Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.08.05

William S. Anderson, Barbarian Play: Plautus' Roman Comedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Pp. 184. $50.00. ISBN 0-8020-2815-2.

Reviewed by Lisa Rengo George, Bryn Mawr College.

As an overview of Plautus' playwriting techniques and stylistic qualities, W. S. Anderson's Barbarian Play is meant to appeal both to the specialist and to the non-classicist. The publishers state in the foreword: "we wanted to find a scholar of reputation to deliver several lectures that would be intelligible to a non-specialist audience, and yet would provide the basis for a sound, scholarly, innovative book. A difficult assignment, to be sure!" The book is full of A.'s usual insights and intermittently careful readings, but it lacks a firm basis in the scholarship and is ultimately flawed by A.'s traditional approach to Plautine Quellenforschung.

A. states that the title of his first chapter, "Plautus and the Deconstruction of Menander," was deliberately chosen to be "flamboyant and polemical" (p.4). The use of modern literary theory in the analysis of classical texts is hardly an innovation, and it is doubtful whether anyone would consider the use of the word "deconstruction" in this context to be controversial. A. goes on to present a thorough comparison of Plautus' Bacchis-Sisters (he consistently translates all Greek and Latin titles, in deference to his non-specialist audience) with Menander's Double-Deceiver. A.'s main point is "that Plautus has constructed something quite different from that of Menander" (p.12), yet he persistently uses Plautus' text to determine the content of the lost portions of Menander's play. He is obviously familiar with the current secondary material on these plays, yet he often does not cite relevant bibliography when appropriate. For instance, he cites N. Slater's Plautus in Performance in a general footnote (n.8, p. 154), but fails to credit Slater's well-known work for this observation: "We have seen how the Roman comedy keeps interrupting and upsetting the sentimental seriousness of the original Greek, how the characters seem to know that they are actors and exaggerate their postures, overstate the tensions of the scene, and riot in words," (p.21). He cites E. Segal's Roman Laughter (but not the second edition, which was published in 1987 with three additional appendices) for the idea that Plautine adulescentes often wish their fathers dead (n.11, p. 155), but not for one of Segal's most important points, that Plautus aggrandized the role of the servus callidus (p. 24; cf. Segal's chapter "From Slavery to Freedom," Roman Laughter, pp. 99-136; also, Eduard Fraenkel's Plautinisches im Plautus, ch. 8).

A.'s second chapter on Plautus and the Greek Comic tradition again relies heavily on Plautus' own texts to reconstruct the missing Greek models, which are then used as comparanda. The surviving fragments of Philemon and Diphilos are scanty, and provide almost no information about these two playwrights and their plays, as A. acknowledges: "We still possess nothing but unsatisfying fragments for Menander's two major rivals and thus no real control over acts or plots, or even most characters" (p. 33). Nevertheless, A. relies on a list in Apuleius' Florida of 12 comic characters mastered by Philemon to posit that the stock character of the "helpful friend" was unique to the Greek playwright. He then goes on to discuss this type as he appears in Plautus' Bacchides, Pseudolus, Mercator, Trinummus, and Mostellaria. Rudens and Casina are both credited to Diphilos within the texts of the plays, and since both comedies contain scenes of disputation, A. assumes that that type of scene was a trademark of Diphilos. On the basis of the scenes as they stand in Plautus, he "reconstructs" the scenes from Diphilos' Greek, using the scraps of Menander's Epitrepontes as reinforcement. It is not ultimately useful to make comparisons to non-existent texts and then to draw conclusions based on those unproven, and in fact, unprovable assumptions.

In chapter three, A. posits that Plautus amended Greek comic love-plots by upstaging the lovers and emphasizing instead wit and parody. This theory suffers once again, however, from a lack of substantial comparative material, so A. must continue to rely on conjecture and reconstruction from Plautus. Thus he can speak of "Philemon's Charinus" in Emporos (the basis for Mercator) when we have virutally nothing of the original text. This concept would be much more successful without the constant attempt to demonstrate how Plautus altered his originals, especially when those originals do not exist. Still, his discussions of several derailed amatory plots in the Plautine corpus are full of salient points, particularly in the case of plots where marriage is impossible, since these deviate most radically from the marriage-oriented plots we know from Greek New Comedy.

The most compelling section in A.'s book is Chapter Four: "Heroic Badness (malitia): Plautus' Characters and Themes." This is also his most successful discussion, perhaps because he does not need to rely so heavily on comparisons with the lost Greek texts. A. suggests that Plautus exploited a "fundamental 'immoral' tendency in all of us" to create the concept of "Heroic Badness" (p. 89). As Plautus' craft developed, A. postulates, he gradually expanded the role of the "rogue" to include the mala meretrix as well as the clever slave (p. 102ff). A. states, "so though [Plautus] recognizes the stereotype of the 'bad prostitute' (mala meretrix: Captivi, line 57), he tends to change her character from that of negative menace to one of positive appeal" (p. 103).

Oddly, A. fails to engage in Quellenforschung at a point when it would be most profitable because of the amount of evidence still extant. The earliest prototype of this character is found in the Menandrian fragments. Habrotonon, a flute-girl and occasional prostitute in Epitrepontes, intervenes in the plot and directs the slave Onesimus to perpetrate a trick (albeit a benevolent one) upon his master Charisius. Chrysis, the Samian concubine of Demeas in Samia, restores the household to harmony and order at the play's end. Too little remains to judge the character of Habrotonon in Perikeirormene, other than to determine that she is a hetaira and might possibly be involved in a scheme. These are arguably the direct models for the bona meretrix, especially as portrayed by Terence, but they are nonetheless important precursors to the meretrix-type as she appears in Plautus. A significant later example of this stock character appears in a fragment of a fabula palliata by Naevius, Tarentilla, "The Little Girl from Tarentum" (easily accessible in the Remains of Old Latin, Vol. II Loeb). The longest fragment describes the mala meretrix:

Quasi pila
in choro ludens datatim dat se et communem facit.
Alii adnutat, alii adnictat, alium amat tenet.
Alibi manus est occupata, alii peruellit pedem;
anulum dat alii spectandum, a labris alium inuocat,
cum alio cantat, at tamen alii suo dat digito litteras.

As though she were playing at ball, give and take in a ring, she makes herself common property to all men. To one she nods, at another she winks; one she caresses, another embraces. Now elsewhere a hand she has taken; now she jerks another's foot. To one she gives her ring to look at, to another her lips blow a kiss that invites. She sings a song with one; but waves a message for another with her finger.1
The "little girl from Tarentum" is certainly recognizable as the prototype of the Plautine mala meretrix. Her portrayal in Naevius strongly suggests that the mala meretrix was a well-developed character type in Roman fabulae before Plautus began his career.

In addition, A. curiously omits any reference to several important articles on the character of the prostitute in New Comedy, specifically: E. Fantham, "Sex, Status, and Survival in Hellenistic Athens: A Study of Women in New Comedy," Phoenix 29 (1975), 44-74; D. Wiles, "Marriage and prostitution in classical New Comedy," Themes in Drama 11 (1989), 31-48; and P.G. McC. Brown, "Plots and Prostitutes in Greek New Comedy," Pap. of Leeds Int'l Lat. Sem. 6 (1990), 241-66, all of which provide important points for consideration.

Chapter Five presents a detailed discussion of Plautus' language, staging, and meter that could have benefited greatly by reference to Wright's monograph, in which Wright demonstrates that paronomasia and other kinds of wordplay were a vital element of Italic drama from its earliest stages as Atellan farce and other types of performance. The section devoted to metrical analysis (pp. 118 ff.) may well be too technical for the non-specialist, though it would be useful to any Plautinist struggling with the arcane meters of the comedies.

In his concluding chapter, A. attempts to refute previous scholarship in order to advance his own theory about Plautus' "Roman connection." He suggests that "the comedies enact an ideological conflict that pits, not one Roman interest against another Roman interest, but rather Roman sense of self-identity in the audience as a whole against their biased feelings, whetted by Plautus, about Greek civilization" (p. 144). As a proof of this theory, he contrasts the stock character of the braggart soldier (a Greek mercenary who fights without honor) with the military image co-opted by the clever slave in his moments of triumph (a good Roman who represents treasured Roman ideals). Anderson's primary figure of Greek inferiority in the plays, however, is "the deconstructed angry or libidinous father, the character who in the original Greek plays serves as the focus of legitimate moral authority" (p.147). While this theory has a good deal of merit, in the end A. becomes almost as schematic as he accuses Segal of being. A. presents Plautus' Roman audience as hellenophobes who try to ease the tension they feel about Greek culture by ridiculing it, much as Britain's Monty Python comedy troupe spoofed the stereotypically snobbish French culture by consistently portraying Frenchmen as bumbling fools. Monty Python, however, devoted most of their time to satirizing their own stifling, conservative English society. In the second century C.E. 130 titles were attributed to Plautus: it seems hard to believe that Plautus wrote so many plays as that just to make fun of the Greeks. Surely there is much at work in these plays, and such an attempt to narrow down the 'true meaning' of the comedies to one specific theory is unnecessarily restrictive.

In its hardcover edition, Barbarian Play is prohibitively expensive and thus out of the range of those for whom it would prove most useful: undergraduates and newcomers to Roman comedy.


  • [1] Naevius, Tarentilla, fr. 74-79, Remains of Old Latin, Vol. II, tr. E.H. Warmington (London, 1936). In Dancing in Chains (Rome 1974), J. Wright supports a suggestion made by L. Mueller that these words were in fact spoken by the meretrix herself: "it would give an attractive tough-mindedness to the Tarentilla, who would then stand out as the heroine of the piece, blithely indifferent both to the blustering fathers and to their timid sons" (p. 42). He compares this fragment to a similar passage in Asinaria (775-786), in which the parasite reads a contract composed by the soldier Diabolus regarding his possession of the meretrix Philaenium.