BMCR 2021.12.27

The life of comedy after the death of Plautus and Terence

, The life of comedy after the death of Plautus and Terence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. Pp. xiv, 383. ISBN 9780472132256 $85.00.


Despite productive scholarship over the past twenty years, comprehensive accounts of the reception of Roman comedy are still among the obvious desiderata in classical philology.[1] Nonetheless, consensus has been reached at least on the broader outlines of the reception: most scholars agree that after the end of the second century BCE comic plays gradually lost their popular appeal. From the late-republican period onwards, the stages were dominated by other forms of spectacles, especially the mime, while Plautus, Terence and other comic poets were increasingly studied by reading. However, in Augustan and early imperial times, literary interest in their works waned: hostile to the old Latin “classics,” intellectuals preferred the original Greek comedies to their Roman adaptations. This development is succinctly expressed in Quintilian’s judgement that none of the Roman comedians can compete with Menander (inst. 10.1.99). As a result, the reception of Latin comedies in this era is mostly limited to schools and small-scale or private performances. It is only in the second century CE that a new literary interest emerged for the mid-republican poets.

The Life of Comedy after the Death of Plautus and Terence does not aim to recapitulate the narrative as described above, but rather to question it fundamentally. As Hanses explains in his detailed introduction, the objective of the study is to prove that Latin comedies (fabula palliata and togata) enjoyed enduring popularity and were regularly performed at public festivals up to the era of the Flavian emperors. To this end, Hanses highlights specific aspects of the reception of Roman comedy from the death of Terence to the beginning of the second century CE, which are discussed in four major chapters.

The central issue of the book—the problem of comic revivals—is addressed in the first chapter. In the three following chapters, Hanses seeks to show that comedy was consistently held in high esteem not only among ordinary theatregoers but also within the Roman elite. Surprisingly, however, Hanses does not refer to the schools (where Terence held a permanent position) or grammarians like Varro or Probus (who had great interest in Plautus); instead, he argues that poets and orators from republican and early imperial times often alluded to scenes and characters from Roman comedy because they were familiar to their audience. In doing so, he limits himself to the speeches of Cicero (chapter 2), the satires of Horace, Persius, and Juvenal (chapter 3), as well as some pieces of Latin love poetry (chapter 4). Unfortunately, Hanses does not justify this corpus of authors by explaining their particular significance (cf. p. 30). As a result, the focus of the study becomes somewhat blurred: notwithstanding the book’s suggestive title, the reader does not receive a comprehensive account of the reception, but a rather heterogeneous collection of unconventional approaches to mostly well-known texts.

In the first chapter (“Reviving Roman Comedies in the Republic and Early Empire”), Hanses gathers all sources that he regards as indicative of large-scale performances from the second century BCE to the early second century CE. Announcing ample evidence for his thesis, he does not confine himself to literary testimonies, but also takes material records into consideration. The investigation is complemented by two further sub-chapters in which Hanses addresses comic performances in private households as well as the composition of new comedies in late-republican and imperial times.

The most controversial part of this chapter is certainly his assessment of the post-republican sources. As one would expect, Hanses puts the greatest emphasis on Hor. Epist. 2.1.57–62, where Horace makes an explicit statement about theatrical performances in his own time. Apart from this famous passage, the testimonies that Hanses cites as evidence for comic performances are not compelling: when Ovid mentions the cunning slave Geta (Ars Am. 3.332), he deals with the reading of poetry (not, as Hanses suggests, with performances) and clearly points to Menander. The ueteres comoediae, which according to Suetonius (Aug. 89.1–2) were performed under Augustus, most certainly refer to Greek, not Latin, comedies since the subject of the passage is the princeps’ knowledge of Greek. Apart from the infamous performance of Afranius’ Incendium under Nero, the literary records from the first century CE seem even more dubious to me: most of them only mention unnamed comoedi, comic actors, who performed not only at public spectacles but also in private households. The same applies to the grave markers of slave actors that do not provide any information except for the profession of the buried person. In addition, Hanses presents an obscure theatre ticket for Plautus’ Casina, which had allegedly been found in Pompeii and only exists as a drawing. Since this token, as Hanses himself admits, is probably a piece of forgery, it should have been excluded from the discussion. In my opinion, only the two fairly unknown comic actors Demetrius and Stratocles, who performed in theatres during Quintilian’s lifetime, support Hanses’ thesis to a certain extent. Friedlaender had already regarded their popularity as evidence of a continuing small-scale performance culture, at least in educated circles;[2] in any case, the existence of two famous actors alone does not prove the existence of festivals of the kind we know from the republican era. Neither the literary nor the archaeological remains can therefore seriously challenge the communis opinio. Rather, the lack of corroborating material once again suggests that performances of Roman comedies were rare in the first century CE.

In his second chapter (“Roman Comedy in Ciceronian Oratory”), Hanses examines the speeches of Cicero, whose affinity for dramatic poetry has frequently been discussed by scholars. Focusing on Pro Caelio, In Pisonem, In Catilinam, Pro Murena and Pro Q. Roscio comoedo, Hanses contends that Cicero often makes use of Roman comedy in order to compare his opponents to well-known characters from the stage. Most attention is given to Pro Caelio and its numerous parallels to comic plays, which Hanses (like Geffcken and Leigh) relates to the parallel ludi staged by Cicero’s trial opponent Clodius Pulcher. Hanses’ argument that Cicero wants to compete with Clodius’ ludi, imitating the style of tragedy, comedy, and mime, is both plausible and intriguing. In interpreting the other speeches, Hanses also endeavours to take not only comedy, but also other forms of dramatic genres into consideration. While this can be productive for understanding Cicero, it distracts from the study’s main argument: in his discussion of In Catilinam, for instance, Hanses does not cite a single allusion to a fabula palliata or togata. In addition, he often seems to go too far in his efforts to identify new parallels between Cicero and comedy: we are told, for example, that when Cicero uses the word grex to describe a group of people, his listeners might think of troupes of actors and therefore of dramatic poetry. Similarly vague seems the suggestion that Cicero’s over-complicated wording at Mur. 26 (fundus qui est in agro qui Sabinus uocatur eum ego ex iure Quiritum meum esse aio) echoes Ter. Phorm. 449 (ego quae in rem tuam sint ea uelim facias). Such speculations are numerous throughout the study and tend to disrupt the flow of the argument.

In the third chapter (“Roman Comedy in Roman Satire”), Hanses discusses the influence Roman comedy had on the satirical poets Horace, Persius and Juvenal. Hanses argues that satire advances the themes established in Roman comedy and regards itself as its successor. In doing so, he focusses not so much on the (indeed very different) characteristics of the two genres, but rather on the similarities between palliata characters and the personae of the satiric poets. It is suggested that the satirists take on different roles from Roman comedy (in particular the morally ambivalent seruus callidus and pater durus) and make use of their stereotypical personalities in order to play on the expectations of their readers.

Although Hanses provides some illuminating examples, his argument suffers from a severe methodological problem. Since poets in this period generally prefer the Greek originals to the Roman palliata plays—Hor. Ars 258–280 comments on the superiority of Greek literature with explicit reference to Plautus—the claim that a Latin comedy served as a model for a given satire requires clear literal correspondences (like Horace’s reworking of Ter. Eun. 46–63 at Sat. 2.3.258–271). Though Hanses is aware of this fact, he mostly cites motif-related similarities or allusions to poetic conventions of New Comedy, so that the possibility that the satirists are referring to the Greek originals cannot be ruled out. The problem is most obvious in the case of Persius’ fifth satire, where Hanses himself cites a scholium explicitly saying that the poet’s model was Menander, not Terence (schol. Pers. 5.161.2 hunc … locum ex Menandri Eunucho traxit). Apart from that, the conclusiveness of the arguments varies. Hanses’ idea that the satirists romanticise the social status of the seruus by emphasising his wisdom and freedom is thoughtful and stimulating. Yet, as was the case with Cicero, the parallels to comedy often seem far-fetched. This is best illustrated by the analysis of Hor. Sat. 1.9: Hanses claims that Horace, who in this satire describes an awkward dialogue with a nameless pest, “adapts a stock scene from the comic stage” (p. 226). As evidence, he cites Plaut. Men. 588–597 and states that “like Horace, Menaechmus is intercepted in the forum by a nameless acquaintance with legal troubles” (p. 224). Unlike the one in Menaechmi, however, Horace’s pest is not a client but an ambitious artist whose legal troubles do not open the conversation but interrupt it as he is suddenly dragged to court by a third person in the last lines of the poem. More importantly, the disturbance by a client is not a stock scene in Roman comedy——in fact it is not a scene at all, as it only appears in narration at the beginning of a scene, as in the case of Menaechmi. (The same is true for Plaut. Cas. 563–568 and Ter. Eun. 335–442, which Hanses cites as further evidence). In my opinion, it would have been better to refer to scenes in which parasites tell of their unsuccessful attempts to obtain a place at the table of richer citizens; the monologue at Plaut. Capt. 461–497, for example, could almost be regarded as the counterpart to Horace’s satire from the perspective of the pest.

The same problems reoccur in the fourth chapter of the book (“The Reception of Terence’s Eunuchus in Roman Love Poetry”); Hanses wants to show that the famous opening scene of Terence’s Eunuchus and the complicated relationship between the adulescens Phaedria and his beloved meretrix Thais had a great influence on love poetry. Again, most of the parallels refer to motifs and genre conventions which could also be derived from the Menandrian original and other plays, while the literal allusions Hanses highlights are mostly limited to very common expressions (quid faciam, me miserum, etc.). Consequently, Hanses puts too much emphasis on passages which are not conclusive, like Ov. Rem. Am. 375–386: Ovid’s metaphorical use of the name Thais (as a counterpart to the tragic and loyal Andromache) does not necessarily point to a specific comedy, and if it does, then to Menander’s famous play by that name rather than Terence’s Eunuchus.

In this chapter, too, many arguments struck me as highly speculative. In order to show, for example, that Catullus constructs Lesbia and his own persona in analogy to Thais and Phaedria, Hanses adopts Poliziano’s notorious idea that the sparrow in carmina 2 and 3 is a metaphor for Catullus’ penis. His claim that this metaphor is derived from comedy is not convincing since he can only cite passages in which meretrices compare their profession to bird-catching as evidence. Nevertheless, he maintains “that the very fact that Lesbia’s sparrow can be understood as her lover’s penis marks her as reminiscent of a meretrix from Roman comedy” (p. 305).

All in all, the book leaves a mixed impression. Some of the questions Hanses raises (especially the social implications of referring to certain comic characters in elite literature) are important and have rarely been studied thoroughly. It is refreshing that Hanses does not replicate the usual interpretations when addressing these issues but wants to shed new light on well-known passages. Often, however, the conclusions are not compelling enough to change the common understanding of the reception of Roman comedy. In my opinion, a fundamental problem of the study is the fact that crucial aspects of the reception of archaic Latin literature in late-republican and early imperial times remain underexplored. It would have been imperative, for example, to not only note the canon debates and the growing preference for Greek literature in this era but to reflect on them methodologically. Such aspects would have completed the picture of the epoch Hanses intends to portray and they would certainly have enriched the interpretation of the texts.


[1] An overview of the state of research is given by G. Manuwald, The Reception of Republican Comedy in Antiquity, in M.T. Dinter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Roman Comedy, Cambridge 2019.

[2] See L. Friedlaender, Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire, vol. 2, London 1908, 95–97.