded through the Roman streets during the festival of Mars dancing and singing. There was no musical accompaniment and they sang verses in praise of the gods.[6]

Since the Romans did not have their own tradition of ritual drama their theatrical drama developed from other sources. The Etruscan ludiones certainly were an important influence, as was the bawdy comedy of the Greek influenced Atellan farce. Greek theater was the biggest influence on the Romans who adopted not only Greek theater, but many other aspects of Greek culture as well.[7]

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama,(Oxford, Oakville, CT:Aarhus University Press, 2002), 151, 156.
[2] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama,(Oxford, Oakville, CT:Aarhus University Press, 2002), 161-162.
[3] Brooklyn CUNY, “Ludi Romani,” accessed July 15, 2012, http://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/classics/dunkle/romnlife/ludi.htm
[4] Mark Griffith, “Telling the Tale: A Performing Tradition from Homer to Pantomime,” The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, edited by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 27.
[5] Mark Griffith, “Telling the Tale: A Performing Tradition from Homer to Pantomime,” The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, 29.
[6] University of Chicago, “Salii,” accessed July 15, 2012, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Salii.html
[7] Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, Living History: History of the Theatre Fifth Edition, (New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 2008), 66-67.

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