BMCR 2002.09.17

Plautus: Amphitruo

Titus Maccius Plautus, David M. (David Michael) Christenson, Amphitruo. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. x, 339 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 0521454018 $25.00.

David Christenson (C.) has produced an excellent edition that deals effectively with the specifics of the text while providing a comprehensive introduction to the various elements of Plautine comedy. He offers a wealth of information on Plautus’ diction, orthography, grammar, and metrics but also directs attention to matters of plot, staging, theme, dramatic structure, and characterization. C. falls down somewhat in accounting for the peculiar nature of Amph. itself, a play that poses a number of as yet unresolved interpretative difficulties, but he presents a fertile resource for anyone interested in grappling with those difficulties for themselves.

The 80-page introduction offers useful accounts of such obligatory matters as Plautus’ life and times, the origin and nature of Roman comedy, music and meter, and the transmission of the text, as well as a 43-page essay on the nature and significance of Amph. The treatment of Plautus’ life and career is exemplary for its brevity and raises the interesting possibility (p. 2) of identification between Plautus the ex-slave/actor and the cunning, self-assertive slaves in which his comedies abound. C.’s treatment of the antecedents of Plautine comedy is also quite good, although the section on Greek comedy is likely to befuddle students unfamiliar with the material beforehand. In general, C. deals with these broad topics authoritatively and in a quite brief scope yet incorporates a sufficient number of specific bibliographic references and illustrations from the texts to allow readers to examine matters further for themselves. The one regrettable omission: a fuller account of why fourth-century Greek comedy appealed to the Romans, with consideration of the rôle of theater in Roman society, Roman social structures and attitudes, the ideological implications inherent in the plots of Roman New Comedy, and the like (compare, however, pp. 33-34).

Of the matters addressed in this historical introduction, only one is particularly problematic: the question of the play’s date (pp. 3-4). While Amph. may be said to have the feel of a mature play and shares qualities with other works that may also be relatively late in date, C. might have emphasized more strongly just how tenuous are the grounds for a dating ca. 190-185 B.C. As C. notes, none of the specific historical allusions detected in the play has won general acceptance — with one curious exception, which C. himself appears to endorse. The reference to Alcumena as a Baccha at line 703 is still routinely cited in association with the senatus consultum of 186 B.C., despite the fact that (unlike Cas. 979-80) the passage offers nothing beyond generic mock-tragic by-play of the sort that could date to any point in the playwright’s career.1 As for the play’s dramaturgic and thematic features, the similarities to Cas. and Rud. to which C. points need suggest little more than that these works employ similar Greek exemplars (more on the latter below). The assertion that Rud. 86 attests to a recent production of Euripides’ Alkmene (cf. p. 48 n. 152) assumes that Plautus’ audience lacked the literary finesse to appreciate such an allusion on its own, but — like most references to Shakespeare in modern comedy — the joke requires only that the spectators have a general sense of who Euripides is and, in this particular instance, make the easy assumption that his plays could be rather bombastic.2 Finally, Amph. 89-92 seem both unduly obscure if taken as a reference to a production of this Euripidean work and rather flat (a telling point, when it comes to Plautus): given that the context emphasizes theatrical production (facere histrioniam) and the aid Jupiter recently bestowed upon actors who called for his aid (histriones … Iovem invocarunt), it is tempting to see some type of stage joke in the lines. (Had, for example, a disastrous production in the previous year been rained out at an opportune moment? Or might the passage offer yet another instance of the prologue’s humorous blurring of the distinction between “Jupiter” and the actor cast in that rôle?)3

C.’s introduction to music, meter, and scansion (pp. 56-71) is also exemplary and should be recommended to any student undertaking the study of Roman New Comedy. Most will find it heavy going on a first reading (the account is not altogether designed for raw beginners), but its combination of clarity, utility, and conciseness is superb. The survey of later adaptations of the play (pp. 71-75) is somewhat weaker: it directs the reader to a variety of later versions but is, of necessity, rather limited in its assessment of these works and the perspective they might bring to Plautus’ play.4

The concluding section on the transmission of the text (pp. 75-76) offers only a brief overview of the history of the Plautine corpus in antiquity and the principal mss. For the most part C.’s text follows that of Leo or Lindsay: as C. himself notes, entirely new readings are proposed only at line 237 and fr. 5. On orthographic matters, however, C. follows “the general consensus of the MSS, even when this presents seemingly irrational readings, such as assimilated and unassimilated forms in close proximity,” on the grounds that “[o]rthography was in a highly fluid state in Plautus’ day, and it is not unlikely that he is responsible for some of these contradictions himself” (p. 76). This approach seems rather arbitrary, and the resulting inconsistencies are jarring; it also somewhat lessens the value of the text for students interested in mastering the archaic forms. Such students will also miss the consistent indications, e.g., of hiatus and elided final -s that are found in many modern editions: C.’s notes offer the necessary help, but the beginner attempting to practice the scansion of Plautine verse will find the procedure more cumbersome.

Also lacking is an apparatus criticus: instead, C. offers a table comparing the different readings in C., Leo, and Lindsay (pp. 77-80).5 This procedure will potentially limit the edition’s value as a teaching text. Many undergraduates may never seriously employ a critical apparatus, but it provides a constant reminder of the history behind the text and the often uncertain nature of particular readings. On the other hand, the printed text is virtually free of error (I found only one slip: hic for hinc at line 357), while the inclusion of stage directions (in English) is quite useful.

C.’s principal contribution, however, is to be found in the lengthy introductory essay on the play (pp. 13-55) and the commentary proper. C. offers a very modern Plautus, with a heavy emphasis on metatheatricality, farce, and improvisation. He also pays serious attention to the play’s thematic elements — as, e.g., in the discussion of Amph. as a doubles-comedy and its play with the theme of gemination (pp. 14-17), the many allusions to magic, witchcraft, and marvels (pp. 29-31) and associated references to insanity, dreams, drunkenness, and jest (p. 31), the pervasive use of irony (pp. 32-33), and financial imagery (pp. 39-40). But it is the farcical, metatheatrical nature of Plautus’ oeuvre that is very much front and center here, a style that is fostered by the form and size of contemporary Roman theatrical venues (p. 21), the simplified system of masks and costumes employed on the Plautine stage (p. 21), and the influence of native Italian dramatic traditions (p. 22). C. offers an effective account of Plautus’ “non-illusory theater,” particularly the “dynamic complex of shifting relationships between the actors themselves, the actors and the audience, and the actor and his role” (p. 22) that drives these plays, illustrated nicely by an analysis of the role of Mercury (pp. 24-27). As a general introduction to the Plautine stage, all of this works quite well, but there are difficulties in C.’s application of this model to Amph. Although C. affirms that critics have overemphasized the unique nature of Amph. within the Plautine corpus (p. 36), his own reading tends too far in the opposite direction, presenting the play not as a tragicomedy but a sex farce (p. 38) wherein the carnal (pp. 40-44) and grotesquely pregnant (pp. 38-39) Alcumena is as much a figure of fun as the male characters.6 This reading is supported by C.’s account of the play’s background and sources (pp. 45-55), which, while it strives for an even-handed exposition of various theories of the play’s genesis, shows a general bias in favor of those studies that deny a fourth-century comic exemplar for Plautus’ play.7 In the end, C.’s Amph. is unadulterated Plautus: read “farce.”

While this approach has the virtue of consistency — of allowing Plautus to be Plautus, as it were — it leaves certain questions unresolved. Some of these questions are, admittedly, beyond our ability to answer: why it is, for example, that Plautus, breaking away from his usual practice of building on a Greek exemplar, should elect to compose a type of comedy that was common in early fourth-century Athens,8 and on a particular theme that we know was dealt with in earlier comedy.9 No less subjective, but perhaps more problematic: why would Plautus cast his mythological burlesque in a form that devoted so much energy to mocking the dramatic conventions of the late fifth-century Athenian tragic stage — or, rather, to the humorous incorporation of such conventions, since there is relatively little overt comedy in, e.g., Sosia’s lengthy messenger speech (lines 186-247) or Bromia’s rôle as exangelos ?10 As we have seen, C. assumes that Plautus’ audience would require a recent Latin production of Euripides’ Alkmene in order to appreciate the joke at Rud. 86: what particular delight might such an audience find in the incorporation of a Euripidean “palace miracle”- cum-deus ex machina at the play’s conclusion (an effect purchased at the price of a good deal of chronological confusion, as C.’s account of the mythological background of the play indicates)?11 Why, in short, this sudden interest in Athenian tragedy — whether in Latin translation or otherwise — and in a form that provides relatively little scope for the sort of broad humor evident, e.g., in Chrysalus’ send-up of the Trojan War myth at Bacch. 925-78 or the pseudo-tragic mad-scene at Men. 828-71? More particularly, the case that Plautus is specifically mocking Roman adaptations of Athenian tragedy has yet to be made.

Such issues do not admit of resolution, but they should be incorporated more directly into C.’s interpretative essay rather than relegated to a discussion of the play’s sources. In the end, it appears that the tragic component of Plautus’ tragicomedy simply does not accord with C.’s view of Plautine theater. (E.g., one senses that a priori the presentation Alcumena cannot have serious overtones since, as we read on p. 27, all of Plautus’ plays are marked by a general indifference to matters of characterization and psychological realism.) As a result, C. does an excellent job of presenting the farcical, metatheatrical elements of Amph., but the failure to give due consideration to the play’s incorporation of tragic features yields a one-sided reading.12 The portrait of Alcumena as a sensualist- cum -maudlin shrew- cum-meretrix seems particularly slanted and inadequate.13

Such biases in C.’s general interpretation should not, however, be taken to detract from the commentary itself, which is quite good. C. achieves the difficult feat of providing information required by beginning readers of Plautus while also leading readers at all levels to think their way more precisely into the text. He offers a wealth of material, which is presented in an easily digestible form and in such a way that the reader can readily distinguish discussions of grammatical, metrical, and thematic matters and focus his/her attention on whatever might be of interest. Students who are trying simply to understand how Plautus’ Latin fits together will generally discover that C. directs their attention to the relevant issues, presents a clear and precise answer to their questions, and points to the appropriate modern resources. Read with care, his comments also provide an excellent introduction to Plautine language and metrics. On the other hand, his discussions of thematic matters consistently uncover interesting nuances in the text. A good example is provided by the commentary on lines 499-550 passim, which (despite its rather one-sided treatment of Alcumena’s character) does an excellent job of teasing out various humorous ironies and double entendres. A generous number of relevant cross-references passim points to interesting thematic and structural connections.

Comparison with Sedgwick’s commentary (Manchester, 1960) reveals the strengths of C.’s work, as well as something of the change in the nature of scholarly “school editions” over the past couple of generations. Sedgwick writes with an admirable brevity and authority; he also assumes an audience that has access to Greek and can, as a result, address issues that C. forgoes. His explication of particular passages is at times more helpful and/or precise than that of C. (who often relies on his English translation of a passage to provide the necessary clues).14 But Sedgwick does not attend to the needs of beginning readers as does C. and offers few insights into the text’s literary qualities.

Finally, C. offers an excellent bibliography and index. The introduction and commentary display the occasional minor slip15 (inevitable in so lengthy and complex a manuscript), but on the whole the text has been very nicely produced.

Although C.’s reading of Amph. is less than successful in accounting for all of its features, this edition offers a valuable and immensely interesting contribution to the teaching and study of Plautus. Anyone contemplating a senior undergraduate class in Plautus should consider building the course around this text: the students will find an excellent introduction to Plautus’ language and meter, a provocative account of Plautine dramaturgy, and consistently useful and interesting insights into the nuances of the text.


1. See Z. Stewart, “The Amphitruo of Plautus and Euripides’ Bacchae,” TAPA 89 (1958) 348-73, at 354 n. 20.

2. Cf. R. Harriott, “Aristophanes’ Audience and the Plays of Euripides,” BICS 9 (1962) 1-8. To judge from the evidence of fourth-century South Italian and Sicilian pottery, the Alkmene was a popular play in Diphilus’ time (on the much-debated matter of the vases, see F. Jouan and H. van Looy, Euripide, tome VIII: Fragments, 1 re partie [Paris, 1998] 121-29 [not evidently available to C.]). In his discussion of play and playwright references in fourth-century comedy, Niall Slater (LCM 10 [1985] 103-05) notes that, “5th century tragedy is now Literature rather than contemporary theatrical experience (despite any 4th century revivals of plays), a model of good writing and a source of maxims for living rather than a target for criticism,” but the references to Euripides in Diphilus’ preserved fragments (60 and 74 K.-A.) do not seem particularly reverential. Rud. 86 makes good sense, then, in the context of Diphilus’ original, while it is virtually without parallel in the works of Plautus. (On Poen. 1-2, see H.D. Jocelyn, “Imperator Histricus,” YCS 21 [1969] 97-123; contra N.W. Slater, “Plautine Negotiations: The Poenulus Prologue Unpacked,” YCS 29 [1992] 131-46.) It is easier to imagine Plautus retaining the joke as a throwaway line than to posit a happy coincidence that permitted him to keep it because of a recent (unattested) Latin production. One has to wonder, in any case, whether a contemporary playwright would have referred to a production by, e.g., Ennius as Alcumena Euripidi, tout court (contra H.D. Jocelyn, The Tragedies of Ennius [Cambridge, 1967] 4-7 and 161).

3. See now L. Radif, “Giove istrione: il ‘deus in machina’ di Plaut. Amph. 89-93,” Maia 53 (2001) 359-74.

4. Other useful sources that can be recommended for students: C.E. Passage and J.H. Mantinband, trs., Amphitryon: Three Plays in New Verse Translations (Chapel Hill, 1973); C. Guittard, ed., tr. and comm., Plaute: Amphtryon (Paris, 1998).

5. The most significant items: lines 56, 170, 237, 264, 301, 401, 422 [listed as 423], 439, 481-82, 524, 572, 638, 670, 777, 785, 838, 884, 952, 968, 985, and frs. 5, 12, and 17. [Add: 866 and 1017.]

6. Cf. D. Christenson, “Grotesque Realism in Plautus’ Amphitruo,” CJ 96 (2001) 243-60 and, earlier, E. Segal, “Perché Amphitruo,” Dioniso 46 (1975) 247-67 (English translation in Roman Laughter [second edition: Oxford, 1987] 171-91 and 230-34); L. Perelli, “L’Alcmena plautina: personaggio serio o parodico?” CCC 4 (1983) 383-94; J.E. Phillips, “Alcumena in the Amphitruo of Plautus. A Pregnant Lady Joke,” CJ 80 (1985) 121-26.

7. Thus, e.g., C. declines to consider the question of act/scene divisions (p. 14 n. 44). This decision finds some justification in the subjective nature of this type of discussion and the over-reliance on such matters in past attempts to reconstitute the Greek originals of Plautus’ works; on the other hand, it does foreclose certain lines of investigation, particularly when one of the grounds for avoiding such issues is the need to guard against importing “a false sense of dramatic structure and unity” to our understanding of the play (a position that is all the more odd given C.’s excellent account of the play’s quite carefully crafted structure on pp. 13-15). See, however, comments such as that ad lines 586-632.

8. See, e.g., H.-G. Nesselrath, “Parody and Later Greek Comedy,” HSCP 95 (1993) 181-95, and “Myth, Parody, and Comic Plots: The Birth of Gods and Middle Comedy,” in G.W. Dobrov, ed., Beyond Aristophanes: Transition and Diversity in Greek Comedy (Atlanta, 1995) 1-27.

9. See R.M. Rosen, “Plato Comicus and the Evolution of Greek Comedy,” in G.W. Dobrov, ed., Beyond Aristophanes: Transition and Diversity in Greek Comedy (Atlanta, 1995) 119-37, at 124 on Plato’s Nyx Makra. The much-cited vase, Vatican U19, inv. 17106 (350-325 B.C.: cf. London F150), may derive from a comic send-up of the Amphitruo myth, but one that entailed more overt exploitation of Zeus’ status as a comic adulterer. (Cf. the similar transformation posited at Antiphanes 74 K.-A.: H.-G. Nesselrath, Die attische Mittlere Komödie: ihre Stellung in der antiken Literaturkritik und Literaturgeschichte [Berlin, 1990] 209-10.)

10. Cf. recently J. Dangel, “Traduire Plaute: à propos d’Amphitryon,” REL 76 (1998) 93-115; J.C. Dumont, “Amphitryon et le genre comique,” REL 76 (1998) 116-25, and “Plaute lecteur d’Euripide,” in M. Trédé and P. Hoffmann, eds., Le rire des anciens (Paris, 1998) 113-22; E. Flores, “Il comico (Pseudolus) e il tragicomico (Amphitruo) in Plauto,” Lexis 16 (1998) 139-47; G. Manuwald, “Tragödienelemente in Plautus’ Amphitruo — Zeichen von Tragödienparodie oder Tragikkomödie,” in T. Baier, ed., Studien zu Plautus’ Amphitruo (Tübingen, 1999) 177-202.

11. Such comic confusion also has fourth-century Greek precedent: see, e.g., Nesselrath (above, n. 8) 23-25 on CGFP 215.

12. The argument that Amph. is a tragicomedy only in the sense that it offers a humorous view of individuals whose mythological pedigrees and lofty stature would normally associate them with the tragic stage (e.g., Perelli, above n. 6, 384) fails to account for the play’s incorporation of specific tragic models and conventions. In general, a more critical examination of the grounds for the current trend to deny the existence of a fourth-century exemplar would be helpful. (See most recently Z. Stewart, “Plautus’ Amphitruo: Three Problems,” HSCP 100 [2000] 292-99 on the alleged confusions in the play’s geography.)

13. E.g., ad lines 499-550, 512, 513-14, 529, 532, 536-37, 542, 633-53, 633-34, 638, 648-53, 653, etc.

14. E.g., ad lines 558, 572, 590.

15. E.g., p. 25 (the use of “confidences” is unfortunate) and ad Arg. I (which is 10 lines in length), line 17 (on nunc), line 562 (“confuted”: “confused” or “confounded” better?), line 576 (decies for deciens), lines 551-632 (reference to 558), line 615 (reference to 787).