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Euripides Greek Tragedy’s Unsung Hero

by September 19, 2019

Euripides Greek TragedyA lone figure, swaddled in rags sits secluded in a dank cave bent over his papyrus. The whittled reed in his hand dips rhythmically into the pot of octopus ink before adding a couple of urgent scratches to the thick page. His bushy, white beard is stained off-centre at the lower-lip, evidence of his habitual pen-chewing; but it is his mind, his mind that is stained far more indelibly. There are images of gods, war, warriors, adultery, incest, exile, blasphemy, damnation, infanticide, patricide, matricide, human-sacrifice, and worst of all, foreigners. These are the ideas, the dark and evil components of Greek tragedy, that this man, this Euripides believes are too… too… stock, too trite, too bedtime-story for the citizens of Athens. He knows that beauty is terror. “Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” (Donna Tartt)
Well… No. I’m afraid not. At least, we’ve no reason to believe that the man who produced, directed and wrote The Bacchae, Hippolytus, Medea, and Electra really was the tortured recluse, the artistic oddball, the Salinger or Kubrick of his day. We like to think this because, instead of merely putting a new spin on traditional Greek myths, he always managed to find an even more shocking way to deliver a tried and trusted tale. He could make heroes devils and devils heroes and all without forcing the audience to break their mental stride.

Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon by
Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

Yes, he may well have lived in a cave on the island of Salamis, but what better place for a writer to escape the distracting hustle and bustle of Athenian city existence?
Likewise, late in life, Euripides left Athens for Macedon in self-imposed exile. Was he frustrated at a theatre-going public who didn’t appreciate him? Or was it, more likely, a lucrative retirement where his talents were rewarded not only with money, but also with praise and status?
Painting of Hippolytus' death

The Death of Hippolytus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912).

After all it was these, praise and status, that seem to have alluded Euripides during his lifetime. Despite being considered by many today as the finest of the three great Athenian playwrights (besting Aeschylus for style and Sophocles for substance), he only won the first prize at the city’s premier dramatic contest, the Great Dionysia, four times during his lifetime and once posthumously.
You may be thinking ‘that’s not so bad – nobody ever won more than four Academy Awards for best director’, but if you compare his record to that of Aeschylus (13 wins) and Sophocles (20+), it seems a paltry return for a man of such insight, intensity and timeless genius.
Aristophanes - bust

Bust of Aristophanes

Don’t think however, that this modest return of gongs equated to a shortage of fame. A contemporary playwright, the comedian Aristophanes, made sure everyone in Athens, even those uninterested in tragedy, knew all about Euripides.
Aristophanes, along with other exponents of Old Comedy, used rumours about Euripides as material to create a comic alter-ego who was not merely joked about, but lampooned directly whilst appearing as a character in several plays.
Common jokes were:
  • That Euripides’ wife was having an affair with his lodger, who also happened to collaborate with Euripides in writing some of his plays.
  • That this cuckolding created in him such bitterness that many of his plays ended up propounding a theme of misogyny.
  • That he was an atheist and blasphemous towards the Greek gods.
  • That he was responsible for making tragedy less lofty e.g. whilst Aeschylus uses kings, gods and heroes as characters, Euripides uses beggars, cripples and the working-classes. And even when portraying kings they are clad in rags and slovenly.
  • That his mother sold cabbages in the agora – an early example of a “yo momma” joke i.e. “yo momma so poor, she sells cabbages in the agora”.
  • That he, like his contemporary Socrates, subverted the moral order of the day.
It is worth remembering that Aristophanes, like all comedians, was more concerned with laughs than with truth. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine that Euripides was from anything other than a high-class family and enjoyed a fine education.
Whether or not his wife was playing away, we do not know for sure, but anybody who closely studies his plays would find it hard to conclude he was a misogynist. In fact, even more than his great rivals, Euripides treats his female characters with great sensitivity and sympathy, as well as portraying them as independent and intelligent.
painting of Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea – as depicted by John William Waterhouse, 1907

Moreover, it is quite likely that Euripides would have actually been in the audience when some of these zingers landed, making the impact of the joke two-fold. First, as the audience appreciated what the actor said, then second, as the audience turned as one to the embarrassed, angry, or perhaps, laughing Euripides – much like President Obama’s roast of Donald Trump at the Whitehouse in 2011.
One area where Aristophanes did not poke fun at Euripides was that of peace and war. The 5th century BC was a time of relentless fighting for Athens and both men used their art as a medium to criticise either politicians or the very nature of war itself. Indeed, it’s possible one reason Euripides was not a man appreciated in his own time was because of his unwillingness to slap a ‘support our troops’ sticker on the front of his programmes.
Illustration of the Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat

Whilst accusations he was a pacifist were perhaps a little wide of the mark, both he, and Aristophanes, stood out as men who used their talents to campaign against the involvement of Athens in expensive, devastating and pointless military campaigns.
Much as Euripides’ attempts to win favour with the public were to no avail, his efforts to influence popular opinion on foreign policy matters were equally fruitless. Two years after his death, Athens fell to the Spartans.
The cradle of democracy never recovered its status as the leading light of Western civilization.
Euripides’ legacy is a theatrical, not a political one. He changed theatre from a vehicle for education and moralizing to one of doubt and introspection. Whilst it is his complexities, his ambiguities and his lack of conformity that brought him up against such resistance in his own time, it is perhaps those same qualities that keep him relevant and endear him to so many today.
“Euripides Greek Tragedy’s Unsung Hero” was written by Ben Potter

Euripides, The Great Greek Tragedian

by November 17, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Euripides’ Early life
Born on Salamis Island in 480 BC to mother Cleito and father Mnesarchus, Euripides’ destiny was foretold in a prophecy given to his father. The Oracle fated that Euripides would one day hold the “crowns of victory”. Mnesarchus did not lose any time insisting that his son take on sports and athleticism, firmly believing that reaching fame in those fields was the boy’s destiny.
In the end, Euripides did crown himself with victories… but far from the track and combat fields.

Bust of Euripides

Euripides’ Career
Euripides led an introverted life and suffered two failed, unfaithful marriages to Melite and Choerine, with the latter bearing him three sons. Eventually he became a recluse and moved to the depths of The Cave of Euripides, a ten-chamber hole in the rock overlooking the Saronic Gulf. He spent most of his days there, collecting books, restless thoughts and writing accounts of his own life, or a perception of it, through his dark heroes and human-like Gods. There he produced notable tragedies such as: Medea, 431 BC, Hippolytus, 428 BC, Electra, c. 420 BC, The Trojan Women, c. 415 BC, and Bacchae, 405 BC.
Euripides was the youngest of the three most famous Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles and himself. Having in mind that they all were pretty much contemporaries, the rivalry, whether direct or perceived as one from the audience, existed then as it does today.
Cave of Euripides

The Cave of Euripides

Critical of Athens
Euripides lived in between two important wars. The first one was where Athens won against Persia at the Battle of Salamis, an important twist in the Greco-Persian wars. The second, which he did not live to see, was the fall of Athens under Sparta, a huge defeat in the Peloponnesian wars.
It is for this reason the works of the three tragedians looked upon Athens so differently. Aeschylus was a hero at the battle of Salamis, Sophocles was old enough to witness it and feel the patriotism as a result of the victory, while Euripides was born on the day of the battle. This timeframe made his views differ widely from his older colleagues.
Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides was a huge critic of Athens’ senseless heists and wars. And because of this, as well as his other views on Athens, Euripides was highly criticized. Ironically, the Spartans who planned the demolition of Athens and the enslavement of its people, grew merciful after being entertained at a banquet by scenes from Euripides’ play Electra. “They felt that it would be a barbarous act to annihilate a city which produced such men”, (Plutarch, Life of Lysander).
Euripides was a contemporary of Socrates, the philosopher sentenced to death for his critical views on Athenian democracy. Euripides was a man whose own perception of Athens was not far from Socrates’ and both of them were viewed as decadent intellectuals. There are some indications that say that Socrates was even one of the co-authors of Euripides’ plays. This explains why Athenians watched Euripides seriously, but never fully accepted his views. Perhaps, it’s no wonder why Euripides exiled himself to Macedonia at the decline of his life.
Painting of the philosopher's death

The death of Socrates

An excerpt from Aristophanes’ The Frogs and Other Plays (translated by David Barret) illustrates this:

“They sit at the feet of Socrates
Till they can’t distinguish the wood from the trees,
And tragedy goes to pot;

They don’t care whether their plays are art
But only whether the words are smart;
They waste our time with quibbles and quarrels,
Destroying our patience as well as our morals,
And making us all talk rot.”

In fact, Euripides became the main fodder for comedians. Euripides, unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, didn’t have any other job. He was a true tragedian, a dark comedian and a critic of society. Being fully aware of the consequences, Euripides chose not to comply, but rather, to continue.
However, Comedy and Tragedy live in symbiosis and without that critical, opportunistic complex, without Aristophanes mocking Euripides, we may have not heard of either of them.
Work and Achievements
Euripides introduced twists into drama, something that influenced tragedy, as well as comedy, for ages to come. He did this while exploring his characters’ feelings, their relationships and acts. He did not constrain himself, which allowed him to make breathtaking twists, teaching people to babble, to think, to see, to understand, to love, to contrive, to suspect all and consider things from every angle. Euripides’ sophistry, atheism, and immoral relativism was considered by Aristophanes as a corruption by the Athenians.
A perfect example of this is Euripides’ treatment of Medea. In some versions, the citizens of Corinth murder the children. In others, Medea accidentally kills her children. Euripides, however, decides to take it two steps further by making the mother purposefully murder her young after poisoning Jason’s new bride. Euripides’ invention of Medea’s filicide went on to become the standard.
painting of Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea – as depicted by John William Waterhouse, 1907

Euripides was a fruitful writer, producing more than 92 plays in his life. He was awarded five first prizes in festivals, while Sophocles won 24, and Aeschylus 13. Still, more of Euripides’ works were preserved than the other two writers combined, proving his posthumous influence.
Euripides became one of the cornerstones of ancient literary education in the Hellenistic period, along with Homer, Demosthenes, and Menander. Eventually, “It was Euripides, not Aeschylus or Sophocles, whose tragic muse presided over the rebirth of tragedy in Renaissance Europe.”
Euripides’ Death
Euripides died at the age of 74 (406 BC) in Macedonia after choosing a life of exile from Athens at the court of King Archelaus of Macedonia. This was never fully confirmed, however, and it is possible that he never visited Macedonia at all.
Nevertheless, we are dedicating our time to the master of twists, so we will add here one dark version of Euripides’ death from the mouths of the oldest Macedonian storytellers (Diodor):

“Euripides died in the following manner. There was a town in Macedonia called the village of the Thracians because Thracians had once settled there. At some point, a female Molossian hound belonging to Archelaus had strayed into the village. This dog the Thracians, as is their custom, sacrificed and ate. Accordingly, Archelaus fined them one talent. Since they did not have the money, they asked Euripides to get them released from their debt to the king.

Sometime later, when Euripides was resting by himself in a grove near the city and Archelaus came out to hunt, his dogs were released by their keepers and fell on Euripides. The poet was torn to shreds and eaten.
These dogs were the descendants of the dog that was killed by the Thracians. This is the origin of the Macedonian proverb, “a dog’s justice”.”
Euripides Greek Tragedy

Bust of Euripides

Euripides’ Legacy
Maybe the best way to summarize his Euripides’ legacy will be by using the words of Bernard MacGregor Walker Knox, an English classicist, author, and critic who was the first director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C., USA:
“He was a problem to his contemporaries and he is one still; over the course of centuries since his plays were first produced he has been hailed or indicted under a bewildering variety of labels.
He has been described as ‘the poet of the Greek enlightenment’ and also as ‘Euripides the irrationalist’; as a religious skeptic if not an atheist, but on the other hand, as a believer in divine providence and the ultimate justice of divine dispensation.
He has been seen as a profound explorer of human psychology and also a rhetorical poet who subordinated consistency of character to verbal effect; as a misogynist and a feminist; as a realist who brought the tragic action down to the level of everyday life and as a romantic poet who chose unusual myths and exotic settings.
He wrote plays which have been widely understood as patriotic pieces supporting Athens’ war against Sparta and others which many have taken as the work of the anti-war dramatist par excellence, even as attacks on Athenian imperialism.
He has been recognized as the precursor of New Comedy and also what Aristotle called him: ‘the most tragic of poets’. And not one of these descriptions is entirely false.”

The Warring Writer: Aeschylus Tragedy

by April 20, 2017

Portrait of AeschylusLet’s say you are considered the “father of tragedy”. Even in your own lifetime, everyone knows you have revolutionized drama and changed the theatre game. Do you think it would be mentioned on your tomb? Surely a throw away reference at least?
But no, not for Aeschylus. The man who wrote between 70 and 90 plays, won 28 competitions and completely altered the face of the stage, says nothing about it in his eulogy. His tomb engraving, which he wrote himself, only talks about his military accomplishments.
Now, why would a man who has gone down in history as a playwright, only describe himself as a soldier? Actually it makes a lot of sense when you consider his life.
Aeschylus was born of a well-to-do family in 525 B.C. He was reared in the town of Eleusis, about 27 kilometers northwest of Athens. But he didn’t start off as a writer at all.
The legend goes like this: the young fellow was working in a vineyard helping ‘guard’ the grapes when he fell asleep. The god Dionynus, patron saint of both wine and drama, visited him in a dream. The bacchus divinity told him to leave his grape picking days behind him: he should inscribe scripts instead. The very next day the lad took a try at the pen and realized immediately that he had a gift.
His first play, produced when he was 26 years old, did not win him much success. It was not long, however, before he was triumphing at all the competitions and beating the likes of Sophocles and Euripides.
But his life wasn’t all wining, winning and writing. There was also a lot of war. His days in ancient Greece saw the major turning point of the Persian war, and he had front row seats. In fact, in 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought in the famous Battle of Marathon. They were defending Athens against Darius I‘s invading Persian army. Though outnumbered, the Greeks won, gaining confidence and perhaps changing western history as we know it. Unfortunately for our fighting brothers, only one made it out alive.
Theatre of Dionysia

Theatre of Dionysia

Returning to his homeland, Aeschylus took inspiration from the theatre of war to the stage of tragedy. Even his tone is said to have barked like a bugle.  It is during this time at home, that he changed drama as we know it. Previously a play consisted of one actor and the chorus which mostly danced around the orator. Aeschylus was the first to write in an additional actor, therefore creating interaction between the characters. His revolutionary approach to the art finally brought him victory at the City Dionysia in 484BC, the first of many.
Portrait of Xerxes 1

Portrait of Xerxes 1

But Aeschylus did not stay the play writing civilian for long. In 480, he was called back into military service, but this time against Xerxes I‘s invading forces at the Battle of Salamis. He left the field with honor, losing part of a limb in the scuffle. This event was a highlight for him nonetheless, as he was renowned and took the actions as fodder for his play, The Persians, which was performed in 472 BC and won first prize at the Dionysia.
Then there was the religious side of Aeschylus. He was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secretive cult based in his hometown which worshipped Demeter, the goddess of hearth and grain. Like many creepy sects, members were sworn to secrecy, under penalty of death.
This, rather than the blood letting wars, was his downfall. Apparently the playwright, who also acted and directed, revealed a few choice mysteries in his play The Eumenides. He was almost stoned to death on stage, but managed to escape to safety to the alter of Dionysus.
He then stood trial for his impiety and pleaded ignorance. He was finally acquitted, due to his heroic military past. Apparently his youngest brother gave him a helping hand by showing the jury Aeschylus’ stump, the result of the battle of Salamis, where he was voted bravest warrior. (Though this last part was not, in fact, true).
However, his unpopularity continued none the less and in 458 BC, he practiced his right of self banishment. He returned to Sicily, where he still had friends and eventually died in 456 or 455 BC. The rumor is he met his end when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head, thinking his baldness was a stone. It is much more likely, however, that he expired due to being the ripe old age of 70.
But before Aeschylus gave up the ghost, he inscribed the following words, reminding everyone of all the things that had made him a hero and purposefully ignoring his then ‘unpopular’ accomplishments:

Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει
μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·
ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι
καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος[20]

Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

The Dramatic Greek, Sophocles: One man’s non-tragic life

by February 5, 2017

Sophocles bust

The good looking fellow himself

Some people have drama follow them wherever they go, while others just write about it. Sophocles, the prolific ancient greek playwright, was definitely the latter.  He enjoyed an ideal existence, all while changing the face of Tragedy and penning some fairly morbid ideas for future psycho-analysts, like Sigmund Freud.
Hailing from just outside Athens, Sophocles’ life was a far cry from the tragic situations that characterized his plays. He was born into a wealthy family, provided with an excellent education and received high positions and enviable accolades throughout his life.  As fortune would have it, he was around to witness the magnificent Greek triumph in the Persian War and was afterwards promoted to a high executive official, commanding the armed forces.  And, if all that wasn’t enough, he was also considered beautiful and graceful!
Nor did he die an untimely death. In fact, Sophocles did not ‘give up the ghost’ until the ripe age of 91, in the year 405 B.C. Apparently everyone knew what a lucky bloke he was, as is evident by this eulogy, found in The Muses:  “Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune.”
So what does this man know about Drama and Tragedy? How could such a fellow pen 123 plays, win 24 major competitions, and conceive of such anguished characters like Oedipus and Antigone without the help of a manic-depressive mother or an alcoholic father?
That we can not answer. All we do know is that he started off imitating the celebrated Aeschylus. Eventually, however, the student overtook the master, dominating the religious festivals and eclipsing Aeschylus’ in fame and fortune. We also can be certain that Sophocles’ works, at least those that have remained (a measly 7 of the original 100+) have, throughout history, influenced a plethora of great minds. Aristotle himself used Sophocles’ Oedipus the King in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) as an example of the highest achievement in tragedy. Not quite praise from Ceasar, but close!
But let us allow the man’s work to speak for itself. We begin by reading one of the most famous, poignant and powerful greek tragedies of all time. Classical Wisdom Weekly Readers are invited to discover “Oedipus Rex” for Free HERE: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/oedipus-the-king/ ‎

Terence: The African Comic

by December 5, 2014

By Ben Potter
Regular readers may recall a recent article on Plautus, a comedic playwright who adapted Attic comedy and presented it to the Roman masses. This week, we will look the life and works of the man who followed him down this path, though leaving his own footprints on the way.
This was none other than Publius Terentius Afer, better known simply as Terence.
Though Terence was a fine artist and innovator in his own right, there is a similarity between he and Plautus that cannot be ignored… both were comedic playwrights who adapted Attic comedy and presented it to the Roman masses.
But despite this shared penchant for pilfering (they called their works fabulae palliatae – ‘dramas in Greek cloaks’), there is much that is dissimilar about the two men; not least their origin, trials and tribulations.
For instance, Plautus was a well-educated Italian, though he did have his fair share of mishaps and setbacks. Terence, meanwhile, is able to boast a story that is not merely rags, but restraints-to-riches.

He does not quite have the claim of being the first slave to become a successful writer (that gong goes to Aesop), but he may have been the first African to make headway in the field.

However, this is little more than a calculated assumption from the fact that his cognomen, Afer, means ‘the African’.

Roman Map
Suetonius, writing some 200 years after the fact, confirms that Terence was born in Carthage. However, he cannot be viewed as a wholly reliable source, even though we have no reason to doubt his sincerity.
Other speculations consider that he could have been Libyan rather than Carthaginian, as the term Afri would not have been used to denote a Carthaginian at this time.
Less popular are the suggestions that he hailed from one of the towns of Magna Grecia, the Greek colonies of Southern Italy and Sicily. This idea, as well as being considerably less romantic, does nothing to account for the ‘Afer’.
Regardless, it is universally accepted that he was brought to Rome in the thrall of the senator Terentius Lucanus, thus accounting for his nomen, ‘Terence’.
The senator ensured Terence received an education, a surprisingly common deed in those days. However, the senator also performed a very atypical act; he granted freedom to Terence, even though he was seen as a valuable piece of property. This was even more exceptional when considering that he was still relatively young. (It was more often done after a lifetime of service, or upon the master’s death).

Freedom was most probably granted here because Terentius was impressed by the young man’s artistic talents and he didn’t want to stand in the way of a potentially glittering career.

And glittering, though brief, it indeed was.

Brief because he died at sea on his way to Greece, either at the tender age of 35, or the positively raw age of 25!
And glittering because Terence is in an elite group of ancient writers who have their entire canon preserved, intact.
The fact that this opus consists of only six plays does not detract from the fact that his work demands considerable respect.
Though it appears respect was precisely what Terrance was hoping to achieve… And we know this because of his innovative use of the prologue.
Unlike Plautus and his Greek forebears, Terence didn’t do anything as crass and vulgar as to give essential contextual information. Indeed, he was a staunch believer in letting the audience work things out for themselves:

“Do not expect the plot of the Play; the old men who come first will disclose it in part; a part in the representation they will make known”

So what was the purpose of a prologue, if not to “lay our scene”? Why, to rebuke one’s critics of course:

“He [Terence] is wasting his labor in writing Prologues, not for the purpose of relating the plot, but to answer the slanders of a malevolent old Poet”.

Terence certainly had a unique approach to the prologue, a trait that differentiates him from Plautus; one, in fact, of many.

Another was Terence’s conversational and realistic dialogue. It is thought that he may have been the man to create the dramatic use of the ellipsis, those little dots that nicely hint at a missing word, such as….
Indeed, his characters are far less prone to wallow in the cunning punning or absolutely arbitrary amounts of alliteration found in Plautus.
This, together with the fact that he was loath to break the fourth wall, has led to Terence being dubbed ‘the father of Sitcom’!

However, if his works were to be considered sitcoms, then they could only be HBO ones. No G rating for this Roman.

While his choice of subject matter is one of the most interesting things about Terence, there are moments when he skirts the boundary of what is now, and perhaps was then, good taste.

The Hecyra
The Hecyra, for example, shows a newly minted marriage thrown into jeopardy when it turns out the bride is pregnant as the result of a rape she suffered before the wedding. But all turns out for the best in the end when it materializes that, unbeknownst to all, the groom was the rapist all along!
Of course, it is difficult to gauge just how much tastes have changed.
It is possible that the plot line was tolerated mainly because the play was set in Greece, a supposedly decadent foreign land in which rape was taken with a pinch of salt. That said, Terence does deal with the topic with greater sensitivity in Eunuchus.
There are also times when he focuses on the dynamics of the father/son relationship, generating a good deal more empathy than in some of his other tales.

Even though it seems his plays were enjoyed by the masses, Terrence was not rightly appreciated as an artist until after his death.

Within 100 years of his premature demise, Terence had become a set text for all Roman schoolboys.

His place on the curriculum was retained throughout European schoolrooms until the nineteenth century, as he was regarded as the perfect conduit through which to study Latin.
In fact, the Catholic church may have done its fair share to keep Terence’s works alive, as it was a necessity to learn Latin for mass and bible study. His plays were often chosen because they were popular and approachable texts… and perhaps a bit more entertaining than endless psalms.
Though, curiously, Terence’s most quoted line:

“homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto” – “I am a man, I regard all that concerns men as concerning me”

….has been misappropriated as a piece of sagacious philosophy. In fact, it was originally put into the mouth of a nosy neighbour looking to justify his own snooping!

Nonetheless, the view of Terence as a fine and noble scholar, one worthy of our attentive consideration, is espoused by that fine man of letters, President John Adams. It is to him that we shall give the last word as to why Terence was, is, and always will be of interest to those with classical or literary interests:
“Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin…His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model”.

Plautus: No Latin Matter

by November 14, 2014

By Ben Potter
It’s been often said that what was good about the Romans came from their cultural forefathers, the Greeks.
Like most (I refrain from saying ‘all’) generalisations, there are grains of both truth and falsehood to this claim.
Whilst there may well be startling similarities between Greek and Roman art, gods, drinking habits, sexual conduct and empire building, these are nothing compared to the parallels between the two cultures’ comedic theatre.
In this respect, the man we turn to in order to sample our very first taste of Roman literature, is the playwright Plautus.
As the world expert in the field, P.G. McC. Brown, put it:

“Latin literature begins with a bang, with a dazzling display of virtuoso verbal fireworks in twenty comedies written by Plautus between about 205 and 184 BC”.

And the fact that he borrowed a plot or two (or 130 according to some sources) does nothing to diminish Plautus’ status as the first and, many say, best exponent of Roman Comedy.
Tito Maccio Plauto
But before we dive headfirst into those literary waters, a quick biographical note (such as posterity enables us to provide).
Plautus hailed from Sarsina in Umbria, near modern day San Marino, and his journey to theatrical greatness is an unusually cyclical one.
The story goes that the young Plautus was originally some sort of stage-hand or set designer whose artistic curiosity eventually encouraged him to try his hand at acting.
After what must have been a moderate success, he’d saved enough money to abandon this disreputable pursuit (actors were not well thought of in Roman society) and invested everything in a maritime business.

As great as he was, Plautus was no entrepreneur. He lost his entire fortune and was reduced to working as a mill-hand by day and studying Greek comedy by night.

While this life of relative poverty and menial employment would suggest Plautus did not have a privileged upbringing, the very fact that he was extremely literate in both Latin and Greek means that this is no rags-to-riches story. To prove this point further, he was very knowledgeable of both nations’ politics and history, well-versed in poetry, and extensively well-read.

Even so, Plautus’ studious approach to the Greek practitioners of his art meant his knowledge bordered on the comprehensive, rather than merely the extensive.
Interestingly, his playwright of choice was not the master of Old Comedy, Aristophanes, but a figure who dominated New (Greek) Comedy… Menander (342-290 BC).
Menander’s brand of humour was much less fierce and acerbic than that of Aristophanes. While it was obvious he did engage in political satire and playful bawdiness, he never quite touched the subversive or perverse extremes that Aristophanes regularly reached.
He also liked to pepper his works with easily digestible, homespun maxims which must have made him one of the more easily quotable artists of the age.
These examples give us a flavour:

“Evil communications corrupt good manners”

“Whom the gods love die young”
“The property of friends is common”

Perhaps it was for this reason that Plautus chose Menander as his main influence rather than Aristophanes. Or maybe it was because Menander was closer in time than the Old Greek Comic… or that they were the only books Plautus could get his hands on.

Whatever the reason, the great Greek (and his contemporaries) had more than a little ‘influence’ on the Latin scribe.

Not that plot pilfering was either looked down upon or kept a secret.

In fact, in several of Plautus’ prologues he openly provides the original Greek title and author of the plays he has translated. While this was not always the case, we can safely assume that his intentions were not deceitful in this respect.

So blatant was this that originally it had been assumed by many that Plautus was much more a linguist than a true poet. But in 1968, the discovery of Menander’s original play, Dis Exapaton (The Double Deceiver), shed light on Plautus’ methods. It was from this script that his Bacchides (the Bacchis Sisters) was adapted.
Though the broad plot and sequencing are much the same, Plautus cuts a couple of scenes, changes the order of others and tweaks the stage directions here and there.
He also adds and cuts jokes as he sees fit, inserts or enhances puns (his favoured method of comic delivery) and changes the characters’ names.
Greek Theatre
This was about all that was required of Plautus in terms of characterisation, as both New Greek Comedy and Roman Comedy almost entirely relied on stock characters, e.g. the love-struck young man, his miserly father, the wily, manipulative slave, and the appetitive parasite to name but a few.

One thing Plautus did not do, surprisingly for us perhaps, is change the setting of the play from Athens to Rome.

While the Greek setting of Plautus’ plays is fascinatingly paradoxical for us, it would have been seen as mundane to the average Roman. This is because Plautus didn’t actually write ‘comedies’, he wrote fabulae palliatae (dramas in a Greek cloak).

This framework allowed for much artistic and comedic license on the part of the writer, as Roman in-jokes could be used in an abstract setting for comic effect. Indeed, the fact that ‘going Greek’ was a stock phrase to denote debauchery and excess tells its own story.
Robin hood
A modern parallel could be something like Blazing Saddles or Robin Hood: Men in Tights, as these movies tell us more about contemporary America than their respective historical periods.
Similarly, Plautus’ work is full of risqué and compromising situations, along with slapstick and a penchant for randomly inserting a musical number. However, as a poet and an artist, Plautus clearly had a lot more to offer than the impressively endless gag-reel for which he is famed.
His loftier side shines through in his cantica. These highly stylised and impressive arias seem almost capriciously inserted (often early in a play) and presumably serve the dual purpose of captivating the audience’s attention and showing off the true skill of the writer.

Indeed, Plautus’ contemporary legacy was an impressive one; his plays were still being performed in Rome up until the time of Horace (65-8 BC).

He was also popular in Renaissance Italy, especially after 1429 when 12 of his plays, presumed lost forever, were unearthed in Germany.

That said, his stock plummeted dramatically from the 17th century onwards.

It would not be hard to imagine that this was true in England because he was, well, replaced. It was during this period that Shakespeare did to Plautus what Plautus had previously done to Menander.
In the end, there is no better summary of Plautus the comedian than what given to him as an epitaph. Unlike many a great man, he was fortunate enough to have his immortal legacy suitably reflect the scope and splendour of his art:

Postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, Comoedia luget,
Scaena est deserta, dein Risus, Ludus locusque
Et Numeri innumeri simul omnes conlacrimarunt

Plautus is dead, and on the empty stage
Sad comedy doth lie
Weeping the brightest star of all our age
While artless Melody
And Jest and Mirth and Merriment forlorn
Their poet mourn