© Jeff Matthews
entry May 2005, rev. Oct 2010
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)
A terra cotta version of the Atellan
figure, Macchus, (Louvre museum)
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
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
(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
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
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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