Plautus (/ˈplɔːtəs/; c. 254 – 184 BC), commonly
known as Plautus, was a Roman playwright of the
Old Latin period. His
comedies are the earliest
Latin literary works to have survived in
their entirety. He wrote Palliata comoedia, the genre devised by the
Latin literature, Livius Andronicus. The word Plautine
/ˈplɔːtaɪn/ refers to both Plautus's own works and works similar
to or influenced by his.
2 Manuscript tradition
3 Surviving plays
4 Fragmentary plays
5 Historical context
5.1 Roman society deities
Second Punic War
Second Punic War and Macedonian War
6.1 Greek Old Comedy
6.2 Greek New Comedy
6.3 Father–son relationships
6.6.1 The Clever Slave
6.7 Understanding of Greek by Plautus' audience
6.8 Disputed originality
7.1 The importance of the ludi
7.2 Geography of the stage
7.3 Relationship with the audience
7.4 Stock characters
7.4.1 The clever slave
7.4.2 The lustful old man
7.5 Female characters
7.6 Unnamed characters
8 Language and style
8.2 Archaic features
8.3 Means of expression
8.4 Poetic devices
8.5 Jokes and wordplay
8.7 Vigor and immediacy
9.1 The Middle Ages and early Renaissance
9.3 Later periods
10 See also
13 Further reading
14 External links
Not much is known about Titus Maccius Plautus' early life. It is
believed that he was born in Sarsina, a small town in Emilia Romagna
in northern Italy, in around 254 BC. According to Morris Marples,
Plautus worked as a stage-carpenter or scene-shifter in his early
years. It is from this work, perhaps, that his love of the theater
originated. His acting talent was eventually discovered; and he
adopted the names "Maccius" (a clownish stock-character in popular
farces) and "Plautus" (a term meaning either "flat-footed" or
"flat-eared", like the ears of a hound). Tradition holds that he
made enough money to go into the nautical business, but that the
venture collapsed. He is then said to have worked as a manual laborer
and to have studied Greek drama—particularly the New
Menander—in his leisure. His studies allowed him to produce his
plays, which were released between c. 205 and 184 BC.
such a popularity that his name alone became a hallmark of theatrical
Plautus's comedies are mostly adapted from Greek models for a Roman
audience, and are often based directly on the works of the Greek
playwrights. He reworked the Greek texts to give them a flavour that
would appeal to the local Roman audiences. They are the earliest
surviving intact works in
Plautus's epitaph read:
postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, Comoedia luget,
scaena est deserta, dein Risus, Ludus Iocusque
et Numeri innumeri simul omnes conlacrimarunt.
Plautus is dead,
Deserted is the stage; then Laughter, Jest and Wit,
And Melody's countless numbers all together wept.
Plautus wrote around 130 plays, of which 20 have survived intact,
making him the most prolific ancient dramatist in terms of surviving
work. Only short fragments, mostly quotations by later writers of
antiquity, survive from 31 other plays. Despite this, the manuscript
Plautus is poorer than that of any other ancient
dramatist, something not helped by the failure of scholia on Plautus
to survive. The chief manuscript of
Plautus is a palimpsest, known as
the Ambrosian palimpsest (A), in which Plautus' plays had been
scrubbed out to make way for Augustine's Commentary on the Psalms. The
monk who performed this was more successful in some places than
others. He seems to have begun furiously, scrubbing out Plautus'
alphabetically arranged plays with zest before growing lazy, then
finally regaining his vigor at the end of the manuscript to ensure not
a word of
Plautus was legible. Although modern technology has allowed
classicists to view much of the effaced material, plays beginning in
letters early in the alphabet have very poor texts (e.g. the end of
Aulularia and start of Bacchides are lost), plays with letters in the
middle of the alphabet have decent texts, while only traces survive of
the play Vidularia.
A second manuscript tradition is represented by manuscripts of the
Palatine family, so called because two of its most important
manuscripts were once kept in the library of the Elector Palatine in
Heidelberg in Germany. The archetype of this family is now lost but
it can be reconstructed from various later manuscripts, some of them
containing either only the first half or the second half of the plays.
The most important manuscript of this group is "B", of the 10th or
early 11th century, now kept in the Vatican library.
Amphitryon (missing large segments towards end)
Aulularia (missing ending)
Bacchides (twenty large fragments)
Cistellaria (missing large segments)
Only the titles and various fragments of these plays have survived.
Ambroicus, or Agroicus ("The Rustic Man")
Artamo ("The Mainsail")
Bis Compressa ("The Twice-Seduced Woman")
Caecus ("The Blind Man"), or Praedones ("Plunderers")
Calceolus ("The Little Shoe")
Carbonaria ("The Female Charcoal-Burner")
Clitellaria, or Astraba
Colax ("The Flatterer")
Commorientes ("Those Dying Together")
Condalium ("The Slave Ring")
Dyscolus ("The Grouch")
Foeneratrix ("The Lady Moneylender")
Fretum ("The Strait", or "Channel")
Fugitivi ("The Runaways"—possibly by Turpilius (la))
Gastrion, or Gastron
Hortulus ("Little Garden")
Kakistus (possibly by Accius)
Lenones Gemini ("The Twin Pimps")
Parasitus Medicus ("The Parasite Physician")
Parasitus Piger ("The Lazy Parasite"), or Lipargus
Phagon ("The Glutton")
Sitellitergus ("The Toilet Cleaner")
The historical context within which
Plautus wrote can be seen, to some
extent, in his comments on contemporary events and persons. Plautus
was a popular comedic playwright while Roman theatre was still in its
infancy and still largely undeveloped. At the same time, the Roman
Republic was expanding in power and influence.
Roman society deities
Plautus was sometimes accused of teaching the public indifference and
mockery of the gods. Any character in his plays could be compared to a
god. Whether to honour a character or to mock him, these references
were demeaning to the gods. These references to the gods include a
character comparing a mortal woman to a god, or saying he would rather
be loved by a woman than by the gods. Pyrgopolynices from Miles
Gloriosus (vs. 1265), in bragging about his long life, says he was
born one day later than Jupiter. In Curculio, Phaedrome says "I am a
God" when he first meets with Planesium. In Pseudolus, Jupiter is
compared to Ballio the pimp. It is not uncommon, too, for a character
to scorn the gods, as seen in
Poenulus and Rudens.
However, when a character scorns a god, it is usually a character of
low standing, such as a pimp.
Plautus perhaps does this to demoralize
the characters.[original research?] Soldiers often bring ridicule
among the gods. Young men, meant to represent the upper social class,
often belittle the gods in their remarks. Parasites, pimps, and
courtesans often praise the gods with scant ceremony.
Tolliver argues that drama both reflects and foreshadows social
change. It is likely that there was already much skepticism about the
gods in Plautus' era.
Plautus did not make up or encourage irreverence
to the gods, but reflected ideas of his time. The state controlled
stage productions, and Plautus' plays would have been banned, had they
been too risqué.
Second Punic War
Second Punic War and Macedonian War
Second Punic War
Second Punic War occurred from 218–201 BC; its central event was
Hannibal's invasion of Italy. M. Leigh has devoted an extensive
Hannibal in his 2004 book,
Comedy and the
Rise of Rome. He says that "the plays themselves contain occasional
references to the fact that the state is at arms...". One good
example is a piece of verse from the Miles Gloriosus, the composition
date of which is not clear but which is often placed in the last
decade of the 3rd century BC. A. F. West believes that this is
inserted commentary on the Second Punic War. In his article "On a
Patriotic Passage in the Miles Gloriosus of Plautus", he states that
the war "engrossed the Romans more than all other public interests
combined". The passage seems intended to rile up the audience,
beginning with hostis tibi adesse, or "the foe is near at hand".
At the time, the general
Scipio Africanus wanted to confront Hannibal,
a plan "strongly favored by the plebs".
Plautus apparently pushes
for the plan to be approved by the senate, working his audience up
with the thought of an enemy in close proximity and a call to
outmaneuver him. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that Plautus,
according to P. B. Harvey, was "willing to insert [into his plays]
highly specific allusions comprehensible to the audience". M.
Leigh writes in his chapter on
Hannibal that "the Plautus
who emerges from this investigation is one whose comedies persistently
touch the rawest nerves in the audience for whom he writes".
Later, coming off the heels of the conflict with Hannibal,
preparing to embark on another military mission, this time in Greece.
While they would eventually move on Philip V in the Second Macedonian
War, there was considerable debate beforehand about the course Rome
should take in this conflict. In the article "Bellum Philippicum: Some
Roman and Greek Views Concerning the Causes of the Second Macedonian
War", E. J. Bickerman writes that "the causes of the fateful war ...
were vividly debated among both Greeks and Romans". Under the
guise of protecting allies, Bickerman tells us,
Rome was actually
looking to expand its power and control eastward now that the Second
Punic War was ended. But starting this war would not be an easy
task considering those recent struggles with Carthage—many Romans
were too tired of conflict to think of embarking on another campaign.
As W. M. Owens writes in his article "Plautus'
Stichus and the
Political Crisis of 200 B.C.", "There is evidence that antiwar feeling
ran deep and persisted even after the war was approved." Owens
Plautus was attempting to match the complex mood of the
Roman audience riding the victory of the
Second Punic War
Second Punic War but facing
the beginning of a new conflict. For instance, the characters of
the dutiful daughters and their father seem obsessed over the idea of
officium, the duty one has to do what is right. Their speech is
littered with words such as pietas and aequus, and they struggle to
make their father fulfill his proper role. The stock parasite in
this play, Gelasimus, has a patron-client relationship with this
family and offers to do any job in order to make ends meet; Owens puts
Plautus is portraying the economic hardship many Roman
citizens were experiencing due to the cost of war.
With the repetition of responsibility to the desperation of the lower
Plautus establishes himself firmly on the side of the average
Roman citizen. While he makes no specific reference to the possible
war with Greece or the previous war (that might be too dangerous), he
does seem to push the message that the government should take care of
its own people before attempting any other military actions.
Greek Old Comedy
In order to understand the Greek New
Menander and its
similarities to Plautus, it is necessary to discuss, in juxtaposition
with it, the days of Greek Old
Comedy and its evolution into New
Comedy. The ancient Greek playwright who best embodies Old
Aristophanes. A playwright of 5th century Athens, he wrote works of
political satire such as The Wasps, The Birds, and The Clouds.
Aristophanes' work is noted for its critical commentary on politics
and societal values, which is the key component of Old Comedy:
consciousness of the world in which it is written, and analysis of
Comedy and theater were means for the political commentary
of the time—the public conscience.
In The Wasps, the playwright's commentary is unexpectedly blunt and
forward. For example, he names his two main characters "Philocleon"
and "Bdelycleon", which mean "pro-Cleon" and "anti-Cleon",
respectively. In this particular play, so much as the characters'
names call attention to contemporary politics:
Cleon was a major
political figure of the time, and through these characters,
Aristophanes freely criticizes the actions of this prominent
politician in public. This, of course, means Old
Comedy was more
Aristophanes even underwent persecution for his
depiction of Athens in the now-fragmentary The Babylonians.
Plautus avoided discussion of current events (in
a narrow sense of the term) in his comedies.
Greek New Comedy
Comedy greatly differs from those plays of Aristophanes. The
most notable difference, according to Dana F. Sutton, is that New
Comedy, in comparison to Old Comedy, is "devoid of a serious
political, social or intellectual content" and "could be performed in
any number of social and political settings without risk of giving
offense". The risk-taking for which
Aristophanes is known is
noticeably lacking in the New
Comedy plays of Menander. Instead, there
is much more of a focus on the home and the family unit—something
that the Romans, including Plautus, could easily understand and adopt
for themselves later in history.
One main theme of Greek New
Comedy is the father–son relationship.
For example, in Menander's Dis Exapaton there is a focus on the
betrayal between age groups and friends. The father-son relationship
is very strong and the son remains loyal to the father. The
relationship is always a focus, even if it's not the focus of every
action taken by the main characters. In Plautus, on the other hand,
the focus is still on the relationship between father and son, but we
see betrayal between the two men that wasn't seen in Menander. There
is a focus on the proper conduct between a father and son that,
apparently, was so important to Roman society at the time of Plautus.
This becomes the main difference and, also, similarity between
Menander and Plautus. They both address "situations that tend to
develop in the bosom of the family". Both authors, through their
plays, reflect a patriarchal society in which the father-son
relationship is essential to proper function and development of the
household. It is no longer a political statement, as in Old
Comedy, but a statement about household relations and proper behavior
between a father and his son. But the attitudes on these relationships
seem much different—a reflection of how the worlds of
For the Italian tradition of farce, see Atellan farce.
There are differences not just in how the father-son relationship is
presented, but also in the way in which
their poetry. William S. Anderson discusses the believability of
Menander versus the believability of
Plautus and, in essence, says
that Plautus' plays are much less believable than those plays of
Menander because they seem to be such a farce in comparison. He
addresses them as a reflection of
Menander with some of Plautus' own
contributions. Anderson claims that there is unevenness in the poetry
Plautus that results in "incredulity and refusal of sympathy of the
The poetry of
Plautus is best juxtaposed in their
prologues. Robert B. Lloyd makes the point that "albeit the two
prologues introduce plays whose plots are of essentially different
types, they are almost identical in form..." He goes on to address
the specific style of
Plautus that differs so greatly from Menander.
He says that the "verbosity of the Plautine prologues has often been
commented upon and generally excused by the necessity of the Roman
playwright to win his audience." However, in both
Plautus, word play is essential to their comedy.
Plautus might seem
more verbose, but where he lacks in physical comedy he makes up for it
with words, alliteration and paronomasia (punning). See also
"jokes and wordplay" below.
Plautus is well known for his devotion to puns, especially when it
comes to the names of his characters. In Miles Gloriosus, for
instance, the female concubine's name, Philocomasium, translates to
"lover of a good party"—which is quite apt when we learn about the
tricks and wild ways of this prostitute.
Plautus' characters—many of which seem to crop up in quite a few of
his plays—also came from Greek stock, though they too received some
Plautine innovations. Indeed, since
Plautus was adapting these plays
it would be difficult not to have the same kinds of characters—roles
such as slaves, concubines, soldiers, and old men. By working with the
characters that were already there but injecting his own creativity,
as J.C.B. Lowe wrote in his article "Aspects of Plautus' Originality
in the Asinaria", "
Plautus could substantially modify the
characterization, and thus the whole emphasis of a play."
The Clever Slave
One of the best examples of this method is the Plautine slave, a form
that plays a major role in quite a few of Plautus' works. The "clever
slave" in particular is a very strong character; he not only provides
exposition and humor, but also often drives the plot in Plautus'
plays. C. Stace argues that
Plautus took the stock slave character
Comedy in Greece and altered it for his own purposes. In New
Comedy, he writes, "the slave is often not much more than a comedic
turn, with the added purpose, perhaps, of exposition". This shows
that there was precedent for this slave archetype, and obviously some
of its old role continues in
Plautus (the expository monologues, for
instance). However, because
Plautus found humor in slaves tricking
their masters or comparing themselves to great heroes, he took the
character a step further and created something distinct.
Understanding of Greek by Plautus' audience
Of the approximate 270 proper names in the surviving plays of Plautus,
about 250 names are Greek. William M. Seaman proposes that these
Greek names would have delivered a comic punch to the audience because
of its basic understanding of the Greek language. This previous
understanding of Greek language, Seaman suggests, comes from the
"experience of Roman soldiers during the first and second Punic wars.
Not only did men billeted in Greek areas have opportunity to learn
sufficient Greek for the purpose of everyday conversation, but they
were also able to see plays in the foreign tongue." Having an
audience with knowledge of the Greek language, whether limited or more
Plautus more freedom to use Greek references and
words. Also, by using his many Greek references and showing that his
plays were originally Greek, "It is possible that
Plautus was in a way
a teacher of Greek literature, myth, art and philosophy; so too was he
teaching something of the nature of Greek words to people, who, like
himself, had recently come into closer contact with that foreign
tongue and all its riches."
At the time of Plautus,
Rome was expanding, and having much success in
Greece. W.S. Anderson has commented that
Plautus "is using and abusing
Greek comedy to imply the superiority of Rome, in all its crude
vitality, over the Greek world, which was now the political dependent
of Rome, whose effete comic plots helped explain why the Greeks proved
inadequate in the real world of the third and second centuries, in
which the Romans exercised mastery".
Plautus was known for the use of Greek style in his plays, as part of
the tradition of the variation on a theme. This has been a point of
contention among modern scholars. One argument states that Plautus
writes with originality and creativity—the other, that
Plautus is a
copycat of Greek New
Comedy and that he makes no original contribution
to playwriting.
A single reading of the Miles Gloriosus leaves the reader with the
notion that the names, place, and play are all Greek, but one must
look beyond these superficial interpretations. W.S. Anderson would
steer any reader away from the idea that Plautus' plays are somehow
not his own or at least only his interpretation. Anderson says that,
Plautus homogenizes all the plays as vehicles for his special
exploitation. Against the spirit of the Greek original, he engineers
events at the end... or alter[s] the situation to fit his
expectations." Anderson's vehement reaction to the co-opting of
Greek plays by
Plautus seems to suggest that they are in no way like
their originals were. It seems more likely that
Plautus was just
experimenting putting Roman ideas in Greek forms.
Greece and Rome, although often put into the same category,[citation
needed] were different societies with different paradigms and ways of
life. W. Geoffrey Arnott says that "we see that a set of formulae
[used in the plays] concerned with characterization, motif, and
situation has been applied to two dramatic situations which possess in
themselves just as many difference as they do similarities". It is
important to compare the two authors and the remarkable similarities
between them because it is essential in understanding Plautus. He
writes about Greeks like a Greek. However,
Plautus and the writers of
Greek New Comedy, such as Menander, were writing in two completely
One idea that is important to recognize is that of contaminatio, which
refers to the mixing of elements of two or more source plays. Plautus,
it seems, is quite open to this method of adaptation, and quite a few
of his plots seem stitched together from different stories. One
excellent example is his Bacchides and its supposed Greek predecessor,
Menander's Dis Exapaton. The original Greek title translates as "The
Man Deceiving Twice", yet the Plautine version has three tricks.
V. Castellani commented that:
Plautus' attack on the genre whose material he pirated was, as already
stated, fourfold. He deconstructed many of the Greek plays' finely
constructed plots; he reduced some, exaggerated others of the nicely
drawn characters of
Menander and of Menander's contemporaries and
followers into caricatures; he substituted for or superimposed upon
the elegant humor of his models his own more vigorous, more simply
ridiculous foolery in action, in statement, even in language.
By exploring ideas about Roman loyalty, Greek deceit, and differences
in ethnicity, "
Plautus in a sense surpassed his model." He was not
content to rest solely on a loyal adaptation that, while amusing, was
not new or engaging for Rome.
Plautus took what he found but again
made sure to expand, subtract, and modify. He seems to have followed
the same path that
Horace did, though
Horace is much later, in that he
is putting Roman ideas in Greek forms. He not only imitated the
Greeks, but in fact distorted, cut up, and transformed the plays into
something entirely Roman. In essence it is Greek theater colonized by
Rome and its playwrights.
In Ancient Greece during the time of New Comedy, from which Plautus
drew so much of his inspiration, there were permanent theaters that
catered to the audience as well as the actor. The greatest playwrights
of the day had quality facilities in which to present their work and,
in a general sense, there was always enough public support to keep the
theater running and successful. However, this was not the case in Rome
during the time of the Republic, when
Plautus wrote his plays. While
there was public support for theater and people came to enjoy tragedy
and comedy alike, there was also a notable lack of governmental
support. No permanent theater existed in
Rome until Pompey dedicated
one in 55 BCE in the Campus Martius. The lack of a permanent space
was a key factor in Roman theater and Plautine stagecraft.
This lack of permanent theaters in
Rome until 55 BCE has puzzled
contemporary scholars of Roman drama. In their introduction to the
Miles Gloriosus, Hammond, Mack and Moskalew say that "the Romans were
acquainted with the Greek stone theater, but, because they believed
drama to be a demoralizing influence, they had a strong aversion to
the erection of permanent theaters". This worry rings true when
considering the subject matter of Plautus' plays. The unreal becomes
reality on stage in his work. T. J. Moore notes that, "all distinction
between the play, production, and 'real life' has been obliterated
[Plautus' play Curculio]". A place where social norms were upended
was inherently suspect. The aristocracy was afraid of the power of the
theater. It was merely by their good graces and unlimited resources
that a temporary stage would have been built during specific
The importance of the ludi
Main article: Ludi
Roman drama, specifically Plautine comedy, was acted out on stage
during the ludi or festival games. In his discussion of the importance
of the ludi Megalenses in early Roman theater, John Arthur Hanson says
that this particular festival "provided more days for dramatic
representations than any of the other regular festivals, and it is in
connection with these ludi that the most definite and secure literary
evidence for the site of scenic games has come down to us".
Because the ludi were religious in nature, it was appropriate for the
Romans to set up this temporary stage close to the temple of the deity
being celebrated. S.M. Goldberg notes that "ludi were generally held
within the precinct of the particular god being honored."
T. J. Moore notes that "seating in the temporary theaters where
Plautus' plays were first performed was often insufficient for all
those who wished to see the play, that the primary criterion for
determining who was to stand and who could sit was social status".
This is not to say that the lower classes did not see the plays; but
they probably had to stand while watching. Plays were performed in
public, for the public, with the most prominent members of the society
in the forefront.
The wooden stages on which Plautus' plays appeared were shallow and
long with three openings in respect to the scene-house. The stages
were significantly smaller than any Greek structure familiar to modern
scholars. Because theater was not a priority during Plautus' time, the
structures were built and dismantled within a day. Even more
practically, they were dismantled quickly due to their potential as
Geography of the stage
Often the geography of the stage and more importantly the play matched
the geography of the city so that the audience would be well oriented
to the locale of the play. Moore says that, "references to Roman
locales must have been stunning for they are not merely references to
things Roman, but the most blatant possible reminders that the
production occurs in the city of Rome". So,
Plautus seems to have
choreographed his plays somewhat true-to-life. To do this, he needed
his characters to exit and enter to or from whatever area their social
standing would befit.
Two scholars, V. J. Rosivach and N. E. Andrews, have made interesting
observations about stagecraft in Plautus: V. J. Rosivach writes about
identifying the side of the stage with both social status and
geography. He says that, for example, "the house of the medicus lies
offstage to the right. It would be in the forum or thereabouts that
one would expect to find a medicus." Moreover, he says that
characters that oppose one another always have to exit in opposite
directions. In a slightly different vein, N.E. Andrews discusses the
spatial semantics of Plautus; she has observed that even the different
spaces of the stage are thematically charged. She states:
Plautus' Casina employs these conventional tragic correlations between
male/outside and female/inside, but then inverts them in order to
establish an even more complex relationship among genre, gender and
dramatic space. In the Casina, the struggle for control between men
and women... is articulated by characters' efforts to control stage
movement into and out of the house.
Andrews makes note of the fact that power struggle in the Casina is
evident in the verbal comings and goings. The words of action and the
way that they are said are important to stagecraft. The words denoting
direction or action such as abeo ("I go off"), transeo ("I go over"),
fores crepuerunt ("the doors creak"), or intus ("inside"), which
signal any character's departure or entrance, are standard in the
dialogue of Plautus' plays. These verbs of motion or phrases can be
taken as Plautine stage directions since no overt stage directions are
apparent. Often, though, in these interchanges of characters, there
occurs the need to move on to the next act.
Plautus then might use
what is known as a "cover monologue". About this S.M. Goldberg notes
that, "it marks the passage of time less by its length than by its
direct and immediate address to the audience and by its switch from
senarii in the dialogue to iambic septenarii. The resulting shift of
mood distracts and distorts our sense of passing time."
Relationship with the audience
The small stages had a significant effect on the stagecraft of ancient
Roman theater. Because of this limited space, there was also limited
movement. Greek theater allowed for grand gestures and extensive
action to reach the audience members who were in the very back of the
theater. However the Romans would have had to depend more on their
voices than large physicality. There was not an orchestra available as
there was for the Greeks and this is reflected in the notable lack of
a chorus in Roman drama. The replacement character that acts as the
chorus would in Greek drama is often called the "prologue".
Goldberg says that "these changes fostered a different relationship
between actors and the space in which they performed and also between
them and their audiences". Actors were thrust into much closer
audience interaction. Because of this, a certain acting style became
required that is more familiar to modern audiences. Because they would
have been in such close proximity to the actors, ancient Roman
audiences would have wanted attention and direct acknowledgement from
Because there was no orchestra, there was no space separating the
audience from the stage. The audience could stand directly in front of
the elevated wooden platform. This gave them the opportunity to look
at the actors from a much different perspective. They would have seen
every detail of the actor and hear every word he said. The audience
member would have wanted that actor to speak directly to them. It was
a part of the thrill of the performance, as it is to this day.
Plautus' range of characters was created through his use of various
techniques, but probably the most important is his use of stock
characters and situations in his various plays. He incorporates the
same stock characters constantly, especially when the character type
is amusing to the audience. As Walter Juniper wrote, "Everything,
including artistic characterization and consistency of
characterization, were sacrificed to humor, and character portrayal
remained only where it was necessary for the success of the plot and
humor to have a persona who stayed in character, and where the persona
by his portrayal contributed to humor."
For example, in Miles Gloriosus, the titular "braggart soldier"
Pyrgopolynices only shows his vain and immodest side in the first act,
while the parasite Artotrogus exaggerates Pyrgopolynices'
achievements, creating more and more ludicrous claims that
Pyrgopolynices agrees to without question. These two are perfect
examples of the stock characters of the pompous soldier and the
desperate parasite that appeared in Plautine comedies. In disposing of
highly complex individuals,
Plautus was supplying his audience with
what it wanted, since "the audience to whose tastes
was not interested in the character play," but instead wanted the
broad and accessible humor offered by stock set-ups. The humor Plautus
offered, such as "puns, word plays, distortions of meaning, or other
forms of verbal humor he usually puts them in the mouths of characters
belonging to the lower social ranks, to whose language and position
these varieties of humorous technique are most suitable," matched
well with the stable of characters.
The clever slave
In his article "The Intriguing Slave in Greek Comedy," Philip Harsh
gives evidence to show that the clever slave is not an invention of
Plautus. While previous critics such as
A. W. Gomme believed that the
slave was "[a] truly comic character, the devisor of ingenious
schemes, the controller of events, the commanding officer of his young
master and friends, is a creation of
Latin comedy," and that Greek
dramatists such as
Menander did not use slaves in such a way that
Plautus later did, Harsh refutes these beliefs by giving concrete
examples of instances where a clever slave appeared in Greek
comedy. For instance, in the works of Athenaeus, Alciphron, and
Lucian there are deceptions that involve the aid of a slave, and in
Menander's Dis Exapaton there was an elaborate deception executed by a
clever slave that
Plautus mirrors in his Bacchides. Evidence of clever
slaves also appears in Menander's Thalis, Hypobolimaios, and from the
papyrus fragment of his Perinthia. Harsh acknowledges that Gomme's
statement was probably made before the discovery of many of the papyri
that we now have. While it was not necessarily a Roman invention,
Plautus did develop his own style of depicting the clever slave. With
larger, more active roles, more verbal exaggeration and exuberance,
the slave was moved by
Plautus further into the front of the
action. Because of the inversion of order created by a devious or
witty slave, this stock character was perfect for achieving a humorous
response and the traits of the character worked well for driving the
The lustful old man
Another important Plautine stock character, discussed by K.C. Ryder,
is the senex amator. A senex amator is classified as an old man who
contracts a passion for a young girl and who, in varying degrees,
attempts to satisfy this passion. In
Plautus these men are Demaenetus
(Asinaria), Philoxenus and Nicobulus (Bacchides), Demipho
(Cistellaria), Lysidamus (Casina), Demipho (Mercator), and Antipho
(Stichus). Periplectomenos (Miles Gloriosus) and Daemones (Rudens) are
regarded as senes lepidi because they usually keep their feelings
within a respectable limit. All of these characters have the same
goal, to be with a younger woman, but all go about it in different
Plautus could not be too redundant with his characters
despite their already obvious similarities. What they have in common
is the ridicule with which their attempts are viewed, the imagery that
suggests that they are motivated largely by animal passion, the
childish behavior, and the reversion to the love-language of their
In examining the female role designations of Plautus's plays, Z.M.
Packman found that they are not as stable as their male counterparts:
a senex will usually remain a senex for the duration of the play but
designations like matrona, mulier, or uxor at times seem
interchangeable. Most free adult women, married or widowed, appear in
scene headings as mulier, simply translated as "woman". But in
Stichus the two young women are referred to as sorores, later
mulieres, and then matronae, all of which have different meanings and
connotations. Although there are these discrepancies, Packman tries to
give a pattern to the female role designations of Plautus. Mulier is
typically given to a woman of citizen class and of marriageable age or
who has already been married. Unmarried citizen-class girls,
regardless of sexual experience, were designated virgo. Ancilla was
the term used for female household slaves, with Anus reserved for the
elderly household slaves. A young woman who is unwed due to social
status is usually referred to as meretrix or "courtesan". A lena, or
adoptive mother, may be a woman who owns these girls.
Like Packman, George Duckworth uses the scene headings in the
manuscripts to support his theory about unnamed Plautine characters.
There are approximately 220 characters in the 20 plays of Plautus.
Thirty are unnamed in both the scene headings and the text and there
are about nine characters who are named in the ancient text but not in
any modern one. This means that about 18% of the total number of
Plautus are nameless. Most of the very important
characters have names while most of the unnamed characters are of less
importance. However, there are some abnormalities—the main character
in Casina is not mentioned by name anywhere in the text. In other
Plautus will give a name to a character that only has a few
words or lines. One explanation is that some of the names have been
lost over the years; and for the most part, major characters do have
Language and style
The language and style of
Plautus are not easy or simple. He wrote in
a colloquial style far from the codified form of
Latin that is found
Ovid or Virgil. This colloquial style is the everyday speech that
Plautus would have been familiar with, yet that means that most
Latin are unfamiliar with it. Adding to the unfamiliarity
of Plautine language is the inconsistency of the irregularities that
occur in the texts. In one of his prolific word-studies, A.W. Hodgman
the statements that one meets with, that this or that form is
"common," or "regular," in Plautus, are frequently misleading, or even
incorrect, and are usually unsatisfying.... I have gained an
increasing respect for the manuscript tradition, a growing belief that
the irregularities are, after all, in a certain sense regular. The
whole system of inflexion—and, I suspect, of syntax also and of
versification—was less fixed and stable in Plautus' time than it
The diction of Plautus, who used the colloquial speech of his own day,
is distinctive and non-standard from the point of view of the later,
classical period. M. Hammond, A.H. Mack, and W. Moskalew have noted in
the introduction to their edition of the Miles Gloriosus that Plautus
was "free from convention... [and] sought to reproduce the easy tone
of daily speech rather than the formal regularity of oratory or
poetry. Hence, many of the irregularities which have troubled scribes
and scholars perhaps merely reflect the everyday usages of the
careless and untrained tongues which
Plautus heard about him."
Looking at the overall use of archaic forms in Plautus, one notes that
they commonly occur in promises, agreements, threats, prologues, or
speeches. Plautus's archaic forms are metrically convenient, but may
also have had a stylistic effect on his original audience.
These forms are frequent and of too great a number for a complete list
here, but some of the most noteworthy features which from the
classical perspective will be considered irregular or obsolete are:
the use of uncontracted forms of some verbs such as mavolo ("prefer")
for later malo
the emendation of the final -e of singular imperatives
the retention of -u- in place of the later -i- in words such as
maxumus, proxumus, lacrumare etc. (see
Latin spelling and
pronunciation §Sonus medius), and of -vo- before r, s or t, where the
use after ca. 150 BC would favor -ve- (as vostrum for later
the use of the -ier ending for the present passive and deponent
infinitive (e.g. exsurgier for exsurgī)
the forms of sum often joined to the preceding word, which is called
prodelision (as bonumst "it's good" for bonum est "it is good")
the dropping of the final -s of 2nd-singular verb forms and the final
-e of the question-particle -ne when the two are joined (as viden? for
videsne? "you see? you get it?")
the retention of short -ǒ in noun endings in the second declension
for later -ŭ
the retention in many words of qu- instead of later c- (as in quom
instead of cum)
the use of the -āī genitive singular ending, dissyllabic, besides
the retention of final -d after long vowel in the pronouns mēd, tēd,
sēd (accusative and ablative, forms without -d also occur)
the occasional addition of a final -pte, -te, or -met to pronouns
the use of -īs as an accusative plural and occasionally nominative
These are the most common linguistic peculiarities (from the later
perspective) in the plays of Plautus, some of them being also found in
Terence, and noting them helps in the reading of his works and gives
insight into early Roman language and interaction.
Means of expression
There are certain ways in which
Plautus expressed himself in his
plays, and these individual means of expression give a certain flair
to his style of writing. The means of expression are not always
specific to the writer, i.e., idiosyncratic, yet they are
characteristic of the writer. Two examples of these characteristic
means of expression are the use of proverbs and the use of Greek
language in the plays of Plautus.
Plautus employed the use of proverbs in many of his plays. Proverbs
would address a certain genre such as law, religion, medicine, trades,
crafts, and seafaring. Plautus' proverbs and proverbial expressions
number into the hundreds. They sometimes appear alone or interwoven
within a speech. The most common appearance of proverbs in Plautus
appears to be at the end of a soliloquy.
Plautus does this for
dramatic effect to emphasize a point.
Further interwoven into the plays of
Plautus and just as common as the
use of proverbs is the use of Greek within the texts of the plays. J.
N. Hough suggests that Plautus's use of Greek is for artistic purposes
and not simply because a
Latin phrase will not fit the meter. Greek
words are used when describing foods, oils, perfumes, etc. This is
similar to the use of French terms in the English language such as
garçon or rendezvous. These words give the language a French flair
just as Greek did to the Latin-speaking Romans. Slaves or characters
of low standing speak much of the Greek. One possible explanation for
this is that many Roman slaves were foreigners of Greek origin.
Plautus would sometimes incorporate passages in other languages as
well in places where it would suit his characters. A noteworthy
example is the use of two prayers in Punic in Poenulus, spoken by the
Carthaginian elder Hanno, which are significant to Semitic linguistics
because they preserve the Carthaginian pronunciation of the vowels.
Plautus most probably did not speak Punic himself, nor
was the audience likely to understand it. The text of the prayers
themselves was probably provided by a Carthaginian informant, and
Plautus incorporated it to emphasize the authenticity and foreignness
of Hanno's character.
Plautus also used more technical means of expression in his plays. One
Plautus used for the expression of his servus callidus stock
character was alliteration.
Alliteration is the repetition of sounds
in a sentence or clause; those sounds usually come at the beginning of
words. In the Miles Gloriosus, the servus callidus is Palaestrio. As
he speaks with the character, Periplectomenus, he uses a significant
amount of alliteration in order to assert his cleverness and,
therefore, his authority.
Plautus uses phrases such as "falsiloquom,
falsicum, falsiiurium" (MG l. 191). These words express the deep and
respectable knowledge that Palaestrio has of the
Alliteration can also happen at the endings of words as well. For
example, Palaestrio says, "linguam, perfidiam, malitiam atque
audaciam, confidentiam, confirmitatem, fraudulentiam" (MG ll. 188-9).
Also used, as seen above, is the technique of assonance, which is the
repetition of similar-sounding syllables.
Jokes and wordplay
Plautus' comedies abound in puns and word play, which is an important
component of his poetry. One well known instance in the Miles
Gloriosus is Sceledre, scelus. Some examples stand in the text in
order to accentuate and emphasize whatever is being said, and others
to elevate the artistry of the language. But a great number are made
for jokes, especially riddle jokes, which feature a "knock knock -
who's there?" pattern.
Plautus is especially fond of making up and
changing the meaning of words, as
Shakespeare does later.
Further information: Metres of Roman comedy
Further emphasizing and elevating the artistry of the language of the
Plautus is the use of meter, which simply put is the rhythm
of the play. There seems to be great debate over whether
favor in strong word accent or verse ictus, stress.
Plautus did not
follow the meter of the Greek originals that he adapted for the Roman
Plautus used a great number of meters, but most frequently
he used the trochaic septenarius. Iambic words, though common in
Latin, are difficult to fit in this meter, and naturally occur at the
end of verses. G.B. Conte has noted that
Plautus favors the use of
cantica instead of Greek meters. This vacillation between meter and
word stress highlights the fact that
Latin literature was still in its
infancy, and that there was not yet a standard way to write verse.
Vigor and immediacy
The servus callidus functions as the exposition in many of Plautus'
plays. According to C. Stace, "slaves in
Plautus account for almost
twice as much monologue as any other character... [and] this is a
significant statistic; most of the monologues being, as they are, for
purposes of humor, moralizing, or exposition of some kind, we can now
begin to see the true nature of the slave's importance." Because
humor, vulgarity, and "incongruity" are so much a part of the
Plautine comedies, the slave becomes the essential tool to connect the
audience to the joke through his monologue and direct connection to
the audience. He is, then, not only a source for exposition and
understanding, but connection—specifically, connection to the humor
of the play, the playfulness of the play. The servus callidus is a
character that, as McCarthy says, "draws the complete attention of the
audience, and, according to C. Stace, 'despite his lies and abuse,
claims our complete sympathy'". He does this, according to some
scholarship, using monologue, the imperative mood and
alliteration—all of which are specific and effective linguistic
tools in both writing and speaking.
The specific type of monologue (or soliloquy) in which a Plautine
slave engages is the prologue. As opposed to simple exposition,
according to N.W. Slater, "these...prologues...have a far more
important function than merely to provide information." Another
way in which the servus callidus asserts his power over the
play—specifically the other characters in the play—is through his
use of the imperative mood. This type of language is used, according
to E. Segal, for "the forceful inversion, the reduction of the master
to an abject position of supplication ... the master-as-suppliant is
thus an extremely important feature of the Plautine comic finale".
The imperative mood is therefore used in the complete role-reversal of
the normal relationship between slave and master, and "those who enjoy
authority and respect in the ordinary Roman world are unseated,
ridiculed, while the lowliest members of society mount to their
pedestals...the humble are in face exalted".
Intellectual and academic critics have often judged Plautus's work as
crude; yet his influence on later literature is
impressive—especially on two literary giants,
Playwrights throughout history have looked to
Plautus for character,
plot, humor, and other elements of comedy. His influence ranges from
similarities in idea to full literal translations woven into plays.
The playwright's apparent familiarity with the absurdity of humanity
and both the comedy and tragedy that stem from this absurdity have
inspired succeeding playwrights centuries after his death. The most
famous of these successors is Shakespeare—
Plautus had a major
influence on the Bard's early comedies.
The Middle Ages and early Renaissance
Plautus was apparently read in the 9th century. His form was too
complex to be fully understood, however, and, as indicated by the
Terentius et delusor, it was unknown at the time if
writing in prose or verse.
W. B. Sedgwick has provided a record of the Amphitruo, perennially one
of Plautus' most famous works. It was the most popular Plautine play
in the Middle Ages, and publicly performed at the Renaissance; it was
the first Plautine play to be translated into English.
The influence of Plautus's plays was felt in the early 16th century.
Limited records suggest that the first known university production of
Plautus in England was of Miles Gloriosus at Oxford in 1522-3. The
magnum jornale of Queens College contains a reference to a comoedia
Plauti in either 1522 or 1523. This fits directly with comments made
in the poems of Leland about the date of the production. The next
production of Miles Gloriosus that is known from limited records was
given by the Westminster School in 1564. Other records also tell
us about performances of the Menaechmi. From our knowledge,
performances were given in the house of Cardinal Wolsey by boys of St.
Paul's School as early as 1527.
Shakespeare borrowed from
Plautus borrowed from his Greek
models. C.L. Barber says that "
Shakespeare feeds Elizabethan life into
the mill of Roman farce, life realized with his distinctively generous
creativity, very different from Plautus' tough, narrow, resinous
The Plautine and Shakespearean plays that most parallel each other
are, respectively, The
Menaechmi and The
Comedy of Errors. According
Shakespeare drew directly from
Plautus "parallels in plot,
in incident, and in character," and was undeniably influenced by
the classical playwright's work. H. A. Watt stresses the importance of
recognizing the fact that the "two plays were written under conditions
entirely different and served audiences as remote as the poles."
The differences between The
Menaechmi and The
Comedy of Errors are
clear. In The Menaechmi,
Plautus uses only one set of twins—twin
brothers. Shakespeare, on the other hand, uses two sets of twins,
which, according to William Connolly, "dilutes the force of
[Shakespeare's] situations". One suggestion is that Shakespeare
got this idea from Plautus' Amphitruo, in which both twin masters and
twin slaves appear.
It can be noted that the doubling is a stock situation of Elizabethan
comedy. On the fusion between Elizabethan and Plautine techniques, T.
W. Baldwin writes, "...Errors does not have the miniature unity of
Menaechmi, which is characteristic of classic structure for
comedy". Baldwin notes that
Shakespeare covers a much greater area
in the structure of the play than
writing for an audience whose minds weren't restricted to house and
home, but looked toward the greater world beyond and the role that
they might play in that world.
Another difference between the audiences of
that Shakespeare's audience was Christian. At the end of Errors, the
world of the play is returned to normal when a Christian abbess
interferes with the feuding. Menaechmi, on the other hand, "is almost
completely lacking in a supernatural dimension". A character in
Plautus' play would never blame an inconvenient situation on
witchcraft—something that is quite common in Shakespeare.
The relationship between a master and a clever servant is also a
common element in Elizabethan comedy.
Shakespeare often includes foils
for his characters to have one set off the other. In Elizabethan
romantic comedy, it is common for the plays to end with multiple
marriages and couplings of pairs. This is something that is not seen
in Plautine comedy. In the
Comedy of Errors, Aegeon and Aemilia are
separated, Antipholus and Adriana are at odds, and Antipholus and
Luciana have not yet met. At the end, all the couples are happily
together. By writing his comedies in a combination of Elizabethan and
Shakespeare helps to create his own brand of comedy,
one that uses both styles.
Shakespeare uses the same kind of opening monologue so common in
Plautus's plays. He even uses a "villain" in The
Comedy of Errors of
the same type as the one in Menaechmi, switching the character from a
doctor to a teacher but keeping the character a shrewd, educated
man. Watt also notes that some of these elements appear in many of
his works, such as Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night's Dream, and had
a deep impact on Shakespeare's writing.
Later playwrights also borrowed Plautus's stock characters. One of the
most important echoes of
Plautus is the stock character of the
parasite. Certainly the best example of this is Falstaff,
Shakespeare's portly and cowardly knight. As J. W. Draper notes, the
Falstaff shares many characteristics with a parasite such
as Artotrogus from Miles Gloriosus. Both characters seem fixated on
food and where their next meal is coming from. But they also rely on
flattery in order to gain these gifts, and both characters are willing
to bury their patrons in empty praise. Of course, Draper notes
Falstaff is also something of a boastful military man, but notes,
Falstaff is so complex a character that he may well be, in effect, a
combination of interlocking types."
As well as appearing in Shakespearean comedy, the Plautine parasite
appears in one of the first English comedies. In Ralph Roister
Doister, the character of Matthew Merrygreeke follows in the tradition
of both Plautine Parasite and Plautine slave, as he both searches and
grovels for food and also attempts to achieve his master's
desires. Indeed, the play itself is often seen as borrowing
heavily from or even being based on the Plautine comedy Miles
H. W. Cole discusses the influence of
Terence on the
Stonyhurst Pageants. The Stonyhurst Pageants are manuscripts of Old
Testament plays that were probably composed after 1609 in Lancashire.
Cole focuses on Plautus' influence on the particular Pageant of
Naaman. The playwright of this pageant breaks away from the
traditional style of religious medieval drama and relies heavily on
the works of Plautus. Overall, the playwright cross-references
eighteen of the twenty surviving plays of
Plautus and five of the six
extant plays by Terence. It is clear that the author of the Stonyhurst
Pageant of Naaman had a great knowledge of
Plautus and was
significantly influenced by this.
There is evidence of Plautine imitation in Edwardes' Damon and Pythias
and Heywood's Silver Age as well as in Shakespeare's Errors. Heywood
sometimes translated whole passages of Plautus. By being translated as
well as imitated,
Plautus was a major influence on comedy of the
Elizabethan era. In terms of plot, or perhaps more accurately plot
Plautus served as a source of inspiration and also provided
the possibility of adaptation for later playwrights. The many deceits
Plautus layered his plays with, giving the audience the feeling
of a genre bordering on farce, appear in much of the comedy written by
Shakespeare and Molière. For instance, the clever slave has important
roles in both L'Avare and L'Etourdi, two plays by Molière, and in
both drives the plot and creates the ruse just like Palaestrio in
Miles Gloriosus. These similar characters set up the same kind of
deceptions in which many of Plautus' plays find their driving force,
which is not a simple coincidence.
20th century musicals based on
Plautus include A Funny Thing Happened
on the Way to the Forum (
Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, book,
Stephen Sondheim, music and lyrics).
Roman Laughter: The
Comedy of Plautus, a 1968 book by Erich Segal, is
a scholarly study of Plautus' work.
The British TV sitcom
Up Pompeii uses situations and stock characters
from Plautus's plays.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
History of theater
Second Punic War
Theatre of ancient Rome
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(Cambridge and London, 1997 repr.), pp. 39-57.
^ The reader is directed to the word studies of A.W. Hodgman (Nouns
1902; Verbs 107) to grasp fully the use of archaic forms in Plautine
^ From magis volo "want more".
^ R.H. Martin, Terence: Phormio (London: Methuen, 1969). P. 86 n. 29.
^ This list compiled from a number of word studies and syntactic texts
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^ Sznycer, Maurice (1967). Les passages punique en transcription
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^ M. Fontaine, Funny Words in Plautine Comedy, Oxford, 2010.
^ C. Stace. "The Slaves of Plautus," Greece and
Rome 2.15 (1968), pp.
^ Easterling '76, p.12 "the delight in low humour we associate with
^ Stace 1968, pp. 64-77.
^ N.W. Slater.
Plautus in Performance: The Theatre of the Mind.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 152
^ E. Segal. Roman Laughter: The
Comedy of Plautus. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1968, p. 122
^ Segal 1968, p. 136
^ L. Bradner. "The First Cambridge Production of Miles Gloriosus."
Modern Language Notes, 70.6 (1955), pp. 400-403.
^ H.W. Cole. "The Influence of
Terence Upon the Stonyhurst
Pageants." Modern Language Notes 38 (1923) 393-399.
^ C.L. Barber, "Shakespearian
Comedy in the
Comedy of Errors," College
English 25.7 (1964), p. 493.
^ M. Marples, "Plautus." Greece &
Rome 8.22 (1938), p. 2.
^ a b c d e H. A. Watt. "
Plautus and Shakespeare: Further Comments on
Menaechmi and The
Comedy of Errors." The Classical Journal 20 (1925),
^ T.W. Baldwin. On the Compositional Genetics of The
Comedy of Errors.
(Urbana 1965), pp. 200-209.
^ N. Rudd. The Classical Tradition in Operation. (Toronto 1994), pp.
^ a b c J. W. Draper. "
Falstaff and the Plautine Parasite." The
Classical Journal 33(1938), pp. 390-401.
^ H. W. Cole. "The Influence of
Terence Upon the
Stonyhurst Pageants," Modern Language Notes 38 (1923), pp. 393-399.
^ H. W. Cole. "The Influence of
Plautus and Terrence Upon the
Stonyhurst Pageants," Modern Language Notes 38.7 (1923), pp. 393-399.
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