Latin literature, Titus Maccius Plautus

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Plautus’s success in play-writing.

Anya Tretyakova - contributor

Written by Anya Tretyakova – contributor to Answers From.

With no less than twenty extant plays attributed to the Roman playwright, Titus Maccius Plautus, his work remains the earliest surviving example of Latin literature, as well as one of its biggest bodies of work (Arnott).  Born circa 254 BC in the northern Italian region of Umbria and moving to Rome at an early age, Plautus came from humble beginnings, to be recognised by contemporary academics as one of the most influential playwrights of all time (Norwood).  At one stage, working as servant to a baker (Norwood), Plautus’s early struggles to achieve success imbue his works; especially his main characters – clever slaves with a streetwise, mischievous streak – stories with a charming (and disarming) approach to the ideologies of social and moral status.  It would be difficult to read Plautus without noticing the overarching theme of low social status slaves, who, through wit and adroitness, manage to usurp their masters and manipulate their ‘betters’ with the (often) self-proclaimed skills of a military general.  A rather interesting dichotomy emerges in Plautus’s work as a result; that of the clever ‘bad’ slave vs. the comparably dumb ‘good’ slave.  Although slaves held a low social status in Ancient Rome, Plautus’s plays are filled with cunning slaves who manage to exploit and outwit those around them of superior social status; these clever ‘bad’ slaves are not only often the main characters, but are almost entirely responsible for driving the story’s plot.  These ‘bad’ slaves somehow manage to get away with their mischief unpunished and free of consequence.  In stark contrast, the ‘good’, obedient, but sadly, intellectually lacking slaves, tend to suffer under the control of the ‘bad’ slaves and their unwitting masters. Contrary to the structure of Ancient Rome’s social standards, the ‘bad’ slave takes priority over the ‘good’ slave; the ‘bad’ slave becomes the hero, whilst the ‘good’ slave whom remains in his ‘rightful’ place, is punished for his compliance. Plautus manages to subvert social expectation in a way that pleases his audience, rather than alienates them.

In order to achieve this feat, Plautus employs what are now commonly referred to as metatheatrical techniques, a common feature in his plays, which was heavily criticised by his contemporaries (Moore). These techniques, which focused on direct audience address and appeal to their higher social (and therefore moral) status, were used to build rapport between the lowly ‘bad’ slave and the audience.  For the audience to pardon the ‘bad’ slave’s antics and beyond that, to root for his success, the audience had to empathize with him and his plight.  Plautus expertly utilised the prologue to appeal to his audience in such a manner (Moore).  For example, at the beginning of Segal’s translation of The Braggart Soldier (Miles Gloriosus), the clever ‘bad’ slave, Palaestrio, addresses the audience directly and complains of his ‘bombastic’ master, Pyrgopolynices, who is “…full of crap and lechery…” (Miles Gloriosus, line 90).  Palaestrio’s very first line is spoken to the audience and echoes the complaints of Pyrgopolynices’ parasite, Artotrogus, at the very beginning of the play (lines 20-25); thus building the impression that Pyrgopolynices is a generally disliked man, full of his own pomp and circumstance.  Regardless of Pyrgopolynices’ impressive social status as free man and soldier, a highly regarded position in Ancient Rome, the audience are positioned to empathize with the low status Palaestrio, who despite insulting his master, invokes the audience’s sympathies immediately thereafter.

Titus Maccius Plautus work

Palaestrio reveals that Pyrgopolynices stole his previous master’s beloved courtesan, Philocomasium, and Palaestrio took it upon himself to find her and bring her back, resulting in his current situation (lines 100-130).  Here, Palaestrio reveals himself to be a loyal slave to his original master, Pleusicles, effectively redeeming himself in the eyes of his audience.  However, even his loyalty does not re-position him as a low status slave, revealed in his later interactions with Pleusicles and his elderly friend Periplectomenus.  Palaestrio never shows the submission expected from a ‘good’ slave, excepting his obvious deception of Pyrgopolynices, where Palaestrio indulges his obnoxious master’s self-importance and narcissism (lines 1265, 1283, 1331, 1342-1344, 1355-1370).  When Pleusicles and Periplectomenus run into trouble, they turn immediately to Palaestrio to ‘fix’ the situation; first Periplectomenus (lines 170-259) then both men look to Palaestrio to ‘command’ them as a military general would (lines 610-619), often referring to him as the ‘architect’ of their salvation (lines 900-902, 915-920, 1138). The comparatively unintelligent ‘good’ slave, Sceledrus, another slave to Pyrgopolynices and the initiator of trouble when he catches Pleusicles canoodling with Philocomasium, is treated rather badly, despite his dutiful obsequiousness to his master.  Sceledrus is not only threatened (line 295), insulted (line 285) and mocked (line 325) by Palaestrio and Philocomasium (line 364), but ultimately bamboozled into thinking that he imagined what he saw.  In the end, Palaestrio convinces Pyrgopolynices that Philocomasium is but one of two identical twin sisters, reunites her with Pleusicles and leaves the city without consequence to himself; Sceledrus remains with Pyrgopolynices (which is a punishment in itself), whilst the latter receives a thorough beating.  Such liberties are taken by Palaestrio, that an ordinary Roman slave in his position would have been severely punished; however, Plautus exploits the audience’s sensitivities and positions them to empathise with Palaestrio rather than his master.  This subversion of social hierarchy is not only accepted by Pleusicles and Periplectomenus, but encouraged and acknowledged with gratitude.

Such inversions of social status are not uncommon in Plautus’s other works; in Segal’s translation of The Brothers Menaechmus (Menaechmi), the slave Messenio receives misfortune as reward for his ‘good’ behaviour and is only begrudgingly awarded his freedom at the end of the play.  However, when Messenio assumes a higher status over his master, Menaechmus II, spotting the other’s long searched-for identical twin and interrogating both men about their origins (Menaechmi, lines 1060-1129), he is treated with deference and obedience (lines 1085, 1091-1100).  Messenio goes so far as to tell Menaechmus II to shut up a couple of times (lines 1111-1115, 1121), his master acquiescing without hesitation.  As a slave character, this makes Messenio particularly interesting as he represents both aspects of the ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ slave dichotomy, within the one individual.  At first he is loyal and obsequious to his master, singing a song about how a good slave should behave (lines 968-981), echoing the mentality of many other of Plautus’s dumb, ‘good’ slaves who are fearful of the consequences to their backs, should they misbehave and receive a lashing (line 982).  Immediately after his song, Messenio even proves what a good slave he is by rescuing the man he thinks is his master – the other Menaechmus twin brother.  For all intents and purposes, Messenio here represents the typical ‘good’ slave and his behaviour is met with the false promise of freedom from Menaechmus I (line 1029); furthermore, Menaechmus I, whom Messenio has just saved, attempts to steal the money which Messenio falsely believes belongs to him, mistaking him for his master (lines 1035-1044).  Thus the ‘good’ slave is rewarded with misfortune; it is only when Messenio changes his tune and treats his master with condescension and superiority during the interrogation of the two twins that his behaviour is met with obedience and some measure of respect from his master.  The painfully drawn out interrogation of Menaechmus I and Menaechmus II by Messenio portrays the slave as his master’s intellectual superior as he realizes the two identical twins are long lost brothers before the twins seem to understand themselves (line 1081), let alone acknowledge the obvious development (line 1115-1130). The fact that Menaechmus I and Menaechmus II (who has spent months searching for his brother) are so obtuse as to not realise they are related at first sight, firmly places them at a lower status of intellect to Messenio.  Thus it is only when Messenio acts the ‘bad’ slave, speaking to Menaechmus II disrespectfully and  assuming intellectual superiority over his master, that he receives his freedom.  Plays such as Plautus’s The Prisoners (Captivi) would go as far as to undermine the assumption that slaves are inferior altogether (Moore). Indeed, in Watling’s translation of The Prisoners, the freeborn Philocrates, Philopolemus and Aristophontes are treated and spoken to as slaves, after they are taken prisoner (Plautus); portraying the fluidity of the master/slave relationship with even more ambiguity.


The ‘good’ slave/’bad’ slave dichotomy is made all the more obvious in Plautus’s The Haunted House (Mostellaria), wherein the folly of being a loyal, ‘good’ slave is clearly depicted in the opening scene.  In Segal’s translation, the “puritanical” Grumio bemoans how his master, Theopropides’ wealth has been wasted in his absence and attempts to confront the ‘bad’ slave Tranio, who has encouraged the corruption of his master’s son, Philolaches, through the wanton spending of his absent father’s money on girls, wine, food and general debauchery (Mostellaria, lines 1-75).  Although especially in this play, the main ‘clever’ slave character of Tranio misbehaves more than the majority of Plautus’s other plays, he inevitably escapes all punishment in the end, proving that the worse the ‘bad’ slave’s actions are (and subsequently more entertaining to the audience), the more likely this behaviour will be rewarded with a complete lack of consequence.  Grumio, on the other hand, the ‘good’, loyal, slave, falls victim to Tranio’s verbal and physical abuse, time and again (lines 7-10, 65-75).

Perhaps the Roman audience of the day was less bothered with the misbehavior of an individual, even a slave, should they prove to be entertaining and quick-witted.  Plautus’s works certainly positioned the audience to empathize with and support the position of the ‘bad’ clever slave through direct audience address and appeal – metatheatrical techniques that were a source of criticism for him by his contemporaries – but which nevertheless achieve their aim of placing the freeborn man in the shoes of a slave, or vice verse.  One thing is certain, Plautus’s success in his own era proves that despite the inherent controversies in his comedies, such as low, status slaves usurping and making fools out of their masters, audiences enjoyed his stories.  Had Plautus been unable to deftly position his audience and force them to identify with individuals they would ordinarily deem their inferiors; his work would not be the success story that it is and his famed originality in his adapted works would not be celebrated to this day.

Works Cited

Arnott, W. Geoffrey. Menander, Plautus, Terence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975. Print.
Fraenkel, Eduard. Plautine Elements in Plautus. Trans. Tomas Drevikovsky, and Frances Muecke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Moore, Timothy J. The Theatre of Plautus: Playing to the Audience. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. Print.
Norwood, Gilbert. Our Debt to Greece and Rome: Plautus and Terence. Eds. George Depue Hadzsits, and David Moore Robinson. New York: Cooper Sqaure Publishers, 1963. Print.
Plautus, Titus Maccius. Four Comedies. Trans. Erich Segal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Plautus, Titus Maccius. The Pot of Gold and Other Plays. Trans. E. F. Watling. London: Penguin Books, 1965. Print.
Plautus, Titus Maccius. The Rope and Other Plays. Trans. E. F. Watling. London: Penguin Books, 1964. Print.
Richlin, Amy. Trans. and ed. Rome and the Mysterious Orient: Three Plays by Plautus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Print.
Segal, Erich, ed. Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Print.
Sharrock, Alison. Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.
Slater, Niall W. Plautus in Performance: The Theatre of the Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. Print.
Zagagi, Netta. Tradition and Originality in Plautus: Studies of the Amatory Motifs in Plautine Comedy. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980. Print.

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Written by Anya Tretyakova

Sometime thespian, wannabe film director. Lover of literature for life.