The Braggart Soldier
The Braggart Soldier
THE LITERARY WORK
A Roman adaptation of a Greek comedy (called Alazon) written and set in Ephesus around 287 bce; adapted into Latin (as Miles Gloriosus) and first performed around 206 bce.
A young man from Athens relies on his clever slave to steal back the girlfriend who was kidnapped from him by an outrageously conceited soldier-for-hire.
Titus Maccius Plautus, whose name means “Flat-Footed Clown,” gained renown as a popular comedic playwright in Rome. Ironically, he himself was probably not Roman. According to the ancient biographical tradition, Plautus was born around 255 or 250 bce north of Rome in the town of Sarsina in Umbria, well out of range of either the bustle of urban Roman culture or the Hellenized regions of southern Italy. We know very little about his background, save for what we find in later authors. The Latin writer Aulus Gellius (c. 130-180 CE) tells us that Plautus once lost his fortune in a trade investment gone awry, and to recover from this disaster, he simply wrote and produced more comedies. It is presumed that prior to being a playwright Plautus probably worked as a comedic actor. Some scholars believe he even acted in his own productions. Approximately 130 comedies were once attributed to Plautus (most of them, falsely), but only 21 of these plays survive, all of which are considered his. The Braggart Soldier, the longest of the group at 1,437 verses, is regarded as one of his masterpieces.
Plautus was one of the first professional playwrights in western history, that is, one of the first to earn his living by writing for the public. In contrast, Terence, a playwright one generation after Plautus, relied on the financial support of wealthy patrons (see Terence’s The Brothers, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Although Plautus remained unconcerned with the reactions of the Roman elite, he won widespread public approval. The fact that his name was falsely attached to works more often than any other ancient Greek or Roman writer suggests that he gained enough influence to increase the popularity of any play, whether written by him or not. Plautus likely died in or around 184 bce. The comedy that survives him reveals a Roman culture that delighted in temporarily overturning its own social structure through irony, satire, slapstick bawdiness, and all-around mayhem.
Mercenary soldiers and Hellenistic kings
The Braggart Soldier takes place squarely in the Hellenistic period, often delineated as the era between the death of Alexander the Great (323 bce) and Rome’s domination over Greece (c. 27 bce). The period was a time of political upheaval, great transformations in art and literature, and a sort of ancient multi-cultural cosmopolitanism. Greeks, Macedonians, Egyptians, Jews, Persians, Italians, and Phoenicians mingled and conducted business across the Mediterranean, and the cultural influences they exerted on one another are apparent in art and literature. This cosmopolitanism is seen in The Braggart Soldier by the ease and frequency with which the characters travel to and fro by sea, as if leaving home were standard practice. The play is set in third-century bce Ephesus, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The title character, the braggart soldier, is the type of mercenary fighter and cosmopolitan citizen characteristic of the period. At the beginning of the play, he makes references to wide travels (including campaigns in India) and to recruiting soldiers who would fight with him for King
READING THE HUMOR IN PLAUTUS
Like all of Plautus’ plays, the storyline of The Braggart Soldier is humorous, but its true hilarity lies in the witty dialogue and slapstick interactions of the characters. The playwright’s language is rife with exclamation, idiom, alliteration, punning, double entendre, and perfect comedic timing. Adding to this comedic dialogue is the dimension of physical hilarity in the performance (side-stage eavesdropping, a tug-of-war with human body parts, and so forth), which, unfortunately, must be envisioned in the mind of the reader, since the original stage directions do not appear in any of the surviving manuscripts. ft is important to re-member that The Braggart Soldier was not intended to be a work of literature, but a live performance that appealed to the five senses. One needs to imagine the sights and sounds of the ancient Roman theater—the bustle and catcalling of the audience, sound effects from backstage, dramatic costumes and masks, the visual set of the play, and the festive atmosphere. The set for Plautus’s plays was normally constructed as a public street in front of the facade of two or three adjoining buildings. In The Braggart Soldier, the two buildings are the houses of Periptectolemus and Pyrgopotynices, and all the action of the play takes place on this street in plain view of the audience.
Seleucus. The soldier is a foreigner living in Ephesus, although we are not told his nationality. In fact, he is so new to town that he does not even know his next door neighbor is unmarried (a significant detail that contributes to the plot). Like other Hellenistic kings, Seleucus (d. 280 bce), for
whom the soldier works, rose to power out of the fractured political world left behind by Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persian Empire and subsequent death. The Seleucid Empire occupied the central coastal region of Asia Minor, and its most immediate threat was the territory surrounding it, controlled by the Attalids of Pergamum. Hellenistic kingdoms (like Seleucus’) widely enlisted soldiers-for-hire who were not always native to the kingdoms or otherwise invested in the stability of the side for which they fought. These mercenary armies tended to be mobile, multi-ethnic, and comprised of part-time crooks like Plautus’ braggart soldier.
Courtesans in classical culture
Prostitutes and courtesans constituted a significant part of Greek and Roman culture and sexual life. Regarded as a less respectable class than freeborn marriageable women, the prostitutes themselves were further divided into classes: courtesans were highly educated, trained in music, “self-employed,” and occasionally they took up residence with their male lovers. Other prostitutes were akin to poor street-walkers or sex slaves living in the brothels of sea-port towns. Still others, especially in Greece, were temple prostitutes who offered religiously sanctioned relief to the customer. Their proceeds went to funding the upkeep of temples and to financing sacrifices and religious festivals. For both Greece and Rome, while most prostitutes were originally slaves, many were freed and able to do as they pleased. The controversy over the status of prostitutes was not a moral controversy in the cases of the Greeks or Romans. Rather the class raised questions related to male dominance over women and to the legitimacy of offspring. Indeed, it was socially acceptable for men to visit prostitutes, but the prostitutes themselves presented a problem with regards to paternity. In a patriarchal culture, as both Greece and Rome were, the question of legal inheritance created great anxiety, and the offspring of a freeman and a prostitute did not have the right to inherit from the father. The prostitute was viewed as very distinct from proper marriageable women, who were entitled to bear children (preferably sons) to carry on the family name. On the other hand, a married woman was considered the legal property of her husband, and prostitutes, while suffering the stigma of their profession, often enjoyed greater autonomy than she did. In The Braggart Soldier, Philocomasium appears to be a well-cared-for courtesan, while Acroteleutium is clearly a local Ephesian prostitute hired for the day and trained to pull off a scam.
Cast of Characters
Pyrgopolynices: The Braggart Soldier, his name means essentially “Conqueror of Many Fortresses”; the character steals a courtesan from Athens and brings her, against her will, to Ephesus.
Philocomasium: The abducted courtesan, whose name means “Lover of a Good Time.”
Pleusicles: The young Athenian man, whose courtesan and slave are abducted. He must sail to Ephesus to get them back.
Palaestrio: Slave of Pleusicles; he must concoct a plan to free himself and Philocomasium from the soldier.
Periplectolemus: Older Ephesian gentleman, friend of Pleusicles’ father, who aids in the scheme to reclaim Philocomasium and Palaestrio.
Acroteleutium: A hired courtesan in Ephesus who pretends to be married to Periplectolemus and to passionately long for Pyrgopolynices. Her name roughly means’ “Highest End,” which we could interpret as “Top Prize.”
The play begins in Ephesus in front of the house of Pyrgopolynices, a military officer whose friend, a flatterer, lavishes praise on him as they reminisce about his extraordinary military accomplishments. Inside Pyrgopolynices’ house is Philocomasium, a courtesan whom he kidnapped from Athens and brought to his hometown as his lover. Magnifying his deeds outrageously, Pyrgopolynices and his companion, Artotrogus, discuss the golden-armored legion Pyrgopolynices once blew away with one breath, the elephant in India whose forelegs he smashed, and the scores of opponents that he slew in one day: 150 Cilicians, 100 Jugotheevians, 30 Sardinians, and 60 Macedonians. A practiced flatterer, Artotrogus fuels the soldier’s ego by telling him he is the most feared warrior ever, that Mars (the god of war) is no match, and that all women crave him desperately because of his courage and stellar looks. Between each morsel of flattery, Artotrogus turns to the audience and reveals the truth about the soldier—that he is a pathetic liar and a braggart, but a sure source of food for the flatterer. This initial scene, disembodied from the action of the play, alerts the audience to the bombastic character of Pyrgopolynices, the braggart soldier. The two exit the stage and head for the forum or city “square” (a rectangle, really), where they will attempt to recruit soldiers for the Seleucid army.
A clever slave named Palaestrio then enters the scene and informs the audience of the circumstances that have led up to the play. Palaestrio is the servant of a young man of Athens named Pleusicles. Pleusicles has been sent on official government business to Naupactas, a Greek city on the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth. At Athens he has a courtesan lover named Philocomasium, for whom he feels passionately. In his absence, the swaggering soldier, Pyrgopolynices, courts and abducts this courtesan lover. The wronged lover’s clever slave, Palaestrio, takes a ship to Naupactas to inform his master that the courtesan was abducted, but en route his ship is attacked and captured by pirates, and he is given as a slave to someone new. Coincidentally, his new master happens to be the same soldier who abducted Philocomasium, and Palaestrio finds himself enslaved in the soldier’s household in Ephesus with the courtesan. The slave secretly sends a letter to Athens to alert his master of their whereabouts, and Pleusicles sets sail to Ephesus to reclaim them. He stays in the home of his father’s friend, Periplectolemus, who, remarkably, lives next door to the braggart soldier. Like many ancient urban houses, the two share a wall in common. While devising a way to get back his original master’s courtesan, Palaestrio digs a secret hole through a shared wall that connects the two houses. Through this hidden passage Philocomasium can slip secretly and freely to see her lover Pleusicles.
After these two initial ground-setting scenes, the action of the play begins with Periplectolemus distraught and enraged that his friend’s secret intent to reclaim the courtesan and the slave has been compromised. The kidnapper, Pyrgopolynices, has a slave named Sceledrus whose sole responsibility is to keep an eye on Philocomasium. One day Sceledrus chases a monkey across the rooftops and, peering down through a lightwell, he spies Philocomasium embracing her original Athenian lover in Periplectolemus’ house. The question now is, how will the foursome (the neighbor Periplectolemus, the lovers Philocomasium and Pleusicles, and the clever slave Palaestrio) handle this discovery? Palaestrio instructs Periplectolemus to have the courtesan cross back over to her captor’s house, so that when the other slave, Sceledrus, reveals what he has seen, her undisturbed presence in the soldier’s house will prove his testimony wrong. Palaestrio then deliberates on how he can convince the slave that the woman he saw in Periplectolemus’ house was not Philocomasium. After some dramatic gesturing and visibly hard thinking (Periplectolemus narrates the slave’s thought process and physical demeanor), Palaestrio presents his plan: he will tell the servant that Philocomasium’s twin sister has arrived from Athens with a lover, and that the twin is the lip-locked girl whom the slave saw. As soon as Palaestrio reveals his plan, Periplectolemus deems it brilliant. Now the clever slave and the neighbor must work to pull the charade off while figuring out how to rescue the courtesan permanently.
Moments later Palaestrio encounters the monkey-chasing Sceledrus. He is in a frenzy over what to tell his master about the promiscuous girl and the strange man next door. He knows he may be beaten or crucified because his only charge managed to end up in another man’s house. Palaestrio pretends not to believe that Sceledrus could have witnessed such a scandal and insists on entering the soldier’s house to double-check the whereabouts of the courtesan. By this time, Philocomasium has been coached about the farce and has returned to the soldier’s house. Palaestrio goes inside, finds Philocomasium, and rushes back out to accuse the slave of being dimwitted, trouble-seeking, and bleary-eyed. After bantering to and fro about the slave’s delusionary eyesight, Palaestrio brings Philocomasium outside to prove her whereabouts. From this point on, the suspicious Sceledrus insists on guarding the neighbors’ front doors so that he can see exactly who enters and leaves. So Philocomasium must pass through the hole in the wall; moving from house to house, she poses as two different young women.
Moments later Sceledrus has his first confrontation with Philocomasium-as-her-twin. The courtesan leaves Periplectolemus’ house, and the slave calls out to her. She, pretending not to know him, ignores his biddings. He hurls insults her way, and in response, still playing her twin sister, she feigns shock and seems offended. When Sceledrus grabs her, she claims to have arrived the night before in search of her twin and threatens to have him beaten for his insolence. She escapes his grip, enters Periplectolemus’ house, and rushes through the wall to her room in Pyrgopolynices’ house. Sceledrus enters his master’s home and finds the courtesan there again.
Periplectolemus bursts from his house to punish his neighbor’s slave for assaulting the female guest who arrived last night fresh from Athens. Feigning rage, he opens his own house to Sceledrus the slave, insisting that he look inside to see the newly arrived twin. Having just spotted Philocomasium on her couch in his master’s house, Sceledrus finds the twin visitor inside his neighbor’s house. Dumbfounded, he finally accepts the existence of two identical young women. After begging forgiveness and winning mercy from Periplectolemus for roughing up the female guest, Sceledrus goes into hiding to avoid being sold by his master for such a grave blunder.
With their initial plan a success—to convince Sceledrus that two twin sisters exist—the play moves into its more important comedy-laden objective, namely, to trick Pyrgopolynices into giving up Philocomasium willfully. Palaestrio, ever the scheming slave, concocts a crafty plan involving the lovers (Philocomasium and Pleusicles) and the neighbor, Periplectolemus. He instructs them to find a local courtesan of exceptional beauty and wit to pretend to be Periplectolemus’ wife. Via her fake maidservant and Palaestrio, the pretend wife will send Periplectolemus’ ring next door to Pyrgopolyn-ices as a testament of her desire for him. The fake maidservant will insist the wife is madly in love with the soldier and cannot live without him. In fact, the wife will claim to have divorced the neighbor, who is elderly, simply to make herself available to the soldier. Naturally, this will come as no surprise to Pyrgopolynices, who believes all women fall in love with him at sight. If Palaestrio’s plan is successful, the soldier will be tempted to get rid of Philocomasium in order to make room for his neighbor’s stunning, lustful wife.
When presenting the ring to the soldier, Palaestrio builds up the physical and material assets of the lustful wife to such an extent that Pyrgopolynices cannot help but be interested. Palaestrio refers to her as dazzling, cheerful, beautiful, stunning, and desperately in love with him. As is hoped, Pyrgopolynices’ immediate reaction is to wonder how to get rid of the captive courtesan in his house so he can pursue his neighbor’s wife. Palaestrio seizes the moment and suggests that the soldier free the girl into the possession of her mother and twin sister who just happen to be next door. (The “mother” never appears in the play, however. The dialogue just alludes to her.) Palaestrio instructs him to make a gift of all the jewels he has decorated her with, and to send her on her way as pleasantly as possible. Taken by the plan, the soldier allows the fake maidservant to approach and describe how her mistress is home writhing in pain with longing for the soldier. Pyrgopolynices is so taken with the maid-servant, he becomes ever more eager to meet her mistress. Upon meeting the fake wife, he decides that Philocomasium must be dismissed from his house at once. If she refuses, he declares aloud that he will have to use force. At this precise moment, Pleusicles appears on the scene dressed as a shipmaster and claims to be ready for sailing back to Athens. He comes to lead the twin back to port, whether she has reclaimed her sister or not. It seems to Pyrgopolynices that he must seize the moment to get rid of the courtesan, so he can marry the neighbor divorcee. Pyrgopolynices frees Philocomasium despite her feigned protests. Tearfully she finally consents to leave his company. The soldier, in a moment of joyous good-will, even gives his recently acquired slave, the same Palaestrio, to her as her personal servant. Thus, the courtesan and slave are freed in the same instant. Palaestrio, like Philocomasium, pre-tends to be upset at leaving the soldier. Both the courtesan and the slave cry bitterly as they depart from Pyrgopolynices’ home and head to port with the “shipmaster.”
With Philocomasium out of his way, the soldier answers an invitation to enter his neighbor’s house and visit with the wife. This is a pre-set trap, however. Once inside, Periplectolemus barges in, finds his fake wife with the soldier, and attacks him for adultery. Periplectolemus’ slaves, wielding eager knives, drag the soldier outside as ordered by their master. They confiscate his cloak, sword, and money, beat him with clubs, and threaten to castrate him for attempting to seduce the wife. Pyrgopolynices begs that they spare his life and testicles, and promises that he will never in the future hurt any of the slaves for this beating. They agree to spare him, after which he inquires after the whereabouts of Philocomasium. Told that she has set sail for Athens, he finds out that the “shipmaster” was no ship-master, but her lover from Athens. The play concludes with Pyrgopolynices bereft of his cloak and sword, suffering a terribly wounded ego, and humiliated in the knowledge that he has been duped out of his female lover and slave.
Roman conservatism and comedies of inversion
The cornerstone of Roman morality was a sense of pietas, or deep reverence for the gods and duty to one’s parents. Furthermore, Romans valued hierarchy, authority, obedience, and tradition. If one word were to be used, however, to characterize the strategy of Plautus in this well-ordered universe, it would be “inversion,” arranging elements in a topsy-turvy way. Plautus turns the orderly Roman world on its head. His comedy, in the non-threatening environment of a state-sanctioned festival, subverted deeply held values. Instead of unquestioned obedience to the pater familias (head of household), Plautus portrays adolescent boys who dupe their elders and behave saucily without apology. Instead of conservative, demure matrons, Plautus showcases courtesans or prostitutes and conniving women. Instead of subservient slaves, Plautus depicts clueless slaveowners and the intelligent servants who manipulate them. In the midst of the Second Punic War (218-202 bce), when Rome treats its war heroes with the highest respect, Plautus dares to portray his main character as a bombastic soldier whose military feats are little more than fantasy. In short, Plautus presents his characters doing precisely the things Romans are not supposed to do. He breaks the bonds of appropriate social behavior and violates the pietas so integral to Roman identity. His comedy is deeply irreverent toward all things esteemed by Roman culture; the sacred becomes profane and the vulgar takes charge.
The dialogue between Pyrgopolynices, the braggart soldier, and his kidnapped slave Palaestrio shows the irreverence with which Plautus treats Roman customs. Here Palaestrio begins telling the soldier about his neighbor’s lustful wife (who is really a prostitute):
Pyrg: What about her? Is she freeborn, or some slave freed by the rod? [In early Rome, legal ownership was sometimes indicated by touching the object in question with a stalk or rod. Slaves were freed by being touched in this manner by a Roman official, indicating that they were no longer private property, but part of the general public.]
Pal: Really, sir! Would I dare to bring a message to you from a freed slave, when you aren’t even able to give a decent reply to the freeborn ladies already chasing you?
Pyrg: Well, is she married or unmarried?
Pal: Uh, both. Married and unmarried.
Pyrg: Exactly how can the same lady be married and unmarried?
Pal: Because she’s a young wife stuck with an old husband.
Pal: On, she’s beautiful—what a woman she is!
Pyrg: You better not be lying to me!
Pal: I swear, she’s the only woman who deserves someone like you.
(Plautus, The Braggart Soldier, lines 961-970; trans. J. Eyl)
In this scene, Palaestrio makes a mockery of the soldier, and in the play, all the actors make a mockery of marriage. Not only does the “wife” next door pretend to attempt adultery (a crime punishable by death for women in Rome), but she is actually a prostitute pretending to be a wife pretending to attempt adultery. Driving the entire plot is a brilliant slave who controls his masters like marionettes. Plautus is expert in transferring power away from traditional authority figures and into the hands of Rome’s disenfranchised servants, disreputable courtesans, and irresponsible youths. Within the con-text of the festival, this reversal of traditional power dynamics allowed the audience to temporarily reject their own values by inverting them in a distant and foreign (Greek) setting.
Festivals, games, and temporary madness
In The Braggart Soldier, as shown, a slave—Palaestrio—drives the action by coming up with a shrewd plan that achieves its aim. The slave, the lowliest member of society, regarded as a thing rather than a person, rules the day. Knowledge of the social context of the play is essential to understanding this inversion. All Roman drama is linked to festival holidays, when citizens abandoned the constraints of daily life to view parades, tightrope walkers, fire-eaters, acrobats, dancers, and theater. Several festivals (called ludi, or “games,” in Latin) were celebrated each year, and the staging of plays was strictly limited to these holidays. The festivals, native to the Italian peninsula, date from the earliest Roman times and were originally tied to agriculture and the changing of seasons. However, the first plays were not incorporated into festivals until the ludi Romani (Roman Games) 240 bce, when Livius Andronicus produced Latin translations of two Greek plays. Over the centuries the festivals took on a progressively more licentious, or immoral, tone. In view of the other festival activi-ties, theater became associated with immoral behavior; in fact, it was so associated with disreputable behavior that Rome did not erect a permanent theater until 55 bce.
At each festival, wealthy politicians funded the theater in an attempt to curry favor with voters by showing their interest in public entertainment and relaxation. The Saturnalia, celebrated every year in December, was perhaps the festival at which celebrants took the greatest license. The Saturnalia encouraged the temporary toppling of social structure; masters served dinner to their slaves, immorality and drunkenness were forgivable, and general mayhem was tolerated throughout the city.
Scholars have theorized on the social function of the ludi, suggesting that it operated as a sort of safety valve to relieve the pressure that accumulated through daily social constraints. Inverting roles or other elements of society provided a periodic catharsis, a release of emotions within the safe context of ritualized festivals. Allowing for this release, the festival ultimately re-inscribed traditional social structure and boundaries of behavior. Festivals provided an approved space for people to invert all that was deemed appropriate, good, and valuable in Roman society, and the tactic forestalled any serious breakdown in values and traditions. This same theory can be applied to modern-day celebrations such as 1) Mardi Gras, celebrated in New Orleans and 2) Brazil’s annual Carnival, where “normal” people cast off regular identities and enjoy a sort of temporary madness. Plautus’ comedy was an integral part of the mild madness of these festivals. They provided festival-goers with a vicarious form of release and relief. Through his comedy, Romans temporarily erased the rigid social boundary between respectable married women and prostitutes or courtesans. Through his comedy, this profoundly militaristic culture turned military leaders into fools. Through his comedy, young inexperienced men sought guidance from their social subordinates (slaves and courtesans) instead of revering the examples of their fathers.
Sources and literary context
At the beginning of The Braggart Soldier we are told that the play was adapted from an earlier Greek play, the Alazon (which means “braggart” in Greek). We do
STOCK CHARACTERS IN PLAUTINE COMEDY
Like contemporary situation comedy, Plautus’ comedy relied heavily on stereotyped characters whose names and personal psychologies were less important to the plot than the comic role they filled. The following list is in no way exhaustive, but provides a general synopsis of the type of dramatis personae Plautus included in most of his plays:
Adulescens (Young Man): The Adulescens is in his late teens or early twenties, and is always passionately in love with a prostitute or other young woman whose social standing is far below his. Circumstances place him temporarily beyond the jurisdiction of his absent father, and thus he must be watched over by the family slave. Because of his limited life experience, he frequently makes terrible decisions, for which the slave must shoulder the blame. In The Braggart Soldier, Pleusicles is less troublesome than the Adulescens of other plays. Still he goes to extraordinary lengths to reunite himself with his lover, relying on his watchful family slave.
Parasitus (Parasite): Always angling for a free meal, the Parasite will stoop to any degree of flattery to gain it. He may be a traveling companion, businessman, or paid witness in a court trial. His allegiance is determined by who offers him the most financial gain or whose food satisfies his stomach best. The motives behind his compliments are painfully transparent to the audience, and he is frequently irritating to his patron. This character role is usually evident in the name of the Parasite. In The Braggart Soldier, the Parasite is Artotrogus, whose name means “Bread-Chewer”.
Meretrix (Courtesan/Prostitute): The Courtesan is the object of the Adulescens’ unrelenting desire. She is usually in some sort of immediate trouble—financial, emotional, or familial. In The Braggart Solider the Courtesan has been kidnapped and taken from Athens to Ephesus against her will
Servus (Slave): Plautine comedies have more than one slave, but there is usually a “lead” slave, who is responsible for the well-being of the Adulescens. Clever beyond belief and full of sass toward his master, the Servus concocts absurdly implausible plans to solve the problems caused by his wayward charge. In the role of the Servus in this play is Palaestrio; a double-dealing slave, he serves both Pleusides and Pyrgopoiynices and masterminds the play’s action.
Senex (Old Man): Usually either the father of the Adulescens or a friend/relative of the father, the Senex operates as a symbol of authority and frequently expresses anger toward the Servus and Adulestens. More infrequently the Senex acts in concert with the Servus to bring a hairbrained plan to fruition. This less frequent option is what happens in The Braggart Soldier; the hero’s slave and the hero scheme in concert with his father’s friend, Periplectolemus.
Miles (Soldier); The Soldier is pompous and self-congratulating. He inflates his military accomplishments and exaggerates his worth. Because he is blind to the reality of his unimpressive life, he is easily duped through flattery, as the braggart Soldier is in Plautus’ play of the same name.
not know the author of the Alazon, but we do know that Plautus adapted many of his works from the Greek playwright Menander, who be-longed to an era of Greek theater called New Comedy. Thus, it is possible that Menander wrote the Alazon, but we have no evidence to sup-port or refute such a claim. As far as we know, none of Plautus’ plays are complete originals. Segal writes, “Like Shakespeare and Moliere, Plautus begs, borrows, and steals from every conceivable source, including himself’ (Segal, p. 6). Because the Alazon is lost to history, it is impossible to say how much of the play Plautus copied directly and how much he transformed to suit his Roman audience. Yet we do know that Plautus tailored his plays to suit the humor of his Roman audience. Thus, none of his plays are translated verbatim from the original.
Rome meets Greece
No study of Plautus would be complete without looking at the effect of Greek culture on Rome. The Braggart Soldier was adapted from a Greek play not long after Romans had come into contact with Greeks through maritime trade, through the Greek slaves who served Roman families, and through Greek settlements in the southern Italian region called Magna Graecia, or, Great Greece. Earlier in the fifth century, Greek city-states had established colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. As Rome expanded, it became involved in military disputes in this region, and the Greek influence filtered north, resulting in profound cultural change for Rome. Greeks were also taken as slaves to Rome when it entered into mainland Greek political and military disputes in the third century bce. Romans adopted and adapted various aspects of Greek culture including sophisticated marble sculpture, the complex genealogies of the human-like Greek gods (who were subsequently reassigned Latin names), the idea of leisure time, public exercise, and theater.
Early Roman culture was more austere than Greek culture, and the Hellenizing of Rome was met with a great backlash by some of Rome’s most powerful politicians who feared a “softening” of Roman men. Though most Romans were eager to import Greek culture and adapt it to their liking, legal and social measures were taken to thwart the spread of it. For example, partly to curtail a perceived growing decadence and partly to shore up national wealth during the Second Punic War, Rome’s Senate passed the lex Oppia in 215 bce, which sought to control the physical appearance and behavior of women. This law, passed just a few years before the production of The Braggart Soldier, barred women from wearing gold jewelry and multi-colored clothing in public—particularly garments dyed with the expensive purple ink of the murex mollusk, imported from the southeast Mediterranean. Women were also barred from traveling in horse-drawn carriages unless they were traveling to a temple for religious sacrifices. By legislating the behavior of wealthy women and by denouncing the physical luxury that women rep-resented to Roman men, the lex Oppia reinforced a conservatism championed by Rome’s most staunch traditionalists. After much heated debate, the law was repealed in 195 bce, just 11 years after the debut of The Braggart Soldier.
Reception and impact
While we have no evidence for the initial reception of The Braggart Soldier, we do have a sense of Plautus’ great popularity as an entertainer. Many scholars have contrasted Plautus with Terence, suggesting that Plautus won enormous popularity among the masses but that Terence survived off the approval of a small circle of wealthy patrons. Plautus has even been referred to as Rome’s most popular playwright, but there is no ancient evidence to support this claim. While it is true that the comedy writer Terence enjoyed the patronage of wealthy Romans, this does not mean Plautus was more appealing to the masses. On the contrary, Terence’s wealthy patrons may have chosen to support him because of his popular reputation (Parker, p. 606). What we know for certain is that Plautus wrote many plays over a lengthy career and that several playwrights attempted to borrow his name. It is furthermore known that his influence spread far and deep, from ancient Rome to distant places and times. At the turn of the seventeenth century, William Shakespeare drew heavily on Plautus’ work for his comedies, and more recently Stephen Sondheim used it as the basis for his long-running 1962 Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
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