BMCR 2023.12.03

Plautus: Curculio

, Plautus: Curculio. Bloomsbury ancient comedy companions. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. Pp. xi, 181. ISBN 9781350079748.



T. H. M. Gellar-Goad’s companion to Plautus’ Curculio is an engaging and accessible contribution to the Bloomsbury Ancient Comedy Companions. The series, edited by C. W. Marshall and Niall Slater, aims to provide an accessible introduction to each surviving comedy, with particular reference to the social-historical and performance contexts, and to be of use both to students and scholars. Gellar-Goad’s companion will be especially helpful to undergraduates, who will find his authorial persona approachable and his presentation straightforward and colloquially unstuffy. At the same time, these virtues carried to excess may make this volume of less use to graduate students and advanced scholars.

Gellar-Goad arranges organizes the book into nine concise chapters, each ranging between 12 and 22 pages. Content chapters are followed by “Key Terms and Definitions” (e.g., cantica; iambic senarius), which the author has bold-faced at first mention in the chapters. A “Notes and Recommended Reading” section follows. The notes consist of discussions of the author’s sources  for each chapter rather than conventional numbered endnotes cued to the text, as in the other books in the series. I argue below that the lack of conventional endnotes diminishes the usefulness of the Curculio companion for scholars.

The first three chapters are introductory. In Chapter 1, the author combines the available evidence with the imagination of a (responsible) historical novelist to recreate how a Roman living in early second century BCE might have experienced the performance of the Curculio: the holiday spirit, the religious procession and sacrifice, the diverse crowd thronging the Forum, their anticipation before the start of the performance on a temporary stage erected in the Comitium. Gellar-Goad also sketches out the ancestry of fabulae palliatae in Greek New Comedy and Italic elements such as Atellan farce. Chapter 2 summarizes the plot and argues that Curculio, the shortest of all surviving Roman comedies, contains three characteristic Plautine plot elements: a love story, a tale of deception, and a family reunion. The title of Chapter 3, “Major Themes and Humor in Curculio,” oversells the contents. Rather than overarching themes, Gellar-Goad provides a nonetheless useful discussion of categories of metaphor and cultural reference that Plautus exploits for humor. The chapter concludes with an overview of themes and genres of jokes in Curculio: absurdity and nonsense humor; linguistic jokes; sexual and scatological humor; parody of other styles and linguistic registers.

Chapters 4 and 5 consider Curculio as a performance. Gellar-Goad’s analysis of Plautine meter, music, and dance in Chapter 4 is both clear and detailed, notably so in his description of technical features such as syllable length, meter, and the nature of the tibiae. Following the discussions in Moore (2012) and Marshall (2006), the author outlines how Plautus uses music to structure the action of the play into a series of metrically defined arcs. Chapter 5 looks first at masks, costumes, and props. Here again, Gellar-Goad’s discussion is helpful in its selection of primary aspects and its clarity in the treatment of them—for example, in his consideration of masks not only as a means of indicating stock characters, but also as physical objects that could amplify the actor’s voice or direct the attention of the audience. The author concludes with a consideration of blocking and follows linguistic clues to character movement to suggest how the last 200 lines of the play may have been blocked.

Chapters 6 and 7 treat metatheater. In Chapter 6, Gellar-Goad provides a helpful general discussion, with a four-part typology of metatheater and examples of each type in Curculio. An excellent discussion in Chapter 7 focuses on the play’s principal metatheatrical turn, the action-freezing, extra-dramatic interruption of Curculio’s property manager, or choragus, with its tour of significant monuments and places in the Forum and the individuals associated with each (lines 462–486). Gellar-Goad notes the special qualities of the speech but may overstate its uniqueness. Direct address to the audience is also found, for example, in Terence’s prologues (Ehrmann 1985) and Aristophanes’ parabases (Moore 1991). However, the author does draw a convincing parallel between the choragus’ rant on the corrupt types who infest Rome and Curculio’s entrance (lines 280–300), where the parasite inveighs against the types of annoying Greeks on the streets of Epidaurus. The author observes how these speeches divide the play into three parts, each corresponding to a principal plot line: the love story; the deception; the family reunion. Finally, he suggests how the metatheater of the choragus’ extra-dramatic speech could have inspired Plautus’ audience to look outside the play at the real-life corruption of Rome as mirrored in the theatrical corruption of Epidaurus.

Chapter 8 considers the play as a source for social and historical information with a focus on five aspects of Roman life: slavery and sex labor; food insecurity; poverty; low-status employment; religion. The section on religion and ritual orients students to important differences between modern concepts of religion and Roman ones. Examination of the other topics orients to students the grim social realities behind the comic situations in the play. The young man Phaedromus slaps his slave Palinurus onstage for laughs; off-stage, enslaved persons in Rome were subject to regular physical abuse. The slave girl Planesium is revealed as freeborn at the end of the play and marries her lover; in the real world, enslaved meretrices could not choose their sex partners, much less expect love, freedom, and marriage. Plautus makes much fun of Curculio’s inexhaustible appetite; in reality, the poor, that is, the overwhelming majority of the population, lived precarious lives marked by hunger and economic dependency.

This is useful and necessary information for newcomers to Roman culture and Roman comedy. However, the author, in my view, missed an opportunity to engage more broadly with a contemporary concern: how do we read, teach, perform, and even enjoy literature that reflects beliefs and attitudes that we find abhorrent? A great deal of Plautus’ humor comes at the expense of enslaved and other marginalized characters: jokes about torturing slaves, jokes about physical deformities, misogynistic humor. Gellar-Goad notes his own discomfort with the staged violence of slapstick, which in Curculio often involves violence directed at Phaedromus’ slave Palinurus (11). He also distances himself and his readers from Plautus’ society through how he refers to slaves: “enslaved persons” rather than slaves; a “sex-trafficker” rather than a pimp. Rome is not a slave society, but an “enslaving society.” In some instances, the terminology strikes me as off-key. Nonetheless, the goal is important, to stand apart from the values seemingly implied by the text and, perhaps, to avoid complicity with them.[1]: In his companion to Plautus’ Mostellaria in this series (2022), George Franko addresses the question systematically, noting that our current values can make Plautus “uncomfortable, less funny, or even unreadable and unwatchable to some” (Franko 2022, 17). As noted, Gellar-Goad is well aware of this discomfort, which he addresses, albeit in piecemeal fashion. Students encountering Plautus for the first time would benefit from more focused and systematic engagement with the contemporary challenges involved in teaching, reading, and performing his plays.

Chapter 9 is a broad and engaging take on the reception of the play in antiquity, the manuscript tradition and the printed editions that inspired a revival of Plautus in performance. Here, Gellar-Goad surveys translations and performances from the Renaissance and early modern period all the way to Broadway and the pastiche of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The author also surveys a parallel performance tradition in schools and colleges, where the brevity of Curculio has helped make it a choice for repeated production.

Gellar-Goad has adopted a less formal authorial persona and a casual and approachable style, which makes him an entertaining and engaging companion to the play for many readers, especially undergraduates. Thus, the adulescens Phaedromus is “a horny young guy” (26) and “Phaedromus’ mom and dad are nowhere to be found” (28). The author’s eschewal of numbered notes would seem also to be a component of his informal style. However, while the “Notes and Recommended Reading” are adequate for the attribution of ideas, they make the Curculio companion less useful to scholars than the other books in the series, all of which provide conventional endnotes.

In my view, Gellar-Goad’s approach sometimes results in assertions that, while rhetorically striking and memorable, can be distracting, vague, or inaccurate in their import. For example, the author dismisses the effort to reconstruct Plautus’ lost Greek originals, a major focus for early twentieth-century Plautine scholarship, as “essentially a fool’s errand” (7). At the same time, he acknowledges that these scholars established the basis for our appreciation of what is Plautine in Plautus. It may be wiser in general to refrain from dismissing the work of previous scholars as foolish, however misguided or limited their scholarship may seem today. In addition, the memorable rhetorical punch of “fool’s errand,” may in fact overshadow the important point Gellar-Goad is making about the contribution that these scholars did make to our understanding of Plautus.

Gellar-Goad reminds the reader repeatedly that ancient Rome was “an enslaving society” (11, 45, 118; cf. 96: “a society organized around the enslavement of human beings”). The Curculio itself is “the product of an enslaving society” (118). A striking phrase, but a vague one. The author does not offer a synthetic account of what he means by “enslaving society.” Focused reference to his sources (for example, to Stewart 2012:1–7), would have better served the reader and perhaps pushed the author himself to greater precision in his discussion of this concept—an important one, which should have been included among the “Key Terms and Definitions.” Geller-Goad’s inclination to striking rhetoric sometimes detracts from scholarly accuracy, for example in the unreferenced assertion that by 201 BCE “the number of enslaved persons in Rome far outnumbered the number of citizens” (118). This would, indeed, be a striking illustration of Rome as “an enslaving society”; however, estimating the Roman slave population is a fraught endeavor (cf. Scheidel 1999). When quantitative data are lacking, silence is preferable to inaccuracy— especially here, where consensus is available on a more general point in support of the notion of Rome as an enslaving society, namely that there was a significant increase in the population of slaves in Italy during the third century BCE.

An unsupported assertion of a more concerning nature appears in Chapter 9, on the reception of Curculio. Gellar-Goad states that Dutch graphic artist Magda van Tilburg’s 1980 adaptation of the play has been “marred by the intensely anti-Semitic depiction of Lyco the greedy banker– not a young man as in Plautus, but an old, somewhat effeminate balding man, with an unrealistically large nose” (147–148). In the notes, the author thanks a colleague for bringing “the anti-Semitic graphic novel” to his attention (167). He also provides a link to an on-line version: in my view, the drawings of the banker could have been modeled on a stock character from the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone, the greedy Venetian banker. The drawing itself may signal an homage to Plautus’ influence on that genre, an influence Gellar-Goad himself has noted (145-146). Anti-Semitism, indeed bigotry of any kind, should be called out and condemned. However, in this case, the accusation of anti-Semitism is problematic, both in the presence of a plausible alternative explanation for the representation of Lyco and in the apparent absence of or, at least, the lack of reference to anti-Semitism elsewhere in van Tilburg’s Curculio or her other work.

Gellar-Goad has written an engaging and useful companion to Plautus’ Curculio, particularly in reference to performance and metatheater. However, at several points, readers (including undergraduates) would have, in my view, been better served by conventional endnotes, a less intrusive authorial persona, and more scholarly detachment.



Ehrman, Radd K. 1985. “Terentian Prologues and the Parabases of Old Comedy.” Latomus 44 (2):370-376.

Franko, George Fredric. 2022. Plautus: Mostellaria. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Marshall, Christopher W. 2006. The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moore, Timothy J. 1991. “Palliata Togata: Plautus, Curculio 462-86.”  AJP 112 (3):343-362.

Moore, Timothy J. 2012. Music in Roman Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Presss.

Scheidel, Walter. 1999. “The Slave Population of Roman Italy: Speculations and Constraints.”  Topoi: Orient-Occident 9 (1):129-144.

Stewart, Roberta L. 2012. Plautus and Roman Slavery. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

van Tilburg, Magda. 2008. “Curculio, Plautus.” Darmstadt: Antiqua Signa.

Wilson, Emily 2021. “Sex and Slavery in the Odyssey.” In Slavery and Sexuality in Classical Antiquity, edited by Deborah Kamen and C. W. Marshall, 15–39. Madison: Wisconsin.



[1] Cf. Wilson 2021, 36 n. 1 on the importance of the revised terminology.