Roman Africa Part 3: Theatre And Literature

(Roman Comic and Tragic Masks. Mosaic. Source: Wikimedia Commons)


The Romans were a military society. Romans fought against Carthage and expanded their territory across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Yet Romans also loved culture. They admired ancient Greece for its philosophy, theatre, and literature, and looked to create their own. Once again, Africans proved significant here too.


Types of theatre plays in Rome

There were two types of theatre plays in Rome: tragedy, and comedy. There is a legend that a man called Livius Andronicus was the first Roman playwright. He apparently wrote both comedy and tragedy around 240 BCE, but his works do not survive. Among what survives are six comedies written by a man called Publius Terentius Afer, commonly called Terence. He was probably born between 195-185 BCE, and composed his plays between 166 and 160 BCE. Terence was likely of Berber descent and lived near Carthage. At first, Terence was a slave. Soon, however, he was set free because of his literary genius and came to Rome. He became friends with the most important leaders, philosophers, and poets. 


Terence was known for his simple and entertaining language. His comedies were extremely popular. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote that one of Terence’s plays earned more money than any other play. The plots of his comedies were family dramas, and often contained love affairs too. He often used the same type of character in different situations: for example, a selfish liar, or a pushy father. However, Terence also attracted criticism. He sometimes adapted the plots of several Greek plays for one comedy. Some people thought that this was too clever, and that others helped him to write his plays. There is no evidence for this. In fact, Terence would personally address the audience at the beginning of his plays. He would ask his audience not to listen to gossip, and simply to enjoy his plays. 


Some phrases from Terence’s plays have become well-known today. Here are a few:


  • Moderation in all things.
  • I am human. Nothing human is strange to me.
  • Time heals all wounds.
  • While there is life, there is hope.
  • Fortune favours the brave.  



In addition to theatre, literature played a big role in Roman culture. Romans wrote history, philosophy, poetry, political speeches and scientific textbooks. Another genre soon emerged – the novel. This is a common type of fiction today, but it was groundbreaking in the ancient world. Among the first novelists was a Roman called Apuleius. He probably lived between 124 and 170 CE. He was born in the city of Madaurus in the Roman province of Numidia, now known as M’Daourouch in Algeria. He travelled throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. He studied rhetoric in Italy and philosophy in Greece. He is most famous for his novel, called The Golden Ass. It is about a man called Lucius, who experiments with magic and accidentally becomes a donkey. It is the only full novel that survives from the ancient world. 


Once Lucius becomes a donkey, his adventure begins. He is stolen by thieves, only to escape and be captured again. He is sold to priests, then to a farmer, then to a soldier, then to two brothers. He finally escapes, but he remains a donkey. He prays that he become human once again. The Egyptian goddess Isis appears to him and grants the wish. Lucius then goes to Rome where he becomes a lawyer. 


This novel has quite a silly plot! But it is also the only work of literature from ancient Rome to portray the awful conditions experienced by lower social classes. Lucius is a donkey, and is treated badly by his owners. Yet his owners are also treated badly by the aristocracy. Roman literature was not just for the elites.

Nik Nicheperovich


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