Rome's Fall: Poetic Justice

Tony Perrottet is the author of "Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists."

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.

Poetry remained the most prestigious genre, and any cultivated person was expected to produce a few lines in his or her spare time. (Virgil became the first literary celebrity, forced to run from admirers in the streets and even hide in strangers' villas "to avoid those who followed and pointed him out"). But there were also plentiful prose histories, biographies, satires, romances and travel guides.

The frontiers of each genre were pushed to the limit: Roman lawyers re-read 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. The emperor Nero himself read his work before a crowd of thousands in Naples: During the 13-hour recital, the audience was not permitted to leave the auditorium; it was said that a woman gave birth during the performance, and one old man feigned death so he could escape to the bathroom. (The emperor's poem, noted one critic caustically, provoked "whole Iliads of woe.")

"Examining the contemporary literature," 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 recitations was becoming a burden. Every day there would be yet another invitation. What had started out as a fine idea was turning into a juggernaut.

By the 2nd century, the sheer number of readings led to a glut -- and an epidemic of inattention followed. Roman audiences would fall asleep, talk, joke, recite their own poetry. How-to manuals were published for writers, providing tips to captivate an audience. Quintilian suggested avoiding a sing-song delivery, which was known to bore listeners into a stupor. In desperation, many writers hired actors to deliver their timeless words: The author simply stood alongside his reader, making appropriate hand gestures.

Even so, is 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.

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 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. Audience members knew they would probably be up on stage themselves -- if not the next day, then the next week -- and wanted to be treated indulgently. Thousands developed a false belief in their own genius. Short-impact pieces -- sparkling aphorisms, lurid verbal 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.

A grim prospect. But what's the lesson for our modern age? As we attend the endless round of literary readings this week, we might remember that most literature was created to be enjoyed alone rather than performed en masse, that the best writers quite often make the worst readers, and that literary "events" are, in essence, more social events than intellectual ones.

Of course, they're also rather fun. So pass the wine jug -- and carpe diem.

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