BMCR 1998.10.01

L’Amicitia nelle commedie di Plauto: Un’indagine antropologica


With this study of amicitia in the comedies of Plautus, Renata Raccanelli has identified an original and highly productive intersection between Plautus’s theatrical formulae and the essential fabric of Roman social life. The book is divided into two sections: a long introductory chapter which proposes a model of Roman friendship and its characteristic features (60 pages), followed by an application of this model to the plays of Plautus (150 pages; the plays which receive closest attention are the Bacchides, Mercator, Casina, Trinummus, Asinaria, Miles gloriosus and the Captivi). The book’s two sections are extremely well-integrated, and R. offers a useful and consistent Roman vocabulary of friendship which is not simply imposed on Plautus from the outside, but which naturally emerges in the discourse of the plays themselves. As she proceeds to analyze the individual plays, R. returns frequently to her other Roman sources (not only philosophical writers such as Seneca and Cicero, but also Roman commonplaces about friendship as attested in proverbs, in the exempla of Valerius Maximus, etc.). R.’s approach to the plays is fundamentally narratological, and much indebted to Maurizio Bettini’s analysis of the entire Plautine corpus (Verso un’antropologia dell’intreccio. Urbino: QuattroVenti, 1991). Like Bettini, R. organizes her analysis in terms of Roman social categories: that is, she ultimately focuses on how age, economic status, kinship, and gender determine (or deform) the schematic possibilities of the plots as defined in purely narratological terms. But while Bettini worked on the classic anthropological problem of “exchange of women” and thus on the many types of relationships between men — lovers, husbands, fathers, brothers, pimps — who are potentially implicated in this exchange, R. instead takes up another problem: friendship, and the problem of “gift exchange” between friends. This is a new vantage point from which to examine the plots of Plautus, and constitutes a quite different contribution from Bettini’s earlier work. By focusing on friendship as a fundamentally “liberal” occupation, R. encourages us to consider the more marginal characters of Plautine comedy: instead of Plautus’s comical slaves, pimps, and parasites, R. concentrates on the young men and their friends, along with the alliances made between old men. These adulescentes and senes are not the most outrageously transgressive characters in Plautus, but Roman amicitia nevertheless emerges as an extremely slippery association, marked by limits that are easily violated, fraught with paradox and uncertainty. By calling attention to these problematic and ambiguous aspects of friendship, R. highlights precisely those friendships that result in the most interesting dramatic plots.

R. opens with an analysis of the inherent contradictions of friendship, which have in fact provoked a bifurcation in modern scholarship on this topic. She acknowledges both the utilitarian and pragmatic dimensions of friendship (as emphasized in Saller’s work on this subject) as well as its affective dimension (as emphasized by Konstan). As R. shows, the Romans were fully aware of both dimensions of amicitia, and also of the resulting tension and ambiguities. Amicitia was a dynamic and shifting relationship, and thus “a serious point of weakness, insofar as it entailed doubt, risk, disequilibrium” [10]. One of the sources of disequilibrium which R. analyzes most closely is the difference between deeds done out of necessity ( officia), as opposed to deeds done in the generous spirit of friendship ( beneficia). Emphasizing this notion of freedom from necessity, R. develops a fundamentally “liberal” model of amicitia, while admitting the inherent contradiction: benevolentia and beneficia between friends are disinterested acts that are at the same time part of a reciprocal process of exchange, strictly regulated by gratia. In addition to the complications inherent in the bene velle and bene facere of Roman friendship, R. identifies an even more subtle paradox which is particularly relevant to the plays of Plautus. It is a commonplace of both popular and philosophical reflections on friendship that a friend is like another self, heteros ego, alter idem. As R. nicely observes, this is a logical extension of friendship’s bene velle in its most complete and exclusive form: the friend wants for his friend what that friend wants (as in Plautus’s Persa, 293: amicus sum, eveniant volo tibi quae optas). But this perfect equivalence between “what I want = what another wants” can lead to an uncertainty or rivalry of identity (I = another), which closely recalls the motif of doubles and mistaken identity that is such a frequent feature of Plautine comedy. Not surprisingly, some of R.’s best observations involve the confused subjects and objects of desire in the Bacchides, and the nefarious shared love object of father and son in the Asinaria. Overall, what is most appealing about R.’s consideration of Roman friendship is precisely this attention to the inherent structural paradoxes of the friendship relation: it is not simply a moral failure on the part of a friend that introduces apprehension and misgivings into the friendship, but the nature of the relationship itself.

In analyzing the dozen or so important cases of friendship in Plautus, R. identifies three basic categories.

(A) In the first category R. brings together the stories in which there is a friendship that begins as a friendship between equals (the most stable kind of friendship relation), but which is then put to the test by the unfolding events of the plot. There are three plays of this type: the Bacchides, where a young man thinks his own friend has stolen his beloved; the Mercator, where there is a successful friendship between adulescentes while a friendship between old men fails; along with the Casina, featuring another failed friendship between two senes.

One of the most interesting discussions in this section involves the surrogate friends employed by the contending father and son in the Mercator: the role of these friends makes it clear that the “alter ego” can be used as a way to project and distance onself from an otherwise impossible situation, transferring to the friend one’s own illicit desires. R.’s focus on friendship thus nicely highlights the curious relationship between the structure of the Mercator, with its surrogate friends, as opposed to the Casina, where the contending father and son instead resort to slaves as their substitute agents.

(B) The second category contains plays which are marked by an apparently unstable friendship between unlike partners: the disequilibrium in wealth between the two young men of the Trinummus, the utterly anomalous friendship of father and son in the Asinaria (with a long aside on Terence’s Adelphoe and the problem of paternal affection), the unexpected alliance of an adulescens and a senex in the Miles gloriosus, and the mistaken identity drama of friendship played out between master and slave in the Captivi.

In this group, R.’s analysis of the Trinummus is especially insightful, showing that the tension in the plot results from a gift that oversteps the rules of friendship, even supplanting the prerogatives of kinship. Analyzed in these terms, the Trinummus emerges as a drama of paradoxical gift-giving and the intricate demands of Roman gratia. Given the economic disparity between the two adulescentes, the gift takes on a hostile quality, and the unwelcome beneficium of a friend actually threatens to displace the brotherly officium of providing a sister with a dowry. Throughout this book, R. is consistently attentive to the interaction between friendship and kinship in Roman social practice; while friendship is often modeled on family relations (as in the Casina, 615: nunc tu mi amicus es in germanum modum), there is also considerable tension between them, as demonstrated clearly in the Trinummus, and notably also in the father-son plot of the Asinaria.

(C) Finally, R. consigns to a third category those plays in which the friendship plot involves a simple linear development of success or failure in friendship among equals. That is, although friendship is an important element in these plays, the plot depends on the uncomplicated question of whether a friend will (or will not) offer assistance, and whether that assistance succeeds (or fails). R. consigns to this minor category the friendship plots found in the Epidicus, Pseudolus, Mostellaria, and the Persa, along with friendships between women in the Cistellaria and the Rudens ( meretrices) and in the Casina ( matronae).

The Persa poses a problem for R.’s mode of analysis, in that the plot depends on a friendship between slaves, rather than between adulescentes or between senes. Given R.’s “liberal” model of Roman friendship, she consequently reads the friendship between slaves in the Persa as a parody of friendship: that is, in the same way that the plot self-consciously puts a slave in the unexpected (and hence comical) position of a lover, it also puts a slave in the unexpected position of a friend. But R. faces greater difficulties when it comes to friendships between women: the servi amici in the Persa are surely humorous, but this does not appear to be the case in the friendship plots involving women, such as the matronae of the Casina. R. understandably hesitates when faced with the problem of amicitia among women (especially given the scanty material presented in Plautus), but she nevertheless provides a thorough discussion of the problem, including several lengthy and informative footnotes summarizing the scholarship on this aspect of Roman society, above and beyond its appearance in the texts of Plautus.

By focusing on Plautus’s stories of friendship, R. highlights aspects of the comedies that might otherwise have gone undetected. Even though the adulescentes and the senes do not capture our imagination, these men and their friendships are indeed a focal point for the narrative tension in many of Plautus’s plays, as R. clearly demonstrates. Yet the marginality of these characters in the plays suggests a further methodological question. Despite the prominence of amicitia between adulescentes and between senes, it is often the case that this conventional “liberal” friendship is eclipsed and eventually displaced by the actions of the tricky slave who ultimately provides the most useful assistance in the plot’s final resolution (as notably in the Bacchides, Pseudolus, and Mostellaria). R. notes that there is a sort of narratological equivalence in the way that the adulescens may be “helped” both by his amicus, but also by his servus, with the help of the slave often proving far more valuable. How then to understand the assistance offered by someone who is not a free agent, as is the case with a slave, as opposed to the assistance freely afforded by a friend? The plots of Plautus’s plays (with the single, curious exception of the Mercator) seem to suggest that the assistance of a slave exceeds the assistance that can be offered by a friend; apparently, the slave’s help is of greater importance in resolving life’s crises — or, more precisely, in resolving the crises of a pretend life, on the stage of Plautus’s theater. Is this then a purely narratological aspect of Plautus’s plots and the dramatic conventions of New Comedy? Or does it reflect some underlying dynamic of Roman social life? Or both?

In the end, it is always exceedingly difficult to assess the actual meaning of the inversions (subversions?), distortions, parodies, and transgressions that are the stuff of Plautus’s comedy. On the one hand, these spectacles are meant to make the audience laugh, but there is surely more at stake. For example, the tension between a friend’s liberal support and a slave’s obedient assistance surfaces explicitly in the Bacchides, when the young man provocatively taunts his friend with the possibility that he might be outdone by a slave in friendship, in bene facere: cave sis te superare servum siris faciundo bene (Bacchides 402; R. provides a detailed analysis of this entire scene). I find it especially intriguing that R.’s approach returns often to this tension between the narratological shape of the plot and the contours of Roman society: in Plautus, both friends and slaves can act as “helpers,” sharing the same role in the plot but not the same social status. Similarly, Bettini’s earlier study revealed an equivalence between fathers and pimps, who are both regularly found in the narratological slot of the “antagonist,” the detainer of women. But a pimp is not a father, and a slave is not a friend: these are fundamental axioms of Roman society, unarguable cultural assumptions — and it is precisely the anxious insistence on these rigid categories in Roman life which makes them the perfect raw material for Plautus’s comic theater. R.’s careful analysis of friendship in Plautus has uncovered a wealth of social reality in these texts, thus making an important new contribution to the anthropological study both of Roman literature and society.