Social Documents from the Age of Plautus

I have entered here some short selections of material from Plautus which pertains to the general area of Social History, the documentation of the lives and thoughts of the ordinary people who comprised the core of society, then as now. So little is known about the "populus minutus" of Rome, which was overrun by notion of high classicicism a la Grecque, that it is important to take a close look at the data from Plautus' early plays and on the other end of the spectrum, Petronius' Cena from two centuries later. Beyond these we have little to show how the common Roman mind worked, what it felt and thought and how it differs from the world in which we live.

Here are three sections from the Rudens, which I have always considered one of Plautus' finest and also most perceptive plays. The first is concerned with the Sicilian fisherman Gripus' hard life, his lack of income and even lack of a decent dinner after a day's work. The second is also from Gripus, who has just pulled up the chest from the sea in which he expect to find fortune, fame and a new lifestyle.

The third concerns swallows nesting under your roof as a good omen, which I would like to amplify with a parallel story from Korean folklore.

The Sicilian Fisherman's Plight

During the period from l980 on there has been a series of film on the hard life and living of the Sicilian fisherman. The country is poor, the only hope for food and small income is from the sea, or from organized crime. So it is indeed surprising to find in Plautus' play "Rudens" or The Rope exactly the same situation already established around 200 B.C. when the play was first produced. The story involves a pimp bring two girls from overseas, when the ship goes down he loses his working girls and with them a trunk with some undisclosed contents, all of which are the storyline of this most interesting and charming (!) play.

(Rudens 290 ff.)

Omnibus modis qui pauperes sunt homines miseri vivont,
praesertim quibus nec quaestus est, nec didicere artem ullam:
necessitate quidquid est domi id sat est habendum.
nos jam de ornatu propemodum ut locupltes simus scitis:
hisce hami atque haece harundines sunt nobis quaestu et cultu.
cottidie ex urbe ad mare huc prodimus pabulatum:
pro exercitu gymnastico et palaestriceo hoc habemus;
echinos, lopadas, ostreas, balanos captamus, conchas,
marinam urticam, museulos, plagusias striatas;
post id piscatum hamatilem et saxatilem aggredimur.
cibum captamus e mari: si eventus non evenit
neque quicquam captumst piscium, salsi lautique pure
domum redimus clanculum, dormimus incenati.
atque Ut nune valide fluctuat mare, nulla nobis spes est:
nisi quid conclarum capsimus, incenati sumus profecto.
nunc Venerem hanc veneremur bonam, ut nos lepide adiuerit hodie.

Poor folks have a hard life of it every way, especially if they haven't any regular business and never learned a trade. Whatever they have now, that has simply got to do for them. As for us, you can just about tell what plutocrats we are from one look at our get- up. These hooks and rods here, that's how we subsist and flourish. Day in and day out, we foot it over from the city to the sea here to do some foraging: that's our exercise, our physical culture and our wrestling exercise. The parties we get a hold on are sea-urchins and limpets and oysters and shell-fish and snails and sea-nettles and mussels and fluted scallops. Then we take to fishing, the hook and rock (=sinker) kind. We haul our food from the sea. If we have no luck, no haul at all, well, we slink back home nicely cleaned and salted, and go to sleep omitting supper. And there's no chance for us now with a heavy sea like this running: un-less we find some shell-fish, we're certainly a supperless lot. Now let's go and show good Venus here we're godly men so that she'll be gracious and help us out to- day. (as they approach the temple for their soup kitchen dinner)   

The Slave's High Dreams of Grandeur

In the second section, Gripus firmly states his belief in the "work ethic", speaking with great disdain on the lazy slaves who wait for the master's orders before they will move a hand. Not he! He is a real worker and proud of it. But as soon as he thinks of the fortune he is about to receive, he has a second thought: Why if I have so much, why should I have to work at all?

Cato had stated in his Manual of Farming which dates from the same period, that if you have some hard work to do like roadbuilding, it might be more economical not to use your slaves but hire freemen to get the job done. Rome had an excess of slaves, witness the usual freeing of slaves on the master's death, and the stupid use of slaves for field traction in the absence of a suitable horsecollar which made horses unusable for this. Despite his protestation about being a hard worker, Gripus is good evidence for Cato's concern.

What is most interesting is the way Gripus dreams up his bright future, as a landholder and owner of slaves like himself, then an artist and tourist, the builder of a city and lord of a realm. Perhaps not too different from the American who comes home with a lottery ticket and tells his wife what they are going to do with the millions they are about to receive. So is human nature through the ages, it seems.

(Rudens 907)

Neptuno has ago gratias meo patrono,
qui salsis locis incolit pisculentis,
quom me ex suis locis pulchre ornatum expedivit,
templis reducem, plurima praeda onustum
salute horiae, quae in mari fluctuoso
piscatu novo me uberi competivit;
miroque modo atque incredibili hic piscatus mihi lepide evenit,
neque piscium ullam unciam hodie pondo cepi,
nisi hoc quod fero hic in rete.

nam ut de nocte multa impigreque exurrexi,
lucrum praeposivi sopori et quieti:
tempestate saeva experiri expetivi,
paupertatem en qui et meam servitutem
tolerarem, opera haud fui parcus mea.
nimis homo nihilist quis piger est nimisque. Id genus odi ego male.
vigilare decet hominem qui volt sua temperi conficere officia.
non enim illum expectare oportet, dum erus ad suom suscitet
namqui dormiunt libenter, sine lucro et cum malo quiescunt.

nam ego nunc mihi, qui impiger fui,
repperi ut piger, si velim, siem:
hoc ego in mari repperi.
quidquid inest, grave quidem inest; aurum hic ego inesse reor;
nec mihi consciust ullus homo.
nunc haec tibi occasio, Gripe, optigit, ut liber sit nemo ex populo
    praeter te.

nune sic faciam, sic consilium est. --- ad erum veniam docte
    atque astute.
pauxillatim pollicitabor pro capite argentum, ut sim liber.
iam ubi liber ero, igitur demum instruam agrum atque aedis,
navibus magnis mercaturam faciam, apud reges rex perhibebor.
post animi causa mihi navem faciam atque imitabor Stratonicum,
   oppida circumvectabor.
   ubi nobilitas mea erit clara,
oppidum magnum communibo, ei ego urbi Gripo indam nomen,
monimentum meae famae et factis, ibi qui regnum magnum
magnas res hic agito in mentem instruere. nunc hunc vidulum

sed hic Rex cum aceto pransurust et sale, sine bono pulmento.

Glory be to Neptune for this, my patron Neptune, who does reside in salty, fishy spots, for speeding me homeward from his sacred quarters fixed up gorgeously, laden with a splendid lot of booty, and the smack all sound that brought me this strange, rich haul in a raging sea! Oh, it's wonderful, it's unbelievable, the famous luck I've had in fishing! And not a single ounce of fish did I catch, either, only what I've got here in my net.

Ah, when I jumped smartly out of bed at mid-night, I put profit ahead of sleep and rest, I did. There was a howling gale, but I was set on trying to make things easier for poor master, also for his slave,and I didn't spare myself a bit. How useless a lazy fellow is, how I do hate and despise that kind! The man that wants to get his jobs done in time had better keep awake. He has no business waiting till his master routs him out to do his work, I should say not. Yes, sir, fellows that love their sleep snooze away their chances of everything but trouble.

Why, here's my case --- up and doing, and now I've made such a find that I can do nothing if I choose. This is the find I made (points to the trunk) in the sea. Whatever's in it, there's something heavy in it. There's gold in it, that's what I think. And not a soul knows about it but me! Here you are, Gripus, here's your chance to be as free as any man alive!

Now this is what I'll do, this is my scheme: I'll go up to master, real sharp and sly, and offer him money, little by little, to set me free. After that, when I am free, then I'll get me a house and land and slaves, and have big ships and be a merchant, and be known as a king of kings. Then I'll build me a yacht, just for fun, and be a second musician like Stratonicus. I'll sail all round everywhere. And when I've made a grand name for myself, I'll build a great big city with walls round it, and call it Gripusville to immortalize my glorious career, and found a great big empire there. Ah, these are big things I'm busying my head with here! Now I'll hide this trunk.

(He looks in his lunch basket as he puts it down)

Hm! His majesty'll have to have his lunch seasoned with sour wine and salt, without any tasty relish. (He drags off the trunk in the net, a telltale rope (Lat. rudens: hence the name of the play!) trailing behind him)

Swallows under the Roof for Good Luck

I want to say something first about birds as carriers of seed from one area to another in their feathers and their digestive system. We now know that many plants have been transferred long distances this way, and that the new plants may hybridize with existing special to produce remarkable new varieties. The flora of Hawaii must have been transported this way, again and again over the millennia until a full stage of plants was evolved.

There is a Korean story about two brothers, Nul Bo was the bad brother, rich and mean, while his poor younger brother Hung Bo was kind, considerate and lived a happy family life in poverty. Hung Bo one day found a snake trying to get up to a swallow's nest, and he knocked it down. But the swallow had fallen from its nest under his roof and broke its leg, which he splinted carefully and fed until it was able to fly away. The next year it returned to nest there again, bringing seed for the most gigantic squash ever seen, so big that it had to be sawed through. One squash contained gold, another silver, another coins aplenty.

The evil brother saw this with anger. He thought he could imitate his brother's good fortune by knocking down a swallow's nest with a stick, breaking a leg and splinting it until healed. The next year the swallow did return and brought back seed, but the squash when opened contained nothing but filth and ordure.

The Korean story seems to have verged nearer to the botanical truth, whereas the Greek myth has the same apprehension about treating swallows badly, but has lost the physical coefficient of the story, which now concerns the tradition of Procne being turned into a swallow in the Philomela story.

One more thing should be mentioned, that this story is quoted from a dream. In the Greco-Roman world dreams were taken very seriously; even in Homer's archaic time a "dream-interpreter" might be called in to explain a meaning. We have an extant manual of Dream Interpretations, which matches interpretations from some other cultures, but not from the Western world. Within Christianity dreams were suspect as the work of the Devil or at least unpleasantly meaningless, until Freud began to study them as a way into the inner mind. So here we have a piece of folklore, but stated within the context of a dream --- a refreshingly un-Western approach.

(Rudens 592)

Miris modis di ludos faciunt hominibus:
ne dormientis quidem sinunt quiescere.
velut ego hac nocte quac praecessit proxima
mirum atque inscitum somniavi somnium.
ad hirundininum nidum Visa est simia
ascensionem ut faceret admolirier
neque eas eripere quibat inde. postibi
videtur ad me simia adgredirier,
rogare scalas ut darem utendas sibi.
ego ad hoc exemplum simiae respondeo,
natas ex Philomela atque ex Procne esse hirundines.

ago cum illa ne quid noceat meis popularibus.
atque illa animo jam fieri ferocior;
videtur ultro mihi malum minitarier.
in ius vocat med. ibi ego nescio quo modo
iratus videor mediam arripere simiam;
concludo in vincla bestiam nequissimam.
nunc quam ad rem dicam hoc attinere somnium,
nunquam hodie quivi ad coniecturam evadere.
sed quid hic in Veneris fano meae viciniae
clamoris oritur? animus miratur meus.

The gods do produce strange plays for us humans. They don't even let us sleep in peace. Take my own case --- just this past night I dreamed a strange, uncanny dream. I seemed to see a monkey trying to climb up to some swallow'a nest. But she couldn't pull them out. After a while the monkey approached me, so it seemed, and asked for the loan of a ladder. I answered her to the effect that swallows were descendants of Philomela and Procne:

I pleaded with her not to injure my compatriots. At that her insolence increased; she seemed to grow aggressive and threatened to beat me. She summoned me to court. Then somehow or other, growing angry, it seemed I grabbed the monkey around the middle and put the ugly beast in chains. Now what I'm to take this dream to mean, I haven't been able to divine all day. ---- But what's that racket right over there in the temple of Venus? Astonishing!

Post Scriptum:

There is much more in a many plays of Plautus which can be used for social history, not the storylines which are copied from popular Greek originals in the New Comedy of the 4th c. B.C., but in the language and vocabulary, the syntax and even the sense of humor which the workers, slaves and unfashionable populace use. Even the stiff and puritanical old Father shows a great deal about the way Romans saw their older generations. And the wily slave is perhaps the most interesting of all, a wit and schemer and joker indeed, but also the model for the Libertus who was going to appear as immensely rich and counselor to the Emperor in a few centuries. The slaves often seem to be of Near Eastern original, which again points to a foreign origin to be fused in with the basic Italic stock. And then there were the Etruscans who in a sense disappeared in a hurry into the populace, as well as Carthaginians in Sicily and left-over remnants from Hannibal's invasion of Italy.

In short, here was a very mixed stock, a richly diverse gene-pool, which may explain some of the remarkable development of Rome as Roman and again as quickly nascent Christian after the first century A.D.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College