The Atellan Farce (Latin: Atellanae fabulae or fabulae Atellanae, "Atellan fables"; Atellanicum exhodium, "Atellan roast"), also known as the Oscan Games (Latin: ludi Osci, "Oscan plays"), were a collection of vulgar farces, containing lots of low or buffoonish comedy and rude jokes. It was very popular in Ancient Rome, and usually put on after longer plays like the pantomime. Named after Atella, an Oscan town in Campania, where they were invented, they were originally written in Oscan and imported into Rome in 391 BC. In later Roman versions, only the ridiculous characters read their lines in Oscan, while the others used Latin.
Played by young men of good family, the stock characters included:
- Macchus (a Pulcinella-type figure)
- Bucco (the fat man)
- Manducus (a greedy clown)
- Samnio (a Harlequin-type figure)
- Pappus (a doddery old man)
These later formed the basis for characters of the Commedia dell'arte, as well as Punch and Judy. Largely improvised, the Atellan Farce was performed after tragedies and represented the habits of the lower classes (as the upper classes saw them).
In regard to authorship, it is believed that the dictator Sulla wrote some; Quintus Novius, who flourished 50 years after the abdication of Sulla, wrote some fifty Atellan Fables, including Macchus Sexul ("Exiled Macchus"), Gallinaria ("The Henhouse"), Surdus ("The Deaf One"), Vindemiatores ("The Harvesters"), and Parcus (“The Treasurer”).
Lucius Pomponius, of Bologna, is known to have composed a few, including Macchus Miles ("Macchus the Soldier"), Pytho Gorgonius, Pseudoagamemnon, Bucco Adoptatus, and Aeditumus. Fabius Dorsennus and a "Memmius" were also authors of these comedies; Ovid and Pliny the Younger found the work of Memmius to be indecent.
Taken from Tacitus ( Annals, Book 4): "...after various and often fruitless complaints from the praetors, the emperor Tiberius finally brought forward a motion about the licentious behavior of the players. 'They had often,' he said. 'Sought to disturb the public peace, and to bring disgrace on private families, and the old Oscan farce, once a wretched amusement for the vulgar, had become at once so indecent and popular, that it must be checked by the Senate's authority'. The players, upon this, were banished from Italy".
Suetonius ( Tiberius, 45, 1) reports that Tiberius himself was mocked for his lecherous habits in an Atellan farce, after which the saying "the old goat lapping up the doe" (hircum vetulum capreis naturam ligurire) became popular.
The above passage suggests a growth in popularity or maybe even a revival of these farces, in the 20s AD, that met the disapproval of an older generation of patricians and senators. Perhaps they were even performed out in public places as an act of direct hostility towards (or a means to mock) specific people or families. At any rate, these performances eventually became so obnoxious that, in 28 AD, all those who performed in these farces were banished from Italy.
- Fragments of the Atellan Fables can be found in the Poetarum latinorum scen. fragmenta, Leipzig, 1834
- Maurice Meyer, Sur les Atellanes; Manheim, 1826, in-8°;
- C. E. Schober, Über die Atellanen, Leipzig, 1825, in-8°;
- M. Meyer, Etudes sur le théâtre latin, Paris, 1847, in-8°.
The works of Pomponius and Novius can be found in
- Otto Ribbeck, Comicorum Romanorum praeter Plautum et Terentium Fragmenta
- Eduard Munk, De Fabulis Atellanis (1840).