Plautus (ca. 254-ca. 184 B.C.) was a Roman writer. His theatrical genius, vitality, farcical humor, and control of the Latin language rank him as Rome's greatest comic playwright.
During the 3d century B.C., Roman writers began to imitate the forms and contents of Greek literature. Unlike the early poets, Plautus confined himself to one area: translation and adaptation of Greek New Comedy (ca. 336-ca. 250 B.C.).
Knowledge of the life of Plautus, whose full name was Titus Maccius Plautus, is scant. Random remarks by later Roman writers and others furnish the questionable details. From Cicero the date of Plautus's birth can be placed about 254 B.C. and his death about 184 B.C. Festus, scholar of the 2d century A.D., gives Plautus's birthplace as the small town of Sarsina in Umbria, Italy. From Aulus Gellius, a grammarian from the 2d century, comes the traditional and fascinating, if brief, account of Plautus's life in Rome.
Plautus earned money by working in the theater but promptly lost it in trade. He returned to Rome penniless and for a time supported himself by working as a laborer in a flour mill. During this period he wrote three plays (not extant). Scholars who accept this romantic career suggest that it may have been reported in Plautine prologues now lost.
That Plautus earned money by theatrical work is generally accepted and may mean that he was a stagehand, carpenter, playwright, or actor. His mastery of stagecraft and comic effect suggests long experience as an actor prior to writing plays. Most intriguing is precisely how Plautus, an Umbrian from rural Sarsina, managed to acquire both a knowledge of Greek and the superb control of Latin displayed in his dramas.
The total of Plautus's plays is probably close to 50. Twenty plays are extant more or less in their entirety: Amphitruo (Amphitryon), Asinaria (The Comedy of Asses), Aulularia (The Pot of Gold), Bacchides (The Two Bacchides), Captivi (The Captives), Casina (Casina), Cistellaria (The Casket), Curculio (Curculio), Epidicus (Epidicus), Menaechmi (The Twin Menaechmi), Mercator (The Merchant), Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Warrior), Mostellaria (The Haunted House), Persa (The Girl from Persia), Poenulus (The Carthaginian), Pseudolus (Pseudolus), Rudens (The Rope), Stichus (Stichus), Trinummus (The Three Penny Day), and Truculentus (Truculentus). Fewer than 100 lines survive from the Vidularia (The Traveling Bag).
All the plays are based on Greek originals, especially those by the 3d-and 2d-century B.C. comic playwrights Menander, Diphilus, and Philemon. Dates for the production of only two plays are known: Stichus (200 B.C.) and the Pseudolus (191 B.C.). Approximate dates for some plays are derived from reference to contemporary persons and events, amount of sung verses, and various criteria of style and technique. Modern chronological studies suggest the following relative datings—early period: Asinaria, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus (ca. 205 B.C.), Cistellaria (before 201 B.C.); middle period: Stichus (200 B.C.), Aulularia, Curculio; late period: Pseudolus (191 B.C.), Bacchides, Casina (185/184 B.C.).
The middle of the 1st century B.C. witnessed a revival of interest in Plautus and the restaging of many of his plays with consequent altering of original prologues. Some plays have no prologue; others have deferred prologues; and still others have authentic prologues or prologues based on those composed by Plautus. Often the prologue furnishes the audience with details necessary to understanding the opening of a complicated plot, or it may even explain in advance the outcome of the play with a consequent loss of suspense and surprise but a gain of irony. As a rule, the Plautine play presents one plot with one problem and one set of characters; these simple plots of Plautus allow comic digression and repetition. Humorous passages loosely connected with the plot and violation of dramatic illusion are clear evidence of Plautus's concern for entertaining his audience with a good laugh even at the expense of careful workmanship and finish.
Themes display considerable variety. There are plays of subdued comedy (Captivi), sentimental comedy (Cistellaria), romance (Rudens), mythological travesty (Amphitruo), and coarse farce (Asinaria). Mistaken identity and deception, either individually or jointly, give rise to the misunderstandings and complications on which the plays turn. Plautus appears to rely on earlier native Italian farces for the devices of trickery and impersonation.
Roman comedy for the most part paid careful attention to delineation of character but within a framework of types in which subtlety, complexity, and individuality were severely restricted. The Plautine cast of characters often includes the traditional figures: the young man (adulescens) hopelessly in love but lacking the courage and resourcefulness to achieve his desires; the aged parent (senex) who must be deceived and won over; the slave (servus) whose cunning and bustling create humor and intrigue; the young girl (virgo) of acknowledged free birth or to be rescued from shame; the courtesan (meretrix) who may be mercenary or noble; the hungry but shrewd parasite (parasitus); the despised slave dealer (leno); and the soldier (miles) whose boasting is equaled only by his stupidity.
But Plautus's originality and desire to entertain his audience have particularized many stock characters by exaggerated and imaginative portrayal. Characters especially suited to farce (Euclio and Pyrgopolynices) are among Plautus's most memorable creations of imagination and fantasy.
Command of Language and His Influence
Plautus captures the language of ordinary life, and to it he contributes novelty, vitality, and spontaneity. At a time when the Latin language was still quite fluid in inflection, syntax, and vocabulary, Plautine selection, combination, and invention set a high standard. Dialogue is rapid, racy, and filled with assonance, alliteration, and picturesque expressions. The vocabulary exploits and augments the available supply of terms of affection and abuse. Often tautology catches the carelessness or garrulity of ordinary speech. Plautus has no rival in ability to coin comic terms and names, for instance, Bumbomachides Clutomestoridysarchides, "Battlebomski Mighty-adviser-of-wretched-strategy."
The plays of Plautus enjoyed immediate success during his lifetime and were restaged and read by Romans after his death. The Middle Ages found his language difficult and his morality objectionable. During and after the Renaissance in Italy and other European countries, Plautine comedies were staged, translated, and imitated in vernacular compositions. Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), called the true founder of the modern European stage, reproduced in an Italian setting, in his La cassaria and I suppositi, the form and spirit of Plautine models.
William Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (1592) reflects the Menaechmi and the Amphitruo; and Ben Jonson's The Case is Altered (1597) blends the Aulularia and the Captivi. The esteem Plautus enjoyed among 16th-century dramatists is clear when Shakespeare has Polonius in Hamlet say, "Seneca cannot be too heavy nor Plautus too light."
Paul Nixon, Plautus (5 vols., 1916-1938), provides both text and translation of Plautus's works; translations are also given in G. E. Duckworth, The Complete Roman Drama (2 vols., 1942). For excellent treatment of almost every aspect of Plautus see Duckworth's The Nature of Roman Comedy (1952). Critical studies are Gilbert Norwood, Plautus and Terence (1932), and Erich Segal, Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (1968). The Greek sources of Plautus's work are considered in Philippe E. Legrand, The New Greek Comedy (1917). Margaret Bieber, The History of the Greek and Roman Theatre (1939; 2d ed. 1961), includes discussion and illustrations of archeological remains. See also W. Beare, The Roman Stage (1950; 3d ed. 1965). □
Plautus, Titus Maccius
Titus Maccius Plautus
c. 250 b.c.e.–c. 184 b.c.e.
From Slave to King of Comedy.
Because Plautus was the most popular playwright in Roman history, there are many biographical details about him from many sources. It is ultimately impossible to determine which are true, or even partly true, and which are wholly false. In any case, the stories about Plautus bestow on him a colorful life, with a dramatic rise from slavery to comic sovereign. It is said that he was born in Sarsina, Umbria, around 250 b.c.e., and was a native speaker of his regional Italic language, Umbrian. "Plotus" is the Umbrian spelling of his cognomen, or last name, which may have meant "flat-footed" or "big-eared," both perfect for a comedian. This name would have been Romanized as "Plautus." "Plautus" also connotes "applause" (the modern English word comes from a Latin root), and therefore is a clever last name for a famous playwright, whose livelihood depended on his popularity with his audience. His gentilician or family name, Maccius or Maccus (the manuscripts are unclear), was very probably made up as a joke on the Roman nobility with prestigious family names like Julius and Claudius. There was a typical character named "Maccus," a clown, in the native Italic dramatic genre known as Atellan farce. Though Plautus was born a free citizen, his popular biography told that he was a slave who had been a performer in Atellan farce and mime, and who then came to Rome as a freedman and rose to greatness on the comic stage.
Library of Work.
In the second century b.c.e. over 130 titles of plays were attributed to Plautus. Certainly he was a prolific author, but part of this overwhelming number of attributions may be a result of his name itself: any play said to be written by the great Plautus would certainly have attracted more audience members. At the end of the century, the Library of Alexandria began to collect manuscripts and put together reliable editions of the best known authors, and in the first century, one of the foremost scholars in Rome, Varro, made what he considered a definitive list of 21 plays that could accurately be called Plautine. These plays are the ones that have been recognized by modern scholars, mostly complete with some fragmentation. The chronology of the plays is uncertain and has been a source of scholarly debate for hundreds of years. Because New Comedy focused on general social situations and avoided most topical references, allusions to historical events are few and often hard to assess. The titles of Plautus' best-known plays are as follows: Casina, the name of a household maidservant (c. 186 b.c.e.); The Twin Sisters Named Bacchis; The Twin Brothers Named Menaechmus; The Boastful Soldier; and Pseudolus, the clever slave of the play (c. 191 b.c.e.).
Themes and Styles.
From these plays, much can be garnered about Plautine style, characterization, and staging. Plautus often presented as his comic heroes not members of the nobility or figures of authority but the lowliest and least powerful elements of society: slaves, foreigners, prostitutes, young men without resources. Since Plautus unabashedly "adapted" plots from his Greek New Comedy predecessors, many of the same characters that were established in that genre can be seen: the grouchy old man, the nagging wife, the nosy neighbor, the shrewd prostitute, the dissolute son, the victimized young woman. Plautus made these characters his own, however, by changing them from Greek comic stereotypes to real denizens of Rome, who used Roman idioms and legal terms and thought like Romans. In this way, Plautus could satirize aspects of his own ultra-conservative society by presenting all his characters as "Greek," thereby absolving them of their debauched morals and behavior, and allowing his Roman audience to enjoy the reversal of heroic status. One scholar has compared the comedies of Plautus to the celebration of the Saturnalia, a festival in which masters and servants changed places for the day. Plautus' Latin is the only example of literary Latin in the late third and early second centuries b.c.e. His latinity is deceptively fluid and idiomatic; it is also highly stylized, uses a great number of anachronisms and other oddities, and follows a complicated metrical schema. Plautus' play Twin Brothers Named Menaechmus was the basis for Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors.
W. S. Anderson, Barbarian Play: Plautus' Roman Comedy (Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto, 1993).
Richard C. Beacham, The Roman Theater and Its Audience (London: Routledge, 1991).
Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
E. J. Kenney, ed., The Cambridge History of Classical Literature II: Latin Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).