Titus Maccius Plautus
by: P. Dionysius Mus
1. Life of Plautus (254 BC - 184 BC)
Titus Maccius Plautus is the eldest Latin writer of whom several complete works have survived. According to tradition he was born around 250BC, far away from Rome, in Sarsina, a small town in Umbria. He came descended probably from a very modest family and lived quite long, about 66 years or more. Almost nothing is known about his life, but it is sure that he had great knowledge in Greek language and literature. He was probably, like his great successors Shakespeare and Molière, head of a group of actors (dominus gregis), and wrote pieces for this company.
His name Titus Maccius Plautus is rather unusual. Plautus means 'flatfoot' in Umbria, but in one of his pieces there is a reference to the meaning 'longhaired dog': "Plautus with the barking name" (Casina). Maccus is the name for the buffoon in ancient Italian comedies (Fabulae Atellanae); maybe Plautus started his career as an actor in these comedies, where he played this buffoon (Maccius has to be derived from Maccus, even more, he calls himself Maccus in Asinaria and not Maccius). Of course we know nothing about what Plautus looked like, but some believe that he has given us a self-portrait in his description of the slave Pseudolus: "red hair, big-bellied, strong calves, brown skin, with a big head and fierce eyes", a description that suits perfectly his 'strong' and 'fierce' language.
He lived a big part of his life during the Second Punic War (218BC-202BC), which raged across Italy for years in many fierce fights and terrifying battles. Not much of all this can be found in Plautus' plays, even in Poenulus (The Carthaginian) where it could have been very easy to demonstrate the hatred against Carthage. In fact there are almost no references to Roman history in any of Plautus' plays; all of them are set far from Rome, in Greek cities. Even more, most of the plays are dated after 200BC, when Plautus had already reached the age of 50. Since this seems a little late to start writing, surely for a man with his literary talent, some people are convinced of the fact that he was born 10 or 20 years earlier than the traditional date. His plays were indeed very popular at the time and were played long after his death.
In later times 130 plays were referred to as written by Plautus, but an important scholar, Marcus Terentius Varro, said that only 21 of them were actually written by Plautus. 20 Of those have survived (in alphabetical order): Amphitryo, Asinaria, Aulularia, Bacchides, Captivi, Casina, Cistellaria, Curculio, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria, Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Rudens, Stichus, Trinummus and Truculentus. Plautus takes a very special place in European theatre. His comedies look very old to us; in fact they are older than Christianity. Together with his younger colleague Terentius, Plautus can be counted to the last period in classical history where plays were written which were played many centuries on.
2. Summarising some of his works
Asinaria: A lover wants to buy the exclusive rights for one year on a whore. Her mother (and procuress) asks 2000 drachms. The two slaves of the lover manage to diddle the money from a merchant, who brings it as a payment for some donkeys he has bought from the lover's parents. So the money should have gone to the mother, a rich woman who deals firmly with the family income. The father of the lover agrees with the steal of money, but he demands from his son the rights of the first night. The lover sees he cannot refuse this, and agrees. But a rival, who also wanted to buy the exclusive rights on the girl, is furious because of his missed opportunity. One of this man's parasites tells the lover's mother about her husband's disloyalty. Full of anger she pulls her husband away from the girl. What follows is not very clear, but the result is probably that the lover and his girl can live happily together for a year.
Aulularia: The play about the pot with money (aula = pot), famous from its successors by PC Hooft and Molière. The last act has almost completely disappeared. The poor Euclio has found in his house a pot full of money. He lives in constant fear because he thinks his secret will become known and his money will be stolen. And indeed, the pot is stolen. Meanwhile and older gentleman has asked to marry Euclio's daughter. But his daughter is already pregnant from a young man who has raped her while being drunk. This young man confesses, the pot full of money is also recovered and is used as dowry for the marriage. The plot is petty, but there are many funny scenes, like the long-spun-out misunderstanding about the daughter's loss of virginity and Euclio's loss of his money.
Casina: Casina is the name of the girl this play is about, but she does not appear in the play itself. There are a lot of gaps in the fifth act, and the prologue is written on a later date. A rude farce, with many caricatural features and a complicated plot. An old man is almost mad of sexual desire to a young slave, Casina, who belongs to his wife. He has sent away his son, because he is also in love with the slave. His wife is very jealous and tries to destine the girl to her son. Both parties try to win the girl by giving her in marriage to one of their own slaves, since the owner of the slave has the rights on the first night. In the end they draw lots. The father's slave wins, but the mother dresses another one of her slaves as bride, who gives the old father a good beating. But in the epilogue is told that Casina is a freeborn abandoned child, and that she will marry the son. Not only Casina, but also the son, her lover, does not appear in the play itself.
Epidecus: On this play, Plautus' favourite (and mine too), treated in another essay.
3. Links to Internet sites
Intratext Digital Library: Latina litteratura
Latin texts of all works by Plautus, divided into acts and scenes. Scroll down to "Plautus, Titus Maccius".
The Latin Library: Plautus
Complete Latin text of each play by Plautus, with numbered lines
The Perseus Project
Latin texts and English translations from Perseus Digital Library. Scroll down to "T. Maccius Plautus".
Latin texts and a few translations, from the Forum Romanum website
LookSmart Search: Plautus.
Collection of links by Looksmart, containing various information about Plautus and his work
REMARK: A nice comedy movie/musical was made containing all the plays of Plautus:
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1966)
GENRE: comedy, musical
PLOT SUMMARY: Pseudolus is the laziest slave in Rome and has but one wish, purchase his freedom. When his master and mistress leave for the day he finds out that the young master has fallen in love with a virgin in the house of Lycus, a slave dealer specializing in beautiful women. Pseudolus concocts a deal in which he will be freed if he can procure the girl for young Hero. Of course, it can't be that simple as everything begins to go wrong.
DIRECTED BY: Richard Lester
WRITTEN BY: Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, Melvin Frank, Michael Pertwee, and Titus Maccius Plautus
STARRING: Zero Mostel (Pseudolus), Phil Silvers (Lycus), Buster Keaton (Erronius), Michael Crawford (Hero), Jack Gilford (Hysterium), Annette Andre (Philia), Michael Hordern (Senex), Leon Greene (Miles Glorious), .
PRODUCED BY: Melvin Frank
ORIGINAL MUSIC BY: Stephen Sondheim (songs) and Ken Thorne (additional music)
The film's info page on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB).