Keith MacLennan, who has directed a number of Plautus’s plays and has recently collaborated with Walter Stockert on an edition of his Aulularia (Liverpool University Press), conveys the dramatic vitality and lasting appeal of Rome’s great writer of comedy.


Latin literature was invented in September 240 BCE, in the form of a play presented at the Ludi Romani, the Roman Games.  It was the first time that anyone had ‘had the confidence to present a play with a coherent plot’.  Like all the other public presentations in the immediately succeeding years, it was an adaptation from the Greek; the adaptation was made by a South Italian Greek who acquired Roman citizenship under the name of Livius Andronicus but for whom Latin will not have been his first language.  None, indeed, of the authors of Latin literature in this period seem to have been native Latin speakers, and the same is probably true of Plautus, the earliest writer of whom we still possess complete works.  If there is anything in the biographical tradition about Plautus (it seems to rest on an obscure joke about the Umbrian community of Sarsina in Mostellaria 770), he came from this mountainous region of eastern Italy and will have been brought up speaking the Umbrian language.

Almost all ancient biographical information about literary figures is suspect, often based on dubious inferences from passages in their works.   About Plautus we cannot even be sure of his name.  He has the ‘three names’ which indicate a Roman citizen: Titus (praenomen), Maccius (nomen) Plautus (cognomen).  Or does he?  Once it was believed that he was M. Accius Plautus.  It has been suggested that the name is an invention based on characters from the Italian – ‘Atellan’ – tradition of extempore farce (Maccus is a clown, Plautus is equated with Umbrian plotus = ‘flatfoot’,  recalling planipes ‘a bare-foot dancer’).

Maccus the Atellan clown

Some have gone further than this and suggested that we are not even talking about a single person, but that ‘Plautus’ is a catch-all name for the author of an enormous number of otherwise unattributed Latin comedies.  The immensely learned first-century BCE scholar Varro was, in fact, faced with 130 plays attributed to Plautus.  As the cautious investigator, he restricted the number to which he was prepared to give his blessing to 21.  It is almost certainly these 21 which have come down via ancient manuscripts to us.  Varro himself was pretty sure that several more were genuine.  He plainly thought of Plautus as an identifiable individual, as did scholars who began discussing Roman comedy within a generation of Plautus’ reputed death in about 180BCE.  But the name cries out that it is a nom de plume.  As Adrian Gratwick put it, translating T.Maccius Plautus as ‘Dickie Clownson Tumbler’, ‘it is clearly incredible that a boy [with this name] just happened to grow up to be a successful and prolific comic dramatist.’

If the name associates Plautus with local Italian tradition, the actual plays he dealt with were Greek, as had been the ones which were adapted by Livius Andronicus.  Livius seems to have worked with the classics of fifth century Athenian drama.  The model for Plautine comedy, on the other hand, was not the fifth-century Aristophanes (whose boisterous inconsequentiality, typical of ‘Old Comedy’, might have appealed to Plautus) but the plays of the ‘New Comedy’, about which we know from the very substantial surviving fragments of its most famous representative, Menander.  Menander was famous for his carefully constructed plots and for his natural presentation of character:  ‘O Menander and Life, which of you two imitated which?’ said the famous scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium.

The characters of New Comedy would be recognisable to an Athenian audience as ‘our sort of people’, or at least as nearly ‘our sort of people’ as we recognise characters in Noël Coward or Alan Ayckbourn as resembling us.  Their experiences are by and large also recognisable: family conflicts and misunderstandings, inheritances, young men in love with suitable or unsuitable girls, reliable and unreliable servants, recognition of long lost loved ones.  The plays are tightly constructed in five acts.  The chorus which New Comedy had inherited from Tragedy and Old Comedy was relegated to a very subordinate role, that of providing inter-act entertainment which, so far as we can judge, had no relevance to the main action.  The separation of the world of the audience and the world of the actors is, apart from rare and careful allusions, consistently maintained.  Music seems to have played only a very limited part in the action of the plays, and there is no great variety of metre.

Plautus lived in a world where the conditions of dramatic performance were very different.  Menander’s plays were performed in spaces formally designated as theatres by companies of citizen actors, all-male, working in a tradition at least two centuries old of festivals whose prime purpose was the presentation of drama.  At Rome no permanent theatre was built until 55 BC.  Citizens could not appear on stage except in the Atellan plays; if they did, they lost their citizen status. Women could only act in the short popular fantasy pieces called mimes.  Play performances had to compete with gladiatorial shows or acrobatic spectacles.  So far as we know about performance spaces, these seem to have centred on the temple of the divinity whose festival was being celebrated, such as that of the Magna Mater on the Palatine.  The audience space was so small here that as early as 154 BCE there was an attempt to construct a proper theatre further down the slope; the attempt was abandoned because there was anxiety that it would be used for subversive meetings.  The stage sets were temporary – but ‘temporary’ didn’t necessarily mean flimsy or cheapskate:  that depended on the magistrate in charge of the show, and he would be wanting to impress.

A model of the Temple of the Magna Mater on the Palatine.  Plautus Pseudolus was presented here in 191 BCE.  A large number of the audience sat on the steps.

How did Plautus use the Greek comedies with which he worked?  Until the end of the 19th century New Comedy was known only in scattered lines and passages quoted by ancient authors, and there was barely any material on which to build a comparison.  Things changed with the investigation of papyrus deposits in Egypt, from which substantial passages of several plays emerged.  On the basis of this and of minute analysis of Plautine practice the great scholar Eduard Fraenkel made his study, first published in 1922 and still important reading for Plautinists, Plautine Elements in Plautus (the title is that of the English translation of 2007; the German Plautinisches im Plautus is more epigrammatic, perhaps ‘What’s Plautus’s in Plautus?’ ).  In a regretful passage of the Introduction he observed ‘If we possessed only one single … substantial piece of the Greek original of a play by Plautus, then we should stand on much firmer ground.’  In 1968, shortly before Fraenkel died, that wish was fulfilled when Eric Handley published the text of a papyrus containing some 60 lines of Menander’s  Dis Exapaton (‘Twice a Swindler’) which are the original of Plautus’ Bacchides 494-561.

Fraenkel had concluded that Plautus wrote his plays (though even ‘wrote’ is controversial in some circles nowadays) taking from his Greek texts a rough story line, but showing no interest in preserving subtleties of plot construction or character.  The concentration was on scenes: what could attract attention in language and dramatic action or colourfully imaginative style.  He had chopped off the ending of plays where it suited him (Casina, Prologue 64-66: ‘In this play the young man won’t get back to town;’ – to be united with his girl – ‘Plautus didn’t want him to: he broke down a bridge on his route.’) He had expanded, contracted and removed scenes or inserted them, taking them over from other plays.  He had intensified absurdities of behaviour in young lovers, old men (usually the youngsters’ irate fathers), wives, cooks …  He had hugely expanded the role of the slave, turning him frequently into the dominant character.

Not every one of these features is exemplified in the Dis Exapaton fragment, but almost all are, and the outcome was that Fraenkel’s work was almost entirely vindicated.  A further point of originality about his work was that he had conducted it not, as many of his predecessors had done, with the aim of clearing aside Plautinism and finding Menander; quite the reverse: of finding what it was that had made Plautus so successful, so richly entertaining, among his contemporaries.  By and large, contemporaries only: subsequent references to him by Roman authors are mostly patronising and dismissive.  For Horace, he was an avaricious botcher who thoughtlessly dashed off plays in order to get his hands on the author’s fee (Epistles 2.1.170-6).  Quintilian wrote Roman comedy off in the phrase ‘In comedy we simply stumble’ (12.1.99).  Gellius, the 2nd-century CE collector of literary controversies, commented that Roman comedies were pleasant entertainment so long as you read them without reference to their Greek originals; as soon as you did, they seemed to be feeble trash (2.23.3).

One can make a case for these put-downs of Roman comedies.  All the passages I have quoted date from a period long after there was any regular tradition of putting them on the stage – they had long been superseded by the ‘mime’.  The critics will not have seen the plays, only read them.  Readers tend to look for interesting, consistent characters and coherent plots.  Plautus’ characters fall mostly under headings which turn them into stock figures:  young man in love and short of money;  old men of two types: the angry father, anxious not to be bamboozled out his money, the friendly old man, keen to let youth be youth, the bossy wife, the charming but mercenary courtesan, the scheming slave, the thieving cook, the villainous double-dealing pimp, the boastful exhibitionist cowardly soldier, and so on.  The strength of the play lies in the sequence of varied individual scenes.  This is what Plautus’ critics missed:  his sheer theatricality, starting with brilliantly inventive vocabulary.

The second-century intellectual Favorinus, while reading the play Nervolaria, one of those designated by Varro as ‘Query Plautus’, came across this line referring to ‘the vices and deformities of prostitutes’:

scrattaé, scruppípedae, stríttabillae sórdidae (Gellius 3.3.6).

‘This single line,’ said Favorinus, is enough to convince one that the play is by Plautus.’  Not that anyone is very certain what the line means:  scruppipedae may mean ‘with ankles sticking out like rocks’; Varro interpreted it as ‘limping,’ allowing that ‘Juventius, the writer of comedies, said that it was from a hairy caterpillar which is found on foliage and has many pedes “feet”‘ (Lingua Latina 7.65).  Strittabillae comes from the very rare strittare, meaning something like ‘to be unsteady on one’s feet’.  As for scrattae, the best Varro can offer is ‘connected with screare, to clear one’s throat, so meaning “dried up and withered”’.

Less out-of-the-way but none the less effective is Tranio’s speech, Mostellaria  (‘The Ghost Play’) 348-362 with his line

Vbi sunt isti plagipatidae, ferritribaces viri?

He is in trouble and is on the lookout for anyone who’d be willing to be punished in his place.  ‘Where are the people who’ll be beaten and put in irons?’  He uses fanciful and outlandish compounds, both of them a mixture of Latin and Greek:  plagipatidae (a) Greek plēgē becomes plāga probably under the influence of the South Italian dialect, (b) pati is the Latin ‘to suffer’, (c) -idae is plural of a Greek termination ‘son of’ – so, clumsily, ‘clan of whip-victims’;  ferritribaces (a) from ferrum, Lat. ‘iron’ (b) -trib- from Greek trībō ‘wear out’ (c) -ācēs plural of a Latin suffix –āx suggesting ‘having a disposition to …’.  Thus each of these fanciful words is chiastically derivative, Greek-Latin-Greek then Latin-Greek-Latin, though it entirely spoils the effect to spell it out.

Plautus’ imagination was not confined to individual words.  A typical Plautine character is the slave who engages in elaborate trickery, often at the expense of his master and in the interest of the master’s son, the young lover. When the plot is going well the slave will find hyperbolical and often mythological expressions to congratulate himself.  As Tranio:

Alexándrum magnum atque Ágathoclem aiunt máximas

duo rés gessisse: quíd mihi fiet tértio,

qui sólus facio fácinora immortália.

‘They say that Alexander the Great and Agathocles’ (tyrant in Sicily) ‘were the two greatest achievers.  What about me as the third?  I perform deathless feats all on my own.’

Or the slave who is the mover in the second half of Aulularia (‘The Pot of Gold’).  He has managed to steal ‘a four-pound jar of gold from the tight-fisted old man who is the leading character of the play.  He celebrates:

Picís diuitiis, qui aúreos montés colunt,

ego sólus supero; nam ístos reges céteros

memoráre nolo, hóminum mendicabula.

ego sum ille rex Philippus. o lepidum diem! (701-4)

‘The griffins who live on the Golden Hills’ (and are the guardians of hidden treasure):  ‘I by myself am their conqueror.  As for all those other kings, I don’t want to mention them – beggarliness personified.  I am the great King Philip – o what a lovely day!’

Scenes in plays very often involve the meeting of two characters in rivalry, competition or dispute.  Plautus turns these into a sort of ballet.  The slave who has stolen the gold sees his master: he wants to buy his freedom.  The master can only win his girl if he finds the gold and returns it.  Neither knows the other’s situation:

M. Sure and all I thought I just heard the voice of someone speaking round here.
S. Hmm. Do I see my master?
M. Do I see my slave?
S. It’s the boss.
M. It isn’t anyone else.
S. I’ll approach him.
M. I’ll walk up near him.

(Aulularia 811-814)

Or in The Bacchis Sisters.  The sisters are twins.  Young man A loves twin 1; young man B loves twin 2; A has seen B and twin 2 together but thinks twin 2 is twin 1. Rage and jealousy.
B. Is this my friend?
A. (on the other side of the stage) Is this my enemy I see?
B. It certainly is.
A. It’s the man. I’ll approach him; I’ll walk over to him.
B. All the best to you, Mnesilochus.
A. Good morning.

(Bacchides 534-7).

A Plautine classic is the so-called ‘Riddle-joke’.  A character makes a paradoxical observation for which, asked or unasked he provides an explanation.  ‘My father is a housefly – you can’t keep anything secret from him.’ (The Merchant 361).  Pseudolus, looking at the heartbroken scrawl sent as a letter to young man Calidorus by his would-be lover Phoenicium:  ‘I rather think these letters are trying to make babies:  they’re climbing all over each other.’ (Pseudolus 23-4).

The stock character may be inflated to monstrous absurdity.  The most conspicuous instance of this, in antiquity as well as now, is the pimp Ballio, of whom we have a wonderful description in Cicero’s speech on behalf of Roscius the actor.  The allegation is that Roscius has defrauded one Fannius Chaerea, who is present in court.  ‘I beg you,’ says Cicero, ‘compare their habits if you know them; if you don’t, compare their appearance.  Look at his head, his totally shaved eyebrows!  Doesn’t it stink of wickedness, doesn’t it cry out “unscrupulous”? If physical appearance without words can offer any suggestion, wouldn’t you say that from toenail to head he is a mass of cheating, skulduggery and lies?  He shaves his head and eyebrows so that no-one can say he has a single hair of an honest man.  Roscius plays his character on stage superbly, and Fannius isn’t showing proper gratitude for that compliment.  When Roscius plays that dishonest lying pimp Ballio, he is playing Fannius’ (For Roscius, 20).  Ballio has a terrific scene in Pseudolus 133-380, in which he parades his girls (see also A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) threatening them with a whipping if they don’t bring him back a substantial birthday present (for such is the day) from their lovers.  There is a comparably outrageous sequence for cooks in Aulularia 280-370 and 398-459.

Roscius will have been wearing a mask like all actors of tragedy and comedy. This one has a little more hair than Ballio’s

An epitaph on Plautus has the goddess Comedy in deep mourning and the stage empty; weeping together all around are Laughter, Fun, Joke and numeri innumeri – rhythms in countless numbers.  Only about 40% of Plautus’ text is in the standard spoken rhythm of Latin and Greek drama, the iambic trimeter or its Latin variant the senarius (6-footer).  The rest consists either of longer lines in iambic or trochaic metre or passages each in a whole series of different rhythms.  These must be the numeri innumeri, and they have received a detailed and very complex analysis in Cesare Questa’s Titi Macci Plauti Cantica (1995).  A characteristic sequence of lines comes at Mostellaria 329ff, where the girl Delphium is taking maternal (!) care of her drunken boyfriend Callidamates:

D:  sí cadēs, nón cadēs quín cadam técum.                                                       Four bars of 5/8
C:  iacéntes tollet póstĕā nos ámbōs aliquis.          Three bars of 4/4 -roughly- with upbeat
D:  mádet hŏmŏ.
C: tūn m(e) ăǐs mám-mă-mădére?                                                                   Four bars of 4/8
(D:  If you fall, you won’t fall without me falling with you.
C:  Someone will pick us both up later as we lie there.
D:  The man’s drunk.
C:  Are you saying I’m d-d-drunk?)

Only the passages in senarii were spoken unaccompanied.  The longer repeated lines appear to have been chanted to the accompaniment of the tibia, a double-reed wind instrument;

the more complicated rhythms sung.  The term canticum is used for all the accompanied passages, and sometimes mutatis modis canticum (‘song in varied rhythm’) for the sung passages.  The practice seems to have been taken over by Plautus from the poets who had composed Latin tragedies over the thirty years before Plautus was working.

Playing the tibia

Menander’s plays were divided into five acts.  The interval between acts is assigned to ‘Chorus’, but, unlike tragedy and old comedy, no words by the author are assigned to the chorus.  Plautus (or a predecessor) did away with the five-act form.  Comedy is articulated by changes in metre, changes between canticum and spoken verse, so that is a great difference between Epidicus and Stichus, which begin with canticum, and Pseudolus and Curculio, which begin quietly in iambics.

All Plautus’ plays are set in Greece or Greek cities around the Mediterranean.  Sometimes the focus is such that the audience thinks of itself as Greek and Rome as a foreign country.  (Maccus uortit barbare: Plautus translated (the play) into barbarian language: Asinaria 11).  There are in fact very few references to specifically Roman practices.  The praetor appears, a necessary individual as the senior law-enforcement officer, but never a consul.   Another focus is for the audience to be watching the play from outside, from a Roman context, seeing these Greeks with amusement and some contempt.  The plot of Casina requires that the old man’s farm steward is supposed to be marrying the pretty slave girl.  The prologue-speaker imagines members of the audience spluttering: ‘What’s this?  Slaves marrying??’  The Prologue explains: ‘It happens in Greece, and in Carthage – and down at the heel of Italy.’  Plautus’ characters indeed occasionally accuse each other of moral corruption, for which they use the verb pergraecari: ‘to go to the Greek’.  To see the comic world from outside, i.e. as Greek, seems to have made it easier for Romans to accept the idea of slaves dominating the action and old men, who might be respectable fathers of families, made fools of.  There was another form of Roman comedy, the fabula togata, which was set in Rome (togata because the stage dress was the toga, while in Plautus’ plays – fabula palliata –  the dress was the pallium = Greek himation).  In this, the commentator Donatus tells us, ‘slaves were not allowed to appear cleverer than their masters’.

The literature which came into being in 240 BCE was an experiment: using Greek traditions to make a fundamental difference to Roman theatrical practice.  The comic characters were Greek (hyper-Greek in fact; they had fanciful often lengthy Greek names which bore no relation to the very routine and repetitive names given by Menander to his characters).  The plots originated in Greek.  The metres were Greek, even the metres of the cantica, which seem to derive via Roman tragedy from the monodies especially of late Euripides.  The style was Roman – the individual scene, the conspicuous moment, the disregard of consistency and character.  The palliata flourished during the 2nd century BCE, maintained a precarious life during the first century, with revivals and rare new composition, but by the beginning of the Empire such comedies as were written seem to have been written for reading rather than acting.  The ancient spirit of the Roman stage, as described by Livy (7.2) reasserted itself in the form of the mime, and perhaps even survived in some form to become, long after, the commedia dell’arte.

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