Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.53

Wolfgang de Melo (ed.), Plautus: Amphitryon; The Comedy of Asses; The Pot of Gold; The Two Bacchises; The Captives. Loeb Classical Library 60.   Cambridge, MA/London:  Harvard University Press, 2011.  Pp. cxxxiii, 628.  ISBN 9780674996533.  $24.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Kruschwitz, University of Reading, Department of Classics (

Paul Nixon’s translation of Plautus in the Loeb series has become a problematic read for students of Roman drama. The translation was fairly loose to begin with. The language used for the translation itself had become heavily dated, and, after almost 100 years of scholarship, the Latin text itself was in dire need of reconsideration. The volume under review here presents itself as the first volume of a new Loeb translation of Plautus, undertaken by Wolfgang de Melo. The volume, like its counterpart by Nixon, comprises five plays, following the established alphabetical order of the Plautine corpus: Amphitryon, Asinaria, Aulularia, Bacchides, and Captivi.1

Nixon’s first volume comprised 571 pages; de Melo’s edition comes with a whopping cxxxiii+628 pages. The increase is due to de Melo’s decision to equip this volume with a substantial introduction and bibliography. This will make this new edition particularly useful to the modern student. (In this respect, it is also worth mentioning that de Melo decided to equip both his Latin and the English text with line numbers, a commendable practice, as it helps students who do not have the ancient languages to find and reference specific passages.)

The introduction itself covers (i) a general introduction, (ii) Plautus’ Life, (iii) Plautus’ Greek Sources, (iv) Themes and Characteristics of Plautine Comedy, (v) Plautus and Native Italian Traditions, (vi) Plautine language, (vi) Plautine verse, (vii) Staging, (viii) Text of Plautus, and (ix) Plautus’ Influence on European Drama, concluded by almost ten pages of bibliography.2 The introduction is accurate, precise, and informative. It is understandable that, given the very purpose of this format, critical engagement with scholarship remains limited and general; de Melo’s judgement usually is impeccable; however, footnotes of the type ‘X pace Y’ are not always helpful. De Melo’s approach is largely linguistic and technical, hence he does not go to great lengths studying Plautus as literature or poetry beyond technical description. Given the restrictions of the format and its intended readership, I will abstain from more detailed, punctual observations of where one might have chosen a different weighting over de Melo’s own solutions.

The main part of this volume comprises the text and its English translation. Each play is introduced by a short general introduction and a specialist bibliography. The choice of what has been included and omitted in the latter is somewhat arbitrary at times and not always fortunate.

Both the text constituted by de Melo and his translations deserve praise. He has done an excellent job of constituting a new text, just short of extensive manuscript research, but well-connected to the Urbino Plautus project, and also with reference to other Plautine scholars’ textual work. The edition alone is an achievement to last for decades to come. The translations themselves then are usually highly readable, not least due to de Melo’s refusal to introduce inept idiosyncrasies as a means of verbal humour (recent times saw a plethora of translations that chose diatopic and/or diastratic varieties of English to add to Plautus’ linguistic characterisation). However, it must be noted that, where Nixon tried to provide an overall smooth read, de Melo shifts between the idiomatic and the occasional awkward moment, especially where his translation attempts to stick closer to the original.3 Whereas the text is thus not designed to be used for a performance, the student of Plautus will get a fairly realistic overall impression of Plautus’ language.

It seems helpful to discuss a few select passages next, comparing and contrasting Nixon’s and de Melo’s renderings (the careful reader will immediately notice some close similarities; de Melo clearly states that he is indebted to Nixon’s version):

1. The prologue of the Amphitruo is an extraordinary piece, as it consists of more than 150 lines, which makes it account for more than ten percent of the entire play. It is characterised by its delightful and sophisticated structure: Mercury, the prologue speaker, makes no fewer than five attempts to give the audience an exposition of the play, repeatedly getting side-tracked and caught in metadramatic issues. The underlying structure is brought out well by Nixon’s use of paragraphs, breaking the text down into meaningful units. Unfortunately, de Melo has decided against the use of paragraphs and gives the prologue as a coherent stream of verbosity. A translation should support the readers’ understanding. De Melo is generous in giving stage directions which very obviously were not in the original, either -- and in this spirit he should have considered breaking down longer passages as well.

The virtues and defects of a translation often stand out whenever the original text contains elements that divert from seemingly unmarked language. The prologue of the Amphitruo is full of such moments; I shall focus on just two of them:

a. Lines 33-37 give an extended word play:

iustam rem et facilem esse oratam a uobis uolo
nam iusta ab iustis iustus sum orator datus.
nam iniusta ab iustis impetrari non decet,
iusta autem ab iniustis petere insipientia est;
quippe illi iniqui ius ignorant neque tenent.


“It is a just and trifling request I wish you to grant: for I am sent as a just pleader pleading with the just for what is just. It would be unfitting, of course, for unjust favours to be obtained from the just, while looking for just treatment from the unjust is folly; for unfair folk of that sort neither know or keep justice.”

De Melo:

“I want to ask you for a just and small favor: I was appointed as a just pleader pleading with the just for a just cause. For it wouldn’t be right to obtain what’s unjust from the just: but it would be stupidity to demand what’s just from the unjust since those who are unjust don’t know or keep justice.”

It is clear that de Melo decided to stick with the successful ‘just/unjust’ solution for the abundance of iustus and iniustus in the Latin. An interesting case is the rendering of insipientia--Nixon chose ‘folly’; de Melo’s rendering ‘stupidity’ is bolder. Does either one of them do justice to the text? Here I feel that the answer might be ‘not really’; considering the spectrum of connotations for insipientia as laid out in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, it is obvious that its meaning must be something like ‘lack of judgement/understanding’. Overall, De Melo’s translation is more to the point (and closer to the original) than Nixon’s, certainly by the standards of our times; however, the above case shows that there are places in which the translation is a tad too bold for no good reason.

b. Lines 69-74 represent the register of legal language:

siue qui ipse ambissint palmam histrionibus
siue cuiquam artifici, si per scriptas litteras
siue qui ambissit seu per internuntium,
siue adeo aediles perfidiose cui duint,
sirempse legem iussit esse Iuppiter,
quasi magistratum sibi alteriue ambiuerit.


“(with great solemnity) … Or if there be those who have solicited the palm for actors, or for any artist -- whether by letter, or by personal solicitation, or through an intermediary -- or further, if the aediles do bestow the said palm upon anyone unfairly, Jove doth decree that the selfsame law obtain as should the said party solicit guiltily, for himself or for another, public office.”

De Melo -- introduced by a footnote which states that “what follows is a parody of a law against corrupt practices, such as the lex Poetelia of 358” (19 nt. 3) --:

“(…); or if any people should try to canvass the palm for these actors or any artist, through letters written, or if anyone should canvass himself, or through an intermediary, or for that matter, if the aediles should give it to anyone unfairly, Jupiter has decreed that the same law should apply as if he’d canvassed for an office for himself or another party.”

This again highlights the strength of de Melo’s translation: it is to the point and brings out a flavour of the text, but it also supplements the reading with notes, to help the reader appreciate its artistic nature whenever needed.

2. Moving on to the Aulularia, one notes the absence of substantial critical and interpretative pieces from the bibliography (for a relevant coverage of previous scholarship cf. P. Kruschwitz, Hermes 130, 2002, 146-163; further articles have appeared since then). One of the most important passages of the play is Megadorus’ monologue on whether or not to marry a rich woman (Aul. 475-495). The passage opens thus:

narraui amicis multis consilium meum
de condicione hac. Euclionis filiam
laudant: “sapienter factum et consilio bono.”
nam meo quidem animo si idem faciant ceteri
opulentiores, pauperiorum filias
ut indotatas ducant uxores domum,
et multo fiat ciuitas concordior,
et inuidia nos minore utamur quam utimur,
et illae malam rem metuant quam metuont magis,
et nos minore sumptu simus quam sumus.


“Well, I’ve told a number of friends of my intentions regarding this match. They were full of praise for Euclio’s daughter. Say it’s the sensible thing to do, a fine idea. Yes, for my part I’m convinced that if the rest of our well-to-do citizens would follow my example and marry poor men’s daughters and let the dowries go, there would be a great deal more unity in our city, and people would be less bitter against us men of means than they are, and our wives would stand in greater awe of marital authority than they do, and the cost of living would be lower for us than it is.”

De Melo:

“I’ve told many friends about my plan for this match. They praise Euclio’s daughter: “a sensible thing to do and a good plan.” Well, at least in my opinion, if other people who are well off did the same, marrying the daughters of poorer people without dowry, the city would become much more harmonious, we would suffer less from envy than we do now, women would be much more afraid of a hard time than they are now, and we would spend less than we do now.”

The improvements of de Melo’s translation are obvious, most notably when it comes to Nixon’s inept rendering ‘stand in greater awe of marital authority’, a sentiment that is nowhere to be found in the Latin: de Melo’s version ‘afraid of a hard time’ is spot on. What is regrettable, is that de Melo’s translation here does not give an accurate idea of the highly stylised composition of the speech -- every line beginning with et, the contrast of indicative and subjunctive (utamur ~ utimur; metuant ~ metuont; simus ~ sumus), etc.; one might argue that Nixon’s translation was more successful in that respect.

3. Finally a look at the Captivi. The bibliography within the introduction to the play should have listed Matthew Leigh’s volume on Comedy and the Rise of Rome; equally absent is Lore Benz’s and Eckard Lefèvre’s edited volume Maccus barbarus which is dedicated entirely to this play.

Plaut. Capt. 951-952 is an interesting passage because of its use of the awkward image statua uerberea:

uos ite intro. interibi ego ex hac statua uerberea uolo
erogitare, meo minore quid sit factum filio.


“As for you lads, step inside. Meanwhile I want to inquire of this whipping post here (pointing to Stalagmus) what was done with my younger son.”

De Melo:

“You two go in. In the meantime I want to get the information out of this whipping-post here (points to Stalagmus) as to what’s happened to my younger son.”

The differences (but also the similarities) are striking: de Melo brings out the prosaic directives of the Latin, where Nixon chose to be more literary in tone. One may of course, in either case, wonder if uolo is not actually closer to English ‘I will’ than to ‘I want’ (i. e. a future rather than an expression of determination or intention). Rendering sit factum as ‘what’s happened’ clearly is closer to the original than Nixon’s ‘what was done with’.4

The volume is concluded by an index of metres and an index of names.

In conclusion, de Melo deserves praise and gratitude: his Plautus is beautifully produced. The volume has an excellent introduction, a refurbished text, and a translation which is a substantial improvement on the previous one. The aforementioned criticisms and observations of more minute details must not detract from the achievements. This reviewer for one is looking forward to the subsequent volumes.


1.   Just why de Melo keeps the Greek spelling I do not understand -- it should be called Amphitruo.
2.   A glaring omission in the latter is Benjamin Fortson’s recent book on Language and Rhythm in Plautus; Alison Sharrock’s volume on Reading Roman Comedy might have appeared too late to be included in the bibliography.
3.   Straightforward mistakes are rare, but note e. g. ‘because the Theban people is at war with the Teloboians’ (where are would be more grammatical) at Amph. 101.
4.   As for the correct rendering of statua uerberea, I will stand by my point that a statua uerberea is not a whipping-post, but a monument to a slave’s back worn out by the whip; cf. P. Kruschwitz, Hyperboreus 5, 1999, 350-353.

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