Episode 43: On the Move

Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) was a prolific comedy writer. His late play, The Rope, captures the dizzying changes sweeping Rome after the Second Punic War.

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Plautus’ The Rope

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 43: On the Move. This show is on a play whose Latin title is Rudens, written by the Roman writer Plautus, a play whose title is usually translated into English as The Rope, and which was likely staged for the first time in the early 180s BCE.

The dramatist Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE).

Long after Plautus’ play The Rope was first staged, around the time of the Battle of Actium – that battle which ultimately ended the Roman Republic and gave rise to the Roman Empire, that great fold at the center of Roman history – the Roman poet Horace was working on a pair of epistles. These epistles were written to the emperor Augustus, and a prominent family called the Pisos, and among many other things, the two epistles attempted to define what constituted good literature. Horace was at the center of Rome’s most enduring period of literary output. In the late 30s BCE, Horace pinpointed which Latin authors he thought deserved the highest esteem, and demonstrated that he, not too surprisingly, fit his own definitions of literary merit. Horace also had a good deal to say about our author for today, Plautus, a playwright who lived about two centuries before Horace did. To Horace, old Plautus’ use of meter was slovenly, and Plautus’ wit was shoddy, and anyone who praised these qualities in Plautus was being “[t]oo tolerant, not to say stupid” (Epistle to the Pisos, 270).1 The modern educated Roman of his own time, Horace added, “know[s] how to distinguish between vulgarity and elegance” (Epistle to the Pisos, 271), and Plautus, according to Horace, displayed far more of the former than the latter.2

To later Roman literati, Plautus was a roughshod innovator, a prolific yet inelegant writer who conspicuously lacked the calculated polish of the age of Augustus.3 At one point, Horace even accuses Plautus of being vulgar enough to write for money. “[H]ow loosely,” Horace writes, “[Plautus]. . .careers over the stage; for he can’t / wait to put the coins in his cash-box, not worried after that whether / his play falls flat or stands on a firm footing” (Ep 2.1.175-6).4 That, in essence, is Horace’s opinion of Plautus – that the earlier writer was a bumbler, a mediocre caregiver to the newborn baby of Latin literature, a literature born in the 200s BCE to a martial Roman father and a refined Greek mother, a literature that, as far as Horace was concerned, would later be perfected by Horace himself and his contemporaries.

The poet and satirist Horace (65-8 BCE).

Now on down the road we’ll spend plenty of time with Horace and company – they’re all terrific and interesting, but for very different reasons than Plautus. Today, our main subject is Plautus himself. And once we read The Rope, and talk about the dynamic and sometimes slapdash world of early Roman theater, and even more than that the economic upheaval caused by the Second Punic War which Plautus lived through – once we talk about all of this, I think you’ll see that Plautus, a professional dramatist in a society that didn’t quite yet know what to do with theater, was a particularly talented person. For every play that Plautus wrote, his audience was tempted into leaving the theater in order to watch any number of competing spectacles. You’ve probably heard of chariot races and gladiatorial competitions, but these were only the beginning of the Greco-Roman world’s alternative to a good play. Ancient Roman audiences had not only chariot races and lethal combat to distract them from theater – they were also fond of mimes, stripteases, elephants and tigers, tightrope artists, boxing matches, cockfights, and – this gets weird – pig imitating contests, and my personal favorite, to quote The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature, “shaven-headed professionals who entertained crowds at festivals by having boiling pitch poured over their heads or by having their heads butted by rams trained to charge at them from a distance.”5 Now, most playwrights, knowing that they were in competition with gladiators, strippers, pig imitators and – uh – bald ram headbutters, I guess – facing such stiff competition, I think most playwrights might be discouraged. Plautus’ successor Terence certainly was.6 But Plautus himself forged bravely ahead, endlessly prolific and evidently, never daunted enough by nearby cockfights and tightrope competitions to even slow down, producing, according to one ancient source, as many as 130 plays during the course of his career.7 [music]

Plautus’ World: Rome in the Early 180s BCE

The comedies of Plautus are the first pieces of Roman literature that have come down to us in full from antiquity, along with Cato’s De agricultura in prose. The play that we’ll cover today – again The Rope – is usually dated to Plautus’ late period – specifically, some time around 190 BCE or just after.8 During these years, the Roman Republic would have been between the Second and Third Macedonian wars, having beaten the Macedonians in 197. Rome had just finished trouncing the Seleucid Empire at the Battle of Magnesia in December of 190, effectively shooing the largest of Alexander’s successor kingdoms away from present day Turkey and the central Mediterranean. The pivotal Second Punic War – the one against Hannibal – had probably been over for about a decade when The Rope was staged, and so when audiences first saw this play, the Roman Republic had recently ballooned to include the island of Sicily and much of present day Spain, and earned itself broad colonial opportunities in Asia Minor. The day that The Rope was first staged, then, would have been a relatively prosperous one in Roman history, a time of recent expansion in which all sorts of new people were flooding into the city. A generation of soldiers, cavalrymen, and sailors were probably still exchanging war stories from bouts with the armies of Hannibal and Philip V of Macedon.

Rome’s expansion during the 100s BCE. The eastern portions of this expansion were acquired in the decade and a half before The Rope was first staged.

That The Rope was first staged during a period of relative peace was an exception to Plautus’ career. Plautus, by the 180s, would have been accustomed to staging plays during wartime – a peacetime play was a relative novelty for the playwright. So, if scholars are correct in assuming that The Rope’s sophisticated language and plot lines place it in Plautus’ later period, as Rome held its annual Ludi Romani, or Roman Games, during an autumn day some time in the early 180s BCE, Plautus’ play The Rope saw its world premiere. As you will soon see, a peacetime staging seems quite appropriate to the play we’re about to read together, a play in which tragedy is far off, and even the ugliest injustices and setbacks can be rectified through means of some brouhaha and timely revelations.9

Rome’s annual Ludi Romani, or “Roman Games” had featured stage performances for almost 200 years by the time Plautus started staging his trademark brand of ancient comedy.10 And in fact, by the early 180s, Rome’s annual games had already featured some form of translated or adapted Greek drama for six decades.11 So as we begin here in this show with Plautus in the early 180s, we’re not starting at the beginning of Roman drama – Plautus was no solitary innovator who appeared all of a sudden and brought theater to the Romans. Rome, even way back in the 500s BCE, knew Greek culture through Etruria to their north and Magna Graecia to their south, and so Plautus was simply one distinguished writer in a long line of distinguished writers, most of whose works are now lost, who helped usher in a pan-Mediterranean, Greco-Roman artistic culture. What makes Plautus unique and fun is, first of all – obviously – that we have some of his works, but second, that these works show us a stylized slice of everyday Roman life during the middle Republic– what early Romans laughed at, their dirty jokes, the idioms and language they used, what they thought of the flood of slaves coming in from conquered territories and crowding the agricultural labor market, and all sorts of other historical events occurring around 200 BCE.

So before I tell you a bit about Plautus himself, and introduce the plot and characters of his play The Rope, I want to take us back to, say, the autumn of 189 in the city of Rome, and talk a bit about what it would have been like to see a play – any play – in this time and place. [music]

Stagecraft in Plautus’ Rome

Let’s say it’s a warm afternoon in mid-September of 189 BCE. The Romans are saddling up for a fourth day of state-sponsored festivities. There have been games – chief among them chariot races and public combat matches, some of them probably staged in such a fashion that they dramatized Rome’s recent wars with the Carthaginian general Hannibal and King Philip V of Macedon. And included in these games what Romans call Ludi Scaenici, or “stage games,” a tradition younger, and, it seems, surrogate to the main courses of chariot racing and gladiatorial combat. Latin words related to the theater – scaena for “stage,” persona for “mask,” and ludius for “dancer” all tell the story of Roman Theater. These words are Etruscan words – the Etruscans probably borrowed them from Greek before they were co-opted by Rome.12 And just like the words they used to describe their stage and players, Rome’s theatrical traditions were a synthesis of Greek and native Italian traditions – the traditions that we talked about last time in detail.

Later Roman theaters like this one in Trieste would be monolithic stone affairs. In Plautus’ day, however, Roman stages were temporary.

So, knowing that in September 189 BCE, Romans had borrowed much from the theatrical traditions of their Greek forebears, if you headed into the city of Rome that autumn to watch a play, you might expect to see some of the hallmarks of Ancient Greek stagecraft – a large, state-funded theater with rising rows of benches, an open orchestra space where a chorus could sing and dance, a lavish set with cranes to lift actors, and all of the things we saw in action during our episodes on Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, if you happened to catch those. You might stroll into Rome in 189 BCE expecting to see all of this – particularly if you happened to be Greek – you’d walk in expecting to see a huge, permanent, state-funded theater in the newly ascendant Roman capital. And you’d see – uh – something else.

Although in 189 BCE, Rome had been staging theatrical events for at least 174 years, Rome did not actually have a permanent theater. Hundreds of years of Roman plays were performed on temporary wooden stages, up until 55 BCE, when Pompey began the construction of Rome’s first permanent theater. So why would a city – a city that by 189 BCE knew full well about Greece’s widespread and monumental public theaters – why would Rome relegate generations of playwrights and actors to temporary wooden structures?

The first answer is that originally, Rome seems to have imported the tradition of stagecraft from Etruria, and the Etruscans used temporary, rather than permanent stages for theatrical performances.13 From the beginning, then, Romans had seen theater as a foreign thing – from Etruria to the north; from Magna Graecia to the south, and before that from the distant lands in the Aegean Sea. Rome might have come to know Greece far better by 189 BCE, but the closer acquaintanceship did not encourage the construction of a permanent, Greek-style theater with rising rows of seating. So one reason Plautus had no permanent theater to work with was that Roman elites – after almost 200 years of staged performances – that Roman elites still saw theater as foreign. Also, interestingly, it was the opinion of many Roman statesmen during Plautus’ time that the erection of a permanent theater would produce a corrosion of public morality.

Now, this gets pretty funny, so listen closely. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that a specific point of contention in regards to permanent theaters was that spectators could sit down. In Plautus’ time, in other words, you could hoof it over to the theater, but because you couldn’t sit down there, there was – according to the Roman old guard, at least – no real danger of your lingering long enough for your moral values to be degraded by what you saw there. Tacitus explained that in 55 BCE, when Pompey built Rome’s first permanent theater, conservatives opposed to this new theater voiced the following concern:
“Formerly,” [opponents of the theater] said, “the games were usually exhibited with hastily erected tiers of benches and a temporary stage, and the people stood to witness them, that they might not, by having the chance of sitting down, spend a succession of entire days in idleness. . .As [time passed after the permanent theater was built], the morality of their fathers, which had by degrees been forgotten, was utterly subverted by the introduction of a lax tone, so that all which could suffer or produce corruption was to be seen at Rome, and a degeneracy bred by foreign tastes was infecting the youth who devoted themselves to athletic sports, to idle loungings and low intrigues, with the encouragement of the emperor and Senate, who not only granted licence to vice, but even applied a compulsion to drive Roman nobles into disgracing themselves on the stage, under the pretence of being orators and poets. What remained for them but to strip themselves naked, put on the boxing-glove, and practise such battles instead of the arms of legitimate warfare? Would justice be promoted, or would they serve on the knights’ commissions for the honourable office of a judge, because they had listened with critical sagacity to effeminate strains of music and sweet voices?14

That is, again, the later historian Tacitus summarizing the sentiments many Roman traditionalists felt in regards to the city’s first permanent theater of 55 BCE. What we can infer from what Tacitus said there is that the conservative diehards of Republican Rome felt that a permanent theater would make Romans degenerate, and that under foreign influences Romans would soften their ancestral propensity for warmongering, and turn into a bunch of theater attending pansies.

While they were temporary, Rome’s theaters before 55 BCE may have been quite elaborate in their construction.15 Additionally, while there was prejudice against the masses sitting at the theater, we do know that in 194 – less than a decade before The Rope was first staged, a special seating area near the stage was assigned to the senatorial class, to the indignation of the rest of the theatergoing public.16 The Roman patrician attitude toward theater, by the life of Plautus, was thus wrought with paradoxes – expansive theaters were okay, but the had to be disassembled after a festival; plebeians ought not to sit down to enjoy a show, but aristocrats were welcome to front row benches; theater was ultimately a foreign institution, even though the fabulae togatae and fabulae atellanae seem to have been homegrown genres written on subjects often native to the Italian peninsula.

Gladiator matches and other visual spectacles were stiff competition for Plautus and other Roman playwrights.

If you put yourself into Republican Roman sandals, the patrician reservations about a permanent state theater with seats almost makes sense. Just as Plato’s Republic outlines a police state where martial and unfeeling masses will die for a protected clan of elites, early Roman politicos liked the idea of the plebeians riled up over chariot races and gory gladiatorial combat far more than the idea of plebeians sitting around and contemplating ideas. If you’re ancient and in charge in a dangerous world, you want your followers to be packing swords and shields, and not lyres and flutes.

However, the idea of a permanent theater producing something Tacitus summarizes as “corruption” or “degeneracy” is nonetheless pretty ironic to modern ears. If Tacitus is accurate, then the Republic’s political machine – its patrician consul, its praetors, aediles, and quaestors – these leaders actually believed that a mass of slaveholding, human trafficking, prostitute-hungry men who watched murderous combat for fun would be morally corroded by sitting down at a performance of a play. I realize we’re talking about vastly different times here, but the irony to the modern ear is still sharp. [music]

The Paradoxes of Republican Roman Theater

So, let’s get back to the world premiere of Plautus’ The Rope, in the early 180s BCE. If you went to see this play, you would not, as you’ve just learned, walk into a prodigious stone structure and take your seat on one of many carefully carved stone risers. You would instead see, on the other side of a churning crowd, a temporary wooden stage where, with minimal props and sets, a group of actors and musicians were warming up. For over 300 years, Roman Theater looked just like this – a throng of people, perhaps fresh from gladiatorial games, ready to see a new kind of spectacle.

As you looked more closely at the stage, you’d see some familiar objects that had been imported from Ancient Greek Theater. One of these was something called the tibia, which the Greeks called the aulos, or double flute – the pair of wind instruments played simultaneously by one person that in a past episode I said looked something like a walrus’ tusks when played together. Plautus’ plays were accompanied by this instrument.17 Plautus’ plays may have also involved the use of masks – the beautiful, varyingly decorated masks worn during the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and other writers of Golden Age Athens, but these masks may have made their way into Rome some time after 189 BCE.18 So between the music, the rickety temporary stage, the possible use of Greek masks, and the general clamor and – uh – stinkiness of the occasion, going to the theater to watch Plautus would have been quite a different matter than picking up your tickets at will call and ducking into soft seats at a modern play.

I think if you and I could go back in time to the early 180s BCE, we would see a lot of strange contradictions as we went into the crowd and Plautus’ musicians began warming up. We would see a major world author making do, like all Roman dramatists did, with a highly distracted crowd, and with impermanent staging conditions. We would see an audience, at least partially glutted with speeding chariots and gladiatorial bloodletting, leaning in to watch a rather intricately plotted story about a man and his long lost daughter. As the play started, we would hear beautifully metered Latin and a rich exposition of the situation at hand delivered in an attempt to garner the attention of a rowdy, standing-room-only crowd. For hundreds of years, the first Roman playwrights operated in this curious environment, their literary innovations surviving and flourishing over the fresh cut planks of temporary stages and unruly crowds.

Classicist Denis Feeney compares early Roman theater to what it would have been like to watch Shakespeare in nineteenth-century America. “Before the early twentieth-century demarcation that began to turn Shakespeare into a ‘classic,’” writes Feeney, “an increasingly exclusive possession of the educated, all sections of American society shared a passion for Shakespearean theater. This was an often burlesqued, excerpted, and parodied Shakespeare, part of a spectacular package. . .but it was an art form anyone could attend, and the Roman experience was no doubt closer to this environment than to the reverential church-like atmosphere in which Shakespeare is normally experienced today.”19 So that was the physical setting of Roman theater – in Plautus’ days, an afterthought, a lighthearted chaser after the more virile and culturally central collective rituals involving chariots and gladiators, and not something sacred and revered. To survive and flourish in such an environment as a playwright, one would have to be thick skinned, and massively talented. Plautus, who turned out a vast quantity of plays in just this environment, was most certainly both of these. [music]

Fabullae Palliatae and New Comedy: Plautus’ Roots

Before we read Plautus’ play The Rope together, and discuss its author and some of his pervasive themes and interests, we need to cover some background on this famous play. Let’s start by talking about Plautus’ source material. By source material, I mean the authors and texts Plautus draws from throughout his comedies.

We went over this in the previous episode, but the earliest Roman comedies were often described as fabulae palliatae, which means “cloaked plays,” the palliatae or cloaks in the description being a recognizably Greek garment, in contrast to fabulae togatae, or fables in Roman togas. These fabulae palliatae, or plays with Greek garments and other Greek elements, were Plautus’ specialty. Plautus broadly based his plays on Greek models, but his models weren’t the 5th-century BCE Athenian dramatists that we often think of today when we think of Ancient Greek Theater – I mean Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Plautus’ models were authors who came along a little later in Greek history – the authors of a genre that today we call the New Comedy.

New comedy first slave theatre mask NAMA3373 Athens Greece plautus

A New Comedy slave mask. Characters lik Sceparnio, Trachalio, and Gripus may have worn masks like these during the world premiere of The Rope.

We learned about the New Comedy in Episode 37 of this podcast, called “The New Comedy,” in which we read Menander’s play Old Cantankerous, staged in Athens in 316 BCE. And in that show, we learned the general characteristics of New Comedy. New Comedy, unlike the work of Aristophanes, who was staging plays a hundred years before Menander, and two hundred years before Plautus – New Comedy, departing from the Old Comedy of Aristophanes, was less inclined to political satire. New Comedy seems to have been less crude – we don’t see quite so much nudity, or hear so many dirty jokes, as we did in our shows on Aristophanes. And New Comedy – again that genre of Greek drama that was popular by the late 300s BCE – New Comedy starts to structurally resemble something more like Shakespeare and less like Aristophanes. New Comedy has far more characters than the drama of Golden Age Athens. It stars everyday people and stock figures – the itinerant playboy, the clever slave, the rural misanthrope, the lecherous old man, the lowborn beauty with a heart of gold – men and women who could be your neighbors. A century before New Comedy, the tragic works of Sophocles and Euripides showcased legendary figures like Oedipus and Medea, and the audiences who went to watch their mythical sagas generally knew what was going to happen at the play’s end. In contrast, the plots of New Comedy plays were no so easily predictable, and thus, starting in the 300s BCE, audiences in the Mediterranean world seem to have become increasingly interested in watching plays with intricate and engaging plots.

The world of Aristophanes was vastly different from the world of Menander, who lived a century later, and even more different from that of Plautus, who lived two centuries later still. Aristophanes, turning out plays during the late 400s, lived in a city with a shared cultural tradition, a city fused into civic unity by first the Persian Wars and during his own lifetime the Peloponnesian War. Aristophanes lived in a city in which political satire – even utterly vicious and crude political satire, was an accepted means of dealing with upstart politicians and power hungry self made men. But Menander, writing just after the conquests of Alexander of Macedon and the bloody purges of the Macedonian regime, had to be much more cautious with what he put onstage. And Plautus, a lowborn professional who lived in a large, polyglot city, found the tempered, universalizable themes of New Comedy to be more adaptable to the Roman stage than the mythological operas and ferocious coarseness of older Greek writers like Sophocles and Aristophanes. Roman culture, in Plautus’ time, was a rapidly moving target – a checkerboard of immigration and emigration, and because Plautus could not count, like Sophocles and Aristophanes, on a shared cultural tradition, Plautus used more generically cosmopolitan themes and plots.

So, thus far, we’ve talked about how Plautus’ play The Rope was staged a decade after the terrifying Second Punic War, as Rome was winding down some conflicts with Macedon and the Seleucids. We’ve talked about the physical setting of Plautine comedy, or comedy by Plautus – that his works were first watched on temporary wooden structures, because of an entrenched Roman prejudice against the morally corrosive nature of the theater. And finally, we’ve just talked about Greek New Comedy – that gentler, more intricate brand of comedy that flourished after the death of Alexander of Macedon in 323 BCE, and that Plautus adapted and emulated. Let’s do one final thing before we crack open his play The Rope. Let’s briefly meet the characters and talk about the play’s setting. [music]

The Characters and Setting of Plautus’ The Rope

Plautus’ play The Rope, in a sentence, is about an elderly Athenian man, living abroad in North Africa, who, after a series of often comedic coincidences and revelations, becomes reacquainted with his long lost daughter. Its genre is what we today might call “romantic comedy.”20 Plautus took the plot and possibly the text of this play from earlier Greek authors, and we’ll talk about that later, but as we go through this play, remember that although it has a lot of characters, at its heart, it’s the story of a father, reunited with a daughter he lost as a child, who has subsequently grown to adulthood.

The father’s name is Daemones. And his daughter’s name is Palaestra. Now, The Rope. wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without a romance, and the romance in question is carried out between Daemones’ long lost daughter Palaestra and a younger Athenian man, travelling abroad – a young man named Plesidippus. We are going to meet more characters in the play in a minute – old Daemones has two slaves, handsome young Plesidippus has a slave, and Palaestra has a friend, and one of the play’s principal characters is a pimp, of all things. But just to get us started, let’s get that triangle in our heads at the outset – the old Athenian man Daemones, his beautiful estranged daughter Palaestra, whom he hasn’t seen in a fifteen or twenty years, and Plesidippus, the doughty young Athenian who is pursuing Palaestra’s hand in marriage. Daemones, Palaestra and Plesidippus.

The setting of Plautus’ play The Rope is quite unusual. If you went to see a play in Rome around 200 BCE, when you looked out on that temporary wooden stage we talked about earlier, generally you’d see a couple of fake houses set up to indicate an urban or suburban setting – most commonly, for comedy, it would be the city of Athens. The Rope, however, has a different sort of set.21 This play is set on a rugged seacoast, near a city called Cyrene, in modern day Libya. And on this stretch of seacoast is the cottage of old Daemones, and also a nearby shrine to the goddess Venus. However exactly the Romans represented them onstage, the cottage of Daemones, and the shrine of Venus, the little strip of turf between them, and moreover the ocean that lies down the cliff from these two buildings are the background on which the drama of Plautus’ play will unfold. So, let’s open up this play, first staged in the 180s BCE in Rome, and read our first work of Latin literature together. The edition I’m quoting from is a translation by E.F. Watling, first published by Penguin in 1964. [music]

The Prologue of Arcturas

The city of Cyrene, on the rugged northern coast of modern day Libya, was about 800 miles southeast of Rome, over the toe of the boot of Italy, and on the other side of the central Mediterranean Sea. Cyrene was about 500 miles west of Alexandria along the North African coast, and throughout the lifetime of Plautus, Cyrene was part of Ptolemaic Egypt, a central Mediterranean hub at once African, Egyptian, Greek, and, increasingly, under the sway of Roman culture. In 200 BCE as well as today, Cyrene’s location in a fertile band of coastline, and its relative abundance of vegetation and stores of fresh water made it a precious anomaly amidst the generally dry territories of North Africa. Trade had been thriving along the North African coast since the Bronze Age, and the hilly green country of northeastern Libya was one of the places you stopped as you followed the maritime interstates around the ancient world.

Ruins (mostly dating to after the lifetime of Plautus) in the city of Cyrene in modern day Libya. Daemones’ house and the shrine of Venus are up near the beach in The Rope.

Where the coastal bluffs pressed up against the ocean, there sat a cottage some distance inland from the shore. Its owner, an elderly Athenian named Daemones, could look out from his front door and watch the ships arriving at the port of Cyrene. Not far from the scenic cottage of old Daemones, there was a shrine to Venus, and an altar to this goddess – a shrine and altar central to the play you’re about to hear.

Now, one common feature of Greco-Roman New Comedy, which dated back to at least a hundred years before Plautus’ time, was to have a divine being, or just one of the actors of the play offer a prelude and then provide exposition on the play that was about to be staged.22 In the case of The Rope, this deity is called Arcturus. Arcturus is a star – one of the brightest stars in the northern hemisphere, and if you follow the Big Dipper’s handle’s arc around at the correct hour of the night, you’ll see it. And Plautus’ play The Rope opens with the star Arcturus offering first a sort of theological prelude to the tale that’s about to unfold, and then a bit of back story to get you up to speed.

The theological prelude is surprisingly solemn for the impending story. Arcturus, again the divine being who introduces Plautus’ play, said he was indeed a god – in the evenings, he hung high overhead. But during the daytime, Arcturus told the audience – during the daytime his role was different. When the sun was up, Arcturus impersonated a mortal man, and watched carefully over the actions of men and women.
For the lord of gods and men, [said the celestial being Arcturus,]
Great Jupiter, appoints us as his spies,
One here, one there, in various different places,
To watch how men behave, observe their acts,
Their characters, keep records of their piety
And virtue, so that [Jupiter], through Fortune’s hand,
May suitably reward this man or that. . .
Therefore I charge all men of good intent,
Of blameless life and faithful piety:
Continue in your honest ways, be steadfast,
And earn the blessing that your deeds deserve.23

So these are some of the opening words of Plautus’ The Rope – the star Arcturus’ counsel to the audience to act with honesty and virtue, and to be rewarded for these behaviors. This counsel, in fact, segues directly into Arcturus’ introduction of the play’s central character, old Daemones of Athens.

Daemones, Arcturus said, did nothing to deserve exile from Athens. Quite the opposite. Poor old Daemones was too generous, and one of his many misfortunes was having his daughter abducted. Old Daemones’ daughter was abducted, and sold to a pimp. This daughter’s name was Palaestra. Daemones’ daughter Palaestra was so beautiful that she attracted a lot of attention. In fact, a wealthy young Athenian man, when he saw gorgeous Palaestra, sought to buy her, but unfortunately, Palaestra’s pimp took the young Athenian’s deposit, and then, scoundrel that he was, the pimp took Daemones’ daughter Palaestra and headed to Sicily.

Now, the pimp, and the love struck young Athenian man are also main characters in this play. The lovelorn young Athenian, as I said earlier, is called Plesidippus, and the pimp Labrax. So, thus far we’ve met Daemones, the careworn old father, Palaestra, his estranged daughter who’s been sold into prostitution, Labrax, her pimp, and then Plesidippus, the pleasant young Athenian who sought to buy Palaestra and remove her from the world of sex trafficking.

The star Arcturus said that he had witnessed the pimp Labrax stealing hopeful young Plesidippus’ money. And the star Arcturus said that he had seen the pimp Labrax absconding with a ship full of prostitutes out into the Mediterranean. Unable to stomach the ugliness and injustice of the kidnapping, Arcturus had caused a great storm to rise up. The storm crushed the ship full of prostitutes, and Palaestra and one of her friends made it to shore, although the pimp Labrax, and one of his friends, also survived.

So that completes the exposition offered in the opening monologue of Plautus’ The Rope. Essentially, old Athenian Daemones’ daughter, after a long estrangement, has been shipwrecked on the North African coast where her father lives. But her pimp has also been shipwrecked. There’s just one more weird detail – odd, but conveniently memorable. Plesidippus, the hopeful young Athenian who was going to buy beautiful Palaestra, is also in Cyrene. Young Plesidippus is in Cyrene because – uh – the pimp Labrax told him to meet with him there for lunch. Assuming that Plesidippus was smitten with Palaestra up in Athens, this means that the pimp told the young lover to meet him for lunch at a location 400 miles southwest from Athens, on the other side of an ocean. Just – uh – embark on a transoceanic journey and meet me at the shrine of Venus in Cyrene on another continent for lunch. Even less logical is that the pimp Labrax is robbing Plesidippus of all the silver he paid for the slave girl, and yet Labrax has still told Plesidippus to sail across the Mediterranean to have lunch with him.

Well, The Rope gets off to a bumpy start, but let’s not sweat the details. The key thing to remember, as the star Arcturus closes his monologue and the play begins, is that we’re in beautiful coastal Cyrene. Old Athenian Daemones lives in a cottage by the sea and misses his estranged daughter. That estranged daughter Palaestra has just been shipwrecked, unbeknownst to her, within spitting distance of her dad’s homestead. Palaestra’s lover slash purchaser has also just arrived. And Palaestra’s pimp is out there, bobbing around in the shipwreck, paddling across the breakers. Like The Tempest or Robinson Crusoe, The Rope is about where the flotsam and jetsam washes up, following both a moral and literal shipwreck. [music]

Daemones and His Slave Sceparnio Meet Young Plesidippus

A great storm had just ravaged the North African city of Cyrene, including the cottage of old Daemones. Out of this cottage came another important character from The Rope – the slave of Daemones, whose name was Sceparnio. Sceparnio was a bit of a rascal – imagine a beefy, surly actor with a gravelly voice playing him – the sort of slave who lives in relative isolation with his master, and in this isolation achieves something approaching equality with that master. So Sceparnio hulked out of his master Daemones’ cottage, carrying a shovel, and looking around at the wreckage caused by the storm. The slave Sceparnio saw that their house had lost all of its tiles in the gale, and set out to dig for clay to begin making new tiles to cover their roof.

Caradosso, scena della Gomena di Plauto, 1485 circa plautus

This late 15th-century embossment of a scene from Plautus dated from the time when Latin literature was systematically being revived, particularly in southern Europe.

Just as Sceparnio began to dig for clay, down along the shore came young Plesidippus of Athens – that same Plesidippus who had sought to buy beautiful Palaestra and been duped by her pimp. Plesidippus had some friends with him, and the young lover griped to his acquaintances about the circumstances of his being cheated. Young Plesidippus said he’d take a look around the nearby shrine of Venus, and, hearing the commotion around his house, old Daemones came out to ask what was afoot.

A funny three-way conversation unfolded. The two Athenians, young Plesidippus and old Daemones, attempted to chat civilly over the rude interjections of the slave Sceparnio. Young Plesidippus and old Daemones exchanged the pleasantries of Athenians abroad, and Sceparnio essentially told young Plesidippus to get lost. Further, the slave Sceparnio grumbled that if old Daemones had so much time on his hands as to engage in frivolous conversation, then perhaps his master could go and cut some thatch to help repair the roof.

Eventually, Daemones told his slave to shut up, and two men from Athens were able to exchange some information. Young Plesidippus said he was looking for a pimp – an unwholesome looking man in the company of two beautiful women. Old Daemones said all kinds of rogues disembarked along the coast, treating his ocean-side cottage as a sort of pawn shop, but that he hadn’t recently seen any such ruffians. The young lover Plesidippus expressed his frustrations. Just then, though, old Daemones and his slave saw some people in the water offshore – bobbing in the breakers. Young Plesidippus, who was searching for his beloved Palaestra and her cheating pimp Labrax, dashed off with his friends to see who was going to wash up.

Old Daemones and his slave Sceparnio watched the plucky young man hurry off, thinking that they had their own concerns to worry about – the storm, after all, had nearly toppled their home. But then Sceparnio saw that far out in another part of the ocean, there were more people washing toward the shore. Specifically, Sceparnio saw two women, hanging onto a boat for dear life, and he described their struggles to get through the breakers as old Daemones listened skeptically. Though the women’s plight was clearly harrowing, Daemones, whether because he didn’t believe his slave’s story or simply because he wanted to get on with fixing the house without further interruptions, demanded that his slave get inside. Thus, as Daemones and his surly slave Sceparnio ducked back into their battered house to tend to it, onto the shore came Daemones’ estranged daughter, Palaestra. [music]

Palaestra and Ampelisca Arrive

Poor young Palaestra’s opening speech is a lamentation. The girl asked what in the world she’d done to deserve such misfortune and debasement – reduced to prostitution first and thereafter shipwrecked on an unknown land. In a Job-like moment, Palaestra exclaimed, “[W]hat a cruel, wicked, and unjust / Thing you have done to me, gods. If this is the way / You treat the innocent, how will the guilty learn?”24 Palaestra said she was unequivocally a victim – a victim of the profiteering pimp Labrax, and that the girl who had been with her was gone now, too. But in the lowest depths of her sorrows, poor Palaestra heard something that comforted her – the wind carried the sound of her friend’s voice – her friend and fellow sufferer Ampelisca. Now, we’ve already met five characters, and Ampelisca makes for a sixth. For clarification, these two characters are fairly easy to remember – Palaestra again being the estranged daughter of Daemones who has just washed up in, more or less, his front yard, and Ampelisca being Palaestra’s friend who’s also been reduced to slavery. So, following their shipwreck and difficult swim to the land, the two friends followed the sounds of each other’s voices toward one another, clasped hands, and embraced. The beleaguered women resolved to follow the beach and get away from where their boat had gone down.

Palaestra and her friend Ampelisca trudged down the beach in dripping clothes until they came to a shrine of Venus – a shrine that, along with the cottage of Daemones, is one of the two main structures on the stage of this play. An old priestess saw them coming, and asked the two castaways who they were and what they were doing on the beach of Cyrene. Palaestra was light with the details. She said that they were homeless and had no place to go, and so the old priestess, though she professed that she had little to share with them, took Palaestra and Ampelisca into the temple to care for them. [music]

The Slave Trachalio Appears and Apprehends the Situation

Just as Palaestra and Ampelisca were ushered into the temple of Venus by the kindly old priestess, a group of boisterous fisherman tromped up the beach, singing songs together. The fishermen, who hadn’t had a very good catch, decided to pay their respects at the temple of Venus. And soon, a new character arrived onstage.

A Renaissance manuscript of Plautus’ work.

In this play so far, we’ve met two Athenians – old Daemones and young Plesidippus. We’ve met two women – Palaestra and Ampelisca – the poor slave girls who nearly drowned. We met one slave – the surly Sceparnio, slave of Daemones. And now we’re going to meet another slave. His name is Trachalio, and he is a slave of the younger Athenian, Plesidippus. Now, both Daemones’ slave Sceparnio as well as Plesidippus’ slave Trachalio are independent-minded, self-assertive men. The playwright Plautus is, generally speaking, known for his rich and diverse panorama of lower class and slave characters, slave characters who end up providing interesting and funny counterpoints to the other figures around them. We’ve already seen surly Sceparnio, poking fun at a newly arrived group of Athenians as though they were the slaves, and not he. Trachalio is of a similar ilk, although Trachalio is perhaps shrewder and more perceptive than Sceparnio. Just because we have a lot of names piled in this play, I will refer to these two as “churlish Sceparnio” and “wily Trachalio,” these two figures being the slaves of the older and younger Athenian characters, respectively.

So, wily Trachalio was again the slave of the younger Athenian Plesidippus. And Trachalio, heading out toward the coast from the main part of Cyrene, announced to no one in particular that he was looking for his master. He saw a fisherman and asked the stranger if the fisherman had either seen any noble Athenians or villainous pimps and slave girls, and the fisherman said he’d seen no one of the sort.

Soon, though, wily Trachalio stumbled upon some good fortune. Out of the temple of Venus stepped the slave girl Ampelisca – whom, evidently, Trachalio knew. Trachalio and Ampelisca talked, and soon it became clear that Palaestra was there with her, too. Trachalio and Ampelisca flirted a bit, and Ampelisca said that love-struck young Plesidippus should have kept a closer watch on beautiful Palaestra. Ampelisca said that her friend Palaestra was in despair – specifically, because Palaestra’s pimp had stolen a box from her. This box, according to Ampelisca, contained some things that would decisively prove Palaestra’s identity to her parents. Without the contents of this box, Palaestra was irrevocably cut off from her past. Side note, here – the box thing at first seems like a strange plot device, as one would expect that physical recognition and the exchange of autobiographical details would enable a reunion between parent and child. Later, though, we learn that Palaestra was stolen from her father at the age of three, and so the special box being essential to confirming the girl’s identity makes a bit more sense. Okay, back to the story.

The wily slave Trachalio headed into the temple of Venus to talk with his master’s beloved Palaestra. And Ampelisca, resolving to get some water so that the two girls could wash the brine and grime off of them, went over to the adjacent cottage of old Daemones. She was greeted by Daemones’ slave, churlish Sceparnio, that same slave who didn’t bother to show any respect to anyone, regardless of their social standing.

Sceparnio saw that Ampelisca was attractive, and began fondling her and giving her lavish compliments on her appearance. Ampelisca made it clear she had no intentions of getting physical with him, and insisted that he fill her jug with water. After some delay, Sceparnio consented, but just as the churlish slave went to fill the jug, Ampelisca was distraught to hear the voice of her pimp and his friend. She went back to the temple of Venus to look after unwitting Palaestra, and then Sceparnio came back out with the filled jug. Now, Sceparnio had been expecting some kind of physical reward for retrieving water for the girl, but received nothing of the like. He came out, and she was gone. [music]

The Pimp Labrax Gets Cornered

In this play so far, we’ve met two noble Athenians, two slave girls, and two slave men, along with some other minor characters. It’s time to meet one more important figure, and this is the pimp, Labrax. Labrax and his friend slogged up from the beach, their clothes sopping wet. The two men argued variously, obviously ill at ease after the loss of their ship, their money, their slave girls, and moreover the experience of being soused in the ocean. Labrax said that if Ampelisca and Palaestra were safe, they’d at least have some slaves, and at just that moment, churlish Sceparnio stormed out of his house with the filled jug. Sceparnio revealed that indeed there were two young women sheltered in the temple of Venus, and after some dialogue, the pimp, along with his friend, headed in to investigate.

The old Athenian Daemones then poked his head out from his doorway and looked around. There is some implicit tension in this scene, as we know that poor old Daemones’ daughter is in danger of being reduced to sex slavery again, and Daemones doesn’t know this. The old man did reveal, however that he’d just had a dream. In his dream, a monkey was trying to clamber up into a swallow’s nest to harm the birds there, and Daemones managed to apprehend the monkey and put it in chains. Just as Daemones finished describing his dream, the wily slave Trachalio burst out of the temple of Venus.

An aulos player on a Greek vase. Plautus’ plays were accompanied by this instrument.

Trachalio – and he is again the slave of the younger Athenian, Plesidippus – Trachalio shouted for help. He said a great wrong was being done in the Temple of Venus. The slave Trachalio told old Daemones that two undeserving women were being assaulted in the temple of Venus, along with the priestess there, too. When asked for more details, Trachalio revealed that the perpetrator was none other than a particularly wicked and indecent pimp who deserved every censure. Old Daemones agreed, and conveniently, the elderly Athenian had some especially burly slaves that he sent to go into the temple and apprehend the pimp. So, the burly slaves rushed in, and out came the slave girls Palaestra and Ampelisca, as before bemoaning the tragic circumstances that had led to their uncertain futures. The slave Trachalio promised to take care of the young women, and said that the pimp Labrax wouldn’t lay a finger on them.

As Trachalio assured the girls of their safety, something even more promising for them took place. Old Daemones and his two muscular slaves emerged from the Temple of Venus, the slaves restraining a battered and angry Labrax. The pimp said the girls belonged to him, but Trachalio and Daemones verbally abused the pimp, and said the claim was ridiculous. Soon it came out that one of the young women was a free-born Athenian, just like Old Daemones, and Daemones bewailed his lost daughter, who, he added, would be about Palaestra’s age if she were alive.

The pimp Labrax had no interest in Daemones’ ruminations, or his long lost daughter. Labrax said he’d bought the two girls, fair and square, and he didn’t care about their origins at all. The disagreement between Daemones, Trachalio and Labrax intensified, and came to a climax when Labrax threatened to burn the young women alive on the altar of Venus. At this point, the slave Trachalio said he’d go and find his master Plesidippus, who, if you’ll remember, had purchased Palaestra and been swindled out of his deposit.

This left the pimp Labrax in a pickle. He had no money, and he needed his slave girls, as they were his sole remaining property. However, these slave girls were being guarded by old Daemones and, more pressingly, his muscular pair of slaves. Daemones, after telling his slaves to fetch thick clubs from the house, told them that if the pimp touched the girls, to club him; if the pimp tried to speak to the girls, to answer for them; if the pimp tried to escape, break his legs. The pimp Labrax made a few attempts to speak to the girls, and then to wriggle away, but it soon became clear that he could go nowhere.

Labrax’s plight suddenly grew far worse. The young lovelorn Athenian Plesidippus arrived with his trusty slave, Trachalio. Plesidippus confronted Labrax about taking his money and then fleeing with the slave girl, and soon, the indignant young Plesidippus had looped a rope around Labrax’s neck. Labrax cried for help, and when his friend came out of the Temple of Venus in response, the other man simply said that Labrax was getting what he deserved. The pimp’s days of swindling and dishonesty, it seemed, had drawn to an end. [music]

Gripus Finds the Trunk; Palaestra’s Identity is Discovered

Alone in front of his house some minutes later, old Daemones mused on the strange day that had unfolded. He congratulated himself on saving two young women, and wondered what would befall the two girls. After Daemones soliloquized for a few minutes, one of his slaves returned from a day of fishing. This slave professed that he’d had a long shift of working, but all of his fishing had produced no fish. The slave had, however, caught a wooden trunk – a heavy trunk, and he theorized that his trunk must be full of gold. Daemones’ slave who’d found the trunk pictured a future of wealth and prosperity, but steeled himself, saying that he’d have to pursue this future somewhat cautiously.

Just then, Plesidippus’ slave, the wily Trachalio, saw Daemones’ slave dragging the trunk he’d discovered off to a hiding place. This slave is called Gripus, and his name, conveniently for English speakers, reminds us that his primary role in the play is discovering, and attempting to keep a tight grip on, the lost trunk. Trachalio saw that the net that had ensnared the trunk was uncoiled all over the place, and one rope in particular was lingering in the grass. This is the rope after which the play gets its name. So Trachalio picked up the rope in an effort to help Daemones’ slave Gripus, but Gripus angrily told Trachalio he didn’t want any assistance. Trachalio noticed something odd in the other slave’s behavior, and intuited that all was not quite right. Being wily as he was, Trachalio intuited that the trunk must have been illicitly obtained.

An argument between the two men erupted, with Trachalio holding steadfastly to the rope, and the two men debated whether flotsam and jetsam discovered in ocean currents were public property or the property of the discoverer. From philosophical debates about property, to legalistic maneuvering, to the verge of physical violence, the two slaves argued about who would get the trunk and its contents, Trachalio insistently and unyieldingly keeping his grip on the rope attached to the other man’s net. Finally, Trachalio said that old Daemones ought to arbitrate the dispute, since they were on his property. Daemones’ slave Gripus, who’d caught the trunk, said it would be a great idea – after all, Daemones would claim the trunk as the property of his own slave, since it had been discovered on his estate.

At just that moment, old Daemones came out of his cottage with Palaestra and Ampelisca in tow. He said he planned to get rid of them – he couldn’t keep them, he said, because his wife wouldn’t like having attractive young girls around. Palaestra and Ampelisca were understandably disquieted at the news that they’d be cast adrift once again, and to make matters more chaotic, Daemones looked up from his front porch and saw his slave who’d discovered the trunk standing opposite Trachalio, who still clutched the rope attached to this trunk.

The two slaves argued briefly, but soon Trachalio revealed that he knew something about this trunk. He knew that within this trunk there was a special box that belonged to Palaestra – a box full of her rattles and baby toys – worthless odds and ends that would nonetheless help her find her parents.

As Daemones and Trachalio pressured the slave who discovered the box to crack it open and show them the contents, Gripus clutched onto the lost trunk and complained. Eventually, it was agreed that Daemones would open the trunk and see if it contained any childhood mementos, as Trachalio had insisted that it did. The girls were brought out, and the rope that held the chest closed was removed. Palaestra promised that she knew exactly what was in the small memento box within the larger chest.

Juguete romano plautus trinkets

A terracotta toy horse on wheels, from the 300s CE. Palaestra’s trinkets are an important part of The Rope‘s plot resolution.

Palaestra described some of the toys in the box, and Daemones and Trachalio found her descriptions accurate. Next, Palaestra said there was a small golden ax and sword, inscribed with the names of her mother and father. When prompted by Daemones, Palaestra said that her father’s name was Daemones. As the slave who had found the chest grumbled about losing his treasure, Daemones confirmed, with great joy, that his long lost daughter had returned. Palaestra and Ampelisca went into Daemones’ house to see Palaestra’s mother, and the slave who had discovered the trunk resolved, “Well, there’s nothing for it but to go inside and quietly hang myself – at least for the time being, until I get over it” (143). Poor Gripus.

Following the slave Gripus’ resolution for a – temporary suicide, I guess, old Daemones strode back out onto the stage from his house. Daemones extolled his good fortune and said that his daughter would be married to an aristocratic young man from Athens. Old Daemones, thinking of love-struck young Plesidippus, looked around for Plesidippus’ slave Trachalio. In a funny exchange of rapid back and forths, Daemones urged Trachalio to make haste and find Plesidippus, and to tell Plesidippus to come and marry Palaestra as soon as possible. Wily Trachalio, in turn, urged Daemones to free him and allow him to marry Ampelisca, and Daemones, perhaps not entirely listening or too caught up in the euphoria of having his family reunited, agreed to Trachalio’s demands.

The slave Gripus, who had discovered, but not been allowed to keep the contents of the trunk, reprimanded his master Daemones when he discovered that Daemones wouldn’t keep the trunk, either. “No wonder you’re poor,” said Gripus, “you’re too bloody honest” (146).

Daemones was not apologetic about his uprightness. “O Gripus,” said Daemones,
in the sea of life
There are many baited snares to catch us men.
Grasp at the bait too greedily, and lo,
You’re trapped in the net of your own avarice.
The moderate, cautious, patient, prudent man
May long enjoy what he has rightly won.
It may be worth our while to lose that gain
Whose loss may be more profit than the keeping.
Should I conceal what has been given to me,
Well knowing it is another’s? God forbid
That Daemones should do so. Wisest men,
No matter what their slaves may do, do well
To have no part in their dishonesty. (146)

The slave Gripus dismissed Daemones’ words as the platitudes of a comic play – platitudes which no audience would take seriously. Gripus stormed off, but Daemones nonetheless felt confident that the slave was better off without all the money. “If [Gripus] had gone into partnership with some other slave, he’d have [been] involved in theft. Thinking he’d got a fine prize in his net, he’d have been led captive by his own capture. Well, now for . . . that supper” (147). [music]

Daemones Sorts Things Out

Meanwhile, the slave Trachalio had fetched his master, the youthful Athenian Plesidippus. Both were rather distracted – Trachalio thinking of his impending freedom and marriage to Ampelisca, and Plesidippus thinking of his impending marriage to Palaestra. The young Athenian and his slave reached old Daemones’ house and went inside.

Then, out onto stage shuffled the disgraced pimp Labrax. He had received a verdict from the juries of Cyrene that he’d lose his own female slaves. Meanwhile, Gripus, the slave who had discovered the lost trunk, was dolefully cleaning some rusty odds and ends just outside of Daemones’ cottage, thinking of his lost money. Although Daemones’ slave Gripus and the pimp Labrax seem like loose change at this point, close to the play’s end, the two men had something in common. They both wanted that lost trunk, which, in addition to Palaestra’s childhood oddments, contained gold and silver.

Gripus knew the location of the trunk. And in a clear-cut example of a swindler getting swindled, Gripus talked Labrax into giving him more and more money provided that the pimp Labrax was shown the location of the trunk. However, once the rest of the play’s characters emerged from old Daemones’ house with the trunk, the pimp Labrax claimed the trunk and was off with it, willy-nilly his promise to the slave Gripus. It seemed that the pimp would escape, but Daemones stopped the departing Labrax, insisting that his household had done the pimp a great service in recovering the trunk, and that the money promised to Gripus should be given to him. Eventually, an agreement was settled on. The pimp Labrax, Daemones insisted, did owe him the promised sum of gold from the chest. However, the pimp Labrax would keep half of this sum in payment for the slave girl Ampelisca. The slave Gripus would be freed, and Labrax would get some compensation for his fiscal loss. Not everyone got exactly what he wanted, but everyone got something.

Rather than shunning the pimp who had been about to sell his daughter into Sicilian sex markets, Daemones – uh – invited Labrax in for dinner. And as the play’s cast of characters headed back into Daemones’ seaside cottage, he waved to the audience at large, saying, “Friends, I would gladly invite you to my supper too; but I have nothing to give you; there is no rich entertainment in my house. Besides, I am sure you all have other invitations. However – give us your loud applause, and you will be welcome to my hospitality” (156). And that’s the end. [music]

Plautus’ The Rope, Foundlings, and Romantic Comedy

So that was Plautus’ play The Rope, staged some time toward the beginning of the 180s BCE. Before we get into some of the history behind this play, let’s talk a bit about its structure and characters.

Menander, one of Plautus’ main influences.

The Rope has a number of categories of characters. We have young and old Athenian patricians – Daemones and Plesidippus. We have two slave girls, Palaestra and Ampelisca. There are a number of slaves – first surly Sceparnio, who later vanishes from the play, and then craftier Trachalio, and then the slave Gripus, who wants the lost treasure of the sunken box for himself. Finally, there is the pimp Labrax and his acquaintance. These nine characters all have their fair share of lines, none of them particularly dominating the play, and none of them emerging as particularly three-dimensional, either. The play also contains other speaking roles – more slaves – the burly enforcers of old Daemones, the priestess of Venus, and the little group of fishermen who saunter onstage about a third of the way into the play.

The result, for readers like us, is that we have about a dozen unfamiliar names to learn, some of the characters are bewilderingly similar, and a fairly intricate plot to deal with in which half a dozen different agents pursue their own diverse ends. If reading Plautus’ The Rope is a bit challenging, then, it’s neither Plautus’ fault nor our own – it just has to do with the nature of reading – or in your current case, listening to – a work of theatrical comedy, rather than watching it onstage. The modern reader, who encounters Plautus on a printed page, loses not only the brio of a production’s original actors, but also the fine interplay between its words, rhythm, and music. Additionally, we are of course reading the play in English, at the expense of difficult-to-translate puns and double meanings that Latinists carefully explicate in their own studies of Plautus. The fact that The Rope is still fun to read for non-specialists is a testament to the talents of modern translators, but also the overall soundness of the story itself, regardless of the language in which it’s told. Let’s talk about that story.

The nucleus of Plautus’ The Rope is a tale of a father who has become separated from his daughter, and their subsequent reunion with one another. Literature has a lot of orphans and foundlings – Plautus would likely have known Oedipus the King and Euripides’ Ion. Anglophone readers might name Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield, and Dickens was especially fond of orphans as characters. In the nineteenth century, the tale of a moneyless orphan adrift in a callus world was a common way for an author to criticize national institutions and cultural practices. We don’t quite see this happening in Plautus’ The Rope. Poor Palaestra has been separated from her father somehow, and although she’s a sympathetic character, she’s no self-determining protagonist, triumphing over the privations of an unjust world. Instead, Palaestra goes from being the property of her father, to the property of a pimp, to being the property of a man who has purchased her from this pimp. We may admire her powers of endurance and understand her powerlessness, but Palaestra remains one of Greco-Roman New Comedy’s dozens of examples of a female victim of rape or sex trafficking who winds up forced into an ostensibly happy marriage with one of her pursuers. Concerning New Comedy in general, Mary Beard writes that “The ‘happy ending’ to some of their rape stories can appall modern readers.”25 As we noted during the end of the play, the cheerful dinner that concludes The Rope, centered on Palaestra, her father, her previous pimp, and the man who has recently purchased her and gone all the way to Africa to secure his purchase, does not resonate well with our modern ideas about marriages of mutual consent based on amity and shared interests.

Scholar Gesine Manuwald observes that The Rope “could be regarded as at least equally ‘tragic’” as it is comedic, and that the play “defies clear definition on formal grounds since it contains elements that seem to be more frequent in contemporary tragedy than in comedy.”26 Plautus was the first Roman playwright, to our knowledge, who chose a single genre and stuck with it, and yet he seems to have believed that the differences between tragedy and comedy were immaterial. A deity introducing one of Plautus’ other plays, interacting with the audience, says, “What’s that? Are you disappointed / To find it’s a tragedy? Well, I can easily change it. / I’m a god, after all. I can easily make it a comedy, / And never alter a line.”27 It’s a brazen statement, and although these lines are spoken by the god Mercury, they suggest that Plautus found comedy a genre flexible enough to tell a wide range of stories.

To return to the subject of Palaestra’s marriage at the end of The Rope, to a second-century BCE Roman audience, the marriage of Palaestra and Plesidippus would not have been as troubling as it is to us today. Roman girls married young, their consent was convenient but not required, and as in 5th-century BCE Athens, sexual loyalty was optional for males, who had numerous other sexual opportunities available to them both within and beyond their households. More than a sacred union based on pledges of lifetime love, marriage was a tool for the transfer of property, the consolidation of family lineages, and general social stability. That wealthy young Plesidippus pursues Palaestra by purchasing her and actually making her his wife would have probably been, to a Roman audience, a fortunate occurrence for the former slave girl, provided that Plesidippus didn’t prove abusive or woefully irresponsible. We might wince at Palaestra’s unending powerlessness, but Plautus’ audience would have seen a girl going from almost certain prostitution to marriage with a wealthy Athenian.

Probably more than her marriage with Plesidippus, however, Palaestra’s reunion with her father – her unlikely journey back to the estranged Daemones, is the exceptional, and memorable plot device of The Rope. As Plesidippus’ slave Trachalio tries to take the trunk away from Daemones’ slave Gripus, and the two men tug away at the titular rope of the story, they are also, of course, inadvertently deciding the fate of poor Palaestra, the rope, on a simple level, symbolizing the girl’s tenuous connection with her familial past and cultural roots. The rope does not break, and Palaestra and her little trove of personal items wind up back in the custody of her father, and thereafter in a paternally sanctioned marriage to one of her countrymen.

Early Roman comedy is full of stories about foundlings, or lost children. Orphans in New Comedy often have experiences similar to Palaestra’s. They teeter on the brink, facing various gradients of debasement and danger, and through coincidences and revelations they become newly and prosperously ensconced in marriages and households, not only to their own benefit, but also to the benefit of those around them. Orphans and castaway children have deep roots in Roman literature. The legendary founders of Rome, in fact, Romulus and Remus, were at their darkest moment abandoned babies, condemned to die by an uncle who had usurped the throne by their father, but spared execution by pious servants and cast down a river from their hometown of Alba Longa. The literature of the Roman Republic is so full of tales of lost and discarded infants, that the modern reader imagines that abandoned babies must have been a fairly common sight in the streets of Rome and its Greek provinces. It’s very possible that they were. [music]

Capitoline she-wolf Musei Capitolini MC1181

Romulus and Remus, both foundlings and founders of Rome.

Infant Exposure and Roman Attitudes Toward Neonates

There was a practice in the Greco-Roman world which historians call “exposure.” A baby was left in a public place, either to perish in the elements, to be picked up by human traffickers, or adopted by anyone who happened to want or need a child. While historians have been intensely curious about the demographics of practices like exposure, abandonment, infanticide, contraception, and abortion in the Roman world, much of our information about these practices comes from literary sources, rather than archaeology. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and later Juvenal all offer us clues about Greco-Roman attitudes toward contraception and the fate of the typical Roman neonate. However, the clues that these writers offer, and clues in other contemporary authors, stretch a span of hundreds of years. As historian Judith Evans Grubbs summarizes,
Exposure was widespread in the ancient world, where reliable means of preventing conception were not widely used and abortion was a dangerous undertaking for the mother. But the circumstances under which exposure might occur, and the reasons for it, would vary according to time, place, and social and economic status. The number of exposed infants would have been much fewer in rural areas and villages where there was less anonymity and far fewer people overall than in huge urban centers like imperial Rome, especially those that were transportation hubs receiving transient populations.28

Exposure, up until the dissemination of Christianity, seems to have been an acceptable practice if contraception had been unsuccessful, or timely abortion could not be procured. Women without access to contraceptives, or more generally women leery about the dangers of an abortion could opt to leave unwanted children out to perish or be picked up by whoever would take them in. Female children, more than male children, were likely to be exposed, due to the inherent economic disadvantages of having a female child, but whichever gender was exposed, the process was the same.

A bakery in Pompeii. A public square like this one might be a spot where infants were abandoned. Photo by Longbow4u.

What evidence we possess suggests that prior to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, infant exposure was well known – in the assessment of scholar Mirielle Corbier, “[T]o the question of how common and wide-ranging the practice of exposure was, we can only respond as follows: over the centuries, whatever its precise legal basis, the exposure of newborn babies in Rome was perfectly legal and socially acceptable.”29 Additionally, abortion, while medically risky, was an acceptable alternative to an unwanted pregnancy. Another historian, Beryl Rawson, writes that “There seems not to have been strong public prejudice against abortion, except where a married woman resorted to it without her husband’s knowledge or permission. . .there were no intrinsic moral or philosophical principles against contraception or abortion or about the sanctity of the embryo.”30 Pre-Christian Romans, who practiced exposure, contraception, abortion, and also advantageous adoptions, were not particularly given to preoccupations about genetic lineage, and this merciless pragmatism was often a historical advantage to them. Particularly during the lives of Plautus and his successor Terence, whom we’ll meet in the next show, when the Second Punic War, and the Macedonian Wars, and the victory of the Seleucids were all sending titanic quantities of slaves to the Italian Peninsula from overseas – one of them being Terence himself – as affordable slave labor flooded into Rome between 200 and 140 BCE, there was little need to be fruitful and multiply at a familial level.

Adoption was one means of controlling the population amidst an overflowing slave market, but the other, as I said before, were the practices of contraception, abortion, and exposure. Let’s talk about the latter for a moment. Looking at the big picture, as historian Alfred Sauvy writes, “based on what we know now of the multiplicative powers of the human species, the population of the Roman Empire should have grown much more than it did and overflowed its borders.”31 In certain eras of human civilization there are definitive fiscal advantages to having a smaller family, and during much of Roman history, this was the case. Textual evidence on exposure remains diverse – one source mentions a columna lactaria, or a “milk column” in a prominent Roman marketplace, perhaps where parents could drop newborns off knowing that they would be fed and cared for.32 Juvenal’s Satires, on the other hand, describe “filthy pools [filled with] naked babies” (6.602-3) suggesting a far more awful fate for exposed infants in the capital.33 We don’t have enough evidence to securely generalize about the fate of the average exposed infant – whether her fate was a public charity spot in a bustling marketplace or a much bleaker destiny in the sort of receptacle described by Juvenal. But we do have some information about the ideology that underpinned the practice of exposure.

Romans looked with curiosity on neighboring cultures that valued fecundity of offspring and prohibited infant exposure. The Greco-Roman historian Diodorus Siculus, considering Egypt, was fascinated that “the Egyptians are required to raise all their children in order to increase the population,” but he adds that this was economically possible because “most of the children are reared without shoes or clothing because of the mildness of the climate of the country, [and so] the entire expense incurred by the parents of a child until it comes to maturity is not more than twenty drachmas.”34 There’s no sense in that quote by the historian Diodorus Siculus that the Egyptians raise all of their children out of any natural affinity, in other words – to Diodorus, they want to keep a broad agricultural population base, and it’s cheap to do so. The Greek geographer Strabo recorded a similar observation about Egyptians, writing that Egyptians, unlike Greeks and Romans, “bring up all children that are born.”35 Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus, writing some time around 100 CE, recorded that the Jews “count it a crime to kill any of their later-born children. . .Thus they think much of having children.”36 Now, these sources are a couple of centuries later than the time of Plautus, and two of them are Greek, but they nonetheless give us a general idea of the differences between Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian ideas on child rearing.

In contrast to the Egyptians and Jews, the Greek and Roman cultures of the central and eastern Mediterranean had not only a long history of strategic abortion and infanticide, but also a long history of justifying these practices as natural to an ideal society. Some time around 380 BCE, Plato wrote that the leadership of his ideal state in the Republic would “find some suitable way of hiding away in some secret and secluded spot the children of worse parents and any handicapped children of good parents,” the hiding away in question likely being a euphemism for exposure and abandonment.37 Some decades later, Plato’s pupil Aristotle did away with the euphemism, proposing, “As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live, [and] where there are too many (for in our state population has a limit), when couples have children in excess. . .let abortion be procured.”38 Now Plato and Aristotle were of a different culture and epoch than Plautus – working in the 300s BCE, whereas Plautus worked at the cusp between the 200s and 100s. Yet a hundred years after Plautus staged The Rope, Cicero was recollecting that Aristotelian perscriptions for population regulation were at the core of Roman law. “[H]ideously deformed children,” writes Cicero in The Laws, “should be. . .put to death. . .according to the Twelve Tables” (The Laws 3.19), the Twelve Tables being the ancient code of Roman law.39

These are some of the commonly quoted sources on Greco-Roman attitudes toward child rearing, abortion, and infanticide – if you’ve taken a class on Roman history, you’ve probably heard some of this stuff before. Even in our own podcast, we talked about Classical Athens’ practices of specifically female infanticide in order to try and make sense of the ending of Aeschylus’ play, The Libation Bearers, and as we move forward through Roman literature, it will be helpful to remember that Roman infants, particularly female ones, were as good as disposable if the social and economic imperatives of their parents mandated it.

The Greco-Roman world’s practices of exposure and abandonment are fascinating in their own right. They show a society invested in the idea that identity is socially constructed, rather than congenital, and that human life – even the life of a newborn Roman citizen – has little intrinsic value unless it is useful to the interests and agendas of the adult world.40 For our understanding of Plautus’ play The Rope, and moreover Greco-Roman New Comedy, we need to remember that all of the lost children and foundlings in this genre are the imaginative products of a world in which parents could and did abandon their children with impunity, and parents and children might well be interacting with one another without knowing it.

Of course, Daemones hasn’t abandoned his daughter Palaestra. We never learn the circumstances of their separation in The Rope, but it is clear that Daemones did not seek this separation, and is happy to have her back. Nonetheless, in Plautus’ audience in the early 180s BCE, there would have been men and women who had sired children and got rid of them – men and women for whom the story of a lost child grown to adulthood struck a special chord. A foundling, or a lost child, to an audience today is a fanciful plot device; foundlings within the Greco-Roman world were commonplace.

So we’ve talked about Palaestra’s marriage at the end of The Rope. And we’ve spent some time discussing infant exposure, adoption and orphans in ancient Greco-Roman culture. There’s one more broad topic I want to talk about – a final topic that I believe will help us see that Plautus’ The Rope is more than a quaint tale of guileful slaves and a fortuitous reunion – and I hope, help us see that The Rope is a profound statement about something happening in the Mediterranean world during the 190s and 180s – as deep as anything one finds at the hearts of the best plays by Sophocles and Euripides. [music]

Romans On the Move

Sometimes, when I read, sentences get stuck in my head. I’m sure it happens to everybody. About a year ago I was reading historian Paul Kriwaczek’s book about Mesopotamia – I quoted this a few times in the first couple episodes of Literature and History – anyway, I was reading Paul Kriwaczek’s book Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization – specifically a section about Old Babylon, the Babylon of Hammurabi, and the decline of this city under the pressures of competing linguistic groups and tribal activity on the periphery of the Mesopotamian heartland. And the sentence that I read was, “Something else was happening too: in the heart of Mesopotamia people were on the move.”41 Kriwaczek goes on to explain the kinds of pressures driving both internal migrations and then emigrations to other foreign lands that drove the decline of Old Babylon, but the phrase that stuck in my head, simple as it was, was “people were on the move.”

Now you’ve probably thought about this – the simple notion that certain periods of history involve far more migration and travel than others – because it’s obvious, but I don’t know that I’d ever particularly considered it very much. In the ancient history that we’ve studied together in this podcast so far, there have been two periods during which, more than any other, to quote Kriwaczek again, “people were on the move.” One of them was the Late Bronze Age and the Bronze Age Collapse, when eastward migrating populations, perhaps driven by prolonged droughts, besieged and sacked the cities of Egypt, Canaan, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. The combined tales of the Iliad and Odyssey, and Odysseus’ eastward journey, sack of Troy, and subsequent wanderings, are the story of the Bronze Age collapse in miniature – western groups migrate eastward, destroy cities, and subsequently wander and find places to settle. But we’re not talking about the Iliad and Odyssey.

A thousand years after the Homeric epics are set, Plautus saw a world in which people were again on the move. Plautus himself was probably an immigrant from a tribe called the Umbri, hailing from a city on the upper part of the calf of the Italian boot. Like many early adapters of Ancient Greek comedy for the Latin stage, Plautus spoke not only Greek and Latin, but also the native language of his region – Oscan. Ancient biographers recount how Plautus sought first a livelihood in Rome as a stage hand – he would have arrived in the capital around the time Romans were building their first full armada in order to stand a chance in the First Punic War. The name Plautus was probably a moniker he received while playing comedic roles onstage, and it means “flat-footed” or “broad-footed.” While we’re not exactly sure about the roots of Plautus’ nickname, it can’t have helped his literary reputation with critics like Horace and Quintilian, who were already not partial to Plautine comedy. I mean if you just hear the names Homer, and Virgil, and Mr. Flat Feet, you’re probably not going to assume that the latter is the more commanding figure in artistic history. Anyway, according to the admittedly unreliable contents of ancient biographies, Plautus evidently did well enough as a player of comedic roles that he used his flat feet to march over to a new business – first merchant shipping and then milling, and while working in these new professions he began studying Greek and Greek drama. Later in his life – at about the age of 40 or around the time of the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE, when Hannibal beat Rome on its home turf in Italy – around the age of 40 Plautus started having success adapting Greek comedy to the Roman stage.42

Extent of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire between 218 BC and 117 AD plautus

The extent of the Roman Republic and Empire after 218 BCE. Map by Varana.

So Plautus, who had migrated, switched languages, switched professions, switched professions again, and switched professions again to become a writer, had a pretty clear sense of how the Punic and Macedonian Wars were moving people around. Plautus’ migrations and adaptations were symptomatic of the times in which he lived. By 200 BCE, the Italian peninsula was at the center of a maelstrom of burgeoning transoceanic travel. Wars in the Hellenistic period created slaves, and as Rome defeated Carthage in 201, Macedon in 205 and 197, and the Seleucids in 190, Plautus and his contemporaries would have seen an annual influx of slaves – 8,000 a year on average, by one estimation.43 The city and suburbs of Rome had a population of about 300,000 at this juncture, to give some perspective. But people were not just on the move into the Italian Peninsula. Following the end of the Second Punic War in 201 BCE, Rome regularly had more than 30,000 soldiers stationed overseas, from modern-day Spain to Greece to Turkey. To quote historian Mary Beard again,
By the mid second century BCE, well over half the adult male citizens of Rome would have seen something of the world abroad, leaving an unknown number of children where they went. To put it another way, the Roman population had suddenly become by far the most travelled of any state ever in the ancient Mediterranean, with only Alexander the Great’s Macedonians or the traders of Carthage as possible rivals. Even for those who never stepped abroad, there were new imaginative horizons, new glimpses of places overseas and new ways of understanding their place in the world.44

Most of the major ancient cities we’ve encountered were cosmopolitan, and maintained armies in far off territories. But the scale of what Rome was doing, and more than that the rapidity of the events that took place over Plautus’ lifetime were unique. When Plautus arrived in Rome in his twenties, Rome was building its first fleet. For the rest of his lifetime, part of what it meant to be Roman was to travel, and to have the acquaintance of those who spoke different languages; to tread water in a swiftly evolving economy, and to adapt to new places and cultures. Rome’s imperial expansion during the life of Plautus was not some process wherein a standard stamp was scrunched down into varying overseas territories, causing them to all suddenly become Roman. Instead, as was the case during the expansion of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and the conquests of Alexander of Macedon, one militarily dominant culture ballooned and set up a set of regional administrative structures, a clunky latticework under which various new hybrid cultures, ethnicities, and theologies spread beyond the purview of the landed elites in the capital city.

If one understood what was happening, culturally and economically, one might have looked around the evolving Roman world with a sense of vertigo. Rome had never been some culturally insular nugget, generating its own unique regional identity – it had always been part of the wash between Magna Graecian cities on the south of the peninsula and native populations in the central and north of modern-day Italy. Rome had never been a closed-off kernel of native traditions, but in Plautus’ lifetime, suddenly, transoceanic causeways were opening in multiple directions, and traffic jams of soldiers, slaves, settlers, tradesmen and administrators were on the move.

While citizens and soldiers of the Republic were travelling all around the Mediterranean world, even men and women who stayed in one place were moving within the existing social order. The slaves who arrived on the shores of the Italian Peninsula, while they were subject to abuse and grisly mistreatment, also enjoyed much greater opportunities for freedom and social climbing than their counterparts in fifth-century BCE Athens. In other words, while the contemporaries of Sophocles, in the mid to late 400s BCE, guarded Athenian citizenship carefully, and no ex-slave was eligible for it, a freed Roman slave had an open path to Roman citizenship and even economic prosperity if he or she sought these things. The word manumission comes from two Latin words – manus, or “the hand or power” of a master, and mittere, or “release.” The practice of manumission and granting of citizenship to freed slaves had grown to such an extent by the 100s BCE, some historians estimate that more than half of Rome’s citizen population had slaves somewhere in their family trees.45 According to historian Peter Knox, “Perhaps one-third of the population of Italy at the end of the first century B.C. were slaves.”46

For Roman historians of Cicero’s and Livy’s generations of the 100s BCE and just afterward, the thing that had led to Rome’s expansion and retention of its provincial territories during Plautus’ lifetime – and over the course of the three Punic Wars more generally – was a certain staunchness of character, discipline in combat, and unbending martial determination. Whatever we make of this old stereotype, which is still alive and well today, it is obvious that Rome could field outstanding armies. But it’s equally obvious that a growing empire needs more than effective military command in order to endure. Alexander of Macedon conquered much of Eurasia and left behind him a rotten quilt of successor kingdoms, and we remember him as a bloodthirsty megalomaniac. Romans, on the other hand, held onto their territories much more successfully. They did so due to robust military organization, but they also did it because of an inclusive process of granting citizenship to qualified slaves and foreigners, rather than attempting to maintain some arbitrary dichotomy between Roman and non-Roman. This was a fascinating step forward – this idea that being a Roman citizen did not necessarily mean ever having visited the city of Rome – this idea that the social category of citizenship needn’t involve a specific geographical location or, for that matter, genetic lineage.47

Plautus understood the changes occurring all around him. And I think that to Plautus and his audience, the story in The Rope would have had a specific, contemporary relevance. It is a story in which Greek people speak Latin in Africa, on the shore of the Greco-Egyptian Ptolemaic empire. It is a story in which nationality matters – Daemones and Plesidippus are insistent about their Athenian heritage – but The Rope is also a story in which nationality can be rapidly adjusted. The plight of Palaestra, a former Athenian floating through the Mediterranean to an unknown destination, was the plight of tens of thousands of real Greeks who lost their homes due to civil wars in the Aegean and later Roman conquest, and Palaestra’s plight was at the same time the predicament of tens of thousands of Romans who, for whatever reason, found themselves on the move in the decades around 200 BCE.

The rope and the small chest of Palaestra’s possessions at the heart of Plautus’ play are of course nothing more than props at the heart of a comedy – a couple of objects that two slaves squabble over for the audience’s amusement. But maybe Plautus himself, and a few audience members watched the climactic scene of the play, in which a girl’s fate hangs on a waterlogged chest and damp rope, and thought about their own civic identities. Many in Plautus’ audiences would not have been Romans at all. Some would have been manumitted Romans. Others would have had slavery somewhere in their ancestry. But all of them, slaves and citizens and everything in between, would have recognized that, as the eastern Mediterranean weakened and the central Mediterranean acquired more and more territory, in a newly intercontinental world where identity was conferred by state and economy rather than genetics and birthplace, one’s attachments to her past were as vulnerable and fragile as a single strand of rope, frayed and battered by the storms of recent history. [music]

Moving on to Terence

So this show has again been on Plautus, and his play The Rope, probably staged some time in the early 180s BCE on a fittingly impermanent stage in the city of Rome. I’d like to thank Professor Gesine Manuwald of University College London for reading both this episode on Plautus and the next one on Terence prior to their release. Her input on these two programs helped me get a more detailed and nuanced perspective on these two authors and the history around them, and gave the final products a lot more depth and precision. I’ve put her recent book Roman Republican Theater on our website as the featured book for these two shows, and honestly I can’t recommend it highly enough. Roman Republican Theater, published in 2011 by Cambridge University Press, is a terrific single volume introduction to Rome’s earliest plays and their authors – one of the most thoroughly researched and perfectly organized books on literary history I’ve ever read. If you’re interested in hearing about the world of Plautus and Terence – their predecessors and successors, their influences and the staging conditions of their plays, this book is a great choice. Plautus and Terence have been a direct and consistent influence on Anglophone literature for over two thousand years, and learning about their literary roots and the cultural traditions that they synthesized helps us understand how theater in our own language came to be.

Our modern sense of authorship, as I said in the previous episode, is inclined to derogate someone like Plautus – an adapter, or translator, or compiler, alongside someone composing original works. But I think that in periods of rapid historical and cultural change, literature needs a Plautus – a gatherer, a synthesizer – someone who takes stock of multiple traditions and amalgamates them for a new generation of writers. One of these writers – one who knew Plautus’ work and built his own plays on Plautus’ precedents, was called Publius Terentius Afer.

In our next show, we will meet Terence, the second playwright from the Roman world from whom we have a substantial body of work. Terence, whose career peaked in the mid to late 160s, writes in the prologue to one of his plays, “Nothing in fact is ever said which has not been said before.”48 Terence would not have been too hung up on daring originality, and certainly had no problem with his predecessor Plautus’ role as an adaptor and translator. And yet while Terence’s prologues reveal his borrowings from his source texts, Terence, like Plautus, adapted New Comedies that were specifically relevant to the historical world in which he lived. Next time, in Episode 44: Homo Sum, we will read Terence’s masterpiece, The Brothers, a beautiful and often eerily modern exploration of the relationships between parents and children. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and again check out Gesine Manuwald’s phenomenal book, Roman Republican Theater, published in 2011 by Cambridge University Press, and try out the 15-question quiz on this episode, also available on the website. If you want to stay on for a quick tune, I’ve got one for you, and otherwise, see you next time.

Still there? Alright, me too! I got to thinking. Got to thinking about romantic comedy, as a genre. Now I’ve read a lot of it, and taught a lot of it – mostly 16th- and 17th-century Anglophone stuff, and like anyone who reads romantic comedy, from time to time I wince at the hasty and slipshod endings involving marriages and multiple marriages that so frequently characterize the genre. Now every era has its own formulaic or archetypical elements for romantic comedy, and it’s all fun to read, but we also know that plots involving a melange of love and conflict which rapidly resolve into wedding bells don’t exactly mirror real life in a convincing way. So I wrote this three and a half minute ditty, which is called “Let’s Write a Romantic Comedy.” Hope you like it, thanks for caring about the theater of Republican Rome, and I’ll see you next time!


1.^ Horace. Satires and Epistles. Translated by John Davie. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics. Kindle Edition, p. 113.

2.^ Ibid, p. 113. Horace is likely derogating old practitioners of New Comedy for the sake of promoting the work of his friend Fundanius. See Jocelyn, H.D. “Horace and the Reputation of Plautus in the Late First Century BC.” In Homage to Horace: A Bimillenary Celebration, ed. S.J. Harrison. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, p. 228.

3.^ Horace likely faulted Plautus for inconsistent use of iambic senarii – see Davie p. 168 n.

4.^ Satires and Epistles, p. 98.

5.^ Knox, Peter E. and McKeown, J.C. The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 15.

6.^ For a firsthand account of a Latin dramatist’s experience trying to entertain a Roman audience, see the second and third prologues to Terence’s The Mother-in-Law, in Terence. The Comedies. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 59, 62.

7.^ Gellius, Aullus. Complete Works. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, location 2448. It’s important to remember that Gellius himself questions whether all 130 were genuinely written by Plautus.

8.^ “Nothing definitively dates Rudens, but it is usually assumed to be one of Plautus’ later plays (i.e., debuting in ca. 190-185 BCE), owing to its musical and dramaturgical sophistication” (11). Christenson, David. “Introduction.” In Plautus. Rudens. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012.

9.^ This is not to say that Rudens is a sunny comedy through and through, of course. Palaestra remains an enigmatic and potentially tragic figure at the play’s end.

10.^ The first ludi scaenici were staged in 364 BCE, in the wake of other class reforms that took place during the mid-360s.

11.^ As we discussed in the previous episode, Livius Andronicus purportedly staged the first translation of a Greek play in the Ludi Romani of 240 BCE.

12.^ See Feeney, Denis. Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2016, pp. 103-4.

13.^ See Feeney (2016), p. 103.

14.^ Tacitus. The Annals. Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition, pp. 257-8.

15.^ See Manuwald, Gesine. Roman Republican Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 56-66.

16.^ Ibid, p. 107.

17.^ See Hunter, Richard L. The New Comedy of Greece and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 15-18.

18.^ Ibid, p. 15.

19.^ See Feeney, p. 180.

20.^ Harsh, Philip Whaley. An Anthology of Roman Drama. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, p. xv.

21.^ Ibid, p. xxvii.

22.^ In Menander’s Dyskolos (316 BCE), the rural deity Pan introduces the characters and situation of the play.

23.^ Plautus. The Rope and Other Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. New York: Penguin Books, p. 91. Further references noted parenthetically.

24.^ Ibid, p. 97.

25.^ Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016, p. 202.

26.^ Manuwald (2011), p. 314.

27.^ Plautus. The Rope and Other Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. New York: Penguin Classics, 1964, p. 230. The quote is Mercury speaking at the outset of Amphitryo.

28.^ Grubbs, Judith Evans. “Infant Exposure and Infanticide.” Quoted in The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World, ed. Judith Evans Grubbs, Tim Parkin, Roslynne Bell. Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 83-4.

29.^ Corbier, Mirielle. “Child Exposure and Abandonment.” Quoted in Dixon, Suzanne, ed. Childhood, Class and Kin in the Roman World, Routledge, 2001, p. 70.

30.^ Rawson, Beryl. Children and Childhood in Roman Italy. Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 114, 115. Beryl notes that in Pro Cluentio, Cicero scorns a woman of Miletus whose abortion “robbed the father of his hopes, his name of continuity, the family of support, the house of an heir, and the state of a prospective citizen” (115n). For rhetorical purposes then, at least, Cicero could envision an abortion as the loss of a Roman citizen.

31.^ Veyne, Paul, ed. A History of Private Life, Volume 1: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 12.

32.^ See Corbier (2001), p. 59.

33.^ Juvenal. Satires. Quoted in Juvenal: Complete Works. Delphi Classics, 2014.

34.^ Diodorus Siculus. Complete Works. Hastings, East Sussex: Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 1711.

35.^ Strabo. Complete Works of Strabo. Hastings, East Sussex: Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 30472.

36.^ Tacitus. The Histories, Volumes I and II. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by W. Hamilton Fyfe. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912. Kindle Edition, location 6815.

37.^ Plato. Republic. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 174.

38.^ Aristotle. Politics. Translation by Benjamin Jowett. With Introduction, Analysis and Index by H.W.C. Davis. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, inc., 2000, p. 168-9.

39.^ Cicero. The Republic and the Laws. Translated by Niall Rudd, and with an Introduction and Notes by Jonathan Powell and Nial Rudd. Oxford University Press, 1998.

40.^ This isn’t, of course, to say that Romans of any era didn’t enjoy loving familial relationships. Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus that “it is natural to feel affection for children. . .For if this is no the case then there can be no natural tie between one human being and another; if that is taken away, the whole essence of society is removed.” Quoted in Tempest, Kathryn. Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome. London: Bloomsbury, 2011, p. 63.

41.^ Kriwaczek, Paul. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012, p. 203.

42.^ Plautus. The Rope and Other Plays. Penguin Books Ltd, 1964. Kindle Edition, pp. 7-8.

43.^ The estimation comes from Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016, p. 199.

44.^ Ibid. The 300,000 and 8,000 figures quoted above are from the same source, p. 199.

45.^ Ibid, p. 68.

46.^ Knox, Peter E. and McKeown, J.C. The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. vii.

47.^ Beard (2016), p. 66.

48.^ Terence. The Comedies. Translated and with an introduction by Betty Radice. New York, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 18. Amusingly, Ecclesiastes’ “There is nothing new under the sun” (ECC 1:11), and probably a host of similar lost statements, predate Terence’s prologue to The Eunuch by a century or two, thereby proving his point!