The Tragedy of Caius Gracchus: Ancient Melodrama or Modern Farce?

Arthur Keaveney

In recent years T. P. Wiseman has, in a number of papers, argued that some sections of Roman history derive from Roman drama.  This thesis does not appear to be acceptable.  In the present paper I shall be examining one of the case studies proposed by Wiseman: his belief that drama lies behind Plutarch C. Gracchus 14 – 16.  It is held that traces of the supposed drama can actually be detected in the text.  I hold this to be a false assumption and my presentation will be devoted to setting forth this view.

We first deal briefly with the festivals at which Roman historical dramas were performed and with the audiences who attended.  Wiseman’s notion that here a  polarisation between plebs and patres may be detected is rejected.  The political context must be delineated with great care.  We find the plebs actually playing an allotted role within the system and being used by the patres as a sounding board for current political opinion.  The notion that plays, such as that supposed in the case of Caius Gracchus, had some considerable political significance must therefore be questionable.

We now come to the main body of our presentation, Plutarch’s narrative.  The suggestion that we can trace a line of descent from an unknown play down to Plutarch does not carry total conviction.  Wiseman’s examination of the text carries even less, being arbitrary and subjective.  No trace of a drama can actually be found in these chapters and this will be expounded in detail.

The conclusion is that Wiseman’s theory is untenable.  No missing tragedy lies behind Plutarch’s narrative.  Its ultimate source is surely Cornelia herself, the mother of the Gracchi, who long kept alive the memory of her sons. (Plutarch C. Gracchus 19).

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