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p530 Fescennina

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D, F.R.S.E, Rector of the High School of Edinburgh,
on p530 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

FESCENNI′NA, scil. carmina, one of the earliest kinds of Italian poetry, which consisted of rude and jocose verses, or rather dialogues in extempore verses (Liv. VII.2), in which the merry country folks assailed and ridiculed one anothera (Horace, Epist. II.1.145). This amusement seems originally to have been peculiar to country people, but it was also introduced into the towns of Italy and at Rome, where we find it mentioned as one of those in which young people indulged at weddings (Serv. ad Aen. VII.695; Seneca, Controv. 21; Plin. H. N. XV.22). The fescennina were one of the popular amusements at various festivals, and on many other occasions, but especially after the harvest was over. After their introduction into the towns they seem to have lost much of their original rustic character, and to have been modified by the influence of Greek refinement (see Virg. Georg. II.385, &c.; Tibull. II.1.55; Catull. 61.27); they remained, however, in so far the same, as they were at all times irregular, and mostly extempore doggerel verses. Sometimes, however, versus fescennini were also written as satires upon persons (Macrob. Saturn. II.4). That these railleries had no malicious character, and were not intended to hurt or injure, may be inferred from the circumstance that one person often called upon another to answer and retort in a similar strain. The fescennina are generally believed to have been introduced among the Romans from Etruria, and to have derived their name from Fescennia, a town of that country. But,b in the first place, Fescennia was not an Etruscan but a Faliscan town (Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, I. p136), and, in the second, this kind of amusement has at all times been, and is still, so popular in Italy, that it can scarcely be considered as peculiar to any particular place. The derivation of a name of this kind from that of some particular place was formerly a favourite custom, as may be seen in the derivation of caerimonia from Caere. Festus (s.v.) endeavours to solve the question by supposing fescennina to be derived from fascinum, either because they were thought to be a protection against sorcerers and witches, or because fascinum (phallus), the symbol of fertility, had in early times, or in rural districts, been connected with the amusements of the fescennina. But whatever may be thought of this etymology, it is of importance not to be misled by the common opinion that the fescennina were of Etruscan origin.


Thayer's Notes:

a This is a very common custom, not only in Italy, but in many parts of the world; particularly, as with the Romans, at weddings; often at the second wedding of a widow or widower. I'm half French and half American, and in both France and the U. S. A., the same amusement or ritual prevails, in the countryside at least (maybe that's why my parents got married in Germany)> The French word charivari survives in the American shivaree, possibly because of the custom's persistence in French Louisiana (see for example the famous charivari given to Louise de Laronde Almonaster and her second husband)

The custom survived in rural areas around Rome until at least the 19c, being reported under the name scampanella (literally, "loud bell-ringing") by Gregorovius in Wanderjahre in Italien, ch. 48.

b See George Dennis's rebuttal of this specific passage of our Dictionary, in Chapter 8 (Fescennium) of his Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria; and, more generally, see Dennis's succeeding note as well.


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