Andrea de March

Inventing Anchors? The Function of ‘Greek Models’ within the Process of Innovation in Early Roman Drama

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Inventing Anchors? The Function of ‘Greek Models’ within the Process of Innovation in Early Roman Drama

Art has always worked along two productive but conflicting trajectories: one in reference to pre-existing models – be it nature itself or former authors – and the other in response to a demand for creativity. Throughout, the development of an individual and new perspective presents itself in relation to past accomplishments or settled requirements. Innovation negotiates with tradition: they are inextricably bound up with each other. The same is true with respect to the recipient: openness for new forms of perception doesn’t go without familiar forms of perception being activated. In other words: innovation, that wants to be successful, must be ‘anchored’ in models from the past.

Inventing anchors?

The beginnings of Roman literary art offer a fascinating example of anchoring, since we can observe that there is an imbalance between the two parts of art production (innovation and tra­dition), as they would be reconciled in the concept of imitatio veterum. The first production of a Roman epic work, the Odusia by the Greek freed slave Livius Andro­nicus presented itself as little more than a translation of Homer’s Odyssey. Livius Andronicus anchored his in­novation by means of strong ties to a well known tradition. Shortly after the production of literature began to flourish, Plautus as well as Terence proudly identified their comedies as adoptions of Greek models: They did not simply transform Greek comedies, but tried to keep these ‘originals’ present in their audience’s mind (e.g.: Plaut. Asin. 11: Demophilus scripsit, Maccus vortit barbare). Moreover, in some cases, we cannot even be sure, whether the Greek ‘original’ has ever existed, at all.

We may suspect, that the strong ties do not go back to a mere lack of creativity, but rather function as a productive strategy of communicating a process of innovation: After a long period of pre-literary performances, Roman drama was to be turned into Roman literature – a process which, last, but not least, also had political dimensions. Insofar we may assume that the (re‑)production of Greek elements is meant to function as an anchor – a strategy which is established to make the innovation accessible and attractive to Roman society; and that it reflects a specific concept of art.

The PhD-project will approach the problem by focussing on the concept of art as it is inherent in Plautine comedy: What does it mean to remind to or even reproduce someone else’s creative production? Does an act of reproduction necessarily have to be considered as a lack of creativity; or should we not assume that these phenomena are due instead to an entirely different concept of art, a concept that shouldn’t simply be described as imitatio – but – partly – as mimicry? In his essay “Of Mimicry and Man”, the American scholar Homi Bhabha has demonstrated that mimicry can aim to domesticate the codes of the other and thereby serve as a sign of double articulation; from a slightly different perspective, Michael Taussig has pointed out that it can be a strategy of self-fashioning. The concept of ‚mimicry‘, as it has been developed in the context of biology and further on transformed into a theory of cultural studies is certainly not sufficient as a theoretical model. However, from a heuristic point of view, it is an excellent starting point when analyzing Early Roman comedy, since it calls our attention a question relevant to Early Roman drama: To what extent can the intensive adoption (or absorption) of former ‘texts’ be regarded as an expression of subversives?

Roman comedy was very successful at the time, and its innovative elements turned out to be appreciated. Could Roman literature successfully have been established without its strong ties to the non-Roman, however well-known Greek tradition? To what extent was mimicry a technique within the process of “anchoring innovation”?