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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Gonzalez Lodge (1863–1942)

By Plautus (c. 254–184 B.C.)

TITUS MACCIUS PLAUTUS, Rome’s greatest comic poet, died in 184 B.C. According to the very meager tradition recorded by Gellius, he was born at Sarsina in Umbria, but came as a young man to Rome. There he worked in a subordinate capacity with a theatrical troupe, and accumulated some money. He then engaged in foreign trade, but was unsuccessful, and therefore returned to Rome and worked in a mill. Here he produced three plays which were accepted by the ædiles; and from this time on he devoted himself, with the greatest success, to writing.

The number of his plays has been a matter of discussion since shortly after his death. His great popularity caused the work of other writers to be ascribed to him. Hence in Cicero’s time, the great antiquarian Varro found it necessary to make a careful examination of the plays then circulating under the name of Plautus,—one hundred and thirty in number, according to some authorities. He found that twenty-one were acknowledged by all critics as genuine; and he himself decided that nineteen others were probably so. At the revival of learning, but eight comedies were known. Later however other manuscripts were discovered, giving twenty more or less complete plays; finally, in 1815, an important palimpsest of the fourth century A.D. was found, which showed fragments of still another. Hence it has generally been assumed that we have the twenty-one undisputed dramas referred to by Varro.

The most striking peculiarity of these plays is, that though written for Romans and in Latin, the plot and character are generally Attic, and the scene is usually Athens. This was due to the literary conditions at Rome. Until after the first Punic War, the life of Rome had been one long succession of wars for existence, during the latter period of which the Romans came into contact with Greek culture and civilization in Sicily and lower Italy. There had been no opportunity for a native literature to develop. That there were at hand the elements of one, which under normal circumstances might soon have shown a sturdy growth, we have abundant evidence; but when they found time to turn their attention to literature, it was found to be much easier to transfer the finished products of Greek culture to Rome, than to develop the native product to suit a taste already grown critical from foreign contact.

The bloom of the New Comedy was just past in Greece, and the stage in Greek lands was still held by the masters of this school,—Menander, Philemon, and others. They portrayed with greater or less accuracy the rather ignoble social life of the period, sometimes descending to the coarseness of burlesque. Plautus had probably become familiar with such plays during his wandering youth, and he naturally turned to them for the inspiration of his maturer years.

Accordingly we cannot expect to find in Plautus’s comedies a representation of the Roman life of the time. Their originals were Greek; and however much worked over, they remained Greek. Roman allusions and jokes, and some purely Roman features, were introduced, probably to lessen the jar on the Roman sensibility: but these were of minor importance; for it must be remembered that any criticism of the public life of Rome was vigorously repressed by a strict police censorship, and that only such Roman allusions would be tolerated as would cause laughter without ill-feeling. How far the plays as thus recast were still untrue to Roman life, we cannot decide; but they were probably much less realistic to the Romans than are French plays to us.

The chief interest centers about the young men. There are two principal types, which may be roughly called the good and the bad; but there are numerous variations in the individual characters. The minority are represented as brave, high-minded, and genial, cultured in manners, prudent and economical in habits; the majority are audacious or vacillating spendthrifts, moody and dissipated, living from hand to mouth. Frequently the contrast between the two types is made more striking by their juxtaposition in the same play. Almost all are in love, but are hindered from gaining possession of their loved ones by lack of money. Being still under the control of their fathers, they are without resources; and their expedients to raise money, and their success or misfortune in this pursuit of their loves, form the subject of the play. They are themselves more or less passive, the brunt of the work falling upon their slaves; but they are keenly interested in the slave’s efforts, and follow his actions with the liveliest emotions. When the outlook is gloomy they threaten to leave home forever, or to destroy themselves; supplicating the slaves most abjectly, or threatening them with the direst punishments. When success seems assured they break out into violent transports, calling their slaves by the most endearing names, and often showing their gratitude by manumitting them. At other times they testify to the strength of their passion by lackadaisical soliloquies, and are in general “very hard to endure.”

Opposed to these young men, who are still under their father’s control, we have in several plays the braggart soldier. He is usually the rival most feared by the young men, for he has the money of which they are in such urgent need. He is usually portrayed with the bearing of a lion but the courage of a hare, always boasting of his prowess but ready to yield to the slightest display of force,—the type immortalized once for all in Falstaff. He is the victim of all the intrigues, and is invariably cheated out of both his money and his mistress.

The inamoratas of the young men are usually slave girls, who were originally free-born, but were either exposed or stolen in infancy, and have been brought up in low surroundings for immoral purposes. There is usually a genuine attachment between them and the young men; the desire of both is matrimony, which the young men hope to accomplish by purchasing the girls and manumitting them. Frequently their origin is discovered; they are acknowledged by delighted parents, who hasten to betroth them to their happy lovers. Sometimes however the women are much more debased, and the plays too coarse to be at all enjoyable.

The most important rôle is that of the slaves. These usually stand shoulder to shoulder with their young masters, and give them their loyal and constant support. Naturally they fall into two classes,—the honest and the dishonest. The former are few in numbers; and are either old slaves who have grown up in the family, and perhaps served as tutors for the children, or stupid country clowns, coarse in speech and habit, who serve mainly as foils to their unscrupulous fellows. The dishonest slaves are the life of the play, and ancient critics regarded their rôles as the most important. Their chief characteristics are an extraordinary boldness and skill in invention and trickery, with the most utter shamelessness in carrying out their plans. They help their young masters out of their difficulties, supply the necessary money, and at the same time furnish the broad humor so essential to comedy. Running the risk of the most condign punishment from the fathers, or others whom they have deceived, they preserve a careless coolness in the most trying circumstances, and almost always manage to secure a full and complete pardon, and often manumission at the end.

The lovers and their assisting slaves are often opposed by stern fathers. These are sordid and miserly elders, who have either accumulated a competence by severe toil or have married for money. In their youth they were dissipated, but they have no sympathy with their sons when they follow a similar course. They are therefore the objects of attack by the slaves, and are usually cheated out of the money needed. Their feeling towards their wives is one of aversion and contempt, and they take delight in deceiving them. The wives in their turn are usually depicted as shrewish and unlovely, which may be for comic effect merely. The other class of fathers is more attractive. These are genial and mild, prudent and wise in council. They have frequently gained their wealth in foreign trade, and settled down to enjoy a quiet and dignified old age. They are their sons’ confidants instead of enemies, and look kindly upon their youthful follies out of remembrance of their own youth.

Peculiar to Comedy are the Parasites. These are decayed gentlemen who live by their wits. They often attach themselves to some family, or young man, and assist the latter in his love intrigues. They are perpetually hungry, and during the most serious discussions their minds run continually upon the prospects of a dinner. They endure the most scornful snubs if they can get but the lowest seats at the feast. They are the perpetual objects of mockery, and their exaltation or depression when they are invited to a dinner or cheated of it furnish some of the liveliest scenes. The plots in which these and minor characters appear are somewhat stereotyped, and the motives are few and simple. But the most of the plays may be grouped roughly in four classes: those in which some particular type of character is portrayed; those which turn upon the recovery of children lost or stolen in infancy; plays of simple intrigue; and those which turn upon the impersonation of an individual or a pair of individuals by another.

The best of the first class is the ‘Aulularia,’ which gives us the fortunes and misfortunes of a miser who has discovered a pot of gold in his house, and imagines that every one knows it and has designs upon it. The ‘Miles Gloriosus’ portrays the braggart soldier, who is always boasting of his glorious deeds in war, and trying his fortune with the ladies,—with indifferent success. The most interesting example of the second class is the ‘Rudens’; which, though faulty in construction, shows Plautus at his best, and is really of a high order. Of a lower order are the ‘Curculio’ and the ‘Epidicus’; the latter of which, as Plautus tells us in another comedy, was his favorite drama. In these plays, opportunity is given for the liveliest play of feeling, and some of the scenes where the child is recognized are very pathetic. The most interesting example of the third class is the ‘Trinummus.’ An old man going abroad on a business venture has committed to the care of a faithful friend a sum of money, which in case of necessity shall be used to preserve his family, a son and daughter, from the excesses of the profligate son. The play records the devices of the friend to employ some of it as a dower for the daughter, without allowing the son to know that he has it in his possession. A parasite is accordingly hired for three nummi (shillings) to act as messenger from the absent father; and he gives his name to the play. To the fourth class belong the three most important comedies: the ‘Captives’ and the ‘Menæchmi,’ abstracts of which follow; and the ‘Amphitruo,’ a tragicomedy, which is interesting as showing some tendency to burlesque the religious myths of the people. The play gives the story of how Jupiter and Mercury personated Amphitruo and his slave Sosia, for the purpose of beguiling Amphitruo’s wife Alcmena.

Two of the best plays may be sketched in outline. We place first the ‘Captives,’ though the plot hardly justifies Lessing’s extravagant praise of it as the best ever devised. At the outset we are informed that Philopolemus, only son of a certain Hegio, was some time previously captured in battle and made a slave in Elis; since which time Hegio has been buying war captives, with the hope that he might finally secure some Elean of quality with whom to effect an exchange for his son. The stage represents Hegio’s courtyard. He, entering, informs us that he has recently made a purchase of important captives, two of whom he thinks may serve his purpose. After he retires, the two captives, Philocrates and his slave Tyndarus, are brought in, guarded, and lamenting their fate. They plan to personate each other, with the hope that Philocrates, if looked upon as the slave, may the easier escape. In the next scene Hegio learns from them that his son is actually in bondage to Philocrates’s father, and the supposed Tyndarus (really the master, Philocrates) is sent away to negotiate an exchange. Subsequently Hegio introduces another of the captives, Aristophontes, who claims to have known Philocrates in Elis. He being brought face to face with the supposed Philocrates, immediately discloses the true state of affairs; and Hegio in a fury orders the now discovered Tyndarus to punishment. Later, Philocrates returns with Philopolemus; and in the ensuing explanation Tyndarus is discovered to be a long-lost son of Hegio, who was stolen when he was but four years old.

In the ‘Menæchmi,’ the prologist states that an old Syracusan merchant had two sons. Once on a business trip to Tarentum he took one of the boys, who strayed away in the crowd and was stolen. On his return the father was shipwrecked and drowned. The grandfather bestowed the name of the lost boy, Menæchmus, upon the surviving son at home. Long afterwards the son set out in search of his brother; and in the course of his travels arrived at Epidamnus, where the play opens. The first scene is an interview between a parasite and Menæchmus I. (the lost one), who gleefully explains how he has stolen his wife’s cloak, and is going to bestow it upon Erotium, a courtesan. On the appearance of Erotium he presents the cloak, and bespeaks a dinner for himself and the parasite. In the next scene Menæchmus II. and his servant Messenio appear. Then follow two amusing scenes, first with the cook who is to prepare the dinner, and later with Erotium; both think they are talking with Menæchmus I.: finally Menæchmus II. goes in with Erotium to dinner. Later the parasite appears, complaining that he has been detained and is afraid he has lost his dinner. Menæchmus II. comes out of Erotium’s house with the cloak, which he is to take to a cleaner’s to be cleaned. The parasite, thinking that he is Menæchmus I., attacks him for not waiting for him, and finally, in high dudgeon departs to inform the wife of her husband’s doings. After Menæchmus II. leaves the stage, Menæchmus I. appears and is met by his angry wife, whom he tries to pacify by promising to return the cloak. After his departure Menæchmus II. enters with the cloak. He has an amusing discussion with the wife, and later with the wife’s father, whom she has summoned in desperation. He finally gets rid of them by feigning madness; and the old man goes in search of a physician, while Menæchmus II. hurries away. Then Menæchmus I. enters, and is pounced upon by the physician and his attendants. He is rescued by Messenio, who has just entered in search of his master, Menæchmus II. In the final scene the two Menæchmi are brought face to face; and the kinship of the long-separated brothers is explained by Messenio, who is given his freedom for his services.

Certain of the plays were performed occasionally down to the close of the Republic, or even later. Indeed, Plautus remained a much read and appreciated author from the time of Varro and Cicero until the dark ages. The Christian fathers, especially Jerome, were very fond of him. At the Renaissance the newly discovered plays were eagerly caught up in Italy, and later in France and Germany. Translations were made; and great authors wrote plays based upon those of Plautus, of which a few may be mentioned: Molière’s ‘Amphitryon’ was based upon the ‘Amphitruo,’ and the two together inspired Dryden’s ‘Amphitryon.’ Molière’s ‘L’Avare’ was an imitation of the ‘Aulularia,’ and it in turn inspired Shadwell’s ‘Miser’ and Fielding’s ‘Miser.’ The ‘Captivi’ was the basis of Ariosto’s ‘Suppositi’ and of Rotrou’s ‘Les Captifs.’ Ben Jouson’s ‘The Case is Altered’ has scenes from the ‘Aulularia’ and ‘Captivi.’ To the Menæchmi must be referred Cecchi’s ‘Le Moglie,’ Goldoni’s ‘I due Gemelli,’ Shakespeare’s ‘Comedy of Errors,’ and many others. The ‘Miles Gloriosus’ formed a favorite type; and we find traces of it in Dolce’s ‘Il Capitano,’ Corneille’s ‘L’Illusion Comique,’ Udall’s ‘Ralph Roister Doister,’ and others. A careful study of Plautus’s influence on modern literature may be found in Reinhardtstöttner’s ‘Spätere Bearbeitungen Plautinischer Lustspiele’ (Leipzig, 1886).

By reason of the great difference between the archaic Latin of Plautus and the later classical Latin, the manuscript tradition soon became faulty and the text corrupt. During the nineteenth century great progress was made in the reconstruction of the text, through the labors of many scholars, notably Ritschl and Studemund. Ritschl began a critical edition of Plautus as early as 1849. This was completed after his death by three of his pupils,—Goetz, Schoell, and Loewe,—the last part appearing in 1894. This edition has a marvelously complete apparatus criticus, but the text is marred by many violent emendations and arbitrary changes. Two of the same editors, Goetz and Schoell, have since published a complete text in the Teubner series (Leipzig, 1893–95); but this edition is as conservative as the larger one is radical, and the text has been left incomprehensible in many places through despair of certain emendation. The best texts for practical use are those of Leo (Berlin, 1895–96) and Lindsay (Oxford, 1903). No adequate English translation of the whole of Plautus has appeared. That of Thornton, published in the eighteenth century, in blank verse, follows a poor text, and that by Riley in the Bohn collection has no merit but that of literalness. In 1893 appeared the first volume of a new translation in the original metres by Sugden, comprising the Amphitruo, Asinaria, Aulularia, Bacchides, and Captivi. The editor has taken surprising liberties, not merely expurgating his text, but actually “correcting” the plots. A translation by Paul Nixon, in the Loeb Classical Library, is in course of publication. This is extremely good.