BMCR 2001.04.17

Slaves, Masters and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy

, Slaves, masters, and the art of authority in Plautine comedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xi, 231 pages). ISBN 1400814456 $45.00.

concessum est in palliata poetis comicis servos dominis sapentiores fingere, quod idem in togata non fere licet — Donatus, ad Eun. 57

Readers since Donatus have puzzled over the cleverness of the comic slave. Next to an often dim-witted master, the clever slave appears to subvert a relationship of dominance. This has been explained in various ways, most famously by E. Segal, who popularized the idea that comedy offered a period of Saturnalian license, a temporary release for slaves and sons in potestate and a mechanism for the powerful to keep the lower orders in line.1 In a stimulating new study, Kathleen McCarthy uses detailed analyses of four plays, Menaechmi, Casina, Persa, and Captivi, to go beyond Segal’s “safety-valve” theory and attempt to explain what stake the rich, powerful Romans who funded these plays had in actually watching them and why, more generally, the slave-owners who made up most of the audience enjoyed a form that presented them in an unflattering light.2

McCarthy offers an answer based on an insight into the psychology of slave-owning: Roman masters themselves felt a need for release, both from the labor of domination and from their own anxieties as “subordinates” in the larger hierarchies of Roman society. The first of these pressures may be universal to slave-owning societies (McCarthy draws on comparative evidence ranging from the East African plantation system to the New World), a consequence of the famous “contradiction of slavery”, that is, the notion that the ideal slave should be both an “object”, an absolutely obedient instrument of the master’s will, and a thinking “subject”, able to follow the intent and not just the letter of the command (McCarthy’s discussion of the Captivi shows well how the play thematizes this contradiction).3 The master faces a constant need to control the slave-as-object with threats and punishments and to resist the temptation to use rewards to buy the good behavior of the slave-as-subject, both potentially labor intensive obligations.

For McCarthy, all Plautine slaves fall into two types, both of which offer pleasures to a master-class audience: good slaves, who represent the view masters want slaves to have of slavery (and offer a comforting fantasy of effortless domination), and clever slaves, who represent the view masters want to have of their own lives. Using Galinsky’s theory of auctoritas, she argues that all forms of power at Rome were “personalized power” requiring the assent of subordinates. In this sense, slavery worked the same way as other kinds of power, and hence Plautus’ free audience could identify with the clever slave, experiencing through him a temporary release from the anxieties of their own struggles to maintain position in Rome’s extremely hierarchical society. One suspects that these anxieties troubled the senatorial class primarily, but it is not hard to imagine other ways even the unambitious poor might also cross-identify with the clever slave. The four plays in this study were chosen, in part, because they present characters who combine the features of rebellion and authority. The “art of authority” is the ability to negotiate between these two positions, as McCarthy summarizes it, “between the degradation of slavery and the wearying labor of mastery” (p. 29).

It is important to note that McCarthy offers a literary, not a social historical reading of Plautus. She is interested in the reflection of larger social forces in Plautus’ comic forms and her emphasis is on universal features of slavery. She sees slavery operating in Plautus as a symbol of all forms of dominance (similar to Wiles’ view of the Plautine slave as “a kind of algebraic symbol for the underdog in Roman society”).4 Historians may be disappointed that McCarthy takes little account of specific changes in Roman society of the late third century. Her account also levels out differences among slaves, who could be highly specialized at Rome (even within the Plautine corpus one thinks of the mysterious references in the Miles to a plicatrix 695 and ceriaria 696). Domination of an Astaphium ( Truc.), a privileged personal attendant and confidant, must have been very different from keeping a Gripus or Sceparnio in line (and “mastery” in general may have been different for women).5

The book draws heavily on the methodology of Italian structuralist criticism of Roman comedy. McCarthy reads Plautine plays as combinations of two basic modes: naturalism and farce. “Naturalism” posits stable identities beneath changing surface appearances. These hidden identities are eventually made clear by divine workings. Hence anagnorisis is the characteristic element of this mode, and its message is that authority can and should be based on moral qualities. Naturalistic characters “rebel” in order to create a more humane society (e.g. reining in a misanthrope) and they use language to point to a stable meaning behind their words, i.e. as a means rather than an end. “Farce” sees authority, like everything else, as contingent on human choices. The idea that it has a moral foundation is merely a pretense of the dominant to be exposed by the trickster, who exercises a purely comic “authority”. Farcical characters value words and rebellion alike for their own sake, hence the characteristic device of farce is the rupturing of dramatic illusion (or “metatheater”, the term McCarthy prefers). Here one may recognize the influence of Chiarini’s work establishing farce as a separate theatrical form in Plautus with its own motifs and conventions, metatheatricality chief among them.6 Unlike Chiarini, McCarthy makes no claims that this farcical material is evidence of Plautine originality or that it expresses Plautus’ own opinions (she takes a strictly synchronic approach, stressing the importance of “theorizing the text as we have it” p. 5). Moral content of the plays derives directly from the “moral outlook” of its constituent modes. Any apparent social commentary is to be ascribed to the tradition, not to Plautus (“we should not assume that he wrote with the goal of self-expression” p. 7). The idea of a code of morality attached to a dramatic form was developed by G. Petrone, who identified a moral mode ( mimesis) and an antimoral mode ( ludus) in Plautus.7 Building on this idea, McCarthy emphasizes that no play is entirely in one mode or the other. Hence it is vain to look for consistent moral positions in Plautus’ “crowded house” (the aptly chosen title of her first chapter). Farce and naturalism are not, however, simply jumbled together. The two modes take part in a Bakhtinian dialogue, each commenting on and affecting how we view the other. That they do not combine into a coherent whole is precisely what McCarthy believes appealed to Plautus, whose interests lay in combinations of forms, she argues, rather than expression of meaning, and who wrote in response to other texts, a trait she links to broader tendencies of early Latin literature.

The introduction concludes with helpful, brief summaries of her main arguments for each play. A few more examples would have been welcome in this fairly lengthy (31 pp.) and highly theoretical chapter. Some of this material might have been reserved for the last chapter, which is quite short at 3 pp. (notably, the argument that Plautus did not have a personal political message to advance although his plays can illuminate social attitudes insofar as they form part of “the public transcript”, since she already treats larger questions of the politics of the representation of slavery here.) The four central chapters explore the ways farce and naturalism interact, through scene-by-scene analyses of each play. The book is written to be accessible to non-specialists. All Latin in the main text is translated and Latin names of stock types are listed at the beginning, although readers are expected to recognize a few critical terms such as anagnorisis and comoedia palliata.

The second chapter interprets the Menaechmi as a play about competing styles of mastery. Syracusan Menaechmus, as we see in his treatment of Messenio, simply demands loyalty by threat of punishment (his style of mastery is essentially the slaveholder’s authoritarianism), whereas Epidamnian Menaechmus relies on a more contractual arrangement: obedience in return for payment (the basis, although he does not realize it, of his relationship with Erotium and Peniculus, and one he would like to establish with his wife). So ineffective is his style of mastery that Epidamnian Menaechmus actually plays the part of a rebel in the play, “rebelling” against the subordinates who resist his authority. His character offers an easy point of identification for frustrated slave-owners, McCarthy persuasively demonstrates, and the play presents the Syracusan’s style of mastery as a solution to his brother’s problems. I found the latter argument less convincing, since Syracusan Menaechmus owes his success with Erotium and Matrona to impersonation and pretence, not to methods he used with Messenio. Though it may be true that giving Peniculus the brush-off (III.2) “fundamentally undermines the assumptions on which Epidamnian Menaechmus’ household authority was based” (p. 53) this is not really a difference in the brothers’ “style of dealing with dependents” ( ibid.). Peniculus is unknown to him, i.e. someone else’s dependent (I like C. Damon’s idea that this is a kind of client-patron relationship 8). What Syracusan Menaechmus demonstrates is a way to end mastery, not a way of exercising it. McCarthy reads his final success as a partial combination of two types of authority, what she later calls “the double authority of comedy and real life” (p. 130). To follow her argument here it is important to understand that she uses “authority” in two senses, one correlating to historical reality (the “representational” or naturalistic authority e.g., of masters over slaves); the other a matter of comic convention (the “metatheatrical” or farcical authority of the clever slave or romantic hero). Syracusan Menaechmus wins with the methods of the farcical hero (he is “better able to act his way out of a difficulty” p. 58), but his type of authority also fits the naturalistic mode of the play’s ending, since his tricks are not part of any conscious plot and their effects are therefore consistent with the notion of deeper principles governing human events (one thinks of Bettini’s description of trickery and recognition as functional equivalents 9).

The latter part of the chapter examines doubling among the lesser characters. McCarthy offers an excellent analysis of the many ways the pairs Peniculus/Messenio and Erotium/Matrona complement one another. With a nod to Segal’s voluptas/industria polarity, for example, she contrasts Erotium’s “erotic” strength with Matrona’s “financial” strength, showing that the women occupy analogous positions on the play’s inside/outside axis as they offer competing interiors to lure Menaechmus. They also fulfill similar plot functions: both are expected to exchange obedience for material goods, both are stolen from, and both abandoned at the end of the play. The claim that Erotium, ironically, makes the better wife for being morigera and poor may stretch the evidence a little. One could hardly describe her superas facile ut superior sis mihi quam quisquam qui impetrant (192) as “language of marital propriety” (p. 63), even if it is flattering, and the notion that she aspires to wifely virtue is a misreading of 203 (“But most important is the exchange at 202-3, where Menaechmus praises her for being accommodating ( morigera), the ultimate wifely virtue, and she replies that she is only doing what decorum bids ( decet)”, p. 63). Erotium’s full reply, hoc animo decet animatos esse amatores probos (203), has nothing to do with marital ideals. But this is a very small slip (McCarthy does not happen to give the Latin here, though citations are frequent throughout the book) in a penetrating and persuasive larger analysis.

The third chapter, on the Casina, explores the implications of Plautus’ “violent restructuring” of this play (he relegates its romantic story to a few perfunctory lines at beginning and end in order to bring its farcical plot to the fore). Without the romantic leads, Casina and Lysidamus’ son, McCarthy argues, the play is not obviously impelled towards the resolution of the romantic plot-line and thus free to adopt what she calls “the nonteleological structure of farce” (p. 78). The only clear structure is at the metatheatrical level, in the “plays” organized by Lysidamus and Cleustrata (Lindsay’s spelling, accepted by McCarthy): his plotting up to the lottery scene (89-423) and her substitution of Chalinus for Casina (424-854). Expanding on Slater’s argument for transferals of traits among the types in this play, McCarthy shows that characters’ functions are much harder to “read” outside of the romantic context (is Olympio the “good slave” in the opening scene or Chalinus?) and much less stable.10 Lysidamus and Cleustrata, for example, toss the role of trickster/rebel back and forth between them. Like Epidamnian Menaechmus, Lysidamus offered the socially dominant members of the audience the fantasy of comic rebellion through one of their own kind. But, as McCarthy’s subtle analysis makes clear, the rebel role is modified for the paterfamilias. Lysidamus uses trickery as someone accustomed to authority, acting through other people (e.g. Olympio) whom he expects to conform to his will (her insistence on the “mystical” nature of this control rather glorifies Lysidamus’ self-absorbed insensitivity), and believing that he can use disguise to change people and things. Paradoxically, Lysidamus fails as a clever slave because he is not powerful enough as a master (here McCarthy makes an illuminating comparison to Jupiter in the Amphitruo). In contrast, Cleustrata plays a more conventional clever slave: like a subordinate, she tricks others by manipulating appearances while pretending obedience. But the play is uncomfortable with pressing the equation between slavery and marriage too far. She is not allowed to seek or receive the slave’s forgiveness at the end of the play. As a wife she may not remain in a role of permanent opposition to the paterfamilias. By asking pardon of her, Lysidamus reclaims the clever slave role for himself, essentially surrendering his “naturalistic” authority as a master, and forcing Cleustrata back into role of blocking character (Fitzgerald makes a similar point in his analysis of this play).11 Thus the Casina plays with permutations of the comic code but restores everything to the status quo at the end.

The oddities of the Persa, subject of the next chapter, have often frustrated attempts at interpretation. McCarthy takes a new approach to this problem play: she reads it as a series of skits alternating between naturalistic and farcical modes. The two coexist in an unusually polemical relation in this play, never really integrated with one another. Their contradictions are embodied in the central character, Toxilus, who—as many have pointed out—implausibly combines the roles of young lover and clever slave. Working from the basic principle that roles in New Comedy are connected to the complex of conventions (including language, plot and theme) that make up each mode, McCarthy is able to show that Toxilus’ unconventional combination sets up a situation that cannot be played out according to comic rules. When the hero is a slave the love plot cannot follow its normal course to reconciliation and reunion of a citizen family. Hence Toxilus’ lover role is quickly dropped when he obtains the money needed to purchase his sweetheart, Lemniselenis, and play becomes a ludificatio of her leno. The naturalistic mode, however, is still represented in Toxilus, as he takes on a new second role, “defender of civic values”. McCarthy reads the duping of Dordalus as a stand against the “deadly civic sins” the Virgo lists at 554-8 and his humiliation as the symbolic punishment of a traditional scapegoat (“not for anything he has done in the course of the play” p. 148-9). I would have liked to see further argument for the claim that the list “implicitly identifies Toxilus, the Virgo, and the others in the deception scheme as defenders of the city, since they are punishing those faults that lead to the city’s weakness” (p. 149). The Virgo’s tenth sin, quod pessumum adgressust, scelus fits Toxilus rather well (he does, after all, describe the whole scheme as sycophantias at 325) and McCarthy’s insistence that this is an “ethically motivated” deception (151) downplays the profit motive (Toxilus’ avowed purpose at 324-6). McCarthy gives greater weight to his adoption of a master-class point of view in Act V, arguing that he exhibits the behavior of a master, i.e. a figure with a stake in supporting civic order, when he treats Lemniselenis as his freedwoman, insists that his birthday be celebrated, and assumes the authority to punish Dordalus.

Because McCarthy sees this play as happening very much in the moment, her comments are tied to specific scenes and it is difficult in a short summary to do justice to them or to her many observant notes on rhetorical devices and language (there are extensive references to Woytek’s 1982 commentary).12 At the end of the chapter, McCarthy offers a fascinating discussion of one of the most intriguing paradoxes of the play, the bizarre union of naturalistic morality with farcical theatrical skill in the parasite’s daughter, a character with an “antipathy to playacting”. As counter-rebels against the play’s official rebels, Toxilus and Saturio, both Paegnium and the Virgo serve to remind us, McCarthy astutely notes, that farce is about rebellion in all steps of the social hierarchy. They also point out what she calls “the limits of farce”, namely the futility of trickery which does not change a real-life social order or materially improve the trickster’s condition. McCarthy takes the Virgo’s much discussed moralizing in scene III.i as sincere, a reflection of “her singularly strict moral standards” (p. 144), though she later admits that she “uses that purity for deceptive ends” (p. 146) and “the real heart of her argument” is concern for her reputation (p. 143). Whether the girl has more ethical objections to the scheme is, I think, unclear. (McCarthy’s mention of her “ethical emphasis on fama” (144 n. 59) and her almost existentialist reading of the girl’s condemnation of pretense (“the Virgo staunchly believes that there is no difference between [appearance and reality], and if she plays a meretrix, she will, in some sense, be a meretrix” p. 143) beg the question: in what sense. In the end, I found it hard to reject Lowe’s argument for a combination of two figures: a modest, reluctant daughter of a sycophantes in the Greek source, overlaid with a Plautine meretrix callida).[[13]

It as an underlying assumption of this book that everything in a Plautine play contributes dramatically and thematically to the whole. In her study of the Persa, McCarthy makes an interesting case for reading Saturio as a kind of anchor, “a stable baseline of farce amid the flux of ethical and stylistic allegiances of this play” (p. 135). In a play that turns all the rules on their head, he recalls the conventional and familiar. She sees the parasite of the Captivi, the famously “inorganic” character Ergasilus, playing a similar but much more important part. In his tenuous, ill-integrated position in the play, McCarthy reads a metatheatrical commentary key to the “dialogic strategy” shaping the Captivi. A symbol of antimoral rebellion, Ergasilus is the voice of farce from the reference point of naturalism (farce itself chooses the clever slave as its emblem). McCarthy presents a novel and thought-provoking argument that this play uses the parasite to discredit the worldview of farce as “naive and inconsequential” (p. 198) by making him subtly “fail” in his own mode (because his success is due to the luck of having good news to bring, rather than to a clever scheme), without managing to fit into the dominant naturalistic mode of the play. Her subtle interpretation forces us to re-evaluate Ergasilus’ final reward, usually considered a parasite’s dream-come-true. Ergasilus fails to realize that what Hegio offers is a demeaning position as a household dependent. Gone is the free worker, successful in his profession (the heroizing view of the parasite in farce); what is left is a poor figure exposed as powerless and ineffectual, a more damning criticism, she perceptively notes, than accusations of mere commercialism or self-interest.

McCarthy’s larger reading of the Captivi advances two arguments: that the play turns farce against itself by using its characters and conventions (e.g., the amoral disguise trick) to unfarcical moral ends; and that it explores, in a non-threatening way, one facet of the “contradiction of slavery”, namely that the good slave is expected to be loyal to his master but is also transferable through sale or capture. The Captivi opposes slaves by nature (the short-sighted, pragmatic Stalagmus and Lorarius) and slaves by condition (the morally motivated Tyndarus) to ask a serious philosophical question: is it possible to maintain fixed moral standards despite changes in social condition? McCarthy shows in detail how Plautus shields his slave-owning audience from facing this question directly. Because Tyndarus is of free birth, they are neither obliged to acknowledge nobility in a “real” slave nor to fear that the slave’s self-respect will make him resent his condition. A slave with no loyalty at all poses a genuine threat to the system of slavery, but Tyndarus presents a lesser problem. As a “servant of two masters”, he is merely disloyal to the more recent master. The play’s rich dramatic irony, McCarthy acutely notes, also works to create sympathy for him: focusing on his departure from type (his noble motives), and the role of ignorance ( agnoia) in his relation with Hegio distracts us from the trickery and deception.

In form, McCarthy sees this play as layered, with three distinct plot types sustained all the way through: a romantic plot in which the clever slave [Tyndarus] tricks the father [Hegio] in order to free the “girl” [Philocrates]); a comedy of humors about discomfiting a misanthrope [Hegio] and freeing a “beloved” [Tyndarus] from him; and a trickster comedy, about duping a leno [Hegio] to win a ” pseudo-meretrix” [Tyndarus]. This framework generates a very fine treatment of the play’s nuanced depiction of Hegio and his complex relation to each role. For example, McCarthy shows how his unusual ability to empathize makes him an atypical blocking character and allows Plautus to avoid the “stark alignment of sympathy” (p. 176) a simple type would entail, thus creating a more complex moral problem. It is not, however, clear why Hegio’s misanthropy should be singled out as a separate blocking role, distinct from that of leno, especially since she breaks down Philocrates’ and Tyndarus’ roles into opposing pairs (she notes that Philocrates “oscillates” between rebellious son and lover (p. 178) and Tyndarus is “slave and freeborn, both the male rescuer and the female rescued, both subject and object” p. 179). These line up with the larger farce/naturalism polarity of the book but do not obviously admit a third term, and it is a little difficult to follow all of the “layers” through to the end of the play.

The short concluding chapter sketches out a comparison, hinted at earlier, between Roman comedy and American blackface minstrel shows. Citing E. Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford 1995), McCarthy argues that both forms shored up insecurities of the master class by depriving slaves of any truly threatening traits, and both offered fantasies of release through the figure of the childlike, carefree slave. A powerful antidote to viewing Plautus as a “subversive” author who empowered the disenfranchised (she rightly criticizes “giving way to a romantic impulse to see subversion where none existed,” p. 6), this tantalizingly brief comparison of two forms rich in parallels shows vividly how fictional slaves are constructed to serve the needs and interests of the master class in different cultures. Little has been written on this topic (though see now Fitzgerald),14 and I was left hoping that the author might pursue it further in future publications.

Throughout the book McCarthy demonstrates a highly developed sense of the logic of Plautine plays and a great sensitivity to subtle variations and permutations within them. She applies her method of reading Plautus “horizontally”—interpreting the specific line, motif or scene in terms of the corpus—expertly and creatively, showing how familiar traits reappear in unfamiliar places. McCarthy takes a refreshingly non-judgmental approach to Plautus. She accepts the plays’ stageworthiness as a given and works to show how everything in them—farce, naturalism, even elements sometimes dismissed as inorganic or inconsistent—makes a positive contribution to the whole. The book shows a great underlying respect and appreciation for Plautus’ artistic achievements, without denying or minimizing many uncomfortable facts about Plautine slavery. I found her argument that the “subversiveness” of Plautine slavery is illusory utterly convincing. Individual chapters stand alone as important contributions to the study of each play and the book as a whole repays the effort sometimes required to decode its abstract language. Research is selective, as she has chosen to engage with fewer, major secondary works in greater detail. A few works one might expect are not cited, e.g., A. Scafuro, on p. 57 n. 44 (concerning forensic thinking and comedy), whose massive and detailed study seems to me more pertinent on this point than Frye, who was writing about Shakespeare 15; G. Vogt-Spira , on p. 125 n. 5 (on tyche in Menander) 16. A. S. Gratwick’s Menaechmi (Cambridge 1993) is a surprising absence. Although McCarthy’s arguments do not hinge on the philological, metrical, textual points on which Gratwick is so illuminating, he does support some of her arguments, e.g., the idea that Epidamnian Menaechmus “pays” his wife. On p. 148 n. 120-2 he notes that this list is typical of Greek marriage contracts from Egypt, and probably of Roman, as well. There are a few typos (p. 91 has a small cluster), but the book as a whole is well proof-read.


1. E. Segal, Roman Laughter, Harvard 1968.

2. D. Wiles posed similar questions in a survey of Segal’s influence (“Taking farce seriously: recent critical approaches to Plautus,” in James Redmond (ed.), Themes in Drama, vol. 10 (Farce), Cambridge 1988, 264).

3. A good brief overview of this problem may be found in W. Fitzgerald, Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination, Cambridge 2000, 6-8.

4. D. Wiles, “Greek Theatre and the Legitimation of Slavery” in Léonie J. Archer (ed.) Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour, Routledge 1988, 66.

5. V. Hunter, who makes comparable observations about slaves’ views reflecting the ideology of their masters in Greek New Comedy, notes that women often had a special relationship with slaves since both spent their days indoors, engaged in similar work ( Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420-320 B.C., Princeton 1994, 85-7).

6. G. Chiarini, La recita. Plauto, la farsa, la festa, Bologna 1983.

7. G. Petrone, Morale e antimorale nelle commedie di Plauto, Palermo 1977.

8. C. Damon, The Mask of the Parasite: A Pathology of Roman Patronage, Michigan 1997, 64.

9. M. Bettini, Verso un antropologia dell’ intreccio e altri studi su Plauto. Quattro Venti 1991, 29.

10. N. Slater, Plautus in Performance: the Theatre of the Mind, 2nd ed., Harwood 2000, 62 n.15.

11. W. Fitzgerald, op. cit. n.3, 85-6. Fitzgerald covers some of the same material as M. The two studies complement one another (and show mutual influence: M. is thanked in Fitzgerald’s preface and each footnotes the other throughout).

12. E. Woytek, T. Maccius Plautus Persa: Einleitung, Text und Kommentar, Vienna 1982.

13. J. C. B. Lowe, “The Virgo Callida of Plautus, Persa,” CQ 39.ii (1989), 390-399.

14. Fitzgerald, op. cit. n.3, 37-42.

15. A. Scafuro, The Forensic Stage: Settling Disputes in Greco-Roman New Comedy, Cambridge 1997.

16. G. Vogt-Spira, Dramaturgie des Zufalls: Tyche und Handeln in der Komödie des Menanders. Zetemata 88, Munich 1992.