But, seriously, ladies & gentiles... I took a trip out to the town of Atella, very near Naples, the other
day. It is the historical birthplace of the sit-com! I was hoping to find a world-class Museum of
Historical Comedy or maybe "Atella the Fun," a comedy club, where the performers would say things
like, "Now take the emperor. Please." I was disappointed. There was no such place. The only piece of
history sticking up in Atella is the so-called "castellone," a Roman thermal bath from the second century
a.d. (second photo, right). There is some talk of opening a bulletin board to remind people of the
importance that Atella enjoys in the history of comedy.
(I did, however, run across a small, very new and well laid-out museum--the subject of a future entry in
this encyclopedia--the Atellan Archaeological Museum in Succivo. It does a good job of making sense
of the remarkable hodge-podge of archaeological remains in the area of Atella.)
It may be, as Woody Allen quipped, that no one takes comedy seriously; yet, for a dramatic form that
supposedly gets short shrift from critics, comedy based on caricature family stereotypes has great
staying power. There is a chain of domestic farce running from present-day television sitcoms back as
far as we can reliably trace--which is, approximately, the atellanae fabulae, or Atellan Fables, also
known as "Oscan Games" (Ludi osci). Those terms are used to describe a form of Roman farce based on
vulgar, low-brow, coarse life in the outback--bumpkin comedy. Interestingly, although we say "Roman"
farce, the Atellan Fables were originally performed in the Oscan language, not Latin, which means that
the Romans took the idea from someone and somewhere else--the Oscans of the town of Atella, well
south of the early Roman sphere of influence. (At their point of maximum expansion (in the 5th century
b.c. the Samnites, an Oscan-speaking people, occupied the bay of Naples and much of present-day
"Oscan" is the name of a language as well as a term for the speakers of that language. It was an Indo-
European language and a close relative of Latin. By the year 1000 b.c. the Italian peninsula was
populated largely by descendants of the great Indo-European invasions of 2,000 years earlier. One of
these groups would become a commonplace name centuries later, the Latini. Others would diminish to
historical curiosities; the Oscans were one of these groups, best represented by the ferocious Samnites,
who battled Rome for long centuries before succumbing.
One anomalous--indeed, enigmatic--people were the Etruscans, non-Indo-European wanderers into
central Italy (perhaps from Anatolia) shortly before the year 1000 b.c. The Etruscans spread and
incorporated many of the native peoples, including the Latini and the Oscans; the Etruscans in the south
were then displaced by colonists from Greece starting in about 500 b.c.; the Greeks were then
swallowed up by mighty Rome by about 300 b.c. (Descriptions such as "incorporated" and "displaced"
conceal the extent to which different groups with their own customs and languages must have existed
side by side for some time in the fifth and sixth centuries b.c. in the Campania region of Italy.) In any
event, from Roman sources we can say that Atella was staging its "Oscan games" at least as early as the
fourth century b.c.
Roman literature has many references to the Atellan farces in the Oscan language. In taking over the
Atellan Fables, however, the Romans abandoned the original Oscan improvisational form and developed
the form into a literary Latin one; even Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, had his hand at writing a
few. Many of the Oscan stock characters were kept by the Romans (and survived into various national
incarnations much later in the European Middle Ages, including Macchus (photo on first page and top
and third photo, right), a hunch-backed "wise" fool with a big nose, the forerunner of the modern
Neapolitan Pulcinella). Other characters included Bucco (the fat man), Manducus (the glutton), and
Pappus (an old man). Many of the common character types found in today's television fare--the nagging
wife, the meddling mother-in-law, the effeminate man, the simpleton, the braggart, the quack doctor,
etc. etc.--show up in the Atellan Fables.
Exactly where the Atellan Fables came from as a form of improvised Oscan theater is still debated. One
view is that it was taken from a comedic form brought into Italy by the Greeks. That is hard to
substantiate except from the point of view that everything must have somehow come from the Greeks;
that is, Roman satire was a literary form easily linked back to written Greek comedy, but the Atellan
Fables were improvised by the Oscans and only later became written literature as the Romans gave up
ad-libbing and attempted to write their own Fables in Latin. There was an earlier Greek form called a
satyr play, however, that did have an improvisational character to it, so there is always that possibility.
Some (the German historian Mommsen, for example) think that the Oscans had nothing to do with it
and that the form was originally Roman. Well, Mommsen got a Nobel Prize, but it seems to me that his
view is bizarre in light of the references by Latin writers to their Oscan predecessors. Another intriguing
possibility is that the Oscan form was influenced by the Etruscans, who apparently were known for
vulgar and bawdy verses. Today we still use the adjective "Fescennine" to describe such material (unless,
of course, you yourself are vulgar and bawdy, in which case you haven't the foggiest idea what
"Fescennine" means). "Fescennia" was the name of an ancient Etruscan city (near modern-day Viterbo).
The Etruscan theory, too, is difficult since (1) we can't read Etruscan very well and (2) there is very
little Etruscan to read. And, of course, one should consider the possibility that the improvisatory nature
and the fascinating stock characters of the Atellan Fables are originally Oscan; So, maybe the road to
Everybody Loves Raymond really did start in Atella.
If the Oscans had a real funny bone, they'd have been amused by the fact that the above-mentioned
"Castellone"--the Roman bath--is located on Via degli Osci (street of the Oscans--bottom photo,
right). They'd be rolling on the floor that Osci Ludi ("Oscan games") is the name of the local football
stadium in modern Orta di Atella, the modern name for this very old town.
So an Etruscan, a Roman, and a Jew are all chained to the same oar when their ship starts to sink...