BMCR 2021.10.23

Plautus’ erudite comedy: new insights into the work of a “Doctus poeta”

, , Plautus' erudite comedy: new insights into the work of a "Doctus poeta". Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020. Pp. 363. ISBN 9781527545663 £64.99.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

From the vantage point of traditional constructions of Roman literary history, Plautus’ oeuvre inevitably falls short of the self-conscious artfulness and delicate refinement regarded as hallmarks of  towering classics like Virgil or Horace. Apparently not an author writing for the educated few, Plautus appears coarse, incoherent and simple, ultimately more interested in the cheap knee-slapper than the laboriously polished intricacies of a type of poetry classicists readily associate with the name of the Hellenistic poet-cum-scholar Callimachus. It is this conception that the present volume of collected essays, which has grown out of a workshop held at the Swedish Archaeological Institute at Athens in 2016, sets out dispel. The editors Sophia Papaioannou and Chrysanthi Demetriou have gathered an international group of scholars to turn the classicising model on its head and discuss Plautus as a poeta doctus who was both keenly aware of contemporary literary, philosophical and scientific trends and could confidently count on an educated viewership on which more bookish allusions would not be lost.

To this end, the book has been divided into four larger sections: ‘adaptation and innovation’ covers Plautus’ inheritance and reworking of the Greek comic tradition; ‘ethnography’ deals with the author’s cross-cultural knowledge; ‘philosophy, science, religion’ relates individual plays to these three fields of cultural production; and, finally, ‘literary history’ re-evaluates Plautus’ position within historical narratives of the evolution of Latin literature. Owing to the constraints of length, my review will first comment on general issues sketched out in the volume’s introduction, before throwing the spotlight on particularly noteworthy contributions. Overall, Plautus’ Erudite Comedy is a highly welcome addition to an ongoing reappraisal of Plautus as a primary representative of the comic craft.

In their introduction, Papaioannou and Demetriou set forth their aim of exploring the various facets of Plautus’ erudition, situating him in the historical context of the second half of the 3rd cent. BCE – a time when the appropriation of Greek culture in Rome was in full swing. As their book is expressly intended for both experts and graduate students, they give a helpful overview of the flurry of recent publications in Plautine scholarship, trying to impose some order on the disorienting multiplicity of contributions that can seem daunting to newcomers. Beside text-centred approaches, they distinguish between historicising and ‘intellectual’ readings. The essays dicussed here largely fall into this latter category since the editors see philosophical, scientific or religious discourses as a frequent blindspot of historically-oriented studies of Plautus.

Papaioannou kicks off the first section with a paper on contaminatio, a blending technique of earlier comedies that both Plautus and Terence seem to have used as a standard procedure when writing new plays. Curculio and Aulularia serve as examples to illustrate how Plautus combined two popular plotlines from the repertoire of Greek comedy to create more complex stock figures and insert surprising plot twists into his plays. She stresses that Plautus is hardly coy about this poetic strategy. On the contrary, clever slaves like Pseudolus in the eponymous play or Chrysalus in the Bacchidesmetapoetically signal to the audience that they are watching a play that trumps any Greek model. Unmistakably referring to Menander’s Dis Exapaton, Chrysalus proclaims: non mihi isti placent Parmenones, Syri/qui duas aut tris minas auferunt eris (649: ‘I don’t like those Parmenos and Syruses, who take two or three minas away from their master’). He goes on to assert his superiority over these slaves, lampooning them for their lack of intelligence (Parmeno and Syrus were common slave names in Greek comedy and, more importantly, Syrus was the slave character in the Menandrian source text that Plautus changed to Chrysalus). Papaioannou detects in such passages a concern for literary aemulatio, which Plautus dramatised in front of a sophisticated audience that would derive pleasure from identifying the allusions to the Greek original and the gesture of Roman one-upmanship. The chapter is lucidly argued and succeeds in demonstrating Plautus’ striking literary self-consciousness. It also becomes clear that Plautus’ use of literary predecessors comes with a highly competitive bent. I was left wondering, however, if this blatant anatagonism within the literary world is predicated only on an intense learnedness in and anxiousness about literary matters (Papaioannou credits Plautus with a veritably Alexandrian doctrina), or whether there might be a social dimension to it as well. After all, early Roman authors like Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Ennius or Plautus were all non-aristocratic foreigners whose first language was not Latin.[1] If we accept that we can hear Plautus’ voice behind such metapoetic statements, can we then learn something about how new cultural agents in Roman society sought to establish their position and underline their competences in the steeply hierarchical and competitive socio-political reality of the Roman republic?[2]

A long but rewarding chapter by Peter Barrios-Lech opens the second section of the book. Its chief novelty is the proposal of a new method to add to the classicist’s toolkit. He borrows the term ‘theatergrams’ from Renaissance scholar Louise Clubb and introduces the drama theorist Manfred Pfister’s distinction between character and figure. An example of a theatergram from Italian Renaissance drama is the giovane inamorata, the woman desired and desiring. Barrios-Lech himself places the Carthaginian Hanno of the Poenulus in a wider framework of dramatic encounters between foreigner and native. He further differentiates several theatergrams (of person, association, and action) and thus achieves a higher terminological clarity than Papaioannou, whose study also investigated larger dramatic patterns but focused on plot elements and dramaturgical techniques rather than theatergrams. This new method allows researchers to assess the evolution of such larger dramatic units beyond mere motifs, stock characters and verbal echoes, and it is better suited to drama than the intertextual analysis prevalent in the study of Augustan poetry. Barrios-Lech uncovers what he calls the ‘deep sources’ of a dramatic element and traces foreigner-native encounters from Aristophanes and Euripides to Alexis and mime. He shows that theatergrams are not only a valuable tool particularly for projects in comparative literature, but also put the necessarily speculative reconstructions of fragmentary texts on a more methodologically controlled footing (only an exiguous fragment of Alexis’ Karchedonios survives).

In a highly thought-provoking and wide-ranging piece, Michael Fontaine questions whether the brief mention of the punishment of a barbarian poet in the Miles Gloriosus (211-12) really is, as is widely assumed, a reference to Plautus’ contemporary poet Naevius. He rejects the communis opinio and suggests instead that Plautus is alluding to the intriguing Alexandrian poet Sotades, the inventor of kinaedic verse, which was written in a metre that carries his name (Sotadean). He explains that, first, the imprisonment of poets for offensive language had no legal backing in republican Rome and that this passage would be the only reference to a contemporary public figure in the entire Plautine corpus. A different explanation must therefore be in order. With characteristic self-confidence, Fontaine is determined to rewrite literary history by positing that literary and cultural contacts between Egypt – where Sotades was imprisoned for an ambivalent joke by king Ptolemy II Philadelphus – and Rome were entrenched already in the 3rd cent. BCE. Moreover, he claims to add an unacknowledged piece to the history of free speech and censorship in ancient Rome. Methodologically, he continues his previous work, which aims to expose highly wrought puns in Plautus’ comedies.[3] To appreciate the sophisticated worplay, the audience he presupposes must be proficient in both Greek and Latin and just as educated as the playwrights who delighted in enriching the literal meaning of lexemes and collocations with mostly sexual innuendos. For example, in Mil. 212 (quoi bini custodes semper totis horis occupant), Fontaine makes out no fewer than three double entendres: bini is supposed to be a pun on Greek βινεῖ, ‘he fucks’; custodes sounds like *κύσθώδης (the author’s own coinage based on κύσθος, ‘pussy’ and the suffix -ώδης, ‘smelling’); finally, occupant can be understood as occubant (‘lie on top of’). In general, Fontaine’s interpretations often seem far-fetched at first sight, but his line of argument becomes gradually more convincing and in the end explains the passage about the barbarian poet much better than previous scholarship. I found Fontaine’s knack for modern analogies refreshing and stimulating, as he does not simply draw up a comparison and leave it at that (e.g. Pussy Riot-Sotades, κακηγορία-hate speech) but reflects on the (in)compatibility of the comparanda. Likewise, his translations have commendably left the dustiness and prudery of older classical scholarship behind. Rendering saltare as ‘twerking’ and cinaedus as ‘pervert’ (Mil. 668) might ultimately bring us closer to the intended meaning of these words, that is, the peculiar dance of the street performers called κίναιδοι. On the downside, the discussion of free speech comes up rather short and feels more like an add-on to the paper. If Plautus and his audience were communally reasserting the fundamental value of free speech in republican Rome, one would expect the playwright to come back to the issue and give it more prominent treatment in his works.

Another point of criticism concerns the whole volume, but Fontaine’s contribution illustrates the general problem well. In foregrounding the erudition of both playwright and audience, many essays risk tipping over from one extreme judgement of Plautine comedy (boorish mass entertainment) to the other (elite refinement). As we know so little for certain about the audiences of Roman drama, different interpretative approaches (performance-criticism, ‘philological’ readings, …) will be able to support different constructions of the viewership. As argued by Goldberg, philologists might do well to consult the reconstructions of ancient historians to derive at a sensible assessment of what the stagings of comic plays in Rome might have looked like.[4] Given that books were an expensive commodity and the literacy rate is estimated to have been no higher than 10-20% of the population, a scholarly, bookish, hellenophile audience at festivals that included religious ceremonies and definitely grew in number (hence will not have been exclusively elite events) is unlikely.[5] The tension between coarse Italic theatrical traditions and Hellenistic culturedness continues to linger in the volume, but this dichotomy might ultimately prove less fruitful than questions about the specificities of comic discourse – one of which is the capacity to parasitically incorporate and refract a vast array of scientific, religious and philosophical ideas in a playful manner. Yet, to charge this collection of essays with the neglect of the ludic spirit of Plautus’ comedy would mean to misread its intention. This book should be a staple of every Classics library as it further deepens our understanding of Plautus as a witty and crafty literary innovator in the early stages of what came to be known as Latin literature.

Table of contents

Part 1: Adaptation and Innovation
Sophia Papaioannou, Menandrian Comedy, Plautine Dramaturgy and Contaminatio (23-50)
Emilia A. Barbiero, What’s New? The Possibilities of Novelty in Plautus’ Casina (51-74)

Part 2: Ethnography
Peter Barrios-Lech, Theatergrams in Plautine Comedy: The Case of Hanno in Poenulus (75-120)
Ioannis M. Konstantakos, Plautine Braggarts and Hellenistic Storytelling (121-152)
Gesine Manuwald, Plautus and Greekness (153-174)

Part 3: Philosophy, Science, Religion
Ruth R. Caston, Friends without Benefits? Philosophical Dimensions of Plautus’ Conception of Friendship (175-194)
Chrysanthi Demetriou, Twins in Plautus: A Dramatic Motif in Cultural Context (195-216)
Seth A. Jeppesen, Meaningful Mispronunciations: Religious Parody in Plautus’ Cistellaria 512-27 (217-238)

Part 4: Literary History
Michael Fontaine, Before Pussy Riot: Free Speech and Censorship in the Age of Plautus (239-264)
Ariana Traill, Plautus and the Origins of Roman Satire (265-286)


[1] For these writers’ bi- or trilinguality see D. Feeney, (2016) Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature. Cambridge, MA and London: 66.

[2] See e.g. K.-J. Hölkeskamp, (2010) Reconstructing the Roman Republic: An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research. Princeton and Oxford.

[3] Amply exemplified in M. Fontaine, (2010) Funny Words in Plautine Comedy. Oxford and New York.

[4] S. M. Goldberg, (2011) ‘Roman Comedy gets back to basics’, JRS 101: 206-221.

[5] See T. P. Wiseman, (2015) The Roman Audience: Classical Literature as Social History. Oxford: 5, & C. W. Hedrick, (2011) ‘Literature and Communication’ in The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World, ed. M. Peachin. New York and Oxford: 169.