1902 Encyclopedia > Plautus

(Titus Maccus [Maccius] Plautus)
Roman dramatist
(c. 250 - 184 BC)

PLAUTUS (T. MACCIUS PLAUTUS) was the greatest comic and dramatic genius of Rome, and still ranks among the great comic dramatists of the world. While the other creators of Roman literature, Najvius, Ennius, Lucilius, &c, are known to us only in fragments, we still possess twenty plays of Plautus. A few of them are incomplete, and in some cases they show traces of later interpolations, but they have reached us in the main as they were written by him in the end of the 3d and the beginning of the 2d cen-tury B.C. At the date of his birth Roman literature may be said to have been non-existent. When he died the Latin language had developed its full capacities as an organ of social intercourse and familiar speech, and the litera-ture of the world had been enriched by a large number of adaptations from the New Comedy of Athens, animated by the new life of ancient Italy and vivified by the genius and robust human nature of their author; and these have been the chief means of transmitting the traditions of the ancient drama to modern times. The maturity which comedy attained in a single generation affords a remarkable contrast to the slow processes by which the higher forms of Roman poetical and prose literature were brought to perfection. It may be explained partly by the existence, for some generations before the - formal begin-ning of literature at Rome, of the dramatic and musical medleys ("saturae impletae modis") which in their allu-sions to current events and their spirit of banter must have had a considerable affinity with the dialogue of Plautus, and partly to the diffusion of the Latin language, as the organ of practical business among the urban com-munities of Italy. But much also was due to the indivi-dual genius and the command over their native idiom possessed by the two oldest of the genuine creators of Roman literature, Ntevius and Plautus.

A question might be raised as to whether Plautus or his younger contemporary Ennius was the most character-istic representative of the national literature of their time. Ennius certainly exercised a much more important influ-ence on its subsequent development. He arrested the tendency imparted to that development by Nsevius and Plautus. He made literature the organ of the serious spirit and imperial ambition of the Roman aristocracy, while the genius of Plautus appealed to the taste and temperament of the mass of the people, at a time when they were animated by the spirit of enjoyment and com-paratively indifferent to political questions. The ascend-ency of the aristocracy in public affairs for two generations after the end of the Second Punic War determined the ascendency of Ennius in Roman literature ; and it may be admitted that, if the genius of Plautus and of Ennius could not work harmoniously together, it was best that that of the younger poet, as representative of the truer genius of Rome, should prevail. The popularity of Plautus was greatest in his own time and in the generation succeeding him, but his plays still continued to be acted with applause till the age of Cicero, and he was greatly admired both by Cicero and by the man among his contemporaries who, both from his learning and taste, retained most of the antique spirit, Varro. The literary taste of the Augustan age and of the first century of the empire was adverse to him; but the archaic revival in the latter part of the 2d century of our era brought him again into favour, with the result of securing the preservation of his works through mediaeval times and their revival with great acceptance at the Renaissance. That his original popularity was due to genuine gifts of humour and genuine power in represent-ing human life is clear from their reception by a world so much altered from that in which he himself had played his part. And if his influence was not felt like that of Ennius in determining the form and spirit of the litera-ture of his country, it was not without effect on the two greatest dramatists of modern times, Shakespeare and Moliere.

The few facts known of his life rest on the authority of Cicero, of Aulus Gellius, and of Jerome in his continuation of the Eusebian Chronicle. He was born in the earlier half of the 3d century B.C., and died at an advanced age in the year 184 B.C. He was a native of Sarsina in Umbria. His first employment was in some way connected with the stage " in operis artificum scenicorum." He saved money in this employment, engaged in foreign trade, and return-ing to Rome in absolute poverty was reduced to work as a hired servant in a mill; and then for the first time he began to write comedies. The earliest allusion to any contemporary event which we find in any of his plays is that in the Miles Gloriosus (1. 212-3) to the imprisonment of Nasvius, which happened about the year 207 B.C. The Cistellaria and Stichus were apparently written immedi-ately after the end of the Second Punic War. The last ten years of his life were the most productive, and the greater number of his extant comedies belong to that period. They do not seem to have been published as literary works during his lifetime, but to have been left in possession of the players, to whom the interpolations and some other unimportant changes are to be ascribed. The prologues to the plays, with three or four exceptions, belong to the generation after his death. In a later age. the plays of many contemporary playwrights were attri-buted to him. Twenty-one were accepted by Varro as undoubtedly genuine, and of these we possess twenty nearly complete, and fragments of another, the Vidularia. Other nineteen Varro regarded as probably genuine, and the titles of some of them, e.g., Saturio, Addictus, Com-morientes, are also known to us.

We get the impression from his works and from ancient criticisms on tliem that he was, in his latter years, a rapid and productive writer, more concerned with the immediate success of his works than with their literary perfection. Yet he shows that he took pride and pleasure ,in his art (Bacch., 214), and Cicero testifies especially to othe gratification which he derived from two works of his .old age, the Pseudolus and Truculentus (Be Senec., 14). We get further the impression of a man of strong animal spirits and of large intercourse with the world, especially owith the trading and middle classes. We find no indication -of familiarity with the manners, tastes, or ideas of the governing aristocracy. The story told of his unsuccessful mercantile speculations might seem to derive confirmation from the " flavour of the sea" and the spirit of adventure present in many of his plays, from his frequent colloquial ,use of Greek phrases, and from indications of familiarity -with the sights, manners, and pleasures of the Greek cities .on the Mediterranean. He has many allusions to works of art, to the stories of Greek mythology, and to the sub-jects of Greek tragedies ; and he tried to enrich the native vocabulary with a considerable number of Greek words which did not maintain their place in the language. The knowledge of these subjects which he betrays, and his copious use of Greek words and phrases, seem to be the result rather of active and varied intercourse with contem-porary Greeks than of the study of books.

His independence of his originals, in regard to expression, is further shown by the puns and plays on words, the alliterations, assonances, &c, which do not admit of being reproduced in translation from one language to another; in the metaphors taken from Roman military operations, business transactions, and the trade of various artisans; and in his profuse use of terms of endearment .and vituperation, characteristic of the vivacity of the Italian temperament in modern as in ancient times. But :in nothing is his difference from Terence, and presum-


Like all the old Roman dramatists, he borrows his plots, incidents, scenes, characters, and probably the outlines of his dialogue from the authors of the new comedy of Athens, — Diphilus, Philemon, Menander, and others. But he treated his borrowed materials with much more freedom ;and originality than the only other dramatist of whom we possess complete pieces — Terence. A note of this dif-ference appears in the fact that the titles of all the plays .of Terence are Greek, while those of Plautus are nearly .all Latin. We find a much greater range and variety jn tne scenes and incidents introduced by Plautus, and much greater divergence from a conventional type in his ,characters. But it is especially on his dialogue and his metrical soliloquies that his originality is stamped. Though all the personages of his plays are supposed to be Greeks, living in Greek towns, they constantly speak as if they were Bomans living in the heart of Bome. Frequent omention is made of towns in Italy, of streets, gates, and ^markets in Bome itself, of Boman magistrates and of their duties, of the business of the law-courts, the comitia, ;and the senate, &c. We constantly meet with Boman formula?, expressions of courtesy, proverbs, and the like. While avoiding all direct reference to politics, he fre-quently alludes to recent events in Roman history, and to Jaws of recent enactment. Although he maintains and seems to inculcate an attitude of political indifference, he is not altogether indifferent to social conditions, and in more than one of his plays comments on the growing estrangement between the rich and poor, as an element of danger to the state. Still he writes neither as a political nor as a social satirist, but simply with the wish to represent the humours of human life and to amuse the people in their holiday mood.


ably from the originals which they both followed, more decided than in his large use of lyrical monologue, or " cantica," alternating with the ordinary dialogue in much the same way as the choral odes do in the old Greek comedy. These one may conjecture to have been a partial survival of passages in the old dramatic saturee, which were repeated to a musical accompaniment. In the naivete' of the reflexions which they contain, and the pro-lixity with which the thought is worked out, we recognize the earliest effort of the Roman mind applied to reflexion on life, and no reproduction of any phase of the Greek mind to which the expression of such reflexion had been familiar for generations.

In the diction of Plautus accordingly we may consider that we have a thorough reflexion of his own mind, and an important witness of Boman life and thought in his time. The characters in his plays are the stock characters of the New Comedy of Athens, the " fallax servus," the " leno insidiosus," the " meretrix blanda," the " parasitus edax," the " amans ephebus," the "pater attentus,' &c. We may miss the finer insight into human nature and the delicate touch in drawing character which Terence pre-sents to us in his copies from Menander, but there is wonderful life and vigour, and considerable variety in the embodiment of these different types by Plautus. The characters of Ballio and Pseudolus, of Euclio in the Aulularia, of the two Menaechmi, and of many others have a real individuality, which shows that in reproducing Greek originals Plautus thoroughly realized them and animated them with the strong human nature of which he himself possessed so large a share. For his plots and incidents he has been much more indebted to his originals. There is a considerable sameness in many of them. A large number turn upon what are called " frustrationes " —tricks by which the slave who plays the principal part in the comedy succeeds in extracting either from the father of his young master or from some other victim a sum of money to aid his master in his love affairs. But Plautus, if not more original, is more varied than Terence in his choice of plots. In some of them the passion of love plays either no part or a subordinate one. He also varies his scenes much more than Terence. Thus in some of his plays we find ourselves at Epidamnus, at Ephesus, at Cyrene, and not always in Athens.

The following is a list of the comedies according to their usual arrangement, which is nearly, but not strictly alphabetical: — Amphitruo, Asinaria, Aulularia, Captivi,' Curculio, Casina, Cistellaria, Epialicus, Bacchides, Mostellaria, Menaschmi, Miles Gloriosus, Mercator, Pseudolus, Pomulus, Persa, liudens, Stichus, Trinummus, Truculentus. Of these the most generally read, and on the whole the most interesting, are the Aulularia, Captivi, Menaechmi, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria., Pseudolus, Mudens, and Trinummus. Besides these the Amphitruo, Bacchides, and Stichus (although the last two are incomplete) are of special interest. The Amphitruo is altogether exceptional, and gives, perhaps, as high an idea both of the comic and of the imaginative power of the author as any of the others. The interest attaching to it is enhanced by the fact that it has been imitated both by 11 oliere and Dryden, that attaching to the Aulularia by its having suggested the subject of L'Avare of the French dramatist, and to the Mensechmi by the reappearance of its principal motive in the Comedy of Errors of Shakespeare. The Captivi was characterized by Lessing as the best constructed drama in existence. It may be classed with the Budens as appealing to a higher and purer class of feelings, and as coming nearer to the province of serious poetry, than any other extant specimens of Latin comedy. The Aulularia and Trinum-mus may be mentioned along with these as bringing us into contact with characters more estimable and attractive than those in the great majority of the other pieces.

While there are abundant good sense and good humour in the comedies of Plautus, and occasional touches of pathos and elevated feeling in one or two of them, there is no trace of any serious purpose behind his humorous scenes and representations of character. He presents a remarkable* exception to the didactic and moralizing spirit which appears in most of the leading lepre-sentatives of Roman literature. He is to be judged on the claim which is put forward in the epitaph which in ancient times was
attributed to himself :—

" Postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, commoedia luget, Scaena est deserta, dein risus, ludu' jocusque, Et numeri innumeri simul omnes conlacrumarunt."

He has not the more subtle and penetrating irony which we recognize in Terence, in Horace, and in Petronius; still less can we attribute to him the " rigidi censura cachinni" which accompanied and inspired the humorous fancies of Lucilius and Juvenal. But among all the ancient humorists, with the exception of Aristo-phanes, he must have had the power of immediately provoking the heartiest and broadest mirth and laughter. He was too careless in the construction of his plots to be a finished dramatic artist. He was apparently more popular among the mass of his countrymen than any Roman author of any age ; but to be thoroughly popular he had to satisfy the tastes of an audience accustomed to the indigenous farces of Italy. This is the defect, according to the judgment of educated critics in the Augustan age, which Horace indicates in the line " Quantus sit Dossennus edacibus in parasitis." But he had the most wonderful power of dramatic expression of feeling, fancy, and character by means of action, rhythm, and language. In the line in which Horace expresses the more favour-able criticism of his time,—

" Plautus ad exemplar Sicull properare Epicharmi,"— the term properare expresses the vivacity of gesture, dialogue, declamation, and recitative in which the plays of Plautus never fail, and which must have made them admirable vehicles for the art of the actor. The lyrical recitative occupies a much larger place in his comedies than in those of Terence, and in them he shows the true poetical gift of adapting and varying his metres in accordance with the moods and fancies of his characters. But the gift for which he is pre-eminent above almost every other Roman author is the vigour and exuberant flow of his language. No other writer enables us to feel the life and force of the Latin idiom, un-disguised by the mannerisms of a literary style, in the same degree. Among the masters of expression in which the prose and poetical literature of Rome abounds, none was more prodigally gifted than Plautus, and this gift of expression was the accompaniment of the exuberant creativeness of his fancy and of the strong vitality and lively social nature which was the endowment of the race to'which he belonged.

In the beginning of the 15th century only the first eight plays (from Amphitruo to Epidicus) were in circulation. The other twelve were recovered in the course of that century, and two new manuscripts, one of them containing the whole twenty, were discovered in the following century. The Ambrosian palimpsest, discovered in 1815, has been recognized is the most trustworthy text for those plays which it preserves, and it is on this that the critical labours of Ritschl have been based. His great critical edition is being continued by his pupils G. Loewe, G. Gb'tz, Fr. Schoell. An edition of the plays with a commentary by Professor Ussing of Copenhagen is now nearly complete. The most useful editions of separate plays are those of Lorenz and Brix. (W. Y. S.)

The above article was written by: W. Y. Sellar, LL.D.

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