Why does the slave win? Plautus's Epidicus on the Roman Stage

Our books Nov 30, 2021

By Dr Catherine Tracy

Most of the literary sources that have survived from ancient Rome were written by wealthy men, for other wealthy men to read. They survived because they appealed to people wealthy enough to own or hire skilled copying slaves. These elite literary sources are certainly fascinating to read, but it makes a nice change when we can read literature that was written for a wider audience. The comic plays of Plautus were popular with all levels of Roman society during the mid Roman republic (late 3rd to early 2nd centuries BCE). While men from the top of the economic scale paid for their production, the plays needed to appeal to a mixed audience that included women, slaves, former slaves, and people from all economic classes. Reading the plays of Plautus allows us, therefore, to peek into the fantasies of ordinary Romans, and we get to see what made them laugh.

Comedy is tricky to use as a source for social history, because we can't always be sure if something in the play was put in because it was supposed to be ludicrously unrealistic, or because it was merely a funny take on a normal aspect of Roman life. Furthermore, although the comedies of Plautus were written for an Italian audience, they were supposed to be set in the Greek world (comic drama played in Greek costume, or fabula palliata, was a specific genre much in demand at the time). This means that it is necessary to contextualize Plautus's plays within what we know about the Roman republic from other sources; hence my book Epidicus by Plautus: An Annotated Latin Text, with a Prose Translation.

The book includes a colloquial English translation of Plautus's play Epidicus with numerous footnotes to explain the jokes and social history references, an annotated Latin text of the play for those who want to read the original but whose Latin may be somewhat elementary (all but the most basic vocabulary is given on each page below the text, along with grammar help), and an introduction that explains Roman family structures, the impact of slavery on both individuals and Roman society as a whole, how women of various classes were expected to behave, and what going to the theatre would have been like in ancient Rome. It also includes useful information on meter, and on unusual Latin forms, for Latin instructors who want to use the book to guide their students through the Latin text.

Plautus's Epidicus was adapted from the sort of clichéd love story that had entertained Greek audiences a hundred years before, but Plautus was not sentimental, and so his play is actually about the title character, Epidicus: a slave who outwits his master, his master's friend, and his master's son so successfully that the play concludes with the slave winning his freedom. The characters in Plautus's plays are all stock characters; just as modern TV shows might depict the Bumbling Dad, the Beautiful Airhead, or the Precocious Child, Plautus's audience could expect to be entertained by a Young Man in Love, a Sleazy Pimp, a Boastful Soldier, a Stern Father, and other such tropes. The Clever Slave was Plautus's favourite stock character, and Epidicus is one the most successful of Plautus's Clever Slaves.

Modern readers will enjoy the seeing the underdog Epidicus – a slave who is repeatedly threatened with severe punishment unless he achieves the impossible – juggle multiple lies and then magnificently weave the various far-fetched plot threads into a satisfying conclusion. Knowing that this story of a slave “who won his freedom thanks to his bad behaviour” (as the penultimate line of the play tells us) also entertained ancient Roman audiences, however, complicates what we might think we know about Roman slavery. Why would an audience that accepted slavery as normal, an audience the majority of which probably owned at least one slave, rejoice at a slave cheating his way to freedom? Why would the same audience that presumably laughed at the jokes about rapacious sex workers preying on hapless men (lines 213-235) look forward to the rescue of a young woman just before she would be forced into sex slavery? If Plautus's plays had undermined the status quo in any serious way, no magistrate would have permitted them on the Roman stage. We can't, therefore, assume that the play's appeal related to a secret abolitionist agenda held by the Roman audience. Romans viewed slavery as a misfortune for the individuals who had to endure it, but no one thought slavery should be outlawed. Modern readers will find, in the play, a world in which horrifying injustice could form the backdrop for a lighthearted comedy in which no one really suffers unless they are supposed to deserve it.

One of the reasons I find the study of ancient Rome so fascinating is because of its similarities to our modern world. When reading this play, we should think about the popular comedies of today, and how we manage to laugh at jokes that sit on top of, but do not in any way undermine, the systemic injustices of our modern societies.

Epidicus by Plautus: An Annotated Latin Text, with a Prose Translation by Dr Catherine Tracy is an Open Access title available to read and download for free on the link below.

Epidicus by Plautus: An Annotated Latin Text, with a Prose Translation
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