BMCR 2020.05.17

The Cambridge companion to Roman comedy

Martin T. Dinter, The Cambridge companion to Roman comedy. Cambridge companions to literature. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 412 p.. ISBN 9780521173889 $34.99 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under review comes during an exciting wave of recent publications on Roman Comedy. This companion follows The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy (2014, Fontaine & Scafuro eds.) and Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to Terence (2013, Augoustakis & Traill eds.), and it precedes an upcoming Wiley-Blackwell companion to Plautus (2020, Franko & Dutsch eds.). Nevertheless, it differentiates itself in its aim to study the comoedia palliata as a distinctly Roman genre, thereby shifting the focus from the palliata’s relationship with its Hellenistic originals to the complexity and impact of the plays as theatrical and literary phenomena. Additionally, more-or-less equal weight is placed on the treatment of Plautus and Terence, the latter of whom has until recently been overshadowed in scholarly interest by the former. Alison Sharrock successfully conveys this approach in her introduction to the volume.

The companion contains 22 chapters that are organized into four main sections: Part I, The World of Roman Comedy, Part II, The Fabric of Roman Comedy, Part III, The Sociology of Roman Comedy, and Part IV, The Reception of Roman Comedy. The structure naturally begins with an examination of the palliata within its numerous contexts, then shifts to the technical elements of the genre; next, it addresses social readings before concluding with the study of its reception. The essays themselves range from informative introductions to specific perspectives that reflect the advances in their respective areas of Roman comic study. The selection of contributors includes leading scholars who have shaped the field of Roman Comedy in recent decades, and whose chapters in this volume are representative of their influential work on the subject.[1] The outcome, therefore, is a high-quality and thorough companion that is accessible to scholars both new to and familiar with the Roman comic corpus.

Part I of this volume contains four chapters, the first two of which focus on the diverse frameworks of the palliata. Gesine Manuwald’s chapter is a necessary starting point for this study, as it discusses how Plautus and Terence participated and interacted with their Roman comic, dramatic, literary, historical, and social contexts. Because of this, Manuwald’s chapter inevitably intersects with many of the studies in this volume. In her diachronic biographies on the known playwrights of the palliata, Manuwald chooses to leave out a profile on Terence. She instead refers to him as a source and point of comparison for her biography on his predecessor Caecilius, thereby only indirectly describing the former’s plays and comic style. Costas Panayotakis examines the influence of native Italian drama and contemporary unscripted theatre on the playwrights, especially Plautus. While Panayotakis acknowledges the problems associated with quantifying in definitive terms the impact of unscripted dramatic forms on Roman Comedy, he does not deny their “dynamic and proud negotiation” (p. 45). Mario Telò’s essay is a departure from the previous chapters both in its subject matter and in its degree of literary criticism. He examines Roman comic identity and “authorial self-presentation” (p. 48) through the appropriation of Greek New Comedy. The textual and intertextual analyses at the basis of Telò’s arguments are thought-provoking, and they require that the reader have an intimate knowledge of the comic corpus and its tropes. The late Robert Germany’s chapter is especially valuable, as it represents the scholarly re-evaluation of what is considered “political” in Roman Comedy. He confronts the old notion that Plautus and Terence were “apolitical” in their depictions of domestic situations. His analysis of a topical allusion to Naevius in Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus (pp. 67-75) is particularly noteworthy, since he argues for its interpretation as “an effective cautionary tale” against explicit political references in comic performances. Germany also asserts that the “politicalness” of Roman Comedy can be testified in its handling of the cultural issues surrounding Hellenism and luxury, the ubiquity of patriarchal authority, and the comic use of metatheatre.

Part II focuses on the main disciplines for interpreting dramatic texts. All five contributions in this section are essential in highlighting the complementary relationship between the genre’s performative elements and its literary virtuosity. While these chapters are stand-alone essays, when read together they present a cohesive overview of the distinctive yet overlapping components of Roman Comedy. C. W. Marshall’s chapter demonstrates how comic performance and stage action can be visualized through subtle cues from the text. Marshall examines Plautus’ Mercator and Terence’s Hecyra as examples of the dynamic potential of stage blocking and the off-stage world. This chapter doubles as a practical guide that allows readers to compare and contrast the methods of each playwright. Timothy J. Moore characteristically demonstrates his expert knowledge on music and metre in Roman Comedy. His highly informative chapter covers the construction and function of the tibia, the significance of metrical patterns on tone and characterization, and much more. His musical analysis of Plautus’ Casina applies these techniques to show how characters’ control of the metre dictates their influence over the plot. Isabella Tardin Cardoso’s chapter postulates comic techniques through non-verbal cues derived from the text, with a focus on “the physical expression” and the “facial expression of the actors” (p. 121). Furthermore, she employs the terminology of oratorical performance to supplement her analyses of the plays.[2] Because there is a natural overlap between Cardoso and Marshall’s essays, it would have been beneficial for them to be placed sequentially in this volume. David Christenson approaches the topic of metatheatre in Roman Comedy with sensitivity towards the past scholarly resistance to that term. His chapter examines how the rigidity of comic convention is used to address questions of social hierarchy, morality, gender, sexuality, and tragic resonances. This chapter is crucial as a reference point when other essays in this volume mention metatheatre and its effects (for example, chapters 4, 11, 16, 22). Evangelos Karakasis demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon in his chapter on the language of Roman Comedy. He presents a catalogue of Roman comic speech with an aim at distinguishing patterns of comedy’s linguistic style from that of Classical Latin, and how playwrights within that “linguistic-stylistic unity” (p. 151), namely Terence, diverge from that norm. This technical study highlights the complexity and richness of the comic text as a foundation for the performative studies that precede it.

Part III encompasses six illuminating and instructive social readings of the plays. William Fitzgerald, Anna Clark, Andreas Bartholomä, and the late Elaine Fantham provide incredibly thorough and informative introductions, all of which reflect their command of the comic corpus and the corresponding scholarship. Fitzgerald’s all-encompassing chapter on slaves in Roman Comedy examines slave-master power dynamics, the parasite stock type, Plautine and Terentian depictions of servile characters, jokes about punishment and torture, and the metatheatricality involving the clever slave. Clark’s chapter displays the ubiquity of gods in the palliata and its society, by skillfully sorting through the extensive references to them throughout the corpus in order to present a methodical and well-grounded breakdown of their function on and off the stage. Bartholomä provides a fastidious and judicious examination of Roman law. He creates a method for interpreting whether legal references are indicative of Greek law, Roman legal discourse, both, or neither (a.k.a. “stage law”, p. 232), and he applies this to his analyses of pertinent passages from the corpus. Elaine Fantham contributes a detailed survey of the economies of Greek New and Roman comic families, together with a glossary of financial and commercial terms found throughout the texts (pp. 255-58).

Martin Dinter and Dorota Dutsch’s essays merit recognition for their innovative perspectives and analyses. Dinter takes a philosophical approach in his chapter on “Fathers and Sons” with an examination of the moral education of young men by their stern fathers or other paternal figures (i.e. tutors, elders). He also directs his reader to works that deal more broadly with the father-son relationship in Roman Comedy. In her innovative study of “Mothers and Whores”, Dutsch challenges the oppositional binary between these female tropes and instead focuses on their intersection. Her chapter investigates the fusion of mother and whore in the character of the parent-pimp or pimp-mother, namely the lena. Dutsch also organizes her essay into case studies: two plays by Plautus and examples from Terentian comedy in general. This chapter not only represents the relatively recent attention to women in the palliata, but also offers a fresh re-examination of the mater and meretrix stock types.

Part IV comprises this volume’s longest section, with seven papers that cover multiple periods and a broad geographical space. Gesine Manuwald establishes a continuative narrative outlining the palliata’s impact and reputation as a dramatic genre throughout the late Republic and how it evolves into a serious literary work and school text from the Augustan period onwards. This chapter consults a wide range of sources, from the prologues of the plays to commentaries by ancient scholars and grammarians. Beatrice Raaden Keefe’s detailed survey of the history and composition of Plautine and Terentian manuscripts and illustrations is a nice departure from some of the more textual studies of the plays, as it examines topics of conservation and transcription. Furthermore, Marek Thue Kretschmer’s plot summaries on the “anti-Terentian” comedies of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim are particularly delightful when read against her ancient model, as she “turns the Terentian plot upside down” (p. 303) in her focus on conversion, martyrdom, and resurrection.

The last four chapters of this section figure more or less chronologically in their treatments of receptions of Roman Comedy in early modern England (Robert S. Miola), early modern Italy and France (Céline Candiard), early modern to eighteenth-century Germany (Florian Hurka), and the twentieth to twenty-first-century theatre and screen (Céline Candiard). The early modern chapters naturally share similar trends in reception, notably Christianity’s cautious handling of the content in an effort to draw out its moralising concepts, as well as a general scholarly preference for Terentian comedy (excluding the eighteenth- century German playwright-scholar Gotthold Ephraim Lessing). With that being said, such a simplified report of these chapters does not do justice to their high calibre of research and close engagement with the playwrights and academics of their respective periods. These studies reveal a nuanced evolution of comedy and its scholarship, where education, production, religion, and performance context are important factors of the ancient playwrights’ popularity and influence through time. The inclusion of studies extending beyond the Western world would have also been insightful but is understandably beyond the scope of the present project.

This companion fulfills its function in exhibiting an exceptional level of scholarly engagement in its examination of the “world”, “fabric”, “sociology”, and “reception” of Roman Comedy. The majority of the chapters do a good job in defining technical concepts and terms, thereby making their several topics accessible to readers of every academic level. The well-balanced mixture of specialized studies and sophisticated surveys is both stimulating and encourages scholars and students alike to investigate and critique the playsthemselves.

I noticed very few typos (e.g., “Caecilius” is spelled “Cecilius” on pp. 55 and 59, and a passage on p. 228 is attributed to Eunuchus, not Hecyra).

Table of Contents

Alison Sharrock, “Introduction: Roman Comedy”
Gesine Manuwald, “Plautus and Terence in Their Roman Contexts”
Costas Panayotakis, “Native Italian Drama and Its Influence on Plautus”
Mario Telò, “Roman Comedy and the Poetics of Adaptation”
Robert Germany, “The Politics of Roman Comedy”
C. W. Marshall, “Stage Action in Roman Comedy”
Timothy J. Moore, “Music and Metre”
Isabella Tardin Cardoso, “Comic Technique”
David Christenson, “Metatheatre”
Evangelos Karakasis, “The Language of Roman Comedy”
Martin T. Dinter, “Fathers and Sons”
William Fitzgerald, “Slaves and Roman Comedy”
Dorota Dutsch, “Mothers and Whores”
Anna Clark, “Gods and Roman Comedy”
Andreas Bartholomä, “Legal Laughter”
Elaine Fantham, “Family Finances”
Gesine Manuwald, “The Reception of Republican Comedy in Antiquity”
Beatrice Radden Keefe, “The Manuscripts and Illustration of Plautus and Terence”
Marek Thue Kretschmer, “The Anti-Terentian Dramas of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim”
Robert S. Miola, “Roman Comedy in Early Modern England”
Céline Candiard, “Roman Comedy in Early Modern Italy and France”
Florian Hurka, “Roman Comedy in Germany (from Humanism to Lessing)”
Céline Candiard, “Roman Comedy on Stage and Screen in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries”


[1] See Sharrock (2009), Reading Roman Comedy; Dutsch (2008), Feminine Discourse in Roman Comedy: On Echoes and Voices; Marshall (2006), The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy; Moore (2012), Music in Roman Comedy, among many others.

[2] Quintilian Inst. 11.3, Cicero De Or. 3.213-27.