Plautus punching up: a different class of comedy

Little-studied today, the Roman playwright Plautus has much to teach us about both Ancient history and modern humour.

Theatrical scene by the playwright Plautus of an argument between a courtesan and an old man.
Theatrical scene by the playwright Plautus of an argument between a courtesan and an old man. Fresco in the atrium of the House of P. Casca Longus in Pompeii. Credit: Granger - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy

Sixty years ago, the work of the Roman playwright Plautus (c. 250s -180s BC) was often read in the classroom. The plays’ light-hearted fun appealed to students whose principal experience of Latin had been either epic poetry or historiography. Now, however, neither Plautus nor his most prominent successor, Terence, appear on pre-undergraduate syllabuses: the Latin is difficult and of a different register from the standard fare of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, and Tacitus. Yet there is much of value in the so-called fabulae palliatae, narrative comedies set in Greece, performed in Greek dress, and adapted from Greek originals into Latin. They are vital for both literary and historical scholars of the mid-to-late Roman Republic and of Greek comedy of the fourth and third century BC. Plautus’ plays reveal a lot about the lives of non-elite people and how some used linguistically creative humour to navigate their potentially perilous circumstances. They also teach a lot about the tradition of Western comedy – Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is an adaptation of Plautus’ Menaechmi, itself an adaptation of a lost Greek original – and about its different styles. The tonal difference between the plays of Plautus, which are more heightened, and the plays of Terence, whose situations and language are more naturalistic and grounded in reality, resonates with the tonal difference between modern comedies. Take, for example, The Simpsons or Stath Lets Flats, both of whose silliness in story and language have more in common with Plautus, and contrast them with The Office (UK) or Mum, shows that are closer to real life and have more in common with Terence. The plot structures and characterisations of sitcoms are indebted, if you go back far enough, to these plays.

There is tantalisingly little certainty about the real Plautus. Some scholars treat his biographical tradition as at the very least probable for a theatrical professional in his time, but we are at the whim of textual rather than inscriptional or material evidence, and so his life may always remain a matter of debate. Ancient sources say that he was from Sarsina in Umbria, although their evidence is a punning mention of Umbria in his play Mostellaria (‘The One about the Little Ghost’). There are stories about him working as a scaenicus artifex (‘a stage artist’), and it is still debated whether this means he worked as a stage-hand, actor, or improviser of native Italian farces. Anecdotes about Plautus losing money in a mercantile venture and being forced to work in mills are also suspect, and probably correspond to a character in one of his lost plays. Even his dates, 254-184 BC, have been seen as suspiciously neatly rounded, and overlap too conveniently with those of Terence (184-159 BC). There are broad truths to the evidence, though. We can view his dates as a rough approximation of a dramatic floruit at the turn of the third / second centuries BC, in the wake of Rome’s ascendancy in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, given his career path and the likelihood that he was not a native of Rome, it is generally assumed that he was non-elite, and it is believable that times in his life were plagued by financial uncertainty.

Thanks, however, to a production notice written after Plautus’ time but recorded in the manuscript tradition for the play, we can say with some confidence that in 191 BC, Plautus wrote Pseudolus for the ludi Megalenses, the ‘Megalesian games’. These celebrated the divine Cybele, or Magna Mater, whose cult had been imported to Rome from Asia Minor in 204 BC. The play is considered his most popular, the apogee of his ‘trickster’ comedies. It reproduces the plot structures of its Greek predecessors by hinging on the exchange of women: a wily schemer, usually enslaved, helps his young owner to secure money for the freedom or exclusive services of a meretrix. There is no adequate English equivalent for meretrix, but ‘sex worker’ is probably the best we can do.

The action takes place in Athens. Pseudolus’s owner Calidorus laments that his beloved Phoenicium, a brothel-slave of the pimp Ballio, will be sold imminently to a Macedonian soldier. The soldier’s enslaved helper Harpax arrives with a letter for Ballio demanding her handover. Pseudolus pretends to be Ballio’s slave and convinces Harpax to give him the letter. He borrows a deposit and an enslaved assistant, Simia. Ballio the pimp delivers Phoenicium to Simia, who is posing as Harpax, who in turn hands her over to Calidorus. The pimp is swindled, and the play climaxes with Pseudolus getting drunk at a party, winning a bet he would be able to cheat the pimp. Such a plot is formulaic, generated by the behaviours of stock characters: cunning slave, useless young lover and penny-pinching pimp. But what delighted Roman audiences was how the playwright collaged familiar elements. Stephen Sondheim, in his musical adaptation of Roman comedy, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962), sensibly described the genre as ‘old situations, new complications’. The pleasure of Pseudolus lies not in what happens, but how it gets there. It is Plautus’ best-known play, and one joke particularly encapsulates his comic legacy. It comes in the first scene.

Calidorus weeps over a letter from Phoenicium that states they are about to be separated forever:

CALIDORUS:            Why aren’t you crying?

PSEUDOLUS:            My eyes are like pumice stone: I can’t force them to spit out even one tear.

CALIDORUS:            How do you mean?

PSEUDOLUS:            I come from a long line of dry-eyed men.

We may not think this a zinger, but the Roman audience would have gone for it. It typifies one of Plautus’ favourite joke types, and efficiently captures the rambunctious social subversion he became famous for.

The first part of this identification joke has a set-up and punchline structure that continues to be relevant in modern comedy. The set-up introduces an incongruity or tension (‘my eyes are pumice-like’); the punchline defuses, clarifies, or blasts through that tension with a surprising explanation (‘they can’t cry’). Pseudolus’ answer to Calidorus’ question is surprising, and the incongruity provides a tension that needs resolving: what’s the connection between pumice stone and Pseudolus’ eyes, and how is that relevant to Calidorus’ question? It’s difficult to draw tears from a stone. Pumice stone was proverbially dry, and Pseudolus’ punchline uses the ancient equivalent of our proverb ‘getting blood from a stone,’ used by Plautus elsewhere in his Persa (The Persian). There, a slave, Toxalus, asks his enslaved friend Sagaristio to lend him money, and Sagaristio replies: ‘Well you’re asking for water from a pumice stone.’ These jokes often add next to nothing to the plot, but they are part of the linguistic exuberance that defined Plautus’ style: if it was funny, it should be included.

What is the joke about? Pseudolus is on one level mocking Calidorus’ lack of self-control. While weeping in war is not shunned as effeminate in ancient thought, Calidorus weeps for a lost meretrix. Within the context of everyday Roman mores, his crying is a source of ridicule. Classics scholar Dorota Dutsch remarks that in Roman comedy fletus (‘weeping’) is the ‘prerogative of women and hopeless nincompoops’. Pseudolus therefore contrasts Calidorus’ plight with his own stout masculinity. This contrast is also about social status: as a slave, it is difficult for Pseudolus to care about Calidorus’ boo-hooing. Pseudolus asks him later in the scene ‘Why are you crying, arsehole? You’ll survive,’ as if to say that the loss of Phoenicium is hardly the worst misfortune, using himself as an example. The joke crystalises an amusing picture of a sensitive man seeking empathy from a hardened, enslaved labourer, whose pitiless cynicism punches through his owner’s amorous guff.

The joke highlights a further maxim of Plautine dramaturgy: young men in love are nice but dim. Calidorus does not understand Pseudolus’ first punchline. His question quid ita (‘how so?’) asks for clarification and so sets Pseudolus up for another joke on the same topic. In contempoary comedy, this is referred to as a ‘tag,’ a second punch to the same line. Pseudolus’ tag is a simple sentence rich in detail: ‘our clan has always been dry-eyed.’ The adjective used, Siccoculus, is a compound of siccus (‘dry’) and oculus (‘eye’), and occurs only here in extant Latin. Coinages like this are ten-a-penny in Plautus, and this one exemplifies his linguistic inventiveness. In this arena, he is aptly viewed as a Roman Aristophanes, the old fifth-century BC Greek comic master of fantastical plot and nonsense words. I imagine that Aristophanes, Plautus, and Lewis Carroll would get on.

There is perhaps even more to the use of the word Siccoculum than meets the eye. Siccoculum can be pronounced sic coculum, possibly punning on sic (‘like this’) and coculum (‘little cooking pot’). The line could be construed as follows:

quid ita? :: genus nostrum semper sic coculum fuit

CALIDORUS:            How do you mean?

PSEUDOLUS:            I mean that my race has always been a little cooking pot.

This is confusing, and I am not suggesting the text be emended to sic coculum: Siccoculum is clearly right. The adjective siccus (‘dry’) can mean ‘without tears’ in multiple passages of later Roman authors, so is apt here. But reading in this way reveals a further layer of interpretation, namely the metaphorical use of cooking utensils to convey lack of pity. This can be paralleled in a fragment of Plautus from an unknown play (fragment 181, extant thanks to a quotation in the sixth / seventh century work on etymology by Isidore of Seville), where the coculum is used figuratively to describe emotional investment being boiled off — ‘aeneis coculis mi excocta est omnis misericordia’ [‘all my pity has been cooked away in little bronze pots’]. This idea points to the broader tendency of Plautine jokes to be multi-layered, offering many meanings to an audience with varying levels of linguistic ability. It also shows his commitment to culinary metaphor, a popular flavour of ancient comic text.

Pseudolus’ tag also reveals Plautus’ manipulation of power dynamics. Plautus’ clever slaves frequently engage in bombastic self-aggrandisement unusual for their station, and this joke is no exception. He says that his genus (‘family’; ‘clan’) has semper (‘always’) been dry-eyed. With genus, the joke takes aim at the Roman legal fiction that slaves lacked parents and ancestry. A character in Plautus’ Captiui [The Captives] quips ‘quem patrem, qui seruos est?’ [‘What father? He’s a slave’]. genus and semper have a high register, and such language conventionally described aristocratic Roman families with illustrious histories. Pseudolus subverts social norms by hijacking honorific language that would be perceived as incongruous in enslaved people. This bombast of genus by Pseudolus is especially neat because Calidorus gets the joke, rather than with the original pumice-stone quip, and responds ‘nilne adiuuare me audes?’ [‘so you’re not daring to help me?’] Calidorus gets on Pseudolus’ level once the latter speaks a more familiar language, even if its tone is mocking. The wider significance of this linguistic aping is the theme of social arbitrariness: the fact that Pseudolus chooses to talk about his lineage in this way shows up the inherent artificiality of social status. This is not to say that inequality did not matter: it had powerful consequences. Rather, the reality of slavery was its capricious likelihood. It was startlingly easy to be enslaved in the ancient Mediterranean, through either debt or captivity in war, and the resultant inequality was just as arbitrary as Pseudolus’ use of prestigious language to describe the heartless and downtrodden. Plautus writes movingly about the thin, but also very thick, line between freedom and enslavement in his Asinaria [The Ass Play]. A slave explicitly states to his owner ‘tam homo sum quam tu’ [‘I’m just as much of a person as you are’].  In Claude Pansiéri’s words, the word homo [‘person’] ‘abolit toute hierarchie’ [‘abolishes all hierarchy’]. Such statements of a common humanity were not uncommon in the Greek comic tradition. We may compare fragment 22 from the third-century BC dramatist Philemon’s Exoikizomenos [The Man Who Was Evicted] quoted by the fifth-century Macedonian anthologist Stobaeus:  ‘Even if someone’s a slave, master, he’s no less a person, if he’s a human being.’ A striking paradox of ancient slavery is the similarity of two human beings on opposite ends of the liberty divide, and Pseudolus’ joke hints at this. It is not impossible that such jokes were commonly made by slaves to get by: if laughter is medicinal, as much a commonplace in ancient comedy as in modern cliché, why should slaves not have access to it too?

The tag also operates on a metatheatrical level, joking as much about the world of theatre-making as it does about the world of the story. Like most Greco-Roman theatre, fabulae palliatae used masks, and so it would have been impossible for an actor to produce tears through a mask. Pseudolus can only but be Siccoculus, dry-eyed, because his theatrical face is literally wooden. Critics have also seen a metatheatrical quality to ‘genus nostrum’ (‘our clan’), to refer both to Pseudolus’ actual family, but also to his theatrical family, his fellow typecast clever slaves. Pseudolus’ comment that masked clever slaves in fabulae palliatae have always been dry-eyed is therefore very true: they are stereotypically aloof from the amorous turmoil of their masters because they physically cannot cry through wood. Calidorus’ weeping was probably conveyed through vocal intonation and gesture, judging by modern masked performance practice.

This exchange embodies some of the salient aspects of Plautine theatre. It is far from word play for its own sake. There are rich layers of social reference: part of Plautus’ legacy is a wellspring of the socially disadvantaged making light of difficult circumstances. It also tells us about [Roman] comedy’s fascination with non-elite characters having to manage the sub-par intelligence of their elite superiors. The outwitting of a social superior by an enslaved assistant has remained productive throughout Western comic literature, through Shakespeare, Restoration comedies, up to and beyond PG Wodehouse, Yes, Minister and Blackadder. This trope will always be funny, be it between parents and children, bosses and employees, or friends of differing statuses. The linguistic exuberance of the joke points to the sophistication of ancient banter, particularly as a method for non-elite people’s navigation of day-to-day life: the language is infused with the tone of traditional Italian oral forms of lower-class entertainment, and so we can get a sense of what those of lower social status spoke like. This tactic of joking as survival has a very real manifestation in the career of Plautus’ successor, Terence, who started life as a Carthaginian slave in the house of the senator Terentius Lucanus. Finally, Plautus’s quip is a simple example of Roman joke-writing, whose formulae are not far removed from ours. One of the most accomplished practitioners of this type of joke today is the American stand-up Sam Morril, whose dry witticisms have the lean economy of one-liners but do not feel contrived or random. While hunting ancient culture for ‘modern parallels’ or ‘contemporary relevance’ is often fruitless and unhelpful, comparisons with modern comedic techniques are not trite anachronisms. Observing overlaps with ancient practice allows us to understand Plautine comedy ‘in the marrow of [our] bones,’ to quote A. E. Housman.


Orlando Gibbs