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Jeff Matthews entry
, rev. Oct 2010
Atellan orgies of the soul/Were celebrated then
among the rocks/
themselves in books/That rouse Atellan laughter.
—(from The Eremites by Robert Graves)
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
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
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—indeed, 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
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 improvisatory 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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