Did literary readings contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire? Absolutely, according to the illustrious French historian Jerome Carcopino. The recitatio, or public recitation, was “the curse of literature,” Carcopino rails in his revered opus, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, published in 1939 and still a standard work; literary readings were “a disastrous practice”… a “monster”… an “evil influence”… “a cancer” that ate away at the moral and intellectual fabric of the Empire. This may sound an extreme reaction, at least from someone who never had to sit through a Nuyorican Poetry Slam. But Carcopino is only summarizing the sentiments of Roman authors themselves, who under the early Empire, in the first and second centuries AD, felt crushed by the sheer volume of spoken words.
The satirist Juvenal listed recitationes amongst the health hazards of living in Rome—apart from building collapses, disease, and fires, citizens had to worry about dying from boredom. Other great authors, from Horace to Petronius and Seneca, agreed: Public readings were the plague of the Empire. They occurred in every genre, but poetry was the most insidious. Poets regaled crowds in the forums, during the Games, 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). Romans could hear the amateur outpourings in Athens, Ephesus and Alexandria. Traveling on ships, passengers amused themselves by sharing their literary labors, as did guests around the fire after dark at highway inns.
The most successful Roman writers—who didn’t need to stoop to such shenanigans to trap an audience—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.” Martial relates the relentless onslaught of one young writer whose reach extended into Rome’s public latrines:
You read to me as I stand, you read to me as I sit,
You read to me as I run, you read to me as I shit.
I flee to the baths; you boom in my ear.
I head for the pool, you won’t let me swim.
I hurry to dinner, you stop me in my tracks.
I arrive at the meal, your words make me gag.
In his Satyricon, Petronius includes a poet who bursts into long declamations in art galleries, colonnades, temples, streets—and is pelted with stones by a discerning public.
Despite such cruel barbs, the majority of Romans obviously took readings seriously. The classic recitatio was an organized event, usually held in an aristocrat’s marble-floored villa, surrounded by fine works of art, Egyptian vases, and gilded ornaments. The poet Persius satirizes the typical Roman reader—a rich, precious dilettante, who would sweep into the auditorium in his finest snow-white toga, with freshly-curled hair and a huge diamond ring on his finger. The artiste would 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 the start of their readings until audiences were forced to shout “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 dumb, was regarded as a personal insult by Romans; the audience was expected to shout encouragement and praise throughout the recitation, a custom that was facilitated by the ready availability of wine. 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 preferred to leave nothing to chance: They hired their own professional applauders. A skilful mesochorus—“leader of the chorus”—was in great demand, and could ask top rates. He was briefed in advance on when to expect the reader’s most evocative literary flights, so that at crucial rhetorical moments, he would incite the audience into eruptions of pleasure. (The standard cry was Euge! Euge!—“bravo” in ancient Greek, the favored tongue for Roman snobs.) 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: It occurred during that unique historical moment when Rome made the transition from a Republic to an Empire, as Augustus Caesar emerged from long civil wars as the first emperor and imposed peace on the Mediterranean world (he ruled 27 BC-14 AD).
For centuries beforehand, 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. (The Greeks, with their tradition of poetry-reading bards, had long enjoyed literary readings, although they tended to be casual and spontaneous. The Olympic Games made a hugely popular venue ever since Herodotus debuted his great history to unsuspecting crowds there around 450 BC. It was a public relations coup, making him world famous overnight, and imitated by many hopeful wordsmiths over the centuries). To Romans, it was only acceptable for the works of dead authors to be read aloud; reciting one’s own words was egotistical and self-promoting. But with Augustus at the helm after 27 BC, poetry was officially promoted, giving it a new respectability. An erudite aristocrat named Maecenas became the first literary talent scout for the emperor, and then a virtual Minister of Culture, siphoning funds to promising authors, while the advent of the Pax Romana—the New World Order of peace and prosperity—provided a large, leisured, wealthy audience for literature. An explosion of creativity followed. Augustus’s rule saw the Golden Era of Latin poetry, when masters like Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Propertius were at work, as well as acclaimed writers like Varius whose works have been entirely lost.
Inspired by the heady atmosphere, a retired army general named Gaius Asinius Pollio—poet, literary gadabout, and founder of the world’s first public library—encouraged authors to begin reading their own work. The most famous of these groundbreaking events was the session by Virgil for Augustus and his family around 5 AD, from his ambitious work-in-progress, the Aeneid. The poet chose to describe how the hero, Aeneas, visits the Underworld and meets Marcellus—the emperor’s nephew, who had recently died—as a soul waiting to be born. The writing was so vivid that many in the audience openly wept. Marcellus’s mother was entirely overcome: She collapsed and fainted. Astonished by the quality of the poetry (and incidentally flattered by the patriotic depiction of Aeneas, who was considered to be an ancestor of the Imperial family), Augustus gave Virgil a small fortune, and put word out that “a work greater than the Iliad is being born.”
By the mid-first century AD, 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.
Poetry remained the most prestigious genre, and any cultivated person was expected to produce a few lines in his or her spare time. Romans concocted epics, comedies, elegies, lyrics, and tragedies; verse was in hexameters, epodes, distichs, and iambics, as well as a convoluted meter called the mimiambus. The favorite topics were drawn from mythology. (Juvenal complained that audiences were getting to know the cave of Vulcan and grove of Mars better than their own living rooms.) But prose was not without cachet, especially in the Silver Era of the early second century, when masterful stylists such as Tacitus were at work. There were plentiful histories, biographies, satires, philosophical treatises, and erudite travel guides from writers like Pausanias and Polemo (the slavish “inscription-swallower”), not to mention racy romances and adventure novels from exotic parts. The frontiers of each genre were pushed to the limit. Roman lawyers liked to reread their favorite courtroom addresses to friends; funeral orations were repeated in the baths; love letters were preserved and recited at banquets. Aristocrats hired fashionable writers to compose their wills, which after their deaths would be trotted around the literary circuit. Even emperors enjoyed reading their musings: Claudius summoned audiences to hear his histories; Nero gave many a performance of his epic poem on Troy (it was such a succès d’estime that the public demanded a festival to be declared in thanks: Nero had the poem inscribed on tablets, and hung them in the Temple of Jupiter).
“Examining the contemporary literature,” Jerome Carcopino sums up, “we soon get the impression that everyone was reading something, no matter what, aloud in public, all the time, morning and evening, winter and summer.” Even Pliny the Younger—obviously no slouch with his own marathon readings—complained that the number of recitationes was becoming a wearisome burden. Every day there would be yet another invitation.
What had started out as a fine idea was turning into a juggernaut.
This lust for readings did, at least, begin with a love of words. Imperial Rome could support an entire literary industry, whose mechanics are eerily familiar today.
There were grand publishing houses at work across the Empire, each employing dozens of slaves to transcribe manuscripts, and specialist bookstores in every major city (the doors were engraved with the names of the authors whose works were available inside, the scrolls lovingly crafted and kept in red silk sheaths; some ambitious booksellers even offered a form of mail-order service around the Empire). There was a system of grants, via gifts from wealthy patrons. Meanwhile, a whole army of literary critics was busily at work, savaging the authors and one another, preparing arcane “Introductions to Literary Theory” in Latin and Greek, along with endless dissertations on the classics.
A hectic calendar of literary competitions soon sprang up. At first, the Sebasta in Neapolis (Naples) was the most prestigious event, luring the Emperor Nero himself to compete before a crowd of thousands. The audience was not permitted to leave the auditorium during the thirteen-hour recital; it was said that a woman gave birth during the performance, and one old man feigned death so he could escape to the bathroom. Nero’s epic poem on the fall of Troy, noted one critic caustically, provoked “whole Iliads of woe.” But after 86 AD, the Sebasta was eclipsed by the annual Capitoline competition in Rome itself, which became antiquity’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Poets from all over the Empire competed in an enormous amphitheater, which showcased all the pomp of the capital: The emperor himself was always one of the judges, appearing at the stadium in Greek dress (purple cloak, sandals, and a golden crown, embedded with images of Jupiter, Hero, and Minerva), and it was He who presented the prize, a wreath of oak leaves.
Every year, provincials grumbled and sniped at the results, saying the event was rigged in favor of Roman authors. But the top honor was not always taken by famous poets. In 94 AD, a twelve-year-old boy, a certain Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, won the wreath, after reciting forty-three Greek hexameters on the typically obscure mythological theme (“What Zeus said when he reproached Helios for lending his chariot to Phaethon”). According to the boy’s gravestone, he died soon after from his round-the-clock devotion to the Muse (one imagines a childish version of Dylan Thomas swigging wine in a dark attic).
Inevitably, public readings also gave rise to the first cult of literary celebrity.
The founding father of Roman poetry readings, Virgil, became their first victim: Overenthusiastic fans began to seek him out in Naples, where he could readily be identified by his towering height, dark beard, and “rustic complexion.” Unfortunately, he was publicity-shy (and locally nicknamed Parthenias, the Virgin). He ran from admirers in the streets and even hiding in strangers’ villas “to avoid those who followed and pointed him out” (as the biographer Suetonius reports). For centuries after his death, Virgil’s tomb was a pilgrimage site for Roman tourists—the poet could not help being a fashion leader, even in death. His contemporary Horace, meanwhile, was even more disdainful: “I never read my poetry to anyone but friends,” he sniffed, “and even then only when I am forced.”
Few writers would share their reserve; after all, both Virgil and Horace lived comfortably thanks to the emperor’s largesse. Like today, the recitatio took on an important PR role: A well-placed reading could be a key tool in promoting an unknown author’s career. After one such successful event, the belle-lettrist Pliny the Younger leapt out of the audience to embrace a young poet. Booksellers at the gathering snapped up his work.
Many yearned for such instant success.
Sadly, despite the literary boom, the life of the professional writer in ancient Rome was a precarious one for those without inherited wealth. There was no system of royalties. Publishers kept all profits—a practice even Rupert Murdoch has only dreamed of since. Ovid’s father warned him that even the great Homer made no fortune. The favor of patrons was capricious. The respected poet Martial was always in debt; he complains about his dismal apartment, is forced to openly advertise his skills, and stops little short of begging. One first-century poet’s gravestone reads: “Had not the Emperor Nero given me some ready money, it would have gone ill with me, O Muses!” Even the successful, like the poet Statius, were financially strapped: Although the Emperor Domitian had kindly given him a villa, he was forced to peddle a libretto to an actor for a little cash.
Many a nobleman followed the emperor’s lead. The ancient world even may have had writers’ colonies: Martial mentions a poet’s resort, the schola poetarum, by the temple of Quirinus in Rome, where the cost of an author’s care was assumed by one generous benefactor. As cultural status symbols, writers were invited to banquets, and to the holiday villas around Naples, where the rich would retreat in summer, creating the Hamptons of Antiquity. Some aristocrats even took poets on foreign sojourns (the monuments of Egypt became littered with their graffiti, usually attempts at Homeric verse; the resulting doggerel can still be seen on the Sphinx, for example).
Juvenal found the whole patronage system degrading: Rome was full of starving writers at the mercy of sadistic oafs, he complained.
By the second century AD, this vibrant literary life was falling into decadence.
The sheer number of readings led to a glut. Roman audiences suffered from “mental indigestion,” and an epidemic of inattention followed. Audience etiquette fell by the wayside: Members would fall asleep, talk, joke, recite their own poetry. They would leave halfway through a performance, or chat outside the auditorium, telling their slaves to call them back inside for the highlights. “How-to” manuals were published for writers, providing tips to captivate an audience: Quintilian suggested avoiding the singsong delivery, which was known to bore listeners to a stupor. In desperation, many writers hired actors to deliver their timeless prose: The author simply stood alongside his reader, making appropriate hand gestures. The cult of celebrity got out of hand, with the fame of a writer eclipsing his words. Tacitus complained that anyone who had simply viewed a famous author was satisfied and walked away, as if they’d seen a statue or painting.
Even so, is Monsieur Carcopino a little extreme in saying that literary readings were a cancer eating at the soul of Roman society—an “incurable, malignant tumor”? It’s a curious question, given today’s boom in public readings (170 venues in New York City alone, at the last count by the Times).
The endless round of readings may have looked like a triumph for literature, Carcopino argues, but in fact eroded its foundations. The sheer volume of words debased the gold standard. Professional writers let their quality slip—they knew that they could read any scrap of verse, no matter how trifling, and receive accolades and laurels. As in many a Poetry Slam today, readers were applauded indiscriminately: Every audience member knew that they would probably be up on stage themselves—if not the next day, the next week—and wanted to be treated indulgently. Thousands developed a false belief in their own genius. Short-impact pieces—sparkling aphorisms, lurid pyrotechnics, extravagant flourishes—became immensely popular. Challenging work required painful attention. Serious literature was a yawn. Novelties were beloved, and authors played to the crowd.
But comical though they could often be, these debased literary readings reflected a more general Roman malaise. Under the emperors, the whole political structure discouraged creativity: Political dissent was ruthlessly weeded out; free speech was curtailed; most in the literary classes took to self-censorship. Even in the Golden Era of Latin poetry, the great Ovid fell foul of Augustus and was exiled to a wretched port on the Black Sea. The reasons are unclear, but it was known that the prudish emperor did not approve of his lewd treatise Ars Amatoria, the Arts of Love. Nero once walked out of a reading by the poet Lucan of his Civil Wars, because of its anti–Julius Caesar bent; not long afterwards, the author was implicated in a political conspiracy, and forced to commit suicide. Even “good” emperors like Hadrian had their systems of spies. The less benevolent, like Domitian, openly persecuted free thinkers. This restrictive atmosphere hardly helped originality: Great writers like the Syrian-born satirist Lucian would still crop up in the later second century, but they became increasingly rare.
Consciously or not, writers began to detach themselves from reality, retreating into the “safe” stock themes of mythology, wallowing in abstraction and fantasy. Stylistically, Roman poets became happy to imitate the successes of the past, carefully reproducing the styles of Virgil or Ovid. Authors devoted themselves to recreating the lost addresses of Greek heroes like Pericles and Themistocles. A group called the Sophists reproduced the patterns of archaic Greek language—as if a gaggle of famous poets today decided to use only Shakespearean vocabulary and iambic pentameter. The rules of rhetoric ossified. Budding authors found it most convenient to draw on a fixed pool of images and moral anecdotes. Handy reference books listed hundreds of useful exempla: To praise bravery, one chose from the tales of Romulus, Scipio, or Manlius Torquatus; for chastity, there were the tales of Romans killing their adulterous daughters. Roman writers strayed from their tried-and-true formulas even more rarely than Hollywood scriptwriters today.
One unexpected critic of this new regime was Apollonius of Tyana, a self-righteous pagan superstar whose second-century AD biography by Philostratus shows him always ready with a platitude.
Attending the Olympic Games in Greece, Apollonius meets a budding author—a young man who utters those heart-sinking words: “Pray honor me with your presence tomorrow, for I am going to recite some work.” It transpires that the composition is “a treatise upon Zeus.” The aspiring wordsmith goes on: “I shall say how the seasons belong to Zeus, as well everything on earth and in heaven, and the winds and the stars…”
“Thereupon Apollonius was incensed, as he often was with trivial and vulgar people.”
He launches into a tirade of abuse, concluding with that the work was a waste of time, for “you are embarking on a subject which transcends the power of man.”
Which is, in fact, time-honored advice of creative writing classes around the globe: Skip the fantasy. Write about what you know.