[Revised 9/27/14.  I present the Plautus material seminar-style. Do not limit yourself to what's below.  I am, by the way, more likely to include this as an essay choice than any of the others.  I expect *your* thoughts on Plautus and an indication you have read the assigned primary sources.]


Another historian looking at my syllabus might find at a bit strange.  There are lots of important things left out: but, of course, we all have to leave out something when we’ve got one semester to talk about what was once the heart of Western education.  What I think some historians might fight stranger is what’s included: three sessions devoted to Plautus! Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in a Greek history class?  Absolutely.  And maybe Aristophanes too.  But Plautus in Roman history?  Why?

Well, there is a good reason for this. The plays of Plautus (and Terrence) are entertaining, though not (at first glance) as profound or significant as the plays of the great Greek playwrights. In addition, they are an immensely valuable historical source--though a source that must be used with some caution.

First, some background.  Here are two summaries of what little we know of Plautus’ life and work:


"PLAUTUS," the single name by which modern writers refer to this writer of Roman comedy, was merely a nickname which in exact Umbrian dialect meant "flatfoot." It is exactly as though, today, we were to say, "John Jones, Beanpole."

It is doubtful whether Plautus ever achieved Roman citizenship. He is supposed to have made money working around the Roman stages as carpenter or mechanic; to have set himself up in some sort of business where he promptly lost his entire savings; finally to have been reduced to turning a handmill for a baker. It is during this period, according to tradition, that he probably sold his first plays to the managers of the public games and thus began the playwriting career that lasted for nearly forty years.

The plays of Plautus, as was the custom, had Greek characters, Greek names, and Greek scenery, but the manners and flavor were distinctly Roman. Most of his plots Plautus adopted whole from Greek originals of the "New Comedy" period. If we find the comedies of Plautus unspeakably vulgar in conception and expression we must remember that he had to appeal to an uneducated crowd whose chief interests were in bear baiting and gladiatorial combats. If Plautus was to eat, his humor had to be broad or his plays would have been shouted off the stage.

Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254 BC – c.184 BC), born at Sarsina, in Roman Umbria (modern Romagna, near Forlì), was a comedic playwright in the time of the Roman Republic. Little is known of Plautus' life; even his birth and death dates are uncertain. Traditionally, he was supposed to have travelled to Rome when he was very young, becoming a theatre assistant. His talent as an actor was eventually discovered, and he adopted the names 'Maccius' (a clownish stock-character in popular farces), and 'Plautus' (a term meaning "flat-footed"). Tradition also says that he eventually made enough money to go into the shipping business, but that the venture collapsed. He then is said to have worked as a manual laborer and studied Greek drama – particularly the New Comedy of Menander – in his spare time. His studies led to the production of his plays, which were first produced between c.205 BC and 184 BC.

Plautus wrote approximately 130 plays, of which 21 survive.

Plautus' comedies, which are among the earliest surviving intact works in Latin literature, are mostly adaptations of Greek models for a Roman audience and are often directly based on the works of the Greek playwrights. (Some might more properly be called 'adaptations').

In analyzing Plautus, it’s worth keeping in mind the “five narrative essentials” (plot, character, theme, setting and tone), and, in class, we cover each of these with (first) Miles Gloriosus (The Swaggering Soldier) and then The Prisoners. We then talk about aspects of Roman history illustrated by Roman comedy:

       A.  Day to day life
       B.  Activities of "average" Roman
        1.  Slaves
           2.  Women
           3.  Soldiers
       D.  Interaction between Romans
          1.  Marriage, male/female relationships
          2.  Relationships between masters and slaves
       E.  Roman values (attitudes toward foreigners, sex,
          family, honesty, business ethics, etc.)
       F.  Roman taste
       G.  Roman sense of humor
       H.  Roman religion
       I.  Other aspects of Roman history illustrated by plays

The Swaggering Soldier is pretty straight-forward, read the play, and you’ve learned a lot about ancient Rome—though, since the play is based on a Greek original, one can’t always be certain that the kinds of things that go on reflect Rome or the Roman view of “funny foreign people.”

The Prisoners is somewhat more difficult. There’s some “day to day life” stuff that’s easy enough, but the overall theme is trickier.

The introduction to the Penguin version tells you of Gottfried Lessing’s view that the Prisoners is the most perfect comedy ever written—and then goes on to tell you that it’s not. This is a very unfortunate introduction since a number of you probably needed a bit of motivation to work your way through the play rather than a comment on why it’s not all that great.  

I don’t think the person who wrote the introduction understand the play. What he tells you the play is about is not at all what it is about. He tells you that the central theme is unselfish heroism, the mutual trust and affection between master and slave.  He tells you it completely avoids the topic of sexual attraction.

Well, no.  So what is the play about?  Looking at the “narrative essentials” helps a lot.

The Setting is Aetolia, where two cities (Ellis and Epidamnus at war).  Plautus’ choice is similar to his Miles Gloriosus choice, and the reasons for the choice are similar.

There are some unusual plot choices. The prologue tips us off to basic situation. It would seem to be more effective to let us find out relationship of brothers by surprise—but Plautus has reasons for tipping us off in the beginning. Notice the line on p. 59 of your edition, “It would be practically cheating for a comedy to give you a tragedy without warning.”  Remember that line!)

Next, Plautus us give us a long scene with Ergasilus, a speech the editor finds pointless and not very amusing. Why is this here? Again, Plautus has his reasons.

We then see Hegio, Philocrates and Tyndarus where the two prisoners switch identities to be sure the “master” slave will make it home safe as soon as possible and without excessive ransom.

Aristophantes spoils part of plan and Tyndarus sent off to mines, likely to die before his master returns—if his now free master cares enough to return for the sake of a slave.

Philocrates does return bringing Hegio’s lost son with him. And to make things even better, Hegio has in his hands Stalagmus, a slave who, 20 years before, had escaped to freedom and stolen away “Ladie,” Hegio’s four-year-old son. And, wonder of wonders, Tyndarus turns out to be Hegio’s long lost son. And everyone lives ever after.  Only… no. It might be too late.  Tyndarus might already be dead.

But (yay!) it’s not too late. Tyndarus is safe and we get our happy ending.  Only—not really.  Notice that the last line belongs to Stalagmus…who is clearly not going to live ever after.

Now Lessing and the editor think that this is a play on character, and, partly, it is. What traits admired here? What’s not admired? We do see strengths and weaknesses held up for emulation or avoidance.  But that’s not what the play is really focusing on.

So what is the theme, the moral of this story? Note that Hegio discovers Tyndarus is his son after he has sent him off to the mines to be worked to death?  Is that funny.  Well it’s got to be.  It would be cheating to sneak in a tragedy.  But the tragedy is there all the same.

Why does Stalagmus steal Tyndarus away in the first place instead of simply escaping himself. Well, partly, of course, to make some money.  But there’s more to it than that. Note what Hegio calls Stalagmus on p. 9 (my pretty slave).  And then there’s the asdie on p. 92, “He’s not the amenable youth that he was.”  This was all a Roman audience needed to know how Hegio had been using his former slave. There’s an ugliness here that Plautus wants to drive home.  Notice Hegio’s attitude change toward Tyndarus. Again, Plautus is driving a point home—and we are supposed to be disturbed, not just at the near-tragedy but at something deeper.

Stalagmus on p. 93 has a line that’s especially important.  He tells Philocrates “When you were four, your father gave you a four-year-old boy for your very own.”  Yes—the trendy present. A real, live boy for your very own.

This play is an indictment of slavery, not a touching play about loyalty between master and slave.  And that should be obvious… but we have difficulty with the last of the narrative essentials…tone.  Read again the prologue and the epilogue (p. 95). Clever, clever stuff—and a Roman audience would have seen the point far more clearly than we do.

For the last Plautus session, students choose a third Plautus play (Pot of Gold, Pseudolus, or Brothers Menechmi).  In preparing a potential Plautus essay, students should concentrate on the things about Roman history they picked up from the additional play, but I’d also like them to pay attention to the other presentations and what other students suggested these plays have to teach about Rome.