Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© ErN 54 Jeff Matthews  entry May 2005, rev. Oct 2010   

Ancient Comedy Clubs

And what Atellan orgies of the soul/Were celebrated then among the rocks/
They testify themselves in books/That rouse Atellan laughter.

— (from The Eremites by Robert Graves)

Insert: A terra cotta version of the Atellan
figure, Macchus, (Louvre museum)


But, seriously, ladies & gentiles... I took a trip out to the town of Atella, very near Naples, the other day. It is the historical birthplace of the sit-com! I was hoping to find a world-class Museum of Historical Comedy or maybe "Atella the Fun," a comedy club, where the performers would say things like, "Now take the emperor. Please." I was disappointed. There was no such place. The only piece of history sticking up in Atella is the so-called castellone, a Roman thermal bath from the second century a.d. There is some talk of opening a bulletin board to remind people of the importance that Atella enjoys in the history of comedy.

(I did, however, run across a small, very new and well laid-out museum — the subject of another entry in this encyclopedia — the Atellan Archaeological Museum in Succivo. It does a good job of making sense of the remarkable hodge-podge of archaeological remains in the area of Atella.)

It may be, as Woody Allen quipped, that no one takes comedy seriously; yet, for a dramatic form that supposedly gets short shrift from critics, comedy based on caricature family stereotypes has great staying power. There is a chain of domestic farce running from present-day television sitcoms back as far as we can reliably trace, which is, approximately, the atellanae fabulae, or Atellan Fables, also known as "Oscan Games" (Ludi osci). Those terms are used to describe a form of Roman farce based on vulgar, low-brow, coarse life in the outback — bumpkin comedy. Interestingly, although we say "Roman" farce, the Atellan Fables were originally performed in the Oscan language, not Latin, which means that the Romans took the idea from someone and somewhere else—the Oscans of the town of Atella, well south of the early Roman sphere of influence.


At their point of maximum expansion (in the 5th
century b.c. the Samnites, an Oscan-speaking
people, occupied the area shown in white on this map.
Note that it includes the bay of Naples and much of
present-day Campania.


"Oscan" is the name of a language as well as a term for the speakers of that language. It was an Indo-European language and a close relative of Latin. By the year 1000 b.c. the Italian peninsula was populated largely by descendants of the great Indo-European invasions of 2,000 years earlier. One of these groups would become a commonplace name centuries later, the Latini. Others would diminish to historical curiosities; the Oscans were one of these groups, best represented by the ferocious Samnites, who battled Rome for long centuries before succumbing.



One anomalous, enigmatic people were the Etruscans, non-Indo-European wanderers into central Italy (perhaps from Anatolia) shortly before the year 1000 b.c. The Etruscans spread and incorporated many of the native peoples, including the Latini and the Oscans; the Etruscans in the south were then displaced by colonists from Greece starting in about 600 b.c.; the Greeks were then swallowed up by mighty Rome by about 300 b.c. (Descriptions such as "incorporated" and "displaced" conceal the extent to which different groups with their own customs and languages must have existed side by side for some time in the fifth and sixth centuries b.c. in the Campania region of Italy. For example, click here.) In any event, from Roman sources we can say that Atella was staging its "Oscan games" at least as early as the fourth century b.c.

Roman literature has many references to the Atellan farces in the Oscan language. In taking over the Atellan Fables, however, the Romans abandoned the original Oscan improvisational form and developed the form into a literary Latin one; even Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, had his hand at writing a few. Many of the Oscan stock characters were kept by the Romans (and survived into various national incarnations much later in the European Middle Ages, including Macchus, a hunch-backed "wise" fool with a big nose, the forerunner of the modern Neapolitan Pulcinella). Other characters included Bucco (the fat man), Manducus (the glutton), and Pappus (an old man). Many of the common character types found in today's television fare — the nagging wife, the meddling mother-in-law, the effeminate man, the simpleton, the braggart, the quack doctor, etc. etc. — show up in the Atellan Fables.


Exactly where the Atellan Fables came from as a form of improvised Oscan theater is still debated. One view is that it was taken from a comedic form brought into Italy by the Greeks. That is hard to substantiate except from the point of view that everything must have somehow come from the Greeks! That is to say, Roman satire was a literary form easily linked back to written Greek comedy, but the Atellan Fables were improvised by the Oscans and only later became written literature as the Romans gave up ad-libbing and attempted to write their own Fables in Latin. There was an earlier Greek form called a satyr play, however, that did have an improvisational character to it, so there is always that possibility.

Some (the German historian Mommsen, for example) think that the Oscans had nothing to do with it and that the form was originally Roman. Well, Mommsen got a Nobel Prize, but it seems to me that that view is bizarre in light of the references by Latin writers, themselves, to their Oscan predecessors. Another intriguing possibility is that the Oscan form was influenced by the Etruscans, who apparently were known for vulgar and bawdy verses. Today we still use the adjective "Fescennine" to describe such material (unless, of course, you yourself are vulgar and bawdy, in which case you haven't the foggiest idea what "Fescennine" means). "Fescennia" was the name of an ancient Etruscan city (near modern-day Viterbo). The Etruscan theory, too, is difficult since (1) we can't read Etruscan very well and (2) there is very little Etruscan to read. And, of course, one should consider the possibility that the improvisational nature and the fascinating stock characters of the Atellan Fables are originally Oscan. So maybe the road to Everybody Loves Raymond really did start in Atella.

If the Oscans had a real funny bone, they'd have been amused by the fact that the above-mentioned "Castellone" — the Roman bath — is located on Via degli Osci (Street of the Oscans). They'd be rolling on the floor that Osci Ludi ("Oscan games") is the name of the local football stadium in Orta di Atella, the modern name for this very old town.

So an Etruscan, a Roman, and a Jew are all chained to the same oar when the ship starts taking on water...


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