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Rome's Fall: Poetic Justice

November 09, 2003|Tony Perrottet | Tony Perrottet is the author of "Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists."

NEW YORK — Los Angeles is a city awash with words. Just look at this week's roster of literary readings: There's Russell Banks reading today at the Canal Club in Venice, Orson Scott Card on Tuesday at Vroman's in Pasadena, Mark Salzman on Friday at UCLA, and Leo Braudy on Saturday at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. And that's just a tiny fraction of the total number of literary happenings around town -- poetry slams, book groups, recitals from works in progress, screenplay seminars.

Should we be alarmed? History suggests yes. According to the illustrious scholar Jerome Carcopino, literary readings contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

The recitatio, or public recitation, was "the curse of literature," Carcopino railed in his 1939 opus, "Daily Life in Ancient Rome"; literary readings were "a disastrous practice" ... a "monster" ... "a cancer" that ate away at the moral and intellectual fabric of the empire. This may sound like an extreme reaction, particularly from someone who never had to sit through an open-mike night at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe. But Carcopino is really only summarizing the sentiments of Roman authors themselves, who under the early empire, in the 1st and 2nd centuries, felt crushed by the sheer volume of spoken words.

The satirist Juvenal listed recitations as one of the health hazards of living in Rome. In addition to building collapses, disease and fires, citizens had to worry about dying from boredom, he wrote. Other great authors, from Horace to Petronius and Seneca, agreed. Public readings were, they insisted, the plague of the empire. They occurred in every genre, but poetry was the most insidious. Poets regaled crowds in the forums, in art galleries, during the Games and at dinner parties. Noblemen would corner house guests for all-night verse sessions (an invitation to the holiday villa of Pliny the Younger was a mixed blessing; he liked to read his work in sessions that could last for three days).

The most successful Roman writers may have viewed the popular phenomenon with disdain -- Horace compared an author on a stage to "a leech that will not let go of the skin until it has sucked its fill of blood" -- but most Romans took readings seriously. The classic recitatio was an organized event, usually held in an aristocrat's marble-floored villa. The artiste, usually a rich dilettante, would sweep into the auditorium in his finest snow-white toga, perch himself on a tall stool at the center of the stage and proceed to recite from his scroll "in melting tones." Some prima donnas wore lamb's wool neck scarves to protect their throats. Consumed with false modesty, they delayed starting their readings until audiences shouted, "Read!"

"Read!" lamented Seneca, when "they would really like to see him struck dead on the spot." In fact, Roman readings make modern American poetry slams seem like exercises in Victorian reserve. To sit quietly, as if deaf and mute, was regarded as a personal insult to the reader; Roman audiences were expected to shout encouragement and praise throughout the recitation, a custom facilitated by an abundance of wine at the readings.

Auditoriums were habitually stacked with the reader's friends and relatives so that writers could be sure of an enthusiastic reception. But many wealthy writers also hired their own professional applauders. The "leader of the chorus" was briefed in advance on when to expect the most evocative literary flights, so that at crucial rhetorical moments he would incite the audience into eruptions of pleasure. Throughout the event, every mot juste was met with gestures of delight and approval; choice metaphors provoked eager roars; an extended rhetorical flight demanded standing ovations.

The craze for literary readings in Rome was sudden and overwhelming. Traditionally, the hard-bitten, practical, militaristic Romans had regarded writing in general -- and verse in particular -- as a vaguely decadent and contemptible pursuit, best left to the effeminate Greeks. To Romans, it was only acceptable for the works of dead authors to be read aloud; reciting one's own words was seen as egotistical and self-promoting. But when Augustus took the helm of Rome in 27 BC -- steering the city from a republic to an empire and creating a new era of wealth and dictatorial order -- poetry was officially promoted, giving it a new respectability. Inspired by the heady atmosphere, a retired general, Gaius Asinius Pollio, encouraged authors to read their own work in public.

By the mid-1st century, the recitatio had reached a level of popularity that would not be matched until the modern day. Public readings became the central pillar of Roman literary life. Writing, formerly a solitary pursuit, took on a new status as a performance art.

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