BMCR 2004.04.23

Studien zu Plautus’ Persa. ScriptOralia 121

, Studien zu Plautus' Persa. ScriptOralia ; 121. Reihe A, Altertumswissenschaftliche Reihe, Bd. 31. Tübingen: Narr, 2001. 315 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 3823354310 €59.00.

[This review should have appeared much earlier. I alone am to blame for its delay, and I offer my apologies to the BMCR readers and editors.]

The volume under review here is another book of the ScriptOralia series devoted to the comoedia palliata of Plautus, this time focusing on the Persa. In the introduction, the editor states that “Der vorliegende Band möchte zeigen, dass, selbst wenn die Aufnahme des Stücks nicht immer eine günstige war, aus heutiger Sicht eine genauere Bestandsaufnahme durchaus lohnend sein kann — einerseits scheint der Persa seiner Zeit ein gutes Stück vorausgewesen zu sein, woraus sich Aspekte ergeben, die sich in anderen plautinischen Komödien so nicht finden, während andererseits auch Muster und Strukturen erkennbar sind, die den Persa als typisches Plautus-Stück ausweisen”. The contributions to this volume have been written independently from each other, so that there are some inconsistencies, if you look at the volume as a whole, but the editor is well aware of this fact. There is, however, an explicit common goal of all contributors: to show, following different ways, what makes the Persa Plautine, and to demonstrate in which ways oral traditions have been adapted in this play.

The first article in this book is, as in previous volumes of the Freiburg school, an authoritative contribution by Eckard Lefèvre. With some 80 pages, it exceeds the length of the other articles by far, and it might well have been a monograph on its own. It is divided into six sections, followed by an exhaustive bibliography: introduction, research report (with special emphasis given to the analysis and the date of the play), analysis, sections on structure and conception of the world, and a very short passage on the reception of the play. Although according to the title Lefèvre wants to show the Persa as a play between the Greek νέα and the Italic improvisatory drama, there is almost nothing that Lefèvre leaves as Greek in this play. The atmosphere is described as Saturnalian, the intrigues of the play are characterized as Plautine with roots in improvisatory drama. Lefèvre uses his established register — keywords are ‘dramatic discontinuity’, ‘uerbiuelitationes’, ‘lack of morality’ etc. — to prove this play Italic rather than Greek (if there was a Greek model at all). Even the typical rôles of Greek New Comedy in the Persa are given to inadequate characters (viz. to slaves instead of free people), as a result of the typical Italic nature, the Saturnalian nature, of the play.

One could find many aspects to disagree with and also many aspects which are inspiring or at least worth thinking about. I should like to concentrate on two disagreements, one minor and one probably more important: (i) On p. 84-87 Lefèvre presents the pimp in the play as a symbol of power. Of course, one must admit he is one of the very few free men within this play. Nevertheless he cannot honestly be a symbol of power — neither in reality nor in a Roman comedy. He is a typical opponent, and he is a typical loser in Roman comedy. It is absolutely common that the pimp is humiliated and ridiculed, even by slaves. A pimp cannot be a symbol of power by the definition of his rôle. (ii) It is understood by Lefèvre and the other authors of this volume that the Persa is a Saturnalian play, or at least, a play with certain Saturnalian elements. One should ask though, if the character of the play really has something in common with the spirit of the Saturnalia. I personally do not find this convincing.

Little in fact is known about this type of holiday at Rome. Macrobius reports (Macr. Sat. 1, 7, 27) that during the Saturnalia there used to be no social difference between free men and slaves, and this was some kind of echo of earlier times, when no slavery existed. Whether there was really a tota seruis licentia, as Macrobius says, can hardly be judged from other ancient sources that tell us about slaves dining together with or even before their masters. Other texts tell us only about feriae seruorum, for example. But given that it was really part of the Saturnalia that the slaves at these days may have acted fully equally or even superior to their owners, this is not what can be seen in the Persa. There is no master eluded by his slave, no slave equal or superior to an honest free man (which should be the essence of the Saturnalia). There are only three figures in this play who should be free persons: Saturio, the parasite (who is, ironically, obedient to a slave!), his daughter (the so-called uirgo), and Dordalus, the pimp. Saturio acts, for alimentary reasons, on the same side as the slaves Toxilus and Sagaristio; he supports them, and so does his daughter. Dordalus, however, though he is a free man, represents the most inferior social level — pimps are subject to intrigues in almost any play of ancient comedy where they are present, no matter if these plays are believed to have a Saturnalian character or not. And it does not become clear from the play, that the slaves are making use of the special licence of a holiday for what they are doing.

From this point of view, the Persa seems to be no Saturnalian play at all. Vice versa, one could argue, that almost any Latin comedy is a kind of Saturnalian play, since there are almost everywhere slaves who act as if equal (or even superior) to their masters. What remains, however, is the feeling that the play has a special kind of character, different from that of other plays. This feeling is a consequence of the almost complete absence of authorities over the slaves: There is neither a father, nor a son, whom they otherwise would have to serve. (At the Saturnalia they would have been present to be ridiculed by their slaves.) Furthermore, one slave even happens to be an iuuenilis amator himself, a rôle usually reserved for the young master. Under these circumstances the slaves are acting for their own interests and without the usual danger of being punished for their behavior.

Ulrike Auhagen, in the second chapter of this book, deals with the ‘paradoxical’ pair of lovers in this play, the slave Toxilus and Lemniselenis, a hetaera owned by the pimp Dordalus. Auhagen at the beginning points out that with Toxilus the usually separated rôles of the iuuenilis amator (sc. a free-born young master) and the seruus callidus are combined. Hence Auhagen claims that the play is a comedy about a comedy, featuring large sections of meta-theatre, which she regards as essential and typical for improvisational drama (which does not really seem plausible to me). After these preliminaries, Auhagen looks more closely at three types of scenes: (i) scenes with Toxilus before Lemniselenis is bought (I 1. 3),1 (ii) scenes where Lemniselenis is mentioned by others than Toxilus (II 1. 2), and (iii) scenes with both Toxilus and Lemniselens (V 1. 2). She draws special attention to the fact that the relationship between Toxilus and Lemniselenis is drawn as real love on both sides; further she notices that (a) Toxilus appears to play quite a dominant master rather than being the slave he actually is, and (b) Lemniselenis seems to represent the type of ‘good’ hetaera. Scene V 1 shows, according to Auhagen, what might have been a happy ending to the play, but yet it is followed by scene V 2. There the dominant trait of Toxilus reappears, when he suddenly acts as a patronus of Lemniselenis, urging her to join him in ridiculing Dordalus. Finally, Auhagen tries to explain what a Greek model of this play may have looked like, since she has no doubts that it could not have been like the Plautine version and accepts Lefèvre’s views on structural incongruities. Auhagen thinks that Plautus shifted the rôle of Toxilus from a free young master (in the model) to a slave, to create his Saturnalian ‘comedy about a comedy’. How the figure of Lemniselenis appeared in the model, she is less sure, offering two different solutions: either Lemniselenis was a (good?) hetaera there as well, or after an anagnorisis she turned out to be originally a free girl. Auhagen finds it impossible that after the happy ending of a scene like V 1 in the original there could have been a scene like V 2 where the pimp is ridiculed. (But one should mention the comic reversal of Menander’s Dyskolos !) This, like many other features of the play, is regarded as modification and/or invention by Plautus, promoting comical effects as ‘known’ from Italic improvisational drama.

Rolf Hartkamp’s paper is devoted to the placement of the pimp Dordalus between ritual and reality. Since the play ends with the notion mei spectatores, bene ualete. leno periit (Pers. 858), Hartkamp is convinced that the destruction of Dordalus is one of the main aims of the entire play. Therefore he regards it as fanciful to look at the stage action of the pimp more closely. In his conclusion, after an exhaustive investigation of the relevant scenes, Hartkamp states that Dordalus is on the one hand drawn as a clever businessman but on the other hand appears to be really stubborn. Hartkamp shows how Dordalus in a really grotesque way is ‘ritually’ ridiculed by Toxilus, although the ritual fun aims at a ‘real’ personage who does not show too many ritual traits. Additionally, Dordalus turns out to be stingy and extremely avid for money, but he lacks other negative characteristics (for example he refrains from perjury etc.). Hartkamp believes that all scenes where Dordalus acts rather stupid are either Plautine inventions, or at least extended by Plautus in that direction. He is even ready to ask if one can imagine a Greek model for the second half of the Persa at all. One can, and I personally think that he provides no sound evidence for his conclusions, but there is another criticism I should like to make. The title of his paper is misleading. What Hartkamp means by ‘reality’ is the ‘reality’ of Dordalus’ character as opposed to the standard type. But it would also have been of interest (especially since Hartkamp accepts Lefèvre’s view of the Persa as a Saturnalian play) what the ‘reality’ of a pimp in Plautine times in Rome really was (if there is any evidence at all).

Barbara Sherberg has written before on the relationship between fathers and sons in the comoedia palliata. When dealing with the Persa, however, she focuses on the relationship between a father and his daughter, i. e. the parasite Saturio and his daughter (who is simply called uirgo). Saturio is asked by the slave Toxilus to take part in an intrigue against the pimp Dordalus. Toxilus urges him to sell his daughter to the pimp, pretending that she is a barbarian (to get Dordalus’ money), and then to get her back by claiming that she is a free girl (without returning the money, of course). As a starting point, Sherberg states, as have others before, that this pair of characters and the action shown by them are quite unique in Roman (and Greek) comedy. The parasite himself is rather old, and it is not attested elsewhere that a free young girl actively takes part in an intrigue. Sherberg also notes that the characterization of these personages is inconsistent within the play since Saturio is a parasite and a father on the one hand (though his immense hunger makes him a parasite rather than a father), but a sycophant on the other. Also, the uirgo first seems unwilling to follow her father’s orders, but then turns out to play her rôle in the intrigue almost perfectly and is very experienced. Sherberg is especially interested in scene III 1, where Plautus shows the audience the argument between these two characters, in which the uirgo seems to refuse what she is ordered to do by her father (although her dressing is already prepared for the intrigue), as this is their most intense confrontation. Sherberg accepts the view that this scene was created to entertain the audience with an enjoyable and funny argument, but she also wants to show that it is not just an argument for argument’s sake. Rather it should be taken as a typical Plautine clash of generations, too. Sherberg makes clear that the uirgo intellectually is far superior to her father and is the winner of the argument, although she finally does what her father wants her to do. Consequently, this scene should have been created by Plautus ( that it was created by Plautus is beyond doubt for Sherberg) to humiliate the father coram publico. Plautus, she argues, does so even more since this father — unlike other fathers in Greek and Latin comedy — is not only inferior to his son, but — even worse — to his daughter, not only at the end of the play, but already in its middle.

Gesine Manuwald takes a fresh look at the nameless uirgo, applying modern drama theory, especially that of Manfred Pfister. Since there has been some debate about the outline of the uirgo‘s character (a modest and noble girl or a clever young woman, or even a less clearly definable mixture of types), Manuwald adopts Pfister’s conception of a dramatic ‘figure’, i. e. an intentional construction of an author with special respect paid to dramatic circumstances and other figures of the play (as opposed to what Pfister calls a character in ‘real life’). After a thorough analysis of the scenes in which the uirgo appears, Manuwald comes to the conclusion, that the ‘figure’ of the uirgo is consistently depicted as a good young girl, though she must (even against her explicit wishes) follow what certain male figures want her to do. The detailed conception of the uirgo is ascribed by Manuwald to Plautus rather than to a Greek author.

Stefan Faller’s very readable contribution is dealing with Persian elements in the Persa. After some brief remarks on stereotypes in general, he first discusses the title (which clearly aims at a male, as Faller points out, not at a female, as some earlier scholars supposed), then the sources of Roman knowledge about the Persians (since there was no real contact between Romans and Persians until then). Since Faller accepts the view of Lefèvre, that the Persa generally does not rely on a Greek model, he has to look for the sources of Roman knowledge about the Persians. He supposes that the main sources of Roman knowledge (or stereotypes, rather) were Aeschylus’ Persae, Herodotus, and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, Anabasis, and Hellenica (of course he cannot really provide any supporting evidence for his view, though this must not at all mean that his view is unlikely). Only with reference to this background, in Faller’s opinion, Plautus should have been able to introduce a Persian on the Roman stage (whether taking it from a Greek model or not) in the same way that he presents a Carthaginian (in the Poenulus) or a sycophant (in the Trinummus). The sources collected by Faller provide a plenty of stereotypes about the Persians, e. g. their almost mythical wealth, their clothing, their polygamy, their boasting and arrogant character, or even their use of meaningful names. These stereotypes, Faller thinks, must have been adopted by the Romans through the Greek sources mentioned above. When looking at Plautus’ Persa, Faller convincingly finds two different kinds of stereotypes: (i) stereotypes concerning Persian clothing, character, and behavior, and (ii) stereotypes concerning their onomastic habit. As a further step, Faller asks, if the Pseudartabas of Aristophanes’ Acharnians could have served as a model as well for the Plautine Persa (i. e. Vaniloquidorus a. k. a. Sagaristio). After a detailed comparison he concludes however, that — despite certain similarities — Plautus did not use Aristophanes directly, but only relies on the same commonly known stereotypes of the oral tradition as Aristophanes did before.

Next, there is quite a long contribution by Lore Benz on mimica conuiuia, i. e. dining and feasting on stage.2 The aim of this paper is to show that the banquet of the slaves in the fifth act of the Persa has its roots chiefly in the burlesque mime and similar traditions. Benz also looks at the dancing staged within the Persa and at possible models for it. What we have then, is quite typical for at least part of the Freiburg school: Benz collects very carefully all evidence that hints at mime and similar forms as models for Plautus’ plot. (Therefore one must readily welcome this contribution.) But her evidence comes entirely from Plautus himself, supported by earlier Freiburg-centered research on the comoedia palliata. This is not convincing to me, but it follows a certain logic, and those who are ready to believe in the premises, will also accept Benz’s conclusions, i. e. that Plautus with the banquet looks (once more) to folklore and the mime rather than to Greek literary models.

One of the most inspiring parts of the book, in my opinion, is a concise article on music in Persa by Timothy Moore, who published an article on music and structure in Roman comedy some years ago. After some short, but nevertheless important, remarks on the use of music in ancient drama in general, Moore argues that the major contributions of music to Roman comedy were at least these three: underlining emotion and pace, reinforcing characterization, and determining the play’s structure.

Finally there are two chapters on the reception of the Persa, although the verdict of K. v. Reinhardstoettner, that there is no direct imitation of the Persa, is repeated many times all over the volume (even within the articles on reception):

Katharina Götte delivers a piece on J. Lyly’s play Mother Bombie (Lyly is a very sophisticated, almost ‘hellenistic’ English poet of the sixteenth century) which seems to be inspired by Plautus’ Persa. Already G. Rudolf had pointed out in his dissertation (1981) that the duet of Toxilus and Sagaristio at the beginning of the Persa finds a congenial parallel in Mother Bombie II 1, 1-27. After an analysis of structural and technical features of both scenes, Götte thinks that she can confirm Rudolf’s view that Lyly’s passage was “inspired by a scene from Plautus’ Persa“, although she refuses to speak of a downright imitation due to missing word-for-word parallels.

Dorothee Elm deals with a play of the sixteenth century Italian scientist and playwright G. Della Porta (1535-1615) called Trappolaria, which seems to contain elements of the Persa — a fact that K. v. Reinhardstoettner recognized as early as in 1886. After a brief introduction, Elm gives a short overview of Della Porta’s life and work and also a useful outline of his Trappolaria. The reception of Plautus’ Persa is dealt with in three quite short sections: the taking over of single scenes from Persa, characterization, and a Plautine wordplay in the Trappolaria. While Elm offers insights into the construction of the Trappolaria in the first two sections (it seems that Della Porte did as Terence did, since he contaminates various sources to compose an almost perfect play, as L. G. Clubb and E. Lefèvre have shown before), in the last section Elm simply repeats what Reinhardstoettner found out. I cannot see how this contribution promotes our understanding of Plautus’ Persa and the Plautine elements within it, but I readily admit that it offers a variety of new thoughts on the Trappolaria of Della Porta.

In sum, there are interesting and inspiring essays on Plautus’ Persa in this book. Some contributions are less original than others, as a result of the ‘Freiburg method’ having been applied to (too?) many plays already, unfortunately not just concentrating on the most convincing aspects and passages. The main problem is the general hypothesis of this book, viz. that the Persa should be a (typical Roman) Saturnalian play. There are a couple of articles in this book in which this hypothesis is too readily accepted and made a proposition for the argument. If one does not accept this view, the impact of a couple of articles is unnecessarily weakened. Nevertheless, the volume in all its parts offers a variety of valuable new insights on the Persa.


1. Auhagen repeats the question raised by others, why Toxilus wants to buy the girl from the pimp, since he is a slave himself. There cannot really be a doubt that this is an absurd construction from a juridical point of view. But within the play, this does not seem to be illogical at all to me. Toxilus must buy her, since (i) there is the threat of the girl being sold to someone else; (ii) he is unwilling to share his girl with others; (iii) he is not able to afford many visits, so the girl would be out of his range if he were broke.

2. There now is a good book by Babette Pütz on this topic in Aristophanes.