BMCR 2004.11.30

Comedy and the Rise of Rome

, Comedy and the rise of Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xi, 241 pages). ISBN 1423784715. $95.00.

In the aftermath of the first World War, one I. Nye, of Connecticut College, emotionally declared, “Let us … explain all of Plautus as war literature, a reaction to abnormal conditions … “1 Nearly a century later, and in parallel circumstances, Matthew Leigh has taken up the challenge by trying to reconstruct the collective psychology of wartime Rome in the second century B.C. The author has probed Polybius, Livy, and other historians to recover the “public voices” of contemporary debate and has sought to use these voices to inform our understanding of Plautus and Terence. This is a difficult task, especially for Plautus, and it has been made more difficult by the author’s decision to discount verbal allusions to contemporary figures or events in favor of thematic reflections of the Roman psyche. The effort to find other things to say about the palliata than the usual analytic attempts to recover the Greek models is certainly laudable, and the author has scored some success, but only about half of the time.

While the intended readership is not specified, this book is not for beginners. Greek and Latin are fully translated in the text, but not in the footnotes, where an argument is often concluded. The text alternately treats historical and philological topics and in fairly discrete segments. An introductory chapter is followed by four largely independent essays (three on Plautus, one on Terence), a bibliography, an index locorum, and an index nominum et rerum.

In the introductory chapter L. discusses and illustrates the obstacles that a historicizing reading of Roman Comedy faces. These are mostly familiar, such as the genre’s apolitical content and derivative nature, the dearth of historical sources that would help us assess change in social and economic conditions from the 4th-2nd centuries B.C., and the hazards of “topicality,” or apparent verbal allusions to contemporary Roman circumstances. This last category L. excludes from his study on the grounds that such allusions, however plausible, cannot be proven. I find that a surprising decision; why should we find it any less credible, for example, that the pointed phrase de falsis pugnis in Truc. 486 alludes to Cato’s speech in Q. Minucium Thermum de falsis pugnis from 190 B.C. than that, as L. argues, the tricky Plautine slave is a reflection of Carthaginian military strategy? Are verbal resonances any less susceptible of “proof” (whatever that word means in literary criticism) than thematic parallels supposed to reside in the collective social psyche? No doubt the hunt for verbal allusions has overreached at times, but I think this book would have benefited by discussing some of these allusions.2

In Chapter Two, “Plautus and Hannibal,” L. seeks “to identify a pervasive Hannibalic impact on the entire oeuvre of Plautus,” (p. 24) by focusing on the Plautine clever slave and history, and much of the chapter is devoted to a reading of the Poenulus. L. views Hanno’s bilingual control of Latin in the play as a Plautine comment on the fabled multilingualism of Hannibal, who also knew Latin, and he argues that Hanno’s dissimulation mirrors the deceptive tactics employed by Hannibal. So far, all of this certainly seems plausible. The rest of the chapter, however, is less persuasive. L. tries to establish that the phrase virtus vera (occurring twice in Plautine prologues and once in Ennius) was a buzzword in Plautine Rome. From passages in Polybius and Livy, L. concludes that wartime Romans were keenly debating the relative morality of states whose militias employed deceptive or “dishonorable” maneuvers, such as ambush. Rome claimed the moral high ground by refraining from such tactics. Hannibal and his Carthaginians, however, did use ambush, and so, L. asserts, the tricky Plautine slave’s cunning tactics were inspired by and reflected specifically Carthaginian traits; so, at least, would the Roman audience see it.

There are problems with this argument. One is that (as L. concedes, p. 54) ambush was by no means a signature Carthaginian tactic; it was practiced by the Greeks as well. Another and larger difficulty is that Plautus overtly depicts his tricky slaves as Greeks. Within the dramatic illusion, they live in Greece, they are called by Greek names, and occasionally they even lapse into speaking a Greek word or two. I do not deny the possibility that an astute member of the Roman audience might nevertheless associate a tricky slave character with the Carthaginian general, but it seems hard to believe that many or most of the audience would. On p. 53ff., L. acknowledges these and other difficulties, and though he claims that he is not recanting the previous thirty pages of his argument, he does not adequately resolve them; and so when he says (55), “I have always been suspicious of arguments which made any appeal to notions of the collective subconscious and regarded such procedures as a specious cover for assertions which no evidence could be produced to sustain,” one is, unfortunately, bound to agree with him.

Chapter Three, ” Captivi and the Paradoxes of Postliminium,” on the other hand, is a more successful venture, and I learned quite a bit here. L. traces the origins and development of the Roman law of postliminium, which was supposed to allow Romans who had gone into voluntary exile to reclaim their citizenship under their original civic status. But a problem arose when returning Roman prisoners of war also tried to claim the right to postliminium. Because the law unintentionally provided soldiers with an incentive to surrender rather than fight to the death, it threatened to undermine Rome’s security. The problem became acute in the second Punic war. After Hannibal captured a large number of Roman soldiers at Cannae, and then offered to ransom them back, the Roman senate was faced with the painful choice between humanitarian concern for their countrymen and the need for collective security. The senate refused to grant the POWs postliminium and chose instead to let Hannibal sell them into slavery abroad.

L. then turns to a discussion of the Captivi. He argues that the play is a response to the senate’s severe policy toward POWs, a response that explores everyman’s desire simply to bring home the lost boys. L. makes a number of sensitive observations about the play, arguing that the parasite Ergasilus is actually an integral member of the drama and serves as a constant reminder of the impact of war on the home front. Next follows a rather loosely attached and insufficiently developed discussion of the origins of slavery. Stalagmus, says L., is not a scapegoat but a figure designed to thwart and problematize the concept of natural slavery; but the argument, not really convincing to begin with, simply cuts off without a proper conclusion.

In Chapter Four, “City, Land, and Sea,” L. endeavors to show that both the Greeks and the Romans conceived of agrarian life as wholesome and morally edifying, urban life as liberal and decadent, and mercantile seafaring as a risky and destabilizing activity; and, further, that social conservatives in those societies considered contact with alien cultures an undesirable force that weakened the integrity of their nation. To make this point L. invokes texts ranging from Aristotle to Menander rhetor and Libanius in the 4th c. A.D. I doubt anyone would disagree that such a conception is right in principle, but I do not think it is really necessary to claim, as Leigh does, that such notions are primarily Aristotelian in outlook and influence, since scores of Greek and Latin authors assert or presume this prejudice.3 I doubt too whether we should consider uniquely Greek and Roman an attitude that opposed “liberal city” and “conservative heartland,” or a socially conservative nationalism that disdains foreign influence. L. proceeds to an analysis of the maritime and agrarian elements of Plautus’ Mercator, and from here he argues that New Comedy served as a vehicle for exploring the contrast of city with country and the merits and demerits of the alien influences that inevitably accompany maritime trade. As far as the Mercator goes, his analysis certainly seems reasonable, but we need not extend the framework to all of New Comedy, since many plays will not fit into it (see esp. 133ff.). L. then discusses Cato’s de agricultura and concludes that in Rome the attitude contrasting sea with country is a Catonian notion that the Roman has lifted dishonestly but directly from the Greeks that he publicly disdained: hence Cato is exposed as a hypocrite. We would not do better, however, to consider dichotomies such as city/country or country/sea simply the property of folk belief common to many Mediterranean peoples (and beyond)?

Chapter Five, “Fatherhood and the Habit of Command,” is on surer footing, and it is the best chapter in the book. L. probes the historical circumstances of Terence’s Adelphoe, first performed at the funeral games of L. Aemilius Paullus in 160. Critics have noted before that the name “Micio” suggests “Paullus,” and deduced that Demea is thus similarly a spokesman for Cato. In fact, however, L. shows that by the time the play was staged, Paullus and Cato had moved much closer to one another in social outlook, or even past one another, than we usually suppose. Thus the simple equation of Micio with Paullus and Demea with Cato must be abandoned. He then argues, fairly convincingly, that the poem’s discussion of how best to rear children is an allegory for a general’s relationship with his troops. Not every further point made here is persuasive, but L. suggestively asks a very interesting question: should we assume that Terence’s play is sympathetic toward Paullus just because it was commissioned for Paullus’ funeral games? Or, like esoterically pessimistic Augustan poetry, did Terence stage a play pessimistic toward the very patron he was paid to glorify?

This book is not an easy read. Prose such as this is typical (p. 21): “The problems attendant on the appeal to topicality and the nature of the alternative approach proposed may be exemplified with reference to the drama with which the second [ sic : third] chapter of this study is concerned: the Captivi.” The argument is made still harder to follow by L.’s tendency to use words such as “this” “it” “here” inconsistently in reference to preceding arguments, pages, sentences, or parts thereof. Some polemic or recapitulation of earlier scholars’ views would have been better confined to footnotes (e.g. p. 106ff.), or simply omitted, while some of the footnotes are too curt (e.g. n. 194 p. 144) or unnecessary. L. also tends distractingly to quote very long passages though discussion relates to only a couple of lines, and he often gives minimal analysis: e.g., after quoting and translating a full page of Varro (104-5), we hear only, “The exquisite juxtaposition Graecorum urbana says it all.” His choice of what to quote is also puzzling: since this is not a book for beginners, why reprint in extenso easily accessible or familiar material? I would have gladly traded, for instance, the prologues of Mercator or Adelphoe for the much less accessible fragments of Greek New Comedy.

Despite these criticisms, L. has undertaken an engaging and difficult topic. The book offers some interesting material for both historians and philologists, and chapters 3 and 5 especially merit closer attention.4


1. “A Rescue! A Cannan to the Rescue!” in CJ 16, 1920, p. 53.

2. Many potential allusions, of varying degrees of probability, are gathered and discussed in K. H. E. Schutter, Quibus annis comoediae Plautinae primum actae sint quaeritur (Groningae 1952), and C. H. Buck, A Chronology of the Plays of Plautus (Baltimore, 1940).

3. Caesar and his audience take it for granted in the opening sentences of his de bello Gallico when he says … fortissimi sunt Belgae, propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissime absunt, minimeque ad eos mercatores saepe commeant atque ea quae ad effeminandos animos pertinent important. For the fear of epimixia, see Euripides’ Medea 1ff.

4. Misprints are rare, but N.B. two likely to mislead: on pp. 6 and 21 read “Chapter 5” for “Chapter 4”.