THE ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA

A DICTIONARY OF ARTS, SCIENCES, LITERATURE AND GENERAL INFORMATION

ELEVENTH EDITION 1911

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ATELLANAE FABULAE (“Atellan fables”), the name of a sort of popular comedy amongst the ancient Romans. The name is derived from Atella, an Oscan town in Campania; for this reason, and from their being also called Osci Ludi, it has been supposed that they were of Oscan origin and introduced at Rome after Campania had been deprived of its independence. It seems highly improbable that they were performed in the Oscan language. Mommsen, however, rejects their Oscan origin altogether; he regards them as purely Latin, the scene merely being laid at Atella to avoid causing offence by placing it at Rome or one of the Latin cities. These plays, or rather sketches, contained humorous descriptions of country as contrasted with town life, and found their subjects amongst the lower classes of the people. The subjects alone were decided upon before the performance began; the dialogue was improvised as it proceeded. The Atellanae contained certain stock characters, like the Italian harlequinades: Maccus (the fool), Bucco (fat-chaps), Pappus (daddy), Dossennus (sharper); monsters and bogeys like Manducus, Pytho, Lamia also made their appearance. The performers were the sons of Roman citizens, who did not lose their rights as citizens, and were allowed to serve in the army: professional actors were excluded. The simple prose dialogues were probably varied by songs in the rude Saturnian metre: the language was that of the common people, accompanied by lively gesticulation and movements. They were characterized by coarseness and obscenity. In the time of Sulla a literary form was given to the Atellanae by Pomponius of Bononia and Novius, who made them regular written comedies. Living persons seem to have been attacked, and even the doings of the gods and heroes of mythology burlesqued. From this time the Atellanae were used as after-pieces and performed by professional actors. In 46 B.C. they were ousted by the mimes, but regained popularity during the reign of Tiberius (chiefly owing to a certain Mummius), until they were definitely superseded by and merged in the mimes. They held their ground in the small towns and villages of Italy during the last days of the empire; they probably lingered on into the middle ages, and were the origin of the Italian Commedie dell’ arte.

The scanty fragments of Pomponius and Novius are collected in Ribbeck’s Comicorum Romanorum Reliquiae; see also Munk, De Fabulis Atellanis (1840); and art. Latin Literature.


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