Illustrated manuscript of Terence's comedies

In Focus: Cosmopolitanism on stage: how classical Latin literature formed our comic identity

The blog series ‘In Focus‘ is conceived as a way to show the scope and diversity of the RELICS research group. Each month one of us will reflect on a current or recently finished project, and how it connects to the aims and vision of RELICS. Through this, by drawing from our own personal experience, we want to show in which ways Latin cosmopolitanism came to the fore from antiquity until modern times.

by Chrysanthi Demetriou (Open University of Cyprus)

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

W. Shakespeare, As you like it II.vii

My first contact with a comedy written in Latin was a nightmare: I was a third-year undergraduate and had to read Plautus’ Curculio. My excitement of studying a less ‘serious’ text – and not another rhetorical, historiographical, philosophical Latin masterpiece – disappeared after a few pages: Where is the comic element?  Am I supposed to laugh at this? My questions – and horror – were intensified a few weeks later when I came across Terence’s Adelphoe: Is that a comedy? Really? Shouldn’t it be called a family drama instead? To cut it short, it took me several years of studying Roman comedy and delving into its inner features and characteristics in order to understand its comic value and trace all those elements that determine the way we laugh. Reading more and more texts, while at the same time searching for their ‘comic’ elements, revealed to me that this genre possesses several characteristics which are not devoid of entertaining situations. Set in ordinary cities and featuring ‘normal’, middle-class characters, Roman comedies were ideal for discussing and even satirizing – in their uniquely funny way – everyday situations: love stories between rich boys and poor (or orphan) girls, situations of misunderstandings and mistaken identity, or even circumstances that violate social norms and balances, such as old men acting like teenagers or uneducated slaves making fool of their rich masters. It is precisely this universal character, away from heavily political and local plots, that made classical Roman comedy so popular over the centuries, still finding parallels in our recent – or even contemporary – comic experiences from theatrical and cinematic plays based on stock characters, repetition, and recurring plot lines.

Theatre mask in pentelic marble of the "ruler slave".
Theatre Mask. Pentelic marble. Found near the Dipylon Gate, Athens. Type of the “ruler slave”, the first slave, of New Comedy. 2nd century BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens, inv. no. 3373. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

This universal nature of Roman comedy is, more interestingly, firmly related to a central characteristic of Latin literature: its cosmopolitanism. Latin literary comedy written in the Middle Roman Republic is cosmopolitan by nature. Based on Greek models of the Hellenistic period, nowadays mainly represented by Menander, it features an imagined setting in which all protagonists are Greek but speak Latin. Interestingly, Roman comedy, the comedia palliata, gets its name from its characters’ Greek dress (!). However, at that time, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, when Latin playwrights composed their works, no one could imagine that this was the language that a few centuries later would become Europe’s lingua franca. As a result, Roman comedy’s cosmopolitan character would become even greater. Although this genre, in the form we know from its two main surviving representatives, Plautus and Terence, gradually disappears from the stage towards the late Republic and during the imperial period, its presence in European culture is anything but insignificant. Terence’s comedies dominated the Latin schools’ curricula for centuries. In the first century AD, the famous rhetorician Quintilian, author of the most important treatise on rhetorical education, informs us that comedies were essential for the students’ practice in proper delivery and their training to become successful public orators. A few centuries later, Christian authors waver between their classical education and Christian ethos; in a famous passage from the Confessiones, Augustine regrets reading Terence’s Eunuchus, a comedy featuring a young man raping a girl. Yet, despite objections and concerns, classical Roman comedy, especially Terence, remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and it was read both at schools and monasteries. Terentian elements, evoking the long comic tradition that goes back to Greek New Comedy, are found in several hagiographical works, from vitae to dramas. It was even often performed in the framework of schools’ dramatic festivals, even though, as the case of Westminster School in England suggests, some plays are often adjusted or deprived of their ‘disturbing’ scenes. However, even when classical Latin comedies are replaced by other, more ‘appropriate’ plays written especially for a school setting, their influence is still overwhelming: the replacement texts are heavily influenced by their classical archetypes.

A 9th-century illustrated manuscript of Terence’s comedies, now in the Vatican Library (Vat. lat. 3868 (4v/5r), in the Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons)

What is more, the journey of classical Latin comedies does not end in school settings. Plautine manuscripts reappear during the Renaissance, when Plautus enters the spotlight once again. Leading figures of European dramatic production are huge admirers of Plautus and Terence, perhaps not only through their schooling experience but also in line with their personal, professional interests as ‘men of the theatre’ who knew well how to please an audience. There has been a long scholarly discussion on the extent and all the different ways Shakespeare was influenced by the tradition of Roman Comedy. A well-known case-study is his Comedy of Errors, a play featuring two couples of twin identical brothers who end up in the same place and the ignorance of each one’s real identity causes several amusing misunderstandings. This is of course a familiar type of comedy and the title of Shakespeare’s classic ended up as a technical term to indicate comic plays whose plot is based on mistaken identity. Behind this comedy, however, lies a classical Latin prototype: Plautus’ Menaechmi, the only Plautine play featuring identical twins, whose adventures are also based on all those misunderstandings their misleading appearance generates. In fact, Plautus seems especially fond of pairs of similar appearance who cause entertaining confusions to all characters encountering them. His Amphitruo presents the story of the ‘duplication’ of the eponymous character by Jupiter, whose purpose is to deceive Amphitruo’s wife and sleep with her. Although the result of this enormous intrigue is the birth of a great hero, Hercules, the happy ending comes only after several quarrels and confusions that almost drive the protagonists to madness. Moliere’s Amphitryon is a remarkable tribute to Plautus’ masterpiece: as in Plautus, it is not only Amphitruo that is duplicated; his slave Sosia is also duplicated by Mercury, Jupiter’s cunning helper. The immense success of the play is still reflected in French culture: the word sosie is used to indicate the ‘double’ or ‘doppelgänger’ in French, like σωσίας [sosías] is used to denote the same thing in Modern Greek.

The list of playwrights and authors that produced works influenced by the Latin comic tradition is immense and endless. A more recent moment in theatrical history that deserves mention is the box-office success A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a musical that first appeared on Broadway in the 1960s and continued to be played, both on stage and on scene up until quite recently (the last production seems to have been in 2015). Inspired by key plays by Plautus, the musical features the story of a clever slave, Pseudolus – after the homonymous Plautine seminal trickster – who pursues his freedom through cunning tricks, including disguise deceptions, a favourite Plautine motif.

To bring this post to an end, let me go back to its beginning: What is comedy and how do we achieve the audience’s entertainment? Whatever our tastes, experiences and preferences, one thing remains out of question: Latin literary comic production, reflecting a long Greek trend of the Hellenistic period, a time that marked an end to the supremacy of Athenian democracy and served as a stepping stone to the subsequent emergence of Roman power and imperial constitution, determined the way we have been defining key elements of what is ‘comic’ and ‘funny’. As a result, throughout European literary production, comedy is not only related to slapstick scenes, but also to moments of reflection and social commentary. Accordingly, Terence has not only left ‘disturbing’ scenes for us to laugh at, but also a long discussion on moral issues and characterization; the stock character of the ‘good prostitute’, so heavily discussed in Terentian scholarship, is certainly another familiar motif we still encounter in romantic comic productions. Similarly, we still entertain ourselves with stock, expected situations like those found in Roman comedies (i.e., predictable happy endings that lead to the re-unification of a lovely couple); thus, our laughter is often based not on surprise but on the satisfaction of guessing what happens next. In this context, the survival of Roman comedy points to a central – yet often forgotten – aspect of Latin cosmopolitanism: Latin literature did not only form our literary culture; it also taught us how to achieve entertainment.

Further reading

  • Augoustakis, Antony and Trail, Ariana (eds.), A Companion to Terence. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. [includes articles on reception]
  • Brown, Peter G. McC. “The Eunuch Castrated: Bowdlerization in the Text of the Westminster Latin Play.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 15, no. 1 (2008): 16-28.
  • Chrysanthi Demetriou, “Controversial Topics in Literature and Education: Hrotswitha and Donatus on Terence’s Rapes,” Journal of Latin Cosmopolitanism and European Literatures 3 (2020): 2–22.
  • Dinter, Martin T. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Roman Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. [includes chapters on reception]
  • Dutsch, Dorota and Franko, George F. (eds.), A Companion to Plautus. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2020. [includes chapters on reception]
  • Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare and Classical Comedy. The Influence of Plautus and Terence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
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