The Roman theater never approached the heights of the Greek, and the Romans themselves had little interest in serious dramatic endeavors, being drawn toward sensationalism and spectacle. The earliest Roman dramatic attempts were simply translations from the Greek. Gnaeus Naevius (c.270–c.199 B.C.) and his successors imitated Greek models in tragedies that never transcended the level of violent melodrama. Even the nine tragedies of the philosopher and statesman Seneca are gloomy and lurid, emphasizing the sensational aspects of Greek myth; they are noted primarily for their inflated rhetoric. Seneca became an important influence on Renaissance tragedy, but it is unlikely that his plays were intended for more than private readings.
Although Roman tragedy produced little of worth, a better judgment may be passed on the comedies of Plautus and Terence. Plautus incorporated native Roman elements into the plots and themes of Menander, producing plays characterized by farce, intrigue, romance, and sentiment. Terence was a more polished stylist who wrote for and about the upper classes and dispensed with the element of farce.
The Roman preference for spectacle and the Christian suppression of drama led to a virtual cessation of dramatic production during the decline of the Roman Empire. Pantomimes accompanied by a chorus developed out of tragedy, and comic mimes were popular until the 4th cent. A.D. (see pantomime). It is this mime tradition, carried on by traveling performers, that provided the theatrical continuity between the ancient world and the medieval. The Roman mime tradition has been suggested as the origin of the commedia dell'arte of the Italian Renaissance, but this conjecture has never been proved.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.