Plautus in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities
Plautus, T. Maccius
The most celebrated comic poet of Rome. He was a native of Sarsina, a small village in Umbria. He used to be called M. Accius Plautus,
but his real name, as Ritschl has shown, was T. Maccius Plautus. The date of his birth is uncertain, but it may be placed about B.C.
254. He probably came to Rome at an early age, since he displays so perfect a 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 set himself up in business, but failed; he then 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 thirty years of age (224 B.C.), and therefore 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 in 184, when he was seventy years of age. His contemporaries
at first were Livius Andronicus and Naevius, afterward 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 come down to us:
"Postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, comoedia luget
Scena deserta, dein risus, ludus iocusque
Et numeri innumeri simul omnes collacrumarunt."
Plautus wrote a great number of comedies, and in the last century of the Republic there were 130 plays which bore his name. Most of
these, however, were not considered genuine by the best Roman critics. There were several works written upon the subject; and of these
the most celebrated was the treatise of Varro, entitled Quaestiones Plautinae. Varro limited the undoubted comedies of the poet to
twenty-one, which were hence called the Fabulae Varronianae. 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 twentyfirst, and which came last in the collection, was torn off from the manuscript in
the Middle Ages. The titles of the twenty-one Varronian plays are:
1. Amphitruo 2. Asinaria 3. Aulularia 4. Captivi 5. Curculio 6. Casina 7. Cistellaria 8. Epidicus 9. Bacchides 10. Mostellaria 11.
Menaechmi 12. Miles 13. Mercator 14. Pseudolus 15. Poenulus 16. Persa 17. Rudens 18. Stichus 19. Trinummus 20. Truculentus 21.
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 (ii. 2, 36), referred to the Epidicus as an earlier
work. 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."
The comedies of Plautus enjoyed unrivalled popularity among the Romans, and continued to be represented down to the time of
Diocletian. The continued popularity of Plautus through so many centuries was owing, in a great measure, to his being a national poet.
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 (Epist. ii. 1.58), Plautus ad exemplar Siculi 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. 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. Cicero (De Off. i. 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 entertained 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, the Mostellaria by Regnard, Addison, and others, the Menaechmi by
Shakespeare in his Comedy of Errors, the Trinummus by Lessing in his Schatz, and so with others. Horace (A. P. 270), indeed, expresses
a less favourable opinion of Plautus; but it must be recollected that the taste of Horace had been formed by a different school of
literature, and that he undervalued the ancient poets of his country. Moreover, it is probable that the censure of Horace does not
refer to the general character of Plautus's poetry, but merely to his inharmonious verses and to some of his jests. Plautus performed
an important work in the enrichment of the Latin language. His genius for coining words was very remarkable, and in after-years the
majority of his new terms were taken into the literary language by Cicero, who gave them the stamp of his authority. In this respect
he stands out as a unique and important figure, and one whose influence has been too little recognized. See Peck's History of the
Latin Language, pt. iii.; Besta, De Verborum Compositione Plaut. (Breslau, 1876); Ulrich, Die Composita bei Plautus (Halle, 1884);
Georke, Vocabula Graeca in Linguam Lat. Recepta (Königsberg, 1868); and Rassow in Jahn's Jahrbücher, Suppl. xv. 589.
The MSS. of Plautus that are of especial importance are the Codex Ambrosianus (A) at Milan (a palimpsest) of the fourth or fifth
century; the Codex Palatinus (B), now at Rome; the Codex Decurtatus (C) at Heidelberg; the Codex Vaticanus or Vetus (D); and the Codex
Britannicus (J) in the British Museum. The last four are of about the eleventh or twelfth century, and represent a single archetype.
No MS. contains all the plays.
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 Bacchides its commencement, etc. Of the present complete editions the best are by Lambinus (Paris, 1576);
Pareus (Frankfort, 1610); Bothe, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1834); Weise, 2 vols. (Quedlinburg, 1837-38; last ed. 1886); Ussing (Copenhagen,
1886); Leo (2 vols. Berlin, 1885-1896); Ritschl (Bonn, 1848-54; revised by Loewe, Goetz, and Schoell, 1894). There is no complete
edition with English notes, but the following of separate plays are good: Wagner's Aulularia (1866); Hallidie's Captivi (1890);
Ramsay's Mostellaria, incomplete (1869); Morris's Mostellaria (1880); Tyrrell's Miles Gloriosus (1885); Gray's Epidicus (1893);
Sloman's Trinummus (1883); Fowler's Menaechmi (1889); Palmer's Amphitruo (1890); Morris's Pseudolus (1894); and Fennell's Stichus
(1893). Foreign editions are those of the Asinaria by Richter (Nuremberg, 1833); of the Captivi, with critical apparatus, by Brix (4th
ed. Leipzig, 1884); of the Curculio by Geppert (Berlin, 1845); of the Casina by Geppert (Berlin, 1866); of the Cistellaria by Benoist
(Lyons, 1863); of the Epidicus by Geppert (Berlin, 1865); of the Bacchides by Ritschl (Halle, 1835); of the Menaechmi by Brix (3d ed.
Leipzig, 1880) and Vahlen (Berlin, 1882); of the Poenulus by Geppert (Berlin, 1864); of the Rudens by Benoist (Paris, 1864); of the
Trinummus by Brix (3d ed. Leipzig, 1879); and of the Truculentus by Spengel and Studemund (Göttingen, 1868). On the Vidularia, which
was lost during the Middle Ages, see Studemund, De Vidularia Plautina (Greifswald, 1870); and Leo, De Vidularia (Berlin, 1892).