the most celebrated comic poet of Rome, was a native of Sarsina, a small village in Umbria. Almost the only particulars, which we possess respecting his life, are contained in a passage of A. Gellius (3.3
), which is quoted from Varro.
According to this account it would appear that Plautus was of humble origin (compare Plantiae prosapiae, homo,
Minnc. Felix, Oct.
14), and that he came to Rome at an early age. Varro related that the poet was first employed as a worknan or a menial for the actors on the stage (in operis artificum scceicorum
), and that with the money which he earned in this way, he embarked in some business, but that having, lost all his money in trade, he returned to Rome, and, in order to gain a living, was obliged to work at a hand-mill, grinding corn for a baker. Varro further adds that while employed in this work (in pistrino
), he wrote three comedies, the Saturiro
and a third, of which the name is not mentioned. Hieronymus, in the Chronicon of Eusebius, gives almost the same account, which he probably also derived from Varro.
It would seem that it was only for the sake of varying the narrative that he wrote "that as often as Plautus had leisure, he was accustomed to write plays and sell theme."
This is all that we know for certain respecting the life of Plautus; but even this little has not been correctly stated by most authors of his life. Thus Lessing, in his life of the poet, relates that Plantus early commenced writing plays for the aediles, and acquired thereby a sufficient sum of money to enable him to embark in business.
It is the more necessary to call attention to this error, since, from the great authority of Lessing, it has been repeated in most sublseqluent biographies of the poet.
The words of Gellius, in operis artificum scenicorum,
have no reference to the composition of plays. The artifices scenici
are the actors, who employed servants to attend to various things which they needed for the stage, and a servant of such a kind was called an operarius,
as we see from funeral inscriptions. Moreover, if Plautus had previously written plays for the stage, which must have already gained him some reputation, it is not likely that he should have been compelled on his return to Rome to engage in the menial office of a grinder at a mill for the sake of obtaining a livelihood. On the contrary, it is much more probable that the comedies which he composed in the mill, were the first that he ever wrote, and that the reputation and money which he acquired by them enablled him to abandon his menial mode of life.
The age of Plautus has been a subject of no small controversy. Cicero says (Brut.
15) that he died in the consulship of P. Claudius and L. Porcins, when Cato was censor, that is, in B. C. 134 ; and there is no reason to doubt this express statement.
It is true that Hieronymus, in the Chronicon of Eusebius, places his death in the 145th Olympiad, fourteen years earlier (B. C. 200); but the dates of Hieronymus are frequently erroneous, and this one in particular deserves all the less credit, inscription, since we know that the Pseudolus
was not represeated till B. C. 191, and the Bacchides
somewhat later, according to the probable supposition of Ritschl.
But though the date of Plautus's death seems certain, the time of his birth is a more doubtful point. Ritschl, who has examined the subject with great diligence and acumen in his essay De Aetate Plauti,
supposes that he was born about the beginning of the sixth century of the city (about B. C. 254), and that he commenced his career as a comic poet about B. C. 224, when he was thirty years of age.
This supposition is con firmed by the fact that Cicero speaks (Cato,
14) of the Pseudolus, which was acted in. B. C.191, as written by Plattus when he was an old man, an epithet which Cicero would certainly have given to no one under thirty years of age; and also by the circumstance that in another passage of Cicero (quoted by Augustine, De Cix. Dci,
2.9), Plautus and Naevius are spoken of as the contemporaries of P. and Cn. Scipio, of whom the former was consul in B. C. 222, and the latter in B. C. 218.
The principal objection to the above mentioned date for the birth of Plautus, arises from a passage of Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations (i. l), according to which it would appear that Plautus and Naevius were younger than Ennius, who was born in B. C. 239.
But we know that this cannot be true of Naevius; and Ritschl has shown that the passage, when rightly interpreted, refers to Livius, and not to Ennius, being older than Naevius and Plautus. Indeed, Cicero, in another of his works (Brut.
makes Plantns somewhat (aliqstanto,
) older than Ennius, and states that Naevins and Plautus had exhibited many plays before the consulship of C. Cornelius and Q. Minncius, that is, before B. C. 197. Moreover, from the way in which Naevius and Plautus are mentioned together, we may conclude that the latter was older than Ennius. Tereince, therefore, in his Prologue to the Andria (5.18), hs preserved the chronological order, when he speaks of "Naevium, Plautum, Ennium." We may safely assign the second Punic war and a few years subsequently, as the flourishing period of the literary life of Plautus.
It is a curious fact that the full name of the poet has been erroneously given in all editions of Plautus from the revival of learning down to the present day. Ritschl first pointed out, in an essay published in 1842, that the real name of the poet was T. Maccius Plautus,
and not M Accins Plautus,
as we find in all printed editions.
It would take too much space to copy the proofs of this tact, which are perfectly satisfactory. We need only state here that in not a single manuscript is the poet called M. Accius Plautus, but almost always Plautus
simply, Plautus Comicus,
or Plautus Comicus Poeta.
Ritschl was first led to the discovery of the real name of the poet by finding, in the Palimpsest manuscript in the Ambrosian library at Milan, the plays entitled T. MACCI PLAVTI, and not M. Acci Plauti.
He has shown that the two names of M. Accius have been manufactured out of the one of Maccius, just as the converse has happened to the author of the Noctes Atticae, whose two names of A. Gellius have been frequently contracted into Agellius. Ritschl has restored the true name of the poet in the prologues to two of his plays, where the present reading bears evident marks of corruption. Thus in the prologue to the Mercator
(5.10), we ought to read "Eadem Latine Mercator Macci Titi,"
instead of "Eadem Latine Mercator Marci Accii ;" and in the prologue to the Asinaria
(5.11), "Demophilus scripsit, Maccin'
vortit barbare" is the true reading, and not "Denmophilus scripsit, Marcus
T. Maccius was the original name of the poet.
The surname of Plautus was given him from the flatness of his feet, according to the testimony of Festus (p. 238, ed. Miller), who further states that people with flat feet were called Ploti by the Umbrians.
But besides Plautus we find another surname given to the poet in many manuscripts and several editions, namely, that of Asinius.
In all these instances, however, he is always called Plautus Asinius,
never Asinius Plautus,
so that it would appear that Asinius was not regarded as his gentile name, but as a cognomen. Hence some modern writers have supposed that he had two cognomens, and that the surname of Asinus
was given to him in contempt, from the fact of his working at a mill, which was usually the work of an ass (Asinus
) and that this surname was changed by the copyists into Asinius.
But this explanation of the origin of the surname is in itself exceedingly improbable; and if Asinius were a regular cognomen of the poet, it is inconceivable that we should find no mention of it in any of the ancient writers. Ritschl, however, has pointed out the true origin of the name, and has proved quite satisfactorily, however improbable the statement appears at first sight, that Asinius
is a corruption of Sarsinas,
the ethnic name of the poet.
He has, by a careful examination of manuscripts, traced the steps by which Sarsinatis
first became Arsinatis,
which was then written Arsin.,
and finally Asinii.
Having thus discussed the chief points connected with the life of our poet, we may sum up the results in a few words. T. Maccius Plautus was born at the Umbrian village of Sarsina, about B. C. 254.
He probably came to Rome at an early age, since he displays such a perfect mastery of the Latin language, and an acquaintance with Greek literature, which he could hardly have acquired in a provincial town. Whether he ever obtained the Roman franchise is doubtful. When he arrived at Rome he was in needy circumstances, and was first employed in the service of the actors.
With the money he had saved in this inferior station he left Rome and set up in business: but his speculations failed; he returned to Rome, and his necessities obliged him to enter the service of a baker. who employed him in turning a hand-mill. While in this degrading occupation he wrote three plays, the sale of which to the managers of the public games enabled him to quit his drudgery, and begin his literary career.
He was then probably about 30 years of age (B. C. 224), and accordingly commenced writing comedies a few years before the breaking out of the Second Punic War.
He continued his literary occupation for about forty years. and died B. C. 184, when he was seventy years of age. His contemporaries at first were Livins Andronicus and Naevius, afterwards Ennius and Caecilius: Terence did not rise into notice till almost twenty years after his death. During the long time that he held possession of the stage, he was always a great favourite of the people; and he expressed a bold consciousness of his own powers in the epitaph which he wrote for his tomb, and which has been preserved by A. Gellius (1.24
Postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, comoedia luget
Scella deserta, dein risus, Indus jocusque
Et numeri innumeri simul omnes collacrumarunt.
We now come to the works of Plautus.
In the time of Varro there were 130 plays, which bore the name of Plautus, but of these a large portion was considered by the blest Roman critics not to be the genuine productions of the poet. Some of them were written by a poet of the name of Plautitus, the resemiblani)ce of whose name to that of the great comic poet caused them to be attribited to the latter. Others were said to have been written by more ancient poets, but to have been retouched and improved by Plautus, and hence from their presenting some traces of the genuine style of Plautus, to have been assigned to him.
The gramtmarian L. Aelitus considered twenty-five only to have been the genuine productions of the poet; and Varro, who wrote a work upon the subject, entitled Quaestiones Plautinae,
limited the undoubted comedies of the poet to twenty-one, which were hence called the Fabulae Varronianae.
At the same time it appears clearly front A. Gellius (3.3
), to whom we are indebted for these particulars, that Varro looked upon other comedies as in all probability the works of Plautus, though they did not possess the same amount of testimony in their favour as the twenty-one. Ritschl, in his admirable essay on the Fabulae Varronianae
of Plautus, published in 1843 and 1844, supposes, with much probability, that Varro divided the genuine comedies of Plautus into three classes: 1.
Those which were assigned to Plautus in till the authorities that Varro consulted.
These were the twenty-one, all of which were probably written in the latter years of the poet's life, when he had already acquired a great reputation, and when, consequently, every piece that he produced wits sure to attract attention, and to be entered in the didascaliae or lists of his pieces. 2.
Those comedies which were attributed to Plautus in most of the authorities, and which appeared to Varro to bear internal evidence of having been composed by him. 3.
Those which were not assigned to Plautus by the authorities, or were even attributed to other writers, but which appeared to Varro to have such internal evidence in their favour (ad ductus filo atquc facetia sermonis Plauto congruentis
), that he did not hesitate to regard them as the genuine works of the poet. To this third class, which naturally contained but few, the Boeotia
There is a statement of Servius in the introduction to his commentary on the Aeneid, that according to some, Plautus wrote twenty-one, according to others forty, and, according to others again, a hundred comedies. Ritschl supposes, with great ingenuity, that the forty comedies, to which Servius alludes, were those which Varro regarded as genuine, the twenty-one, which were called preeminently Varronianae,
belonging to the first class, spoken of above, and the other nineteen being comprised in the second and third classes.
In order to understand clearly the difficulties which the Roman critics experienced in determining which were the genuine plays of Plautus, we should bear in mind the circumstances under which they were composed. Like the dramas of Shakspere and Lope de Vega they were written for the stage, and not for the reading public. Such a public, in fact, did not exist at the time of Plautus. His plays were produced for representation at the great public games, and, content with the applause of his contemporaries and the pay which he received, he did not care for the subsequent fate of his works.
A few patrons of literature, such as the Scipios, may have preserved copies of the works ; but the chief inducement to their preservation was the interest of the managers of the different troops of actors, the domini gregis,
who had originally engaged the poet to write the comedies, and had paid him for them, and to whom the manuscripts accordingly belonged.
It was the interest of these persons to preserve the manuscripts, since they were not always obliged to bring forth new pieces, but were frequently paid by the magistrates for the representation of plays that had been previously acted.
That the plays of Plautus were performed after his death is stated in several authorities, and may be seen even from some of the prologues (e. g. the Prologue to the Casina).
But when, towards the middle of the sixth century of the city, one dramatic poet arose after another, and the taste for stricter imitations from the Greek began to prevail, the comedies of Plautus gradually fell into neglect, and consequently the contractors for the public games ceased to care about their preservation. Towards the latter end of the century, however, no new comic poets appeared; and since new comedies ceased to be brought before the public, attention was naturally recalled to the older dramas.
In this manner Plautus began to be popular again, and his comedies were again frequently brought upon the stage. Owing, however, to the neglect which his works had sustained, it would appear that doubts had arisen respecting the genuineness of many of his plays, and that several were produced under his name, of which the authorship was at least uncertain. Thus the grammarians, who began to draw up lists of his plays in the seventh century of the city, had no small difficulties to encounter; and the question respecting the genuineness of certain plays was a fertile subiect of controversy. Besides the treatise of Varro already mentioned, which was the standard work on the subject, A. Gellius (l.c.
) also refers to lists of his comedies drawn up by Aelius, Sedigitus, Claudius, Aurelius, Accius, and Manilius.
The twenty-one plays considered genuine by Varro
After the publication of Varro's work, the twenty-one comedies, which he regarded as unquestionably genuine, were the ones most frequently used, and of which copies were chiefly preserved. These Varronian comedies are the same as those which have come down to our own time, with the loss of one.
At present we possess only twenty
comedies of Plautus; but there were originally twenty-one in the manuscripts, and the Vidularia,
which was the twenty-first, and which came last in the collection, was torn off from the manuscript in the middle ages.
The last-mentioned play was extant in the time of Priscian, who was only acquainted with the twenty-one Varronian plays.
The ancient Codex of Camerarius has at the conclusion of the Truculentus the words incipit vidvlaria ;
and the Milan Palimpsest also contains several lines from the Vidularia.
The titles of the twenty-one Varronian plays, of which, as we have already remarked, twenty are still extant, are:
This is the order in which they occur in the manuscripts, though probably not the one in which they were originally arranged by Varro.
The present order is evidently alphabetical; the initial letter of the title of each play is alone regarded, and no attention is paid to those which follow: hence we find Captivi, Curculio, Casina, Cistellaria : Mostellaria, Menaechmi, Miles, Mercator: Pseudolus, Poenulus, Persa.
The play of the Bacchides forms the only exception to the alphabetical order.
It was probably placed after the Epidicus by some copyist, because he had observed that Plautus, in the Bacchides (2.2. 36), referred to the Epidicus as an earlier work.
The alphabetical arrangement is attributed by many to Priscian, to whom is also assigned the short acrostic argument prefixed to each play; but there is no certainty on this point, and the Latinity of the acrostic arguments is too pure to have been composed so late as the time of Priscian.
The names of the comedies are either taken from some leading character in the play, or from some circumstance which occurs in it: those titles ending in aria
are adjectives, giving a general description of the play: thus Asinaria
is the "Ass-Comedy."
Besides these twenty-one plays we have already remarked, that Varro, according to Ritschl's conjecture, regarded nineteen others as the genuine productions of Plautus, though not supported by an equal amount of testimony as the twenty-one. Ritschl has collected from various authorities the titles of these nineteen plays. They are as follows:
Of the still larger number of comedies commonly ascribed to Plautus, but not recognised by Varro, the titles of only a few have been preserved. They are: --
Thus we have the titles of 21 Varronian comedies of the first class, 19 of the second and third classes, and 13 comedies not acknowledged by Varro, in all 53. Accordingly, if there were 130 comedies bearing the name of Plautus, we have lost all notice of 77. there is a play entitled Querolus
which bears the name of Plautus in the manuscripts, and is quoted under his name by Servius (ad Virg. Aen.
It is evidently, however, not the production of our poet, and was probably written in the third or fourth century of the Christian aera.
The best edition of it is by Klinkhammer, entitled, "Querolus sive Aulularia, incerti auctoris comoedia togata," Amsterdam, 1829.
The comedies of Plautus enjoyed unrivalled popularity among the Romans. Of this we have a proof in their repeated representations after the poet's death, to which we have already alluded.
In a house at Pompeii a ticket was found for admission to the representation of the Casina
of Plautus (see Orelli, Inscript.
No. 2539), which must consequently have been performed at that time, shortly before its destruction in A. D. 79; and we learn from Arnobius that the Amphitruo was acted in the reign of Diocletian.
The continued popularity of Plautus, through so many centuries, was owing, in a great measure, to his being a national poet. For though his comedies belong to the Comoedia palliata, and were taken, for the most part, from the poets of the new Attic comedy, we should do great injustice to Plautus if we regarded him as a slavish imitator of the Greeks. Though he founds his plays upon Greek models, the characters in them act, speak, and joke like genuine Romans, and he thereby secured the sympathy of his audience more completely than Terence could ever have done. Whether Plautus borrowed the plan of all his plays from Greek models, it is impossible to say. The Cistellaria, Bacchides, Poenulus, and Stichus were taken from Menander, the Casina and Rudens from Diphilus, and the Mercator and the Trinummus from Philemon, and many others were undoubtedly founded upon Greek originals.
But in all cases Plautus allowed himself much greater liberty than Terence; and in some instances he appears to have simply taken the leading idea of the play from the Greek, and to have filled it up in his own fashion.
It has been inferred from a well-known line of Horace (Hor. Ep. 2.1. 58
), "Plautus ad exemplar Sictuli properare Epicharmi," that Plautus took great pains to imitate Epicharmus.
But there is no correspondence between any of the existing plays of Plautus, and the known titles of the comedies of Epicharmus; and the verb properare
probably has reference only to the liveliness and energy of Plautus's style, in which he bore a resemblance to the Sicilian poet. Another mistake has arisen from tire statement of Jerome (Ep
. 57, 101) that Plautus imitated the poets of the old Attic comedy, but the only resemblance he bears to them is in the coarseness and boldness of his jokes.
He borrowed to a slight extent from the middle Attic comedy, from which the Amphitruo was taken; but, as we have already remarked, it was the poets of the new Attic comedy whom Plautus took as his models.
It was, however, not only with the common people that Plautus was a favourite; educated Romans read and admired his works down to the latest times.
The purity of his language and the refinement and good-humour of his wit are celebrated brated in partieular by the ancient critics.
The grammarian L. Aelius Stilo used to say, and Varro adopted his words, "that the Muses would use the language of Plautus, if they were to speak Latin." (Apud Quint. Inst. 10.1.99
In the same manner A. Gellius constantly praises the language of Plautus in the highest terms, and in one passage (7.17) speaks of him as "homo linguae atque elegantiae in verbis Latinae princeps." Cicero (de Off.
1.29) places his wit on a par with that of the old Attic comedy, and St. Jerome used to console himself with the perusal of the poet after spending many nights in tears, on account of his past sins.
The favourable opinion which the ancients enter tained of the merits of Plautus has been confirmed by the judgment of the best modern critics, and by the fact that several of his plays have been imitated by many of the best modern poets. Thus the Amphitruo
has been imitated by Molière and Dryden, the Aulularia by Molière in his Avare,
by Regnard, Addison, and others, the Menaechmi
by Shakspere in his Comedy of Erroutrs,
by Lessing in his Schatz
and so with others. Lessing, who was undoubtedly one of the greatest critics of modern times, declares the Captivi
of Plautus to be the finest comedy that was ever brought upon the stage, and says that he had repeatedly read it with the view of discovering some fault in it, and was never able to do so; but, on the contrary, saw fresh reasons for admiring it on each perusal. Horace (De Arte Poet.
270), indeed, expresses a. less favourable opinion of Plautus, and speaks with contempt of his verses and jests; but it must be recollected that the taste of Horace had been formed by a different school of literature, and that he disliked the ancient poets of his country. Lessing, however, has shown that the censure of Horace probably does not refer to the general character of Plautus's poetry, but merely to his inharmonious verses and to some of his jests. And it must be admitted that only a blind admiration of the poet can fail to recognise some truth in the censure of Horace. Prosody and metre are not always strictly attended to, and there is frequently a want of harmony in his verses. His jests, also, are often coarse, and sometimes puerile; but it must be recollected that they were intended to please the lower classes of Rome, and were accordingly adapted to the tastes of the day.
The objections brought against the jokes of Plautus are equally applicable to those of Shakspere.
History of the Text of Plautus
The text of Plautus has come down to us in a very corrupt state.
It contains many lacunae and interpolations. Thus the Aulularia has lost its conclusion, the Bacehides its commencement, &c. ; and we find in the grammarians several quotations from the existing plays of Plautus which are not found in our present copies.
The interpolations are still more numerous than the lacunae, and were for the most part made for the purpose of supplying gaps in the original manuscript. Some of these were introduced in ancient times, as is proved by their existence in the Palimpsest manuscript at Milan, which is as old as the fifth century, but most of them were executed at the revival of learning, and evidently betray their modern origin.
See the essay of Niebuhr on this subject, entitled "Ueber die als untergeschoben bezeichneten Scenen im Plautus," in his "Kleine Sehriften," vol. i. p. 159, &c.
The corruptions of the text are owing to the fact that all the existing manuscripts of Plautus, with the exception of the Milan Palimpsest, are derived from one common source.
The editors of Plautus, however, have not founded the text upon the best existing manuscripts.
These are the Codex vetus and decurtatus, which must, in connection with the Palimpsest manuscript of Milan, form the basis with any future editor for a restoration of the genuine text. (See Ritschl, Ueber die Kritik des Plautus,
in the Rheinisches Museum,
vol. iv. p. 153, &c.)
It appears that the comedies of Plautus were, at an early time, divided into two parts, the first containing eight plays (Amphitruo
), the second the remaining twelve (Bacchides
) The last twelve plays were at first unknown in Italy at the revival of learning : they were discovered in Germany about 1430, and from thence conveyed to Italy.
It may be mentioned in passing, that this division of the plays into two parts accounts for the loss of the beginning of the Bacchides, which was the first play of the volume, and the commencement of which might therefore have been easily torn away.
The editio princeps of the complete works of Plautus was published at Venice, by Georgius Merula, in 1472
There was a still earlier edition of the first eight plays of Plautus (Amphitruo - Epidicus), printed at Venice, without date, of which probably only one copy is now in existence, preserved in the public library at Venice
. Niebuhr called attention to this edition (Kleine Schriften, vol. i. p. 176, &c.)
, but it had been previously noticed by Harles (Supplem. ad Brev. Notit. Lit. Rom. part ii. p. 483)
. Of the other earlier editions the best are those by Camerarius, Basel, 1558
; by Lambinus, Paris, 1576
; by Taubmann, Wittenberg, 1605; by Pareus, Frankfort, 1610
; by Gruter, with Taubmann's commentary, Wittenberg, 1621
; by J. Fr. Gronovius, Leyden, 1664, reprinted at the same place in 1669, at Amsterdam in 1684, and again at Leipzig, under the care of J. A. Ernesti, in 1760
The best modern editions of the complete works of Plautus are by Bothe, Berlin, 1809-1811, 4 vols. 8vo.
, again at Stuttgardt, 1829, 4 vols. 8vo.
, and lastly at Leipzig, 1834, 2 vols. 8vo.
; and by Weise, Quedlinburg, 1837-1838, 2 vols. 8vo.
There are some editions of the separate plays of Plautus which deserve particular recommendation.
These are the Captivi, Miles, and Trinummus, by Lindemann, Leipzig, 1844, 2d edition
; the Bacchides, by Ritschl, Halle, 1835
; and the Trinummus by Hermann, Leipzig, 1800.
Plautus has been translated into almost all the European languages. In English some of the plays were translated by Echard in 1716
, by Cooke in 1754
, and by Cotter in 1827
; and there is a translation in English of all the works of Plautus by Thornton and Warner, 1767-1771, 5 vols. 3vo.
In French we have the translations of the Amphitruo, Epidicus, and Rudens, by Madame Dacier, 1683
, and of the complete works by Limiers, Amsterdam, 1719, 10 vols. 8vo
, and by Guendeville, Leyden, 1719, 10 vols. 8vo
. In German there are several translations of single plays, of which Lessing's excellent translation of the Captivi deserves to be particularly mentioned.
There is likewise a translation in German of the complete works by Kuffner, Vienna, 1806-1807, 5 vols. 8vo.
, of nine of the plays by Köpke, Berlin 1809-20, 2 vols. 8vo
, and of eight by Rapp, Stuttgart, 1838-46
The most important works on the life and works of Plautus are the following :--
Lessing, Von dem Leben und den Werken des Plautus, in the 3rd volume of his collected works, Berlin, 1838
Osann, Analecta critica, &c.; insunt Plauti Fragmenta ab Ang. Maio nuper reperta, Berlin, 1816; Geppert, Ueber den Codex Ambrosianus, und seinen Einfluss auf die Plautinische Kritik, Leipzig, 1847; and above all Ritschl, Parergon Plautinorum Terentianorumque, Leipzig, 1845
, containing the following valuable dissertations in relation to Plautus : 1. De Plauti Poetae Nominibus ;
2. De Aetate Plauti ;
3. Die Fabulae Varronianae des Plautus ;
4. Die Plautinischen Didaskalien ;
5. De Actae Trinummi Tempore ;
6. De Veteribus Plauti Interpretibus ;
7. De Plauti Bacchidibus ;
8. De turbato Scenarum Ordine Mostellariae Plautinae ;
9. De Interpolatione Trinummi Plautinae.