ROMAN COMEDY: Plautus and Terence


The Greek world came to fruition sometime in the 7th c. BC, and was still culturally active throughout the period in which the Roman Empire flourished. By 300 BC Greek culture had subtly shifted over to what would later be called Hellenistic, which refers to the transplanting of Greek ideas and techniques to all parts of the then known world, both East and West. The Jews of Palestine, the populace of Egypt, the Syrians, Armenians and the Romans in their turn were exposed to the indelible influence of Greek thought, just as the Arabs of the 7 c. AD were to be influenced in the same way. It was this fermentative quality in the Greek mind which proved so attractive to less cultivated peoples, and although everybody benefitted, nobody was ever the same again.

By 300 BC the Romans began to seriously sense the presence of Greek literature. Centuries earlier they had received an altered Greek alphabet from the Etruscans in central Italy, now they became basically literate and ready to read. Much of the writing which resulted from this first Hellenizing influx was lost, and the little we know of writers like Accius, Pacuvius, Caecilius and Lucilius comes from the quotations of words, single lines, and only occasionally coherent paragraphs by the late Roman grammarians. We would have a similar idea of the work of Shakespeare if we assembled all the single-line quotations from a large English dictionary.

Plautus is the earliest writer to survive in a full form. Born around the middle of the 3 rd c. BC,. he lived on to 184 BC. He was a man of the people, a carpenter in early life who wrote plays after constructing stage scenery for a living. Born in the countryside, he said he had three hearts, which probably means he was able to speak Latin, his native Oscan dialect, and Greek. From the Greek New Comedy of the preceding century (Menander is our surviving examplar of this genre, as distinct from older Aristophanic satire-comedy) Plautus drew heavily, adapting plays, scenes, names and the style of the Greeks. No Romans are portrayed in his plays as Romans, probably because of a fear of satirizing the stately and self-conscious citizen body. But throughout all of the twenty plays we have (he wrote more than a hundred) we find interlarded a rough and wholesome, if often slightly obscene, Roman sense of humor, and it is this characteristic, rather than the refined Menandran light-comedy, which ensured Plautus' success.

The texts we have were touched up at least in orthography in the time of Cicero, and were used as required reading in the Roman school system for centuries. Plautus' vocabulary is huge, he uses strange and rare expressions, when pressed invents his own punning coinages, and shows an interesting side of the Roman character which disappears in the more self-conscious Augustan Age.

The plays are really musical comedies, with about a third of the material in sung or cantica form, with music which has virtually disappeared. A few manuscript markings purport to outline the melody-line, but interpretation is difficult and recreation of the sound of his music is not really possible. What would a future age think about Mozart's Don Giovanni if we had only the libretto to work with? Or Mahler's Lied von der Erde?

Despite these losses, Plautus has turned out to be incredibly popular through the ages. Rediscovered in the Renaissance, Plautine plots furnished the basis for over five hundred comedies in every European language, as a detailed study by Reinhardstoettner (l875) points out. English Restoration Comedy is Plautine in form and much of its spirit, role of the cunning slave, the arrogant old master, and the lovably idiotic son are all there, with more that later times would want to add. The standardized form of the Plautine plot may seem odd, but not more so that the equally obvious plot of a typical American Western movie, which also has a rubber-stamped dramatis personae. It would seem that popular literature, as against high literature, does not have the same requirements for originality, and is tends to be satisfied with the time-tested and familiar.

In the eyes of the traditional Classical critics, Plautus is noted as "Pre-Classical", and for that reason, he is often ignored. It may be that his country humor does not sit well with the Classical fraternity, who still represent elevated aspirations with the upper-classes in their social allegiances, as they did in the past centuries when Latin and Greek were the requirements for a career in Church or State. True, his iambic senarii are rougher and more irregular than the polished lines of his successor Terence, true his humor has more the odor of the barnyard and stable than the drawing room. But through the Greek disguise, shines one of the few glimpses of a basic, honest, genuinely funny and multifarious Roman character and the old Roman mode of speech, which were soon to be submerged by the elegance of the Augustan masters. Only centuries later, in the unique novel of Petronius, are we to get another such glimpse of the Roman lower classes, the populus minutus. It must be remembered that these were the people, the merchants and farmers,the sharp slaves and freedmen, who fought the Punic Wars and later made the infra-structure of the early Empire work. The sad fact is that Roman Literature and the basic, popular Roman Character are not at all aligned.

Terence, born at Carthage in the time of Plautus' later years, was brought to Rome as a slave and later freed. His name, taken from that of his master, Public Terentius Afer, has been thought to refer to African and possibly black origins, but nothing conclusive can be said. His six plays are less earthy than those of Plautus, he has a winning and refined way of expressing himself in a polished verse-form, but lacks Plautus' comic spirit and his sense of pun and farce. Modern times have imbibed Terence along with Plautus, in the more polished times he was preferred, while his influence on modern comedy is analogous to his predecessor's. Cicero dubbed him a "pint-sized Menander" (dimidiate Menander), and he is probably much more this, than a "pint-sized draft of the Plautine brew". The formal and refined l8th c. in England, initially having trouble with Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, quite naturally preferred Terence to his countrified and at times slightly gross compatriot.

The odd things about Roman Comedy, is that, although it is Greek in origin, in plot, and in many details of its internal operation, it looks thoroughly Roman when one compares it to the more heavily Hellenized literature of the Augustan Age. Plautus and Petronius are still our best glimpse of the little people of the Roman world, how they thought and some of the things that they were liable to say.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris