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Roman comedy: 3rd - 2nd century BC

In most cultural matters Rome is greatly influenced by Greece, and this is particularly true of theatre. Two Roman writers of comedy, Plautus and Terence, achieve lasting fame in the decades before and after 200 BC - Plautus for a robust form of entertainment close to farce, Terence for a more subtle comedy of manners. But neither writer invents a single plot. All are borrowed from Greek drama, and every play of Terence's is set in Athens.

The misfortune of Plautus and Terence is that their audience is very much less attentive than in Athens. And the reason is that Roman plays are presented as part of a broader event, the Roman games.

Cato and Caesar: 2nd - 1st century BC

The first man to attempt a Latin history of Rome is Cato, a statesman and orator famous for his implacable opposition to Carthage. He writes his Origines ('Origins', from the founding of Rome to his own time) in about 160 BC. But only a few fragments remain.

The earliest surviving work of Roman history is therefore from the next century. A short volume, and one of the most famous in its field, it can lay no claim to historical objectivity. It is written for a specific and polemical purpose. It is Julius Caesar's own account of his greatest military campaign.

The Gallic War: 52 BC

It is probably in the autumn of 52 BC, after his defeat of Vercingetorix, that Caesar settles down in his winter quarters at Bibracte (to the northwest of modern Lyons) to record for posterity his successes in Gaul over the past six years.

The title he writes at the head of his papyrus is 'Gaius Julius Caesar's Notes on his Achievements' - though historians will come to know his book simply as The Gallic War. When the work is finished a copy goes off to Rome, where it is probably published during 51. Caesar has been assiduously cultivating support back in the capital, for political struggles to come. The book of his achievements is an important shot in this other campaign (see Caesar and his book).

Cicero, orator and correspondent: 81-43 BC

As in many other areas, Rome follows the example of Greece in the importance accorded to oratory. Indeed ambitious young Romans tend to go to Greece to study this important skill. The school of rhetoric in Rhodes is particularly popular; in about 78 BC both Julius Caesar and Cicero attend lectures there.

Cicero is already a practitioner of the art. His first appearance in a Roman court has been in 81 BC, and he has made his name a year later with a brilliant defence of Sextus Roscius. He will come to be considered Rome's leading orator (the equivalent of Demosthenes for Athens) and his fifty-seven published speeches will be much studied in subsequent ages.

Rhetoric requires the skills of both actor and author. The manuals emphasize the importance of voice control, gesture and even the ability to produce tears at the effective moment. But Cicero is also fascinated by the cadences and rhythms of speech which are most likely to sway an audience.

These almost poetic talents, combined with the power and clarity of his prose, give his speeches the status of literature. They are also of importance as the raw material of history, for Cicero is deeply involved in the upheavals of the last decades of the Roman republic - as a supporter of Pompey, and later a passionate opponent of Mark Antony (in a feud which eventually causes Cicero to be outlawed and then murdered).

In another context Cicero is again a primary source of historical evidence. An untiring correspondent, he is unique for his period in that more than 900 of his letters survive. He communicates with Pompey, Julius Caesar, Brutus and Mark Antony; the man he writes to most often is his friend and financial adviser, Pomponius Atticus.

Cicero considers publishing his correspondence, but the first preliminary selection is issued only after his death by his freedman and assistant, Tiro. The entire group of letters, not widely known until the next century, provides an unparalleled picture of a distinguished Roman citizen going about his business.

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