BMCR 2020.12.07

Roman comedy

, Roman comedy. Classical poetry, volume 1.2. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. 88. ISBN 9789004435117 €70,00.


This book is not for purchasing. This book is not even, in fact, a book. Rather it is a “review article,” according to the series website. Your library might want to purchase this book—at more than a dollar per page, you definitely won’t want to yourself—but your library will probably instead subscribe to the online Brill Research Perspectives in Classical Poetry series access (four of these review articles annually), if it can handle the €280/$344 annual subscription fee.

Here’s why you might want to advocate for doing so: it draws together an impressively thorough and impressively up-to-date bibliography (more than one-third of the book’s total page count) and cites it in a well-structured, readable fashion. Manuwald talks about more than just Plautus and Terence, Roman comedy’s usual suspects. Her discussion of Quellenforschung, Greek originals, Italian influences, and interpolation (pp. 23–27) is very clear and helpful. And her overview of the rest of comedy beyond the big two—other authors of palliata, plus togata, Atellana, and mime and pantomime (pp. 43–54)—is excellent, clear, crisp, and engaging. If you’re a Plautus/Terence scholar looking to branch out to other areas of the genre, or looking to get back into Plautine & Terentian studies after a couple of decades away, this is a great tool for the job.

But for anyone else—whether a graduate student studying for comprehensive exams or a non-comedy scholar trying to get into Plautus and Terence or such a scholar assigned to teach a course on it—this book seems to fall into an uneasy middle between the brief but detailed treatment by Conte and the longer, more user-friendly Roman comedy introductions by Moore and Manuwald herself.[1] Manuwald’s intention in this essay to de-center Plautus and Terence is an effective scholarly move, particularly for insiders in the field, but one result is that it takes thirty-six pages (out of fifty-seven total pages of prose) to get to the detailed coverage of Plautus himself, which strikes this reader as an unbalanced presentation for newcomers to the topic. On the other hand, Manuwald’s exposition is almost always accessible to attentive readers; only rarely will you encounter something that you already have to be “in the know” to get (e.g., “the Saturnalian fantasy world of Roman comedy,” p. 29, with no gloss and with citation of Segal[2] deferred to p. 39).

Naturally, the overview evinces the author’s own interests in the balance of its coverage: for instance, less than a page on stock characters or on “topicality” in the palliata (the latter including the entire sociopolitical context of the plays and their world-building), compared to two and a half pages for dramatic structures and techniques and more than four for Quellenforschung. Along similar lines, sometimes no evidence is cited for claims presented (e.g., on free admission to the theater, p. 9), sometimes a mountain (e.g., on assigned seats for equites, p. 11, we encounter seventeen citations of ancient testimony). There’s also the occasional sweeping generalization, particularly when it comes to using evidence from Terentian didascalia and prologues for the actual historical performance conditions of Roman comedy (e.g., p. 11: the “impresario” model of Turpio, pp. 11, 13, 15; a supposed playwrighting norm against adapting something already adapted by someone else, p. 21). In general, Manuwald embraces the traditionalist party line on Terence (p. 40), what my grad school Comedy classmates and I shorthanded as “Plautus funny, Terence deep.”

Though Manuwald’s essay aims to be comprehensive, there are necessarily omissions, most minor, some glaring. In the latter category, I would include: no mention of the role of twins or doubles in the subsection of Plautus; no mention of hypotheses that comedy did not enter a period of decline alongside the decline of the Republic (and a blanket endorsement at p. 6 and elsewhere of the idea that, by the late Republic, “hardly any new fully-fledged dramas were written”);[3] no mention of hypotheses that Plautus’ Epidicus or Curculio lack a Greek original;[4] no mention of Catullus the mime-writer in the section on mime;[5] no mention of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the section on reception; and no listing or citation of book-length commentaries on individual plays of Plautus and Terence, despite a section in the bibliography labeled “Editions, Commentaries, Translations.” Likewise, the paragraph on “the integration of various spheres of life into the structures and messages of palliata plays” (p. 29) felt very incomplete, particularly given the extensive attention given to such aspects of daily life in numerous chapters in the Blackwell companions for Plautus and Terence and the Cambridge companion (Manuwald cites all three volumes but does not adduce their relevant contents here). Manuwald’s account of Roman comedy would have been richer with the inclusion of the work of Sharon L. James (for scholarly interest in gender and the genre, pp. 11, 17, 32; especially for the supposed “standard plot” of palliata, p. 22, which also omitted the importance of rape to these storylines!, where again James as well as Vincent J. Rosivach would be helpful),[6] J. N. Adams (on “linguistic differentiations … between male and female speakers,” p. 33),[7] Serena S. Witzke (on the inaccuracy of “courtesan” for meretrix, p. 32),[8] John H. Starks (on actresses, p. 11),[9] Cynthia Damon and Elizabeth Ivory Tylawsky (for the figure of the parasite, p. 32),[10] W. S. Anderson on Terence (Manuwald neglects to note the ancient biographical tradition that Terence was brought enslaved to Rome from Carthage),[11] and Gratwick (no shoutout in this book to the influential metaphor of “Plautinopolis”).[12]

Ultimately, Manuwald’s Roman Comedy is a grand synthesis of more than a century of scholarship, a synthesis undertaken by a scholar at the top of her field—clear proof, to be sure, of the importance of the genre and its study, despite longstanding short-selling of it by classicists. It will function best as a “vibe check” for scholars already working in the field, rather than a user-friendly entry point for Rom-com neophytes and novices.


[1] Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History, trans. Joseph B. Solodow, rev. Don P. Fowler and Glenn W. Most (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); Timothy J. Moore, Roman Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Gesine Manuwald, Roman Republican Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[2] Erich Segal, Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968).

[3] See, e.g., Ruth R. Caston, “The Fall of the Curtain (Horace S. 2.8),” TAPA 127 (1997) 233–256; Mathias Hanses, “Juvenal and the Revival of Greek New Comedy at Rome,” in C. W. Marshall and Tom Hawkins, edd., Athenian Comedy in the Roman Empire (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 25–41.

[4] Sander M. Goldberg, “Plautus’ Epidicus and the Case of the Missing Original,” TAPA 108 (1978) 81–91; Eckard Lefèvre, “Curculio oder der Triumph der Edazität,” in Eckard Lefèvre, Ekkehard Stärk, and Gregor Vogt-Spira, edd., Plautus Barbarus: Sechs Kapitel zur Originalität des Plautus (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1991), 71–105.

[5] Martial 5.30, 12.83; Juvenal 8.185–188, 13.110–111; Tertullian Adversus Valentinianos 14; cf. the controversial identification of that Catullus with the famous Catullus by T. P. Wiseman, Catullus and His World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[6] On “standard” plots, see now Sharon L. James, “Plautus and the Marriage Plot,” in Dorota Dutsch and George Fredric Franko, edd., A Companion to Plautus (Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell), 109–122; on rape, see, e.g., Sharon L. James, “From Boys to Men: Rape and Developing Masculinity in Terence’s Hecyra and Eunuchus,” Helios 25.1 (1998) 31–48; Vincent J. Rosivach, When a Young Man Falls in Love: The Sexual Exploitation of Women in New Comedy (London: Routledge, 1998).

[7] J. N. Adams, “Female Speech in Latin Comedy,” Antichthon 18 (1984) 43–77.

[8] Serena S. Witzke, “Harlots, Tarts, and Hussies?: A Problem of Terminology for Sex Labor in Roman Comedy,” Helios42.1 (2015) 7–27.

[9] John H. Starks, “Pantomime Actresses in Latin Inscriptions,” in Edith Hall and Rosie Wyles, edd., New Directions in Ancient Pantomime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 110–145; though note that Manuwald does cite this volume overall in her discussion of pantomime (p. 54).

[10] Cynthia Damon, The Mask of the Parasite: A Pathology of Roman Patronage (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998); Elizabeth Ivory Tylawsky, Saturio’s Inheritance: The Greek Ancestry of the Roman Comic Parasite (New York: Peter Lang, 2002).

[11] W. S. Anderson, “The Problem of Humor for an Ex-Slave,” Gail A. Burnett Lectures in Classics (San Diego: San Diego State University, 2001).

[12] Adrian S. Gratwick, “Drama,” in E. J. Kenney and W. V. Clausen, edd., The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 77–137.