When the Romans won wars, they brought home large numbers of enslaved foreign prisoners, to work the fields, mills and mines of the countryside, and to provide an enormous range of domestic services for wealthy city-dwellers. Slaves did the hard labour, but they were also essential for all the things that made a rich Roman’s life comfortable. Most of the work we would classify as part of the ‘service industry’ or the ‘entertainment industry’ was done by slaves. Bath attendants, cooks, baby-sitters, nurses, tutors, secretaries, prostitutes, weavers, dancers, hairdressers and waiters were all usually slaves; so, probably, were actors. It has been estimated that in the decades following the third and final Punic War, when Rome won its decisive victory over Carthage (146 BC), some 30 or 40 per cent of the population of Italy were slaves.
Many slaves were literate, some of them very highly educated. Cicero’s beloved secretary, Tiro, inventor of the first known system of shorthand, is only the most famous example. But we have no first-person narrative by a slave about his or her experiences – no ancient equivalent of Olaudah Equiano or Harriet Jacobs. The Roman story of slavery is told from the perspective of the masters. Slavery made Roman cultural life possible, but Roman authors usually either ignored it, or made jokes about it.
Roman comedy – the plays of Plautus (c.254-184 BC) and Terence (c.185-159 BC) – as well as the two comic novels, the Satyricon by Petronius (who lived a short, eventful life under Nero, c.27-66 AD) and the Golden Ass by the great orator, neo-Platonist philosopher, priest and magistrate Apuleius (c.123-180 AD), give us some of our best evidence as to how the dominant Romans felt about the slaves they lived with, needed, used and owned. The Golden Ass includes the most sustained narrative from the perspective of the enslaved. It tells the story of Lucius, whose curiosity leads him to steal a magic ointment from a witch, and rub it on himself in the hope of turning into an owl. Instead, he turns into a donkey, that most put-upon and slavish of animals, and endures a series of cruel and brutal humiliations – as well as having various interesting sexual experiences – before finally eating roses, which break the spell and turn him back into a man. The novel includes an inset narrative which mirrors the main story: the tale of Cupid and Psyche, in which the curiosity of Psyche leads to her own painful Odyssey of labours and wanderings as the slave-girl of the goddess Venus.
But imagining the comic awfulness of being turned into a slave as punishment for an excessive interest in the lives of the lower orders is not quite the same as sympathising with real slaves. Moreover, the startling ending of the novel seems to undo whatever satirical impact the narrative might have had, by suggesting that the whole thing is a religious allegory: Lucius is saved from his metaphorically slavish desires by conversion to the cult of the goddess Isis. As Apuleius’ novel reminds us, the Romans were aware that they had to be careful even in how they imagined being a slave. Owning slaves is presumably possible, psychologically, only if one resists thinking too much about the slave’s humanity – and hence the potential equality or interchangeability of slave and master. In Rome, only foreigners (barbari – non-Latin-speakers) could be slaves; the slaves were deliberately ‘othered’, by both language and race. But, unlike in the case of American slavery, skin colour provided no clue to the difference between slave and owner. Slaves might talk differently from masters, but they looked disturbingly similar.
One neat solution was provided by Aristotle, who claimed that some people are slaves because they have slavish souls. But in time of war, it might become awkwardly obvious that enslavement could happen to anybody. Plautus’ play The Captives seems to deal with precisely this issue: a master changes places with his slave, but both turn out to be of noble birth in their own countries. It is a comedy, so of course both characters are eventually set free, and get to marry the girls of their dreams. But Plautus plays with the possibility of imagining that even good people might be permanently enslaved, through no fault of their own.
Slaves were considered part of the familia – the domestic household – and were often buried in the same grave as their masters; yet they were also human chattel, with no legal or civic rights. Comedy is the genre that most clearly articulates anxieties about these paradoxes, and about social hierarchies in general, showing us sons who refuse to obey their fathers, daughters who run off with the wrong men, wives who commit adultery and slaves who are far cleverer than their lustful, know-it-all or niggardly masters. These plays suggest a complex combination of guilt, fear, pride, cruelty and envy in the Roman master’s view of his slave.
The attitude of the plays towards women is similarly complicated. Women in Plautus come in three main categories: the desirable, money-grubbing whore, the beautiful chaste princess (wife material), and the interfering old mother. Trouble arises because young men tend to get the first two categories confused, and find themselves raping the princesses and trying to marry the whores, to the rage of their domineering old fathers – until the wily slaves get it all sorted out for them.
In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud compares jokes with dreams. ‘Joke-work’, like ‘dream-work’, uses techniques of displacement and condensation to transform and disguise the fears and desires that our conscious minds do not want to recognise. From a Freudian perspective, the prominence of the ‘clever slave’ in Roman comedy (the servus callidus) might be a symptom of an obvious fear on the part of slave-owners, of their slaves plotting against them, to cheat them out of their money or position of honour in the household. The plays also use the mediating figure of the slave to deal with the fear of sons rebelling against the paterfamilias. The slave often sides with the son against the father, and the rebellious slave may sometimes stand in for the even more threatening figure of the rebellious son. The patriarchal system, which allows for little or no autonomy on the part of the lower members of the household (sons, daughters, wives and slaves), is unstable, since any one of these parties may choose to stand up against the master; and it puts a peculiar kind of pressure on the master’s own imaginative world.
For two thousand years the comedies of Plautus and Terence were seen as an essential element in the classical canon. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is based on Plautus’ Menaechmi; Molière’s Miser is a version of Plautus’ Aulularia. Perhaps an even more fundamental influence on later European literature was Terence’s dramatic technique of mixing together two or more Greek plays to create a complex or ‘double’ plot, which had an important impact on the multiple plots of Elizabethan drama and the modern novel.
Roman comedy was not an obscure genre for any literate person between the 16th and the 19th century: it was part of every schoolboy’s education. Plautus’ long-assumed suitability as a school text is one reason so much of it is still extant: 21 plays, compared to only 11 by Aristophanes. Roman comedy does, of course, emerge from a particular historical moment. But enjoyment of it does not require any specific knowledge of history or politics. Somebody who reads Plautus without knowing anything about Rome’s wars with Carthage will not feel that he or she is missing the jokes. It is important from this perspective that all our extant Roman comedies are comoediae palliatae – comedies in Greek costume – as opposed to comoediae togatae, comedies in which the actors wore the Roman toga. The works of Plautus and Terence are set in a fantasy-land version of Greece, marked as an ‘elsewhere’ by the costumes and the Greek names; it is usually said to be Athens, but it could be anywhere. The Mediterranean of Shakespeare’s comedies provides a similar backdrop of unspecific exoticism. Moreover, these plays are all more or less U-rated: sex is discussed in very decorous terms, and there are no jokes about farting or shit. They are good clean family entertainment.
But in the 20th century, Terence and Plautus were dropped from the syllabuses of many schools and universities. As an undergraduate at Oxford studying classics in the early 1990s, I was never asked to read any Roman comedy, and my tutors never made any mention of the genre. The Greek Old Comedy of Aristophanes, on the other hand, was a hot topic. It is not hard to see why Roman comedy should have fallen so dramatically from favour in the course of the last hundred years or so. Ancient slavery was not, of course, identical with domestic service in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. But one can see how the experience of living with servants could have made it easy to imagine what it was like for a Roman to cohabit with his slaves – people in the 19th century could continue to laugh at the servus callidus. But P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves marks the last hurrah of the comic clever servant, who can arrange and prevent love affairs for his foolish young master. In the later decades of the 20th century, for almost the first time in the Western tradition, most wealthy or middle-class people began to live without any domestic servants. These days, the slaves who provide our clothes and entertainment live outside our homes, often half a world away.
Historical study begins where identification ends. The fall of the genre’s fortunes in the popular imagination coincides with a new wave of scholarly interest in Roman comedy in general, and in Plautus in particular. The modern discussion began with Eduard Fraenkel’s monumental study, the paradoxically-titled Plautinisches im Plautus (1922). This book has now, at long last, been translated into (clear, if somewhat Germanic) English, as Plautine Elements in Plautus. The translators, Tomas Drevikovsky and Frances Muecke, have included translations of all quotations from Latin and Greek, as well as an index rerum, an index locorum, and an up-to-date bibliography of Plautine studies.
At the time Fraenkel was writing, the study of Greek New Comedy had recently been transformed by some of the most exciting discoveries in the history of classical scholarship. A papyrus codex was found in Egypt in 1905 which included large sections from several plays by one of the great lost authors of antiquity, Menander, the foremost writer of Greek New Comedy. The Old Comedy of Aristophanes was full of surrealist utopian fantasies, obscenity, slapstick and direct political satire. The plays of Menander, by contrast, included few political references, and apparently no ad hominem attacks. There are no choruses of animals or clouds, no gallivanting gods, no dirty jokes. In fact, you could say that there are no jokes of any kind. The plots revolve around a small set of stock elements: exposed children (who never die, and always turn out to be from good families); fathers, who try in vain to control their children’s love lives; beautiful courtesans whose looks ensnare lively and supposedly likeable young men; ‘parasites’, the young men’s hangers-on; wily slaves; fate, against which we struggle in vain; and moral character, which always triumphs.
Roman literature is said to have begun with Livius Andronicus, who translated Greek tragedy into Latin. His Achilles, performed in 240 BC (immediately after Rome’s victory in the first Punic War), marked the beginning of Roman theatre. Plautus is the first Roman author whose work survives, and he too, in some sense, produced translations, from Menander and the other Greek comedians. The dependence of Roman literature on Greek models became a cliché. Horace famously declared that Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (‘Captured Greece captured her fierce conqueror’). Rome won on the battlefield, but acknowledged the cultural and literary superiority of Athens. The humble nod to the Greek masters is in many cases a kind of back-handed boasting: Roman authors trumpet their own status by acknowledging their dependence on Hellenic models. Moreover, the Greekness of some Roman authors is often mixed with elements that are very obviously Roman. Plautus, for example, throws in plenty of anachronistic references to Roman customs, which destroy any illusion of realism about his Greek settings. The Prologue to the Menaechmi includes a characteristic nod to the Roman audience: ‘“It all takes place in Athens, folks,” is what they say,/So that way everything will seem more Greek to you./But I reveal the real locations when I speak to you’ (the translation is Erich Segal’s, in the Oxford World’s Classics selection of Four Comedies by Plautus, which provides a splendid introduction to the author for those without Latin).
Fraenkel’s book might be expected to focus on the Roman or Italian elements in Plautus – the things he did not steal from Menander. Fraenkel does include some discussion of vernacular traditions, and argues strongly, for example, that one of the most important and influential features of the plays of Plautus (not present in Greek comedy), the cantica or songs with which he breaks up the dramatic action, probably grew from early Roman tragedy, rather than directly from Greek models. But in general, Fraenkel’s interest is less in Romanitas than in a much more limited quality, ‘Plautinity’. As a defence of the originality of Roman literature in general, and Plautus in particular, this is a deeply paradoxical book. Fraenkel’s central claim is that Plautus’ talent as a writer – oddly, since he wrote only plays – is defined by his ‘absolute inability to invent even the minutest fragment of dramatic action’. Plautus’ additions to his sources are all tangential doodles, which may make the plays far funnier than their originals, but add nothing to either character development or plot.
Greek mythology in Plautus tends, as Fraenkel suggests, to be applied in bizarrely inappropriate contexts, as if to show up the difference between the lofty world of archaic Greece and the mundane domesticity of modern life. In Rudens (The Rope), one character remarks: ‘This horse will make an attack not on the citadel, but on the cash-box.’ We are in the comic, novelistic world of sex and money; those who try to act like heroes (like the ‘Braggart Soldier’ in Plautus’ play of that name) are usually figures of fun. Moreover, Fraenkel suggests that the addition of mythology often serves to emphasise Plautus’ lack of interest in his own plots. Without the frills and japes of his own bizarre comparisons and outlandish jokes, Plautus finds New Comedy pretty boring.
From the perspective of contemporary Latin studies, Fraenkel’s total lack of interest in social history or cultural studies may look like a defect. His approach contrasts sharply with, for example, the exuberant and stimulating – if frequently unreadable – recent study (with facing translation) of Plautus’ Asinaria by John Henderson. Henderson explores, or dances around, Plautus’ representation of power relationships between sons, fathers, women and slaves. For Henderson, Plautus is both hilariously funny (‘it’s all a gas’: ridicula res est) and a biting social satirist, who understands the whole Roman ‘economy of pleasure’, and undermines the notion that the Roman father of the family could be anything other than a donkey. He takes nothing seriously, including his own comic tropes. Henderson is more amused than I am by all the jokes about whipping and humiliation. But he is aware that jokes are never just jokes; there is always a social subtext.
By contrast, Fraenkel enjoys Plautus’ jokes, but has almost nothing to say about their social or cultural implications. Nor does he show much interest in Plautus’ historical context. Instead, he explains Plautine poetics entirely in terms of Plautus’ individual literary talent. For instance, he argues that Plautus ‘pushed the slave into the foreground’ in contrast to New Comedy; but he does not attempt any kind of political or social analysis of this new interest, suggesting instead that the figure of the slave offered attractive opportunities for Plautus’ favourite style of ‘buffoonery’. Some later scholars (such as Christopher Stace and Jean-Christian Dumont) have suggested that the slave already played a more important role in New Comedy than Fraenkel realised, partly on the basis of more passages of Menander that were discovered and published after Fraenkel’s death.
Fraenkel does not write for the general reader, and even specialists may well feel overwhelmed by the mass of detail in the early chapters of Plautine Elements. You never get just one example when twenty will do. But for those who can struggle through the trees, the wood is a particularly interesting one. Fraenkel makes a cohesive and still convincing case for the idea that Plautus’ poetic vision is all about giving a voice to the inanimate and the voiceless. He demonstrates, with innumerable examples, that Plautus constantly resorts to motifs of personification and transformation: parts of the body and household objects are treated as if they were alive. In the Asinaria, for example, a slave says: ‘I do not want one of us slaves,/my mate the door, to get a beating’ (the translation is Henderson’s). Fraenkel reminds us, although he makes no explicit comment on the fact, that a large amount of the humour in Plautus hinges on the notion of the cowardly slave, who wants to avoid a beating.
Fraenkel’s mass of evidence suggests that Plautine comedy systematically creates a grey area where we might think there could be no middle ground: between people and non-people. The humour may be seen as self-justificatory: if Plautus can imagine that slaves are just like doors, then there’s no harm in beating them up. But it may also seem symptomatic of a fear on the part of the slave-owning classes, that at least part of their property may be animate after all. If slaves have eyes, hands, organs and dimensions like their masters, then they also have a clear motive for revenge.
It is also worth noting that the slaves in Plautus never actually get beaten, although they talk about it all the time. Segal once argued that Plautine comedy has close affinities with the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, when slaves were, for once, allowed to eat with their masters, and seem to have had much greater freedom of speech and action – at least for the duration of the festival. Comedy, too, depicts a magic world, in which the normal hierarchies are temporarily suspended – only to be reinforced, with a vengeance, at the end of the play or holiday time. From this perspective, the ‘carnivalesque’ license of slaves in Roman comedy can be seen as reinforcing a normative social hierarchy. The plays which show us clever slaves escaping punishment act as a reminder that in the real world the opposite is the case: slaves are stupid, and when they act up, they get beaten – or crucified. On the other hand, some readers see a more uneasy reminder in these plays that slaves may not be so different from their owners. Physical violence is upsetting as well as funny, for an audience that identified with the slave as well as with his master.
Terence, who lived a generation later than Plautus, might be expected to offer a more sympathetic portrayal of the comic slave. His mother was, we are told, a slave, and the poet was brought to Rome from Carthage as a child. He was raised in the household of a rich Roman aristocrat called Terentius Lucanus, and then set free. This would explain his name, Terentius Afer: Terence the African. He became a comic poet, and produced six plays in the space of six years (166-160 BC). He then died young – supposedly in a shipwreck, while trying to transport a collection of Menander’s plays to Rome. The story of the death is too good to be likely, but the slavery may well have been real; after all, a pretty high proportion of Rome’s population were either slaves or freedmen. He may even have been black, or at least dark-skinned; we do not know.
But Terence’s comedies will disappoint anybody looking for a direct indictment of Roman slavery from inside the mouth of the horse (or the ass). There is far less business about slaves, whipping and rebellion in Terence than in Plautus, and less frolicking, irrelevant donkey-play in general. The anachronisms, the metatheatrical doodling, the songs, the snooty clever slaves and stupid masters are all toned down in Terence, who is much less interested than Plautus in trying to make us laugh.
The result is a new and intense focus on sexual relationships. These plays offer a fascinating and puzzling glimpse into Roman attitudes towards women as both objects and victims of male sexual desire. Instead of the servus callidus, the smart-alec slave, we get a new stereotype: the bona meretrix, the hooker with a heart of gold. The female characters in Terence – including prostitutes and even mothers and mothers-in-law – are almost all nice, admirable, thoughtful, victimised people. The men almost invariably behave abominably: they get drunk, squabble about money and girls, try (and fail) to trick one another, and rape women without thinking twice. But the plays always invite us to see things from a masculine point of view, and we are always asked, at the end, to applaud the marriage of yet another rich young rapist to yet another innocent, well-born, fertile girl. The plays are surprisingly brutal in their analysis of the institution of marriage.
Terence’s second play, The Mother-in-Law, was apparently a flop in the theatre on two separate occasions (165 and 160 BC), because the audience was more interested in seeing the rival performances of acrobats and gladiators than in sitting through a sharp dissection of Roman sexual mores. The play provides an interesting variant on the usual theme. Pamphilus, our hero, has already been married for seven months. It was an arranged marriage, and Pamphilus remained besotted with his mistress, Bacchis, for the first few months after the wedding – so much so that he did not even sleep with his bride, and planned to send her back to her family untouched. But as the play opens, Pamphilus has just found that his feelings for his wife have changed. He is no longer attracted to his mistress, and decides he will keep his wife after all. The only problem is that she has been hidden away in the country by her mother. The big secret is that the wife is having a baby, who must, so Pamphilus believes, be another man’s child; such a blot on his honour can hardly be allowed to live. In fact, after various twists and turns, we learn that the child is the son of Pamphilus after all. Drunk on his way to visit Bacchis one night, he raped a girl – who now turns out to have been his own bride-to-be. A happy ending, of a kind: ‘All’s well that ends well. Just what two/ Young gentlemen of Verona might any day do,’ as Frederick Clayton comments in a brilliant modern epilogue to the play.
As with Shakespeare’s bed tricks, it’s hard to know how much we are supposed to worry about the rapes in Terence. On the one hand, they are a useful plot device. The victim can remain relatively respectable and sympathetic in the eyes of the audience; the girl may still make a good wife. On the other, the wife in The Mother-in-Law is never seen on stage – so there is a limit to how much a theatre audience can care about what happened to her. Still, it is hard not to suspect that these plots play with anxiety as well as with self-satisfaction. Pamphilus never lets his father find out the whole story about the rape, and comments: ‘I think it’s best if this doesn’t turn out the way things do in comedies, where everyone finds out about everything.’
The truth is, of course, that this is a comedy, and the audience, at least, does know ‘everything’. But perhaps we, too, are better off not knowing, or not thinking too hard about what we know. Male promiscuity may threaten every marriage, and make every baby liable to be exposed or killed. The play points directly to an obvious double standard: Pamphilus’ infidelities – which will presumably continue – are more or less compatible with his role as a husband, whereas his wife may only be raped, and by her own spouse. And as in Romeo and Juliet, fidelity to one true love always means the betrayal of another, earlier love: Bacchis is abandoned when Pamphilus falls in love with his wife. Marriage may be the enemy of romance; but as members of society, we are still asked to clap for it.
It is tempting to see Roman comedy (and Greek New Comedy) as the ancient equivalent of the modern feel-good romantic comedy. But these are Meg Ryan dramas without Meg Ryan. The female characters have no voice, and sometimes, as in The Mother-in-Law, the supposed heroine is not even a character in the play. A closer analogue might be found in films centred on non-Anglo-American cultures, which analyse the tensions between modern and traditional sexual norms: Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding or (perhaps the most Terentian, and most upsetting) Dover Koshashvili’s Late Marriage, a Georgian-Israeli movie about a man who finally reconciles himself to the abandonment of his beloved mistress and her child, in order to marry the woman his father has chosen. After all, as Pamphilus remarks, ‘I do love her. But family must come first./ Falsehood to family, of all sins, is the worst’ (the translation is Clayton’s). ‘Family’ means here, as in Terence, enslavement to a pair of savage masters: fathers and babies.
Terence was known in antiquity for the ‘purity’ of his language. Schoolmasters in the 19th century often justified teaching these unedifying tales of sexual infidelity and filial impiety on the grounds of their beautiful language. A letter to the Times in 1847, quoted by Peter Brown in his introduction to his new Oxford translation of Terence, complains that ‘the cry of injury to morality is mere twaddle, and it would be a lamentable event if an old and useful stimulant to the study of one of the purest Latin authors were destroyed by such maudlin nonsense.’ Brown’s own version is serviceable English prose, which might well come to life in production. Brown also supplies useful notes, a bibliography and fine individual introductions to each play. But if I had to choose a recent translation of Terence, I would favour Clayton’s, in amazingly lively and readable rhyming couplets (it also has a good introduction by Matthew Leigh, but no notes or full bibliography). In Clayton’s version, the Don Juan-ish rhymes sometimes call the shots and the language is inevitably not much like modern spoken English. But at least he does not let you forget that Terence was a poet, a clear-minded, writerly writer. Sometimes Clayton’s Terence actually seems funny, even in our enlightened day and age.
Inevitably, neither of these good translations is all that much like the Latin of Terence, and readers should choose for themselves. Here is a sample, from Terence’s last play, The Brothers, in which a kill-joy, moralistic old man called Demea comes into conflict with his cakes-and-ale brother, Micio, over the sexual antics of one of Demea’s sons. But the roles reverse in the final act. Here is Brown’s translation of Demea’s concluding speech:
No one has ever done his sums so well in the account book of his life that events, time and experience don’t always bring him something new, something to learn from. The result is that you don’t know what you thought you knew, and experience teaches you to reject what you thought most important for yourself. That’s what has happened to me now: that harsh life that I have lived so far I now abandon when I have almost run its course. Why do I do that? Events themselves have taught me that nothing is better for a man than to be obliging and kind.
This is a respectable, plain version, which tells you what the Latin is about. But Clayton does more. He reminds us that we can find in Terence an ancestor for English comic verse, ranging from Ralph Roister Doister through Pope to Bernard Shaw and Ogden Nash. Clayton’s Demea sounds like a strangely laid-back, Byronic version of Prospero at the end of the Tempest:
His life’s account-books no man ever drew up
So well but time, chance, change brings something new up,
Some lesson. Your known laws become unknown;
Things prized, when put to fresh proof, you disown.
This is my fate. The hard life that I’ve led
Till now I leave, my span of life nigh sped.
And why? Because I’ve found, on fact’s own showing
The best thing’s to be soft and easy-going.
Demea’s choice – to see everything as fun and games, and let morality go hang – is one way to read or watch Roman comedy. Perhaps, in the end, it’s all just a laugh.