BMCR 2022.11.06

Epidicus by Plautus: an annotated Latin text, with a prose translation

, Epidicus by Plautus: an annotated Latin text, with a prose translation. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2021. Pp. 196. ISBN 9781800642850 £22.95.

Open access


The Epidicus by Plautus is a short, but intricate play. Having edited and translated it for the Loeb Classical Library (de Melo 2011), I was intensely curious to see how Tracy’s work stood in relation to earlier texts and translations. The laudable aim of this volume is ‘to encourage [students] to learn Latin, and to help them appreciate Plautus even if they don’t know any Latin’. Tracy’s translation does indeed read rather well in several respects, but sadly the other parts of her work provide a disappointing introduction to appreciating this play and Plautus’ works more generally. The intended audience of the book consists of university students, predominantly undergraduates, at North American institutions, such as the author’s own, Bishop’s University in Quebec; in fact, a draft of the book was tested on her third-year Latin class of Fall 2020. The work contains a short introduction, a Latin text with language notes, a translation with further explanatory notes, a brief list of works cited, and a basic index. I discuss some aspects of the volume in what follows.


1. The introduction

The introduction is seventeen pages long. After the briefest treatment of the important question of stock characters in comedy, Tracy plunges into a comparatively lengthy discussion of oppression in antiquity, of how gruesome slavery was and how hard-done-by women were; almost ten pages are dedicated to the subject before we get a plot summary (four pages) and a glimpse of what a Roman theatre would have looked like and what sort of audience there would have been (two pages). When I first read the Epidicus, I used the brilliant edition and commentary by Duckworth and Wheeler (1940), whose detailed notes cover many aspects of the play in a sensitive and balanced way. By contrast, Tracy’s introduction is representative of a worrying modern trend: an old topic—here Plautine comedy—is rehashed, but without meaningful—even introductory—treatments of technical elements, of broader questions concerning Roman comedy, or of important scholarly trends in approaching this play. In their stead we find diatribes about the evils of antiquity. But that is simply not good enough. Do students not deserve a chance to learn more about Plautus’ life, his Greek models, or what made a Roman comedy funny to an ancient audience? Do they not deserve the opportunity to hear about manuscripts, linguistic artistry, ancient song and dance? The harsh realities of ancient life need not go unmentioned—I, too, talk about them in the introduction to my Loeb edition -, but outrage is a poor substitute for scholarly discussion. It is remarkable how oppression and victimhood are treated as articles of faith, without any nuance. For instance, women are uncritically presented as among the oppressed, but power differentials are always relative; would a freeborn woman not have been a beneficiary of the enslavement of male prisoners of war? How neat and binary were these dichotomies in real life? And should we view the fictional plot of a comedy as real life? It is notoriously difficult to extract a realistic picture of Roman life from adaptations of Greek comedies that were marked by humorous distortions and crass exaggerations. Perhaps in 2,000 years’ time, scholars will try to piece together life in British private schools based on the cruel detentions and punishments in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels; the endeavour would be comparable and similarly tricky. At any rate, the focus of this introduction on slavery and oppression is questionable and does not help the reader to understand or appreciate an intricate piece of literature; it oversimplifies ancient comedy by depicting Roman society as uniformly cruel and sadistic and by presenting Plautine plays as the expression of voyeuristic pleasure in the suffering of others.


2. The Latin text and notes on language

Tracy prefaces the text with brief sections on language. She adopts the text of Lindsay’s OCT, including its spelling conventions, with only a handful of changes taken from Duckworth and Wheeler.[1] This is surprising, given the progress that has been made in our understanding of the text since Lindsay’s edition. No critical apparatus is provided, even though occasionally deletions made by Lindsay are indicated by square brackets.[2] For longer lines, or lines with change of speaker, it is sometimes hard to see where one verse ends and the next one begins. The act and scene divisions of modern editions are presented without comment; students could have been told that the scene divisions are indeed ancient, while the act divisions we use today are those of Pio from 1500. Concise and useful summaries of what is about to follow are provided before each scene.

It is unfortunate, in an introductory book that intends to serve as a pedagogical tool, that the notes on language and metre contain so many infelicities and errors. The section on metre presents only two trochaic septenarii and two iambic senarii (both with scansion mistakes), and it ends with the worrying statement that if one cannot scan a line, one should move on, rather than seeking help from a tutor, a friend, or scholarly resources on metre. The section on language barely goes beyond spelling issues (assimilation of prefixes, quom instead of cum, and the like). One might wonder why the spelling of the Latin text was not modernized or standardized if this was felt to be such a problem area. The spelling of the manuscripts, on which the OCT spelling is loosely based, is post-Plautine anyway. Of particular concern to scholars of language and literature should be the suggestion that if we want to understand Plautine language, we should compare translations (p. 121), rather than focusing our energies on improving our Latin.

The language notes are repetitive. About a quarter of them are about final –s, of the type ‘nimi’ = nimis’; why not say that Lindsay used an apostrophe wherever final –s had to be, or could be, absent in scansion? Another quarter of the notes give translations of basic words that students could easily look up in a dictionary. The remainder of the notes do not explain anything, but merely present translation equivalents of Latin phrases.

There are several basic mistakes in the language notes that are worth listing here as a source of corrigenda for potential users of the book: 14: the perfect of occipere is occepi, not occoepi; coepi started as the perfect of coepere before it entered into a suppletive relation with incipere (which in Plautus still has a perfect incepi). 18: the subject of placet is not qui uarie ualent, but capreaginum … neque pantherinum genus. 25a: the pun with ius dicis ‘you pronounce judgment’ has nothing to do with phonological similarity with the name Epidicus, but is based on the Greek meaning of the slave’s name. 210: captiuorum quid is not ‘what about the captives?’, but ‘what of captives’, i.e. ‘how many captives’. 216: retia ‘nets’ is neuter plural, not feminine singular (feminine retia is only found in Rud. 900 and is problematic). 236: quin … loquere is punctuated here as a question, so quin does not mean ‘but’, but ‘why not’; however, loquere could also be an imperative, in which case quin has been reinterpreted as a particle with the imperative. 254: eapse (ablative) is not ea ipsa, but an earlier form of ipsa, with inflection of the initial element rather than of -pse, which could still be analysed as a particle. 515: sis is not the present subjunctive of esse, but si uis ‘if you will’. 552: the participle of censere is censum, not censitum. 619: fuant is a subjunctive and not equivalent to sunt. 623: the word for ‘hair’ is capillus / capillum, not capilla. 711: malum means ‘damn’ and is not a term of address for the slave.

Elsewhere, Tracy is worryingly imprecise: 51: quid can be translated as ‘anyway’, but that is not what it means; it should be ‘what about’. 186 and 563: eccum is not from ecce + hunc, but a form of hunc that did not have -c(e); her alternative explanation of eccam as ecce eam could not lead to eccam either. 280: an explanation of the function of immo would be more helpful than the alternative translations given, ‘by all means’ and ‘by no means’. 439: in caue rettuleris, the perfect subjunctive is glossed as such, but no explanation is given why a perfect is used rather than a present. 703: dedin is indeed dedi + -ne, but it is worth saying that in early Latin the meaning is often negative, as here (‘did I not give?’).


3. The translation

The translation, into smooth, colloquial prose, is by and large good and constitutes the best element of Tracy’s work. It is prefaced by a justification of the choices made by Tracy and is accompanied by further explanatory notes. Some of the choices discussed are a little surprising, however, and I elaborate in what follows. Words like pol or hercle, traditionally called ‘oaths’, are consistently translated ‘by Pollux’ and ‘by Hercules’. This is etymologically justified, but did the Romans really think about these deities much when uttering such words? They are, after all, shortened to forms like pol, and they often occur in clitic position emphasizing what precedes. The situation is not that different from an English speaker saying Jeez!, which can hardly be argued to have strong religious connotations these days. Expressions like i in malam crucem are again translated literally (‘go get yourself crucified’), in an attempt to drive home the gruesome reality of crucifixion. But is the literal meaning what is intended? Or is this not comparable to English go to hell!, which no longer entails religious belief? Amica is regularly translated as ‘girlfriend’, the most appropriate choice, but Tracy points out that in 457 she preferred the translation ‘the slave girl I’m in love with’ to ‘make the realities of the relationship clearer’; the speaker, however, uses a euphemism precisely because he does not want the reality of the situation to be mentioned.

The translation itself is trendier and more colloquial than Plautus himself, who uses many linguistic elements that were undoubtedly already old-fashioned in his own day; many modern translations follow a similar pattern, attempting to be slangy rather than trying to understand where Plautus was trendy and where he was not. In 217, the neutral illam ‘that one’ is translated as ‘that chick’, an odd choice for someone who complains about Plautine sexism. In 580, pro deum atque hominum fidem ‘by the good faith of gods and men’ is rendered as ‘By the god! By honesty!’, a clear misunderstanding of the form deum. In the last line of the Latin plot summary, seruolus is translated as ‘young slave’, but this is one of those diminutives without genuine diminutive function.

The notes on the translation are again repetitive. Just how often does the reader need to be told that Attica is the region where Athens is situated? In the notes on the translation, it would have been good to hear that the ‘Greek’ names are Plautine inventions and not taken from the original. Note 32 on augural practices is misleading; the bird to the left is a positive omen because the Roman augur faced south and the bird came from the direction of the sunrise, but under Greek influence the augur could also face north, hence the unlucky left, the direction of the setting sun. Note 71 claims that frugi ‘decent’ was always used by masters speaking of or to their slaves; this is not even remotely true (cf. Most. 133 and passim). Note 80, on ‘puppies smell quite different from pigs’, glosses over the fact that Philippa is insulting the lyre-girl prostitute.


4. A final thought

It is commendable that through online publications like Tracy’s Epidicus, more and more undergraduate students get to read Plautus in the original; however, much more care needs to be taken in the preparation of such teaching materials.



de Melo, W.D.C. (2011), Plautus, vol. 2 (Cambridge MA).

Duckworth, G.E. (1940), T. Macci Plauti Epidicus: Edited with Critical Apparatus and Commentary, in Which Is Included the Work of the Late Arthur L. Wheeler (Princeton and London).

Lindsay, W.M. (1904), T. Macci Plauti Comoediae, vol. 1 (Oxford).



[1] 9a-b, 119, 294, 397, 705.

[2] 61, 384-5.