[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:
MACCIUS PLAUTUS (c. 254-184 B.C.)
"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
D. Interaction between Romans
between masters and slaves
E. Roman values (attitudes toward
family, honesty, business
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
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.