Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.08

Lore Benz, Eckard Lefèvre, Maccus barbarus: Sechs Kapitel zur Originalität der Captivi des Plautus. ScriptOralia 74.   Tübingen:  Gunter Narr, 1998.  Pp. 204.  ISBN 3-8233-4564-8.  DM 78.  

Reviewed by Peter Kruschwitz, Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (
Word count: 3408 words


Eckard Lefèvre, "Plautus' Captivi oder Die Palliata als Prätexta", p. 9sq.
Lore Benz, "Der Parasit in den Captivi", p. 51sq.
Lore Benz, "Zur Metaphorik der Captivi", p. 101sq.
Thomas Gerick, "Der trochäische Septenar in den Captivi", p. 127sq.
Gregor Vogt-Spira, "Sind die Captivi eine Fortuna-Komödie?", p. 151sq.
Thomas Baier, "Les Captifs: Eine Plautus-Nachahmung Jean Rotrous", p. 165sq.

It is, I think, for the third time (after 'Maccus vortit barbare: Vom Amphitryon zum tragikomischen Amphitruo' [E. Lefèvre, 1982] and 'Plautus barbarus: Sechs Studien zur Originalität des Plautus' [ed. E. Lefèvre, E. Stärk, G. Vogt-Spira, 1991]) that the title of a book from the Sonderforschungsbereich 'Übergänge und Spannungsfelder zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit' (University of Freiburg) recurs to the well-known verse Plaut. Asin. 11 "Demophilus scripsit, Maccus vortit barbare." This demonstrates a gift of re-combining these words, and consequent neglect of "Demophilus scripsit." The book under review reveals (again) that this is no pure chance.

The first article "Plautus' Captivi oder die Palliata als Prätexta" is by Lefèvre, and it is a foundation for the whole book. In the first section Lefèvre provides an (incomplete1) research report on the Captivi focusing on the analysis of the play (Plautine vs. non-Plautine elements, Greek model, dating). Then Lefèvre wants to prove that the Captivi was a most genuine play built of elements as much of the Greek comedy as of Roman improvisatory drama, -- as only an important and independent poet could have done it. For this Lefèvre analyses the structure of the play. Lefèvre pretends (throughout in a very moody tone) that the whole play is a series of incoherent, loosely connected, and claptrap scenes. But I could say the same about Lefèvre's arguments: They consist of the lengthy repetition of older opinions, often cited verbatim (in smaller type), and vaguely connected with sometimes caustic transitions. There has been a lot of research on the inconsistencies of the play, so the much more important question today is why the Roman public ought to have liked a play so incoherent and little funny. Lefèvre's claim, however, that at minimum the appearances of the parasite Ergasilus has great showmanship, does not really convince me. Even Ergasilus almost completely lacks earthy humour the very element which is said to be Plautine. Unfortunately, Lefèvre does not provide a general view of the play after his analysis so that we could learn what he regards as well-done in the Captivi as a whole.

After this Lefèvre deals with the question whether there was a Greek model for the Captivi. His thesis is that Plautus, if there was a model at all, used it in a very independent way. In his opinion it is more likely that Plautus used typical elements of the μέση and the νέα, and that he combined them with elements of Roman improvisatory drama: Plautus masterfully concealed a praetexta behind a palliata. -- Demophilus non scripsit, sed Maccus barbarus!

In the last section Lefèvre tries to specify his presumptions: The occasion for writing the play ought to have been the triumph of Flamininus in 194 BC, because in this year the audience was most likely to know the Aetolians and the other foreign people mentioned in the play. Given this occasion the subdued tone of the play seems to be explainable to Lefèvre: This was why the play had to have a serious plot; this was why funny elements rarely had to come through the serious atmosphere. Even the incoherence of the scenes seems explainable: Plautus wanted to liven things up by introducing funny scenes. For all these reasons Plautus' Captivi on the one hand is close to the commedia dell'arte, on the other hand engrained in oral tradition: In many passages words predominate, and actions become less important: The plot is slowed down by uneconomical puns and verbalism. Finally, Lefèvre argues, Plautus led the Roman audience to a foreign world by appealing to their own world view, and he depicted a Greek world using Roman subject matter.

But why Plautus ought to conceal a praetexta behind a palliata? The praetexta was probably the most unsuccessful kind of drama; praetextae were only performed on the occasion of triumphs and funerals, the number of surviving titles and fragments is insignificant.2 So Lefèvre better had looked for reasons why it could be tempting to conceal a praetexta behind a palliata as a kind of literary play. Why, finally, did Plautus not write a praetexta or a togata, if he really wanted to write a play on Roman subject matters?

I think the play must have had a Greek model. Various scholars (e.g. W.M. Lindsay in his commentary [1900, p. 114]) have noticed that in Capt. 92sq., 110sq., 219sq. the exposition of the play (which was already given in the prologue) is repeated, -- lacking one important item: There is no talk of Hegio's younger son kidnapped long time ago. A second observation is closely related with this: In I 2 Ergasilus and Hegio talk about an unicus filius who is a prisoner of war (146sq.). Ergasilus might be insensitive or just ignorant; but Hegio must suffer from the Alzheimer's! This is, I think, good evidence that there existed a model in which either the father had only a single son (so that the second son either comes from a contamination or is a Plautine invention), or the anagnorisis of the lost son had been an additional and for the audience unforeseeable event in the model already.

The second contribution is from Lore Benz, devoted to the parasite Ergasilus.3 In the introduction Benz reminds us that Plautus remodelled the the parasite type (but what about Naevius' Colax?), and that he preferred the parasitus edax as opposed to the παράσιτος κόλαξ (both of which, in her opinion, ought to have been exotic personages in the early second century BC at Rome and were likely to have been introduced by Plautus using comic techniques of improvisatory drama). In the main part Benz deals with Ergasilus parasitus and the tradition of improvisatory drama. The choice of the subject is closely related to her thesis that Ergasilus is a unique Plautine personage, missing in the tradition of improvisatory drama but following its rules. On this behalf Benz discusses the monologues (I) and the dialogues (II), each per se and in relationship with improvisatory drama.

Benz repeats the belief that Ergasilus is a sort of comic fifth wheel to the play. His appearances were superfluous and retarding elements for the play. Ergasilus served only comic purposes. But this is, of course, too simplifying! As I mentioned above, there are some hints that Ergasilus' appearance in I 1-2 might have been derived from the parasite in the prologus of the Greek model.4 If there is any likelihood that Plautus added the anagnorisis of a second son, it is also possible to explain why he expanded the parasite's parts in the drama in the way he did: Looking for a τρέφων Ergasilus leaves the stage heading for the forum after Hegio promised him an austere meal; this direction is sensible because the forum is the place where he would most probably find someone who could invite him for dinner. But the arrival of the elder son, the prisoner of war, had to take place at the harbour; so Ergasilus comes on stage in III 1 again to tell the audience that he failed to get an invitation at the forum and that he will now try to get one at the harbour. This is as plausible as necessary from a dramaturgic viewpoint: There must be some motivation for Ergasilus' return from the harbour with the happy news in IV 1.

Benz tries to prove that the monologues and dialogues were originally Plautine, that the techniques used by Plautus were engrained in improvisatory drama; Benz's arguments are mainly repetitions of older secondary literature. She does not get tired of repeating her firm concern that many elements in the monologues were Plautine or at least typically Roman, but she fails prove it. This is not surprising because there is almost no evidence for Roman improvisatory drama in Plautus' time at all. But when she argues that Ergasilus was a Plautine addition to the play (p. 56) one should ask: "An addition to what?" Did she forget Lefèvre's claim that there was no model?

Benz believes that numerous puns in the Captivi cannot go back to a Greek model: They ought to be Roman or even Plautine creations. But her inability to find a striking Greek translation is no evidence for its impossibility! Nowadays, there are a lot of movies in many languages containing numerous puns, and I doubt whether it is difficult to translate almost any of them. Why should such a problem have existed in antiquity? -- On p. 62 Benz repeats Fraenkel's opinion that rex as a name for the parasite's τρέφων is not a translation of a Greek equivalent but a Plautine invention.5 She does not say that even Fraenkel doubted whether this point could be consistent due to the social background of parasitism in the Greek world.6

The worst chapter of the book is, in my opinion, the third one. It is written by Lore Benz too, dealing with the imagery of the Captivi. In the introduction she argues that a discussion of the metaphors used by the comic personages must go further than acknowledging that enjoyment of imagery reflects sermo cotidianus and that it has traits of vividness, emotion, and impulsiveness. One should understand rather that the imagery in the palliata, derived from sermo cotidianus and improvisatory drama, is something artificial, probably developed by Plautus himself. The excessive use of imagery is an element the νέα lacks, so one has got to discuss it as a genuine element of Plautine comedy. One might accept Benz's arguments up to here, but what follows is disappointing. Even the arrangement is strange: The main part of her article is divided into a discussion of the comedics of imagery (I) of single persons in the Captivi, and (II) on the stage of improvisatory drama and of Plautus. Why, then, in chapter I the parasite has a section of his own, while 'the slave' and the old man have to share a section (as 'other personages'), is unclear. Benz gives no statistics, documentation of the metaphors used, or a detailed explaination. Passages are gathered with no regard either to their thematic, or to their chronological order within the play.7 Instead it is a potpourri of passages decorated with the ubiquitous advice that the use of imagery is genuinely farcical, Plautine, and Roman, -- and, of course, that it has its roots in the tradition of improvisatory drama. (Again Benz does not prove that this assumption is necessary; permanent repetition, however, does not make her claim more credible.) I did not really find anything new; the passages she mentions have been discussed earlier.8 Things do not get better in part II: Benz argues that there were certain parallels between the comedics of imagery of Plautus and the monologues on the apron stage in improvisatory drama which at least pretend to be improvisatory. In Plautus, she says, there is a 'prepared improvisation' which is based on techniques of improvisatory drama. Plautus used such elements to appeal to the public. -- Like other recent studies from Freiburg, the essay concludes that Plautus puts (Roman) high-spirited and vital laughing in the place of a decent smile that reveals its knowledge of human life. So at the end we find an understanding that already existed at its beginning as an a priori.

The fourth chapter is written by Thomas Gerick who discusses the trochaic septenarii of the Captivi. The chapter is divided into two sections, (1) a metrical and stylistic analysis of those verses Gerick calls dipodisch-figurierte Septenare, and (2) a discussion of the usage of this metre in the scenes. In section 1 Gerick says that about 55% of the verses in the Captivi are trochaic septenarii, and he claims that this is a percentage one will hardly find in another comedy of Plautus.9 I cannot see why one should argue then (as Gerick does) that Plautus might have wanted to use music and dance as a kind of compensation for missing intrigues and obscenities in the play: Gerick himself states (p. 128 n. 4) that 54% of the verses in the Amphitruo are trochaic septenarii, -- and that play is full of intrigues and obscenities. Then Gerick explains what he (following Altheim's definition) calls dipodisch-konfigurierte trochäische Septenare: They are trochaic septenarii showing certain phonetic elements at the beginning or end of internal kola which might be helpful for mnemotechnics, e.g. alliterations or homoeoteleuta. He is, I think, much too confident when he says that the use of this type of metre is a Roman element of Plautine drama because of (hypothetical) connections of this metre with the Saturnians and (real) connections with the versus populares sung during triumphs. There is no plausible evidence for Saturnians earlier than the 3rd century BC,10 and even the most ancient examples reveal Greek influence in formal aspects as well as in content.11 What he says about traditional lascivious songs sung during triumphs does not really convince me either (pace E. Fraenkel [cf. p. 128sq. n. 8]): Although the ceremony of the triumph might well have remained unchanged for ages, the lascivious songs of the soldiers can be an innovation of any time. (Vice versa, no one in his right mind would argue that e.g. soldiers refusing to sing such songs could have been forced to do so.) The evidence given by Gerick (p. 128 sq. n. 6), however, is of the first century BC. Much more important seems to me the absence of this metre in Greek drama.

Gerick develops eight categories of the so-called dipodisch-figurierter Septenar without giving an explaination why one should accept his categories as sensible or useful. These categories are followed by diagrams which are meant to illustrate the use of these types. One misses an explaination for the grey-scales used in the diagrams, but this is not the worst thing about the diagrams: Gerick nowhere states which verses he subsumed under which category, so it is vain to discuss the results.

In section 2 Gerick discusses the scenes in which trochaic septenarii are found. Very useful for further research are figures given on p. 140 n. 36: Gerick provides an overview for change of metre within scenes in Plautus. (However, one might ask why these figures are given here and not e.g. when discussing Capt. 242-360.) But this is almost the only laudable thing in the second section: Here one finds mere paraphrases of these scenes; a number of verses Gerick regards as good examples for illustrating his points are cited (with reference to the category under which he subsumed them for his statistics). My impression is that the number of the verses he cites (although he does not discuss their stylistic or metrical problems) is very small in comparison with the total number of trochaic septenarii in the play, and that the verses' stylistic features sometimes are hardly recognisable (see e.g. v. 562 [cited p. 143]). In addition, most of the verses Gerick cites are not used in prominent positions in the play; at least he fails to show that they could be. The way Gerick paraphrases the scenes is often misleading: E.g. the reader is not informed that Hegio's speech about cavere (v. 255sq.) is well motivated by Philocrates' utterance (v. 253sq.: edepol tibi ne in quaestione essemus cautum intellego: / ita in vinclis custodiisque circummoeniti sumus.), and not just used 'instead of a greeting' as Gerick says. After that he argues that Philocrates' and Tyndarus' change of their roles is not only improbable from a dramaturgic point of view, but also useless (p. 138). This is nonsense! Of course both Philocrates and Tyndarus know that Hegio, who wants to exchange 'his' prisoners for his son, would never release the master (whom he needs for compulsion), but only the slave. Only a fool would do so. This is why the change of their roles is an intelligent plan to save the master. The change of roles is also necessary from a dramaturgic viewpoint: There is no other way Hegio's son Tyndarus could become a slave of his own father; but this is most important for dramaturgy. One could mention more of these shortcomings (why, e.g., should the parasite Ergasilus be without a function for the play, as Gerick states on p. 141? See my discussion of Benz' article on the parasite in the Captivi above). Gerick does not indicate interpolated verses.

According to Gerick (p. 148) the septenarii in the Captivi serve two purposes: they cover the two most vivid scenes (III 4. IV 2) where they are used to express farcical comedy, and they offer a deeper, ironical comedy. While the first observation is as subjective as vain, Gerick, in my opinion, fails to prove the second one, especially because there is no comparison with scenes written in different metres.

In the fifth chapter Gregor Vogt-Spira asks whether the Captivi is a comedy of fortuna. This interesting and learned article is the best part of the whole book. It starts from the observation that fortune determines large parts of the Captivi and sometimes even serves in place of dramaturgic motivation. Additionally, there are some passages (esp. Capt. 304sq.) in which there is explicit talk about fortuna. However, the Captivi must not be called a comedy of fortuna, as Vogt-Spira demonstrates in a concise discussion (based on his study on the dramaturgy of fortune [Munich 1992]): In Greek comedies of τύχη coincidence and strict dramaturgic motivation are no opposites, but closely related. τύχη is neither a demon of pure chance nor the essence of the irrational, but a pattern of explaination which may be applied by humans developing a strict causality. In the Captivi one will not find anything like this: The solution is the result of human actions, and the personages are aware of this; no one of them would claim that not he, but fortuna ought to earn the merits of success (see v. 864!). (Instead fortuna is applied to conceal an intrigue!) Plautus, Vogt-Spira concludes, used coincidence and fortune instead of proper motivation, but not as a religious factor, so he did not exceed the religious ideas of his contemporaries.

In the last chapter Thomas Baier deals with the play Les Captifs by the French dramatist Jean de Rotrou (1609-1650). Neither the Les Captifs, nor Rotrou himself is known to a broader public nowadays, so Baier gives an extensive introduction regarding the literary circumstances of his time and points out the innovations, corrections, and shifts of Rotrou's Les Captifs in comparison with the Plautine model. After these preliminaries, Baier argues (according to the blurb) that typical elements of Plautine comedy which are based on the tradition of improvisatory drama still were observable in Rotrou's Les Captifs in the 17th century. But in his article he goes much further: In his opinion not only are elements preserved in the Les Captives, but it is no coincidence that Rotrou chose those Plautine plays which lack a Greek model, -- at least in the opinion of numerous Freiburg scholars (viz. Amphitruo, Captivi, Menaechmi). It ought to be the Plautine elements in Plautus' plays, he concludes, and not the Greek ones, which obviously fascinated Rotrou.

Baier's merit is the thorough comparison of the Latin play with the French adaptation. I do not know whether the thesis that Rotrou (unknowingly, but with astonishing accuracy?) chose these Plautine plays for adaptation that (according to some scholars) lack a Greek model is correct, but I doubt it. But the way Baier's results are presented is a dangerous one: There is a danger that the taste of Rotrou could become a criterion for the originality of Plautine plays. This is not Baier's conclusion; but both, the way he formulates his results, and that the essay is published in a book on the originality of the Captivi lead into this direction.

What should I say as a general judgement about this book? Altogether, it seems that Lefèvre and his fellows wanted to publish a book on the Captivi as they did on other comedies. Our understanding of the Captivi, however, gains little by the book, and one should ask them whether the few important new ideas had not better been published in journals for further discussion.


1.   There is no information given when the editorial work came to an end. The volume was published in 1998, so I shall note absence of articles published in 1996 and earlier. Lefèvre does not mention these: P. A. Gianfrotta, "Plauto (Captivi 721-36, 944-5, 998 ss.) e le cave di pietra a Roma", Studi miscellanei 30, Studi in onore ... L. Guerrini, Rome 1996, 187-189; G. F. Franco, "Fides, Aetolia, and Plautus' Captivi", TAPhA 125, 1995, 155-176; S. A. Frangoulidis, Counter-theatricalization in Plautus' Captivi, Mn. S. IV 49, 1996, 144-158; W. G. Thalmann, "Versions of Slavery in the Captivi of Plautus", Ramus 25, 1996, 112-145. Also one would expect reference to M. v. Albrecht, Geschichte der römischen Literatur, vol. I, Munich & al. 1994 (2nd ed.), 161sq.
2.   Seven titles and some sixty verses survive.
3.   On parasitism at Rome see now C. Damon, The Mask of the Parasite: A Pathology of Roman Patronage, Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan 1997. On the history of parasitism see L. B. Zaidman, "Ritual Eating in Archaic Greece. Parasites and Paredroi", Food in Antiquity (ed. J. Wilkins, D. Harvey, M. Dobson), Exeter 1995, 196-203.
4.   See H.-G. Nesselrath, Die Attische Mittlere Komödie, Berlin / New York 1990, 317.
5.   Benz omits M. Crampon, Salve lucrum ou l'expression de la richesse et de la pauvreté chez Plaute, Paris 1985, 164sq.
6.   See E. Fraenkel, Plautinisches im Plautus, Berlin 1922, 192-193 n. 4 = Elementi plautini in Plauto, Firenze 1960, 183 n. 1, see also RE xviii (1949) 1385sq. 1398sq.
7.   This is a pity, because some metaphors are still to be explained. I shall try to demonstrate this exempli gratia in a miscellany on the expression statua uerberea in Hyperboreus (Studia Classica, Petropoli).
8.   Benz omits S. A. Frangoulidis, "Food and Poetics in Plautus' Captivi", AC 65, 1996, 225-230.
9.   Lefèvre (p. 43) says that about 60% of the verses are trochaic septenarii, but he omits the prologue for his calculation; the editorial board should have been aware of such inconsistencies.
10.   Gerick's bibliography on the Saturnian verse (p. 129 n. 7) is lengthy, but not complete; I cannot find a criterion for his choice. One should add: G. Radke, "Überlegungen zum Saturnier", REA 93, 1991, 263sq.; E. Courtney, Musa Lapidaria. A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions, Atlanta 1995, 28sq.; S.M. Goldberg, Epic in Republican Rome, New York / Oxford, 1995, 58sq.; H.D. Jocelyn, "Saturnian Verse", OCD (3rd ed. [1996]) 1360; S. Boldrini, "Römische Metrik", Einleitung in die lateinische Philologie (ed. F. Graf), Stuttgart / Leipzig 1997, 366.
11.   I will discuss these problems in chapter II of my doctoral thesis on the Carmina Saturnia Epigraphica.

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