BMCR 2019.06.14

Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy

, Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 573. ISBN 9781107152311 £110.00.

To call this monograph Richlin’s magnum opus is probably understating the case. Slave Theater, winner of the Society of Classical Studies’ prestigious Goodwin Award in 2018, is the culmination of a career spent examining the voice and lived reality of the subaltern, with all of the pain, tears, laughter, and vulgarity that mark the human experience, from low to high, beginning with the publication of The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor (1983, revised and augmented 1992). In her groundbreaking new work, Richlin explores “what was given” to slaves, freedpersons, and the poor during the late 200s BCE, such as violence, abuse, rape, starvation, and human trafficking; as well as “what was desired” by these persons, like getting even, escape, and basic human dignity. Richlin argues that the Plautine palliata was “slave theater,” that is, plays written by comic troupes comprised of enslaved, freed, and impoverished persons and performed for an audience of similar demographics. Plautus is our “author,” but the plays we have today are transcripts of performances that changed every time, with improvisation, or shared authorship, of the grex. This “slave theater” played on different registers, one aimed at the elite Roman citizen audience for whom the plays at the ludi were commissioned (the domini) and another at the enslaved and freed persons for whom the servus callidus was a hero.

The volume is comprised of two parts, containing eight chapters and two appendices. Throughout, Richlin grounds her work firmly in performance theory and studies of “hidden transcripts” in transgressive speech, drawing on modern slave songs, folk, fable, and drag, etc. to illustrate the ways in which the slave narratives of the palliata could be hidden in plain sight. Each chapter is near-encyclopedic, containing exhaustive textual references to every example in Plautus. This is a volume for those who thoroughly know the corpus: the complex Plautine plots are reduced to one-to-two-sentence summaries in Appendix II. Others will want a source with character lists and detailed plot summaries nearby (like de Melo’s Loeb editions1).

Chapter 1 offers a review of over a century of scholarship on Plautus, performance theory, and humor theory. Richlin establishes on page 1 the fluidity of civil status in ancient Rome: free, enslaved, freed—all possible, none permanent. She rejects the claim of most historians that Roman slaves left little record of their thoughts and feelings, asserting that the palliata was a testament of the enslaved experience. Richlin joins C.W. Marshall in calling this “slave theater,” a group effort originating with subaltern persons and speaking to them in performance both through the bodies of the enslaved actors and the words of the enslaved characters. Fraenkel, Slater, McCarthy, and Fontaine on Plautus; Patterson, Finley, Bradley, Joshel, and du Bois on the history of slavery; Freud; modern comedians on humor, all are considered here. The chapter closes with a history of the “politics of reading Plautus,” reviewing Dunkin, Duckworth, Oldfather, and Pansiéri (how we read Plautus is a product of our era and circumstances, p. 58). It is here we learn that Richlin’s theory that Plautus is subversive slave theater is, itself, subversive.

Chapter 2, “The Body at the Bottom,” in Part I: What Was Given, reviews all the ways that enslaved persons were alienated from their natal identities: names stripped, bodies bound and raped, flesh abused, and trafficked from families and homelands. Richlin contends that in order for these on-stage features to evoke audience empathy, they must have been firsthand experiences for at least some of the audience and actors (p. 71). Richlin then reviews the myriad onstage physical punishments suffered by slaves, as well as the ways women and boys were exploited for sex in these androcentric/heterocentric plays. Chapter 3, “Singing for Your Supper,” looks at the phenomenon of “cheerleading” in the prologue speeches as a reflection of the military atmosphere in which the plays were being performed. Next, she examines different kinds of rousing speech: flagitatio (public shaming), occentatio (clamoring and arson by a mob in front of an attractive woman’s home), and quiritatio (a cry for help), all of which, like cheerleading, seem to encourage audience participation, but were coded as “lower class.” The chapter, and section, ends with a discussion of the anxiety around citizen debt (reflected in the flagitatio), which reminded audience members of the thin line between free and enslaved (p. 195), as well as the idea that slaves should be frugi (the slave version of honorable, debt-free citizenship).

Chapter 4, “Getting Even,” explores the ways slaves lashed out, talked back, and humiliated free persons. The titular Pseudolus, Epidicus, and Mostellaria ’s Tranio dupe or give orders to owners, while Toxilus ( Persa) and the slaves in Asinaria physically abuse free people. Slaves call masters “stupid,” employ blocking moves ( frustrationes), mock arrogant behavior ( fastidio), and issue variations of lubere, defiantly claiming the right to do what they want. For male slaves, doing what they wanted included drinking, flirting, having parties, getting sex, or spending time with friends, all of which were staged in the palliata (pp. 237-49). The Saturnalian spirit of the stage freed them from the retribution that the enslaved viewers would have suffered. Closely related is chapter 6, “Telling Without Saying,” on tacit rebellion. If overt backtalk was impossible, enslaved persons “spoke truth to power” in other ways, coding their language in ways the dominant group couldn’t understand. Richlin compares the language of other eras of slavery here to illustrate her point. Slaves used double meanings, face-out lines (criticism or commentary directed to the audience rather than the interlocutor), or grumbling ( muttire) to claim agency in some small way.

In Chapter 5, “Looking Like a Slavewoman,” Richlin delves into the intersection of gender, race, and status, highlighting abuses specific to slavewomen. Plays such as Cistellaria, Epidicus, Stichus, Truculentus, Casina, and Persa may have appealed to the women in the audience. Richlin argues that slavewomen, the most vulnerable persons onstage, most often spoke truth to power, such as Syra in Mercator on moral injustice, Scapha in Mostellaria on using sexual power, and Virgo in Persa (who, it should be noted, is a free citizen only temporarily made a slavewoman) on the “social death” of slavery. Richlin then acknowledges the complication of what she calls “Slave Woman Drag,” the portrayal of vulnerable slave women by men in women’s clothing ventriloquizing women to an audience conscious of the conceit (pp. 281-302). If not played naturalistically, these characters could have been sexual spectacle (the “sexy” meretrices) or monstrous (the “ugly” ancillae). Richlin suggests that, regardless, the act of (possibly) enslaved men playing enslaved women while other men voiced desire for them illustrated the sexual vulnerability of the young male slave victimized by other slaves and the owner.

Richlin’s narrative power is on best display in chapters 7, “Remembering the Way Back,” and 8, “Escape.” She argues that the plays were performative retellings, communal history writing, and a way to imagine justice that was not forthcoming in reality. Through the plays, the actors and audience could work through trauma (of war, enslavement, alienation, physical and sexual abuse). The ways in which people are trafficked are examined here, and memory (of family, of freedom, of orders, of keeping faith, of home, of return) becomes an important concept in these plays. The discussion of trafficking is related to the history of Roman infrastructure, as the roads that carried the comedy troupe were created to move the army, and the army dragged behind it displaced persons, destined for slavery and abuse. Richlin effectively highlights the inextricability of traumatic destruction and “civilization.” These plays are often read in a contextual vacuum in the modern classroom, but Richlin puts them back into the war-torn landscape of siege, slaughter, and enslavement that touched the lives of all theatergoers in some way, enacting their anxieties onstage with happier endings.

“Escape” is an important chapter, as it rejects the argument that Plautine slaves didn’t really desire freedom (Richlin claims that Epidicus and Palaestrio only pretend not to want manumission, pp. 425). She tracks the importance of the language of freedom (in particular, the formula in iubere salveo), and catalogs all the slaves manumitted, hoping for manumission, or already freed. Following manumission, fantasy (of being king, like Gripus in Rudens or the Slave of Lyconides in Aulularia; of homes back “east”; of running away; of distant utopias) is considered. Here Richlin brings in quotations from Frederick Douglass, folk songs like “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Minnie the Moocher,” “Willie the Weeper,” and other depression-era works to illustrate pervasive wistfulness to escape bad circumstances through art. She ends on a bittersweet note: despite the palliata, the uprisings, and the wars, slavery was never abolished in Rome, but slaves who could do so went to the comedies for the temporary escape of laughter.

Richlin translates the texts with her usual panache, never stymied by Plautus’ literary puns and neologisms. She punctuates her text with the through line, “all comedy starts with anger,” and reinforces long arguments with stark quips and sharp summary lines. I should mention here Richlin’s prose, which is elegant, poetic, and full of humanity: “Performance honors the experience, the life histories, of those who were now quasi-persons before the law, but who were persons before they got here, or just know themselves to be real” (pp. 415).

I am persuaded by Richlin’s argument for hidden transcripts of slave experiences in these plays, as well as her contention that the enslaved, freed, non-citizen actors used the dialogue and characterizations of enslaved characters to express the anger, frustration, and alienation of similarly oppressed audience members. The chapters on “Getting Even” and “Telling Without Saying” are particularly convincing on the double meanings and revenge fantasies playing out onstage. But how would the playwright(s) have gotten away with this subversive speech? Did the elites in the audience not notice? Not care? What about the officials commissioning the plays for the ludi ? Richlin argues that the organization of the festivals was not as strictly centralized as we imagine, and that the artificial Greekness of the plays allowed the participants to cop out (“just weird Greek stuff, nothing dangerous to see here!”)—this argument is not new, and others have argued the Saturnalian atmosphere of the ludi permitted subversion.2 But Rome was not Athens, and these were not citizen playwrights exercising parrhesia : Rome didn’t get a permanent theater until 55 BCE, and even then, Pompey had to build outside the pomerium and tack on a temple at the top to sidestep the prohibition on stone theaters, which were seen as hotbeds of social unrest.3 Could the pointed criticism of and thinly veiled anger at the citizen elites have been as vehement and intentional as Richlin suggests?

One might also quibble with the delineated limits of the book. Despite the title’s pre-colon claim to discussing theater in the Roman Republic, there is little mention of Terence, because “things had changed in Italy” by his time (pg. 2), though with very little explanation of what those things were or how they had changed. We do not hear of Terence until page 479: “And then things changed; the plays of Terence in the 160s bear eloquent testimony to the kind of change it was, for the palliata is now a Menandrian revival, and the language is suddenly subdued, and the slave is upstaged.” Spot¬-on assessment, but why? No one knows what to do with Terence.

Richlin’s volume is virtually error-free, a near-impossible feat in a staggering 563 pages (one error, on page 322: “Telestis’ line in Epidicus, ‘Even if she doesn’t want me, I’ll still be some mother’s daughter’” should read “Acropolistis’ line,” though at the time in the play, Periphanes believes Acropolistis is Telestis, so one could make a case for the error). Richlin’s encyclopedic knowledge and command of the names, plots, and circumstances is evident on every page of this volume. Slave Theater is a definitive work of scholarship on enslaved and freed persons in and around Plautus’ theatre. More than that, it is required reading for anyone doing work in the field of comedy, the history of slavery, and the lives of the oppressed in ancient Rome.


1. de Melo, W.C. Plautus I-V (Harvard University Press, 2011-13).

2. Segal, E. Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (Oxford University Press, 1968).

3. Beacham, R. The Roman Theatre and Its Influence (Harvard University Press, 1991).