Titus Maccius Plautus was born in Umbria before 250 BCE. He supposedly emigrated to Rome to start up a shipping business and write plays on the side to earn extra income. The business failed, but his plays made him famous. Nothing else of his life is known except the dates of a few plays (discussed below) and his death in 184 BCE. His epitaph attests to his popularity in Rome and his importance to the comedic genre (although Aulus Gellius alleges that Plautus wrote it himself):
postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, comoedia luget,
scaena est deserta, dein risus, ludus Iocusque
et numeri innumeri simul omnes conlacrimarunt.
After death befell Plautus, comedy mourned,
the stage was deserted, then laughter, play, joke
and all of countless measures wept together.
Plautus is the only Latin playwright of the period—aside from Terence, a whole generation later—whose works survive in the manuscript tradition. An incredible 130 comedies are ascribed to Plautus, the vast majority of which were already in antiquity labeled spurious. The ones that have come down to us are fortunately the ones labeled authentic by antiquarian and grammarian Varro. Others were likely to be authentic, but on account of uncertainties, they stopped being copied in late antiquity.
The surviving plays are the following:
Amphitryo, Asinaria (“The One with the Ass”), Aulularia (“The One with the Pot of Gold”), Bacchides (“Two Sisters Named Bacchis”), Captivi (“The Captives”), Casina, Cistellaria (“The One with the Little Chest”), Curculio (“The Weevil”), Epidicius, Menaechmi (“Two Brothers Named Menaechmus”), Mercator (“The Merchant”), Miles Gloriosus (“The Braggart Soldier”), Mostellaria (“The Haunted House”), Persa (“The Persian”), Poenulus (“The Little Punic”, or, better, “The Puny Punic”), Pseudolus, Rudens (“The Rope”), Stichus, Trinummus (“The Three Coins”), Truculentus (“The Ferocious One”), and Vidularia (“The One about the Satchel”).
Fragments of 32 other plays with names attached to them are known:
Acharistio, Addictus (“The Enslaved Debtor”), Agroecus (“The Rustic”), Artemo?, Astraba (“The Saddle”), Bacaria, Boeotia, Caecus (“The Crook”) or Praedones (The Robbers”), Calceolus (“The Little Shoe”), Carbonaria (“The Charcoal Woman”), Cesistio?, Colax (“The Flatterer”), Commorientes (“Those Dying Together”), Condalium (“The Little Slave Ring”), Cornicula (“The Little Horn”), Dyscolus (“The Grouch”), Faeneratrix (“She’s a Usurer”), Fretum (“The Straight” or “The Sea”), Frivolaria (“Trifles”), Fugitivi (“The Fugitives”), Hortulus, Lenones Gemini (“The Pimp Twins”), Lipargus, Nervolaria, Phago (“The Eater”), Parasitus Medicus (“Dr. Parasite”), Parasitus Piger (“The Unwilling Parasite”), Plocinus, Saturio, Schematicus, Sitellitergus (“The Toilet Cleaner”), and Trigemini (“The Triplets”).
Additionally, a few dozen fragments of uncertain location, a score of vocabulary, and a number of dubious lines have reached us through the grammarians.
Due to his success, Plautus’ plays are not only the oldest Roman plays which survived in full other than Terence’s, but the oldest Latin literature passed down through manuscripts.
Plautus’ plays are without exception palliatae, i.e. Roman comedies with Greek characters and in Greek dress, and they fall under the larger genre of Greek New Comedy, which was confirmed by the discovery of the Dyskolos of Menander. As per comedic conventions of New Comedy, the characters are typical stock characters, and the jokes are derived by a combination of verbal wit and comedic situations. The plot is unimportant compared to the dialogue, and inevitably whatever is entangled through the course of the play is resolved by the end. New Comedy was, for all intents and purposes, the ancient equivalent to a sitcom.
The plays also prominently feature “the conniving slave.” This character—smart, witty, amoral, and above all scheming—even when not the main character, is the driving force of the plot and, in fact, the whole play. To him are given the best lines, and to him comedy is funniest. In the end, the play is resolved due to the actions of the slave. The other stock characters are typical in their flaws, as characters in sitcoms are wont to be. Of course the successful soldier is vainglorious (Miles Gloriosus). Of course the wife (domina) nags, disapproves, and is mean to slaves and her weak husband. Young lovers with pure hearts see their relationship succeed.
His surviving plays, which were recorded by Varro, all seem to date towards the end of his life. However, the themes he explores contain a mixed expression of “gaiety and grumbling”, typical of the times after the defeat of Hannibal.
Plautus’ plays were very influential well past his lifetime. Unlike other genres of literature, Plautus’ comedies were the most popular comedies hundreds of years after his death and were constantly being performed in new iterations.
Of all Roman literature before the first century BCE, only plays by Plautus and Terence and one treatise by Cato survive through the manuscript tradition; Plautus is by far the most represented of the three.
In the modern world, Shakespeare’s comedies borrow the theme, pacing, and even plots of many of Plautus’ plays; the Comedy of Errors is a close reduplication of Plautus’ Menaechmi, except that it uses two sets of twins, whereas Plautus uses one.
Even Broadway had a stab at it with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is a combination of the Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus, and Mostellaria.
- Robert B. Lloyd 1963. “Two Prologues: Menander and Plautus,” American Journal of Philology 84.2: 146–161
- W. Geoffrey Arnott 1964. “A Note on the Parallels between Menander’s Dyskolos and Plautus’ Aulularia,” Phoenix 18.3: 232–237.
- William S. Anderson 1993. Barbarian Play: Plautus’ Roman Comedy. University of Toronto Press.
- William S. Anderson 1995. “The Roman Transformation of Greek Domestic Comedy,” The Classical World 88.3: 171–180.
- Michael Fontaine 2010. Funny Words in Plautine Comedy. Oxford University Press.
- James Halporn 1993. “Roman Comedy and Greek Models,” in Theater and Society in the Classical World (ed. Ruth Scodel): 191–213. The University of Michigan Press.
- Philip Whaley Harsh 1955. “The Intriguing Slave in Greek Comedy,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 86: 135 –142.
- Erich Segal 1968. Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus. Cambridge University Press.
- Niall W. Slater 1985. Plautus In Performance: The Theatre of the Mind. Princeton University Press.
- C. Stace 1968. “The Slaves of Plautus,” Greece & Rome 15: 64–77.