Plautus and Terence/Chapter 2

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Menander was born at Athens, B.C. 342, of a family in which dramatic talent was in some degree hereditary, for his uncle Alexis had written comedies of some repute. It would appear that the faculties which make the successful comic writer commonly develop themselves at an early age; for Menander, like his predecessor Aristophanes, won his first prize for comedy when he had barely reached manhood: and the same may be remarked as to the early and rapid success of some of our modern humorists.[1] But this youthful triumph was not followed, as might have been expected, by many such victories. He wrote more than a hundred comedies, and he only won the crown eight times. He was beaten in the contest, again and again, by his elder rival Philemon. Of this writer's plays nothing but the merest fragments remain to us, and we are thus unable to form any opinion as to the justice of the popular verdict. But critics who probably had the means of comparing the performances of both authors, do not hesitate to impute this preference of Philemon to Menander by the contemporary public to other causes than the comparative merits of the rivals. Quintilian goes so far as to say that the wonderful genius of Menander robbed all his contemporary dramatists of what might have been their reputation, and that "the blaze of his glory threw their merits into the shade."

The honours which were refused to the poet by his fellow-citizens were liberally offered him by powerful patrons elsewhere. Demetrius "Poliorcetes" both protected him when he occupied Athens and invited him to his court when he had seated himself upon the throne of Macedonia: and Ptolemy Lagus, when he founded his celebrated library at Alexandria, would gladly have imported the living dramatist as well as the manuscripts of his predecessors' works. Menander refused the invitation, though the king offered him "all the money in the world;" but whether it was, as he declared, because he could not tear himself from a certain fair lady at Athens, or because he found that the invitation had been extended to his rival Philemon, may not be so certain.

But it is said that the injustice of his fellow-citizens broke the poet's heart. In his bitter mortification at one undeserved defeat (so goes the story) he threw himself into the sea off the wall at the Piræus, and was drowned, while yet in the fulness of his powers—not much over fifty years of age. The authority is suspicious, and the act is very little in accordance with the philosophy of Menander, as we gather it from the remains of his plays. A contemporary and probably a personal friend of Epicurus (they were born in the same year), he seems to have adopted heartily the easy-going optimism of that much-abused teacher. To take human life as it was; to enjoy its pleasures, and to bear its evils cheerfully, as unavoidable: not to expect too much from others, as knowing one's own infirmities; to remember that life is short, and therefore to make the most of it and the best of it, not to waste it in vain regrets;—this is the philosophy of Menander's comedies, which on these points are occasionally only too didactic. The whole secret of it lies, he says, in three words—"Thou art man."

"The sum of all philosophy is this—
Thou art a man; than whom there breathes no creature
More liable to sudden rise and fall."[2]

This is the principle on which, by the mouth of his various characters, he is continually excusing human weaknesses, and protesting against the unreasonableness of mortal regrets and expectations:—

"Being a mortal, ask not of the gods
Escape from suffering; ask but to endure;
For if thou seekest to be ever free
From pain and evil, then thou seekest this,—
To be a god, or die."[3]

One does not wonder that Horace, when he shut himself up in his country villa in December, to escape from the noisy riot of the Saturnalia at Rome, took with him into his retirement a copy of Menander as well as of Plato. No doubt he read and appreciated the philosopher; and the manuscript looked well upon his table when his friends called. But we may be sure that the dramatist was his favourite companion. In him Horace found a thoroughly congenial spirit; and we shall probably never know how far he was indebted to him for his turn of thought.

Menander's private habits seem to have been too much those of an Epicurean in the lower sense of the term; and if Phædrus is to be trusted in the sketch which he gives of him in a couple of lines, he had a good deal of the foppishness not uncommon to popular authors. Phædrus describes him as "scented with delicate perfumes, wearing the fashionable flowing dress, and walking with an air of languor and affectation."[4]

It is possible, indeed, that the philosophic and didactic character of Menander's comedies may have been one reason why they failed so often to win popular applause. Horace himself must have been the poet of the court, and of what we call "Society," rather than of the million. The comedy of manners, which deals with the problems of domestic life—and such is the comedy of Menander—had not so strong an attraction for the multitude as the uproarious farce which formed so large an ingredient of the Old Comedy. So far as we can judge from the mere disjointed fragments which alone have survived, there was very little of broad fun or of comic situations in the plays of Menander. It was in the finer delineation of character, as is admitted by all his critics, that he most excelled. He had studied carefully, and reproduced successfully, the various phases of that human nature which was the Alpha and Omega in his philosophy. The saying of the wise man of old—"Know thyself"—was a very insufficient lesson, he considered, for the dramatist.

"It was not, after all, so wisely said,
That precept—'Know thyself;' I reckon it
Of more advantage to know other men."[5]

How real the characters in his dramas appeared to those who had the best means of judging may be gathered from the terse epigram ascribed to the grammarian Aristophanes, the librarian of Alexandria, who lived about a century after him:—

"O Life, and O Menander! speak, and say
Which copied which? or nature, or the play?"

There certainly does not seem to have been that variety in the characters introduced which we expect and find in the modern drama. But life itself had not then the variety of interest which it has now: and the sameness of type which we observe in the persons of the drama probably existed also in society. It must be remembered also that, owing to the immense size of the theatres, every performer wore a mask in which the features were exaggerated, just as he wore buskins which increased his stature, in order to make his face and figure distinctly visible to the distant rows of the audience. These masks necessarily presented one fixed expression of features; they could not possibly be made to display the variable shades of emotion which a real comedian knows how to throw into his face; nor could the actor, if he was to preserve his identity for the audience, change his mask together with his mood from scene to scene. This difficulty would naturally limit the dramatic author's sphere of invention: he would feel that he had to confine himself to certain recognised generalities of character, such as the mask-moulder could contrive more or less to represent, and that the finer shades of distinction which, in spite of so much that is identical, distinguish man from man, must be left for the descriptive poet, and were outside of the province of the author who worked for the stage. The cold severity of Greek tragedy did not suffer much from this limitation of the actor's resources: the level and stately declamation of the text might be accomplished perhaps as well with a mask (which was even said to increase the volume of sound) as without it. So also, in the Old Comedy of Aristophanes and his contemporaries, the exaggerated style of their humour found apt expression in the broad grotesque which the mask-maker and property-man supplied,—just as they do now in our burlesques and extravaganzas. The delicate play of features and expression which are so essential to the due impersonation of some of the most original characters in our modern drama was plainly impossible to an actor who wore a mask: one might as reasonably look for it from a company of Marionettes. The manufacturer of masks for the ancient comic drama worked according to fixed rules, which were perfectly well understood both by the performers and by the audience. There was a tolerably large repertory of these contrivances always at the disposal of the stage-manager: but each mask had its own specific character; its features were so moulded as to be typical of a class. We are told with great particularity that about the period during which these comedies were placed upon the stage, there were nine different characters of masks representing old men, ten for younger characters, and seven for slaves. For the women, three varieties were considered enough for the older personages, the matrons and nurses of the scene. The young ladies, as was their due, were better provided for; no less than fourteen varieties of face were kept in stock for them. And the mask, in their case—unlike some masks which are still worn on the stage of real life—was made not to conceal but to indicate the character of the wearer, and even her age. There was to be found, in the theatrical wardrobe, the face and head-dress, all in one, which denoted "the talkative young woman," and the "modest young woman;" the one who was still fairly on her promotion, and the one who was past her prime; there was a special mask for the young lady "with the hair," and one still more peculiar, the "lamp" head-dress, as it was called, for the young lady whose hair stood upright like a lamp. There was the head-dress "with the gold band," and that with "the band of many colours;" and, if we did not know that in the classical comedy, as on our own stage in former times, even the female parts were taken by men, we might have fancied that there was some jealous rivalry as to the right to wear these latter distinguished costumes. The advantage of the system, if any, was this: that the moment the performer appeared upon the scene, the audience had the key to the character.[6]

The range of characters which were available for the purposes of the dramatist was limited again by the nature of the scenic arrangements. By long theatrical tradition, intelligible enough amongst a people who led essentially an outdoor life, and where the theatre itself was, up to a comparatively late period, open to the sky, all the action of these dramas was supposed to take place in the open air. In the comedies which we are now considering, the scene is commonly a public street,—or rather, probably, a sort of "place" or square in which three or four streets met, so that there was (as has been more than once attempted on the modern stage) a virtual separation of it into distinct parts, very convenient in many ways for carrying on the action of the piece. A party coming down one street towards the centre of the stage could hold a separate conversation, and be quite out of the sight of another party in the other street, while both were equally visible and audible to the spectators. This will help to explain the stage directions in more than one scene in the comedies of Plautus and Terence. But this limitation of the locality of the scene limited also the range of characters. These were usually supposed to be residents in the neighbourhood, and occupants of some of the houses in the street. Practically, they will be very often found to be members of two neighbouring families, more or less closely connected, whose houses occupied what we should now call the right and left wings of the stage. Occasionally (as in the 'Aulularia' and 'Mostellaria' of Plautus) the scene changes to the inside of one of the houses, or a temple which stands close by; but such scenes are quite exceptional, and in those cases some kind of stage chamber appears to have been swung round by machinery to the front.

For these reasons, perhaps, as well as for others, the principal characters in the repertory of the "New" Comedy are few, and broadly marked. They seem to have occurred over and over again with but little variation in almost every piece. There are the fathers, heads of families, well-to-do burghers, occupying their house in the city, and commonly having a farm in the adjacent country besides, but seldom appearing to have any other particular occupation. Their character is almost always one of two recognised types,—either stern and niggardly, in which case they are duly cheated and baffled by their spend-thrift sons and their accomplices: or mild and easy, when they go through the process of having their purses squeezed with less resistance and less suffering. There is the respectable mother of the family, who is sometimes the terror of her husband and sometimes tyrannised over by him. One or two sons, and sometimes a daughter—to which number the household of comedy seems limited—make up the family group. The sons are young men about town, having apparently nothing to do but to amuse themselves, a pursuit which they do not always follow after the most reputable fashion. Then there are the slaves, on whom depends in very great measure the action of the piece. It is very remarkable how in Greek comedy, and in the Roman adaptations from it, this class supplies not only the broadly comic element, but the wit of the dialogue, and the fertility of expedient which makes the interest of the drama. They are not brought upon the stage merely to amuse us by their successful roguery, or by its detection and consequent punishment, by their propensity to gormandise and their drunken antics,—this kind of "low comedy business" is what we might naturally expect of them. But in witty repartee, and often in practical wisdom, they are represented as far superior to their masters. And this ability of character is quite recognised by the masters themselves. They are intrusted, like Parmeno in the 'Eunuchus' of Terence, with the care of the sons of the house, even at that difficult age when they are growing up to manhood, during the father's absence abroad: or like his namesake in the 'Plocium' of Menander, and Geta in the 'Two Brothers' of Terence, they are the trusted friend and mainstay of a struggling family. It is by no means easy to explain satisfactorily this anomalous position. The slave no doubt in many cases, owing the loss of his personal liberty to the fortunes of war, being either a captive or a captive's child, might, although a foreigner, be of as good birth and hereditary intellect as his master. In many households he would go to the same school, and enjoy the same training in many ways as the young heir of the family: he would be taught many accomplishments, because the more accomplished he was, the more valuable a chattel he became. But was it also that these Athenian citizens, from whom Menander drew, held themselves somewhat above the common practical business of life—in short, like the Easterns in the matter of dancing, considered that they "paid some one else to do their thinking for them" in such matters? The witty slave occupied a position in those households somewhat akin to the king's jester in late times—allowed to use a freedom which would not have been suffered from those of higher rank, but limited always by the risk of condign personal chastisement if he ventured too far. The household slave was certainly admitted to most of his master's secrets; admitted, it must be remembered, almost of necessity, as many of our own modern servants are—a condition of things which we are all too apt to forget. He might at any moment by his ability and fidelity win, as so many did, his personal freedom, and became from that moment his master's friend; not, indeed, upon terms of perfect equality, but on a much nearer level than we in these days should be willing to allow. No stronger instance of this need be sought than that of Cicero's freedman Tiro, between whom and his master we find existing an affection almost fraternal. The slave who had gained his freedom might rise—for it was Terence's own case—to be a successful dramatist himself, and to sit down at table with such men as Scipio and Lælius. The anomaly is that a man who stood in such confidential relations to his master, and with such possibilities in his future, should feel himself every moment liable, at that master's slightest caprice, to the stocks and the whip. But it is an anomaly inherent to the institution of slavery itself; and no worse examples of it need be sought than are to be found in the annals of modern slave plantations.

In the few fragments of Menander which remain to us we find the poet adopting, as to the slave's position, a much higher tone than we might have expected, and which is very remarkable in a writer who would certainly never have dreamed of the abolition of a system which must have appeared to him a necessity of civilisation. It is a tone, be it said, which we do not find in his Roman imitators, Plautus or Terence. He plainly feels slavery to be an evil—a degradation to the nature of man. His remedy is a lofty one—freedom of soul:—

"Live as a free man—and it makes thee free."[7]

The young men are, as has been said, usually very much of the same type, and that not a very high one: hot-blooded and impulsive, with plenty of selfish good-nature, and in some cases a capacity for strong and disinterested friendship. We have too little opportunity of judging what Menander made of them; but in Terence they have commonly the redeeming point of a strong affection for their parents underlying all their faults, though it does not prevent them from intriguing with their slaves to cheat them in order to the gratification of their own passions or extravagance. Yet their genuine repentance when detected, and the docility with which they usually accept their father's arrangements for them in the matter of a wife are a remarkable proof of the strength of the paternal influence. The daughter of the family may be said (in quite a literal sense) to have no character at all. She is brought up in something stricter than even what Dryden calls "the old Elizabeth way, which was for maids to be seen and not heard;" for she is never seen or heard, though we are always led to believe that she is an irreproachable young lady, possessing a due amount of personal charms, and with a comfortable dowry; which combined attractions are quite sufficient to make one of the young gentlemen happy—sometimes at very short notice—in the last scene of the play. But it was not etiquette for an unmarried woman at Athens to make her appearance in the public streets—and in the streets, for the reasons already given, the action of the piece invariably takes place. Of some of the ladies who do appear on the stage the same remark as to character (in a different sense) might be made; and if something less were seen and heard of them, it might be better.

This entire absence of what we should call love-scenes, places these dramas at an enormous disadvantage before the modern reader. Yet in one direction, a great approach to modern ways of thought had been made in this New Athenian Comedy. Love, with the dramatists of this school, is no longer the mere animal passion of some of the older poets, nor yet that fatal and irresistible influence which we see overpowering mind and reason in the Medea of Euripides, or in the Dido of Virgil. It has become, in Menander and his followers, much more like the love of modern romance. It is a genuine mutual affection between the sexes, not always well regulated, but often full of tenderness, and capable of great constancy. Still, the modern romance is not there. It was very well for ancient critics to say that Menander was emphatically a writer of love-dramas—that there was no play of his which had not a love-story in the plot: and it is true, if we may judge from the Latin adaptations, that his comedies usually ended in marriage. But a marriage with a bride whom the audience have never been allowed to see, and for whose charms they must take the bride-groom's word, has not a very vivid interest for them. The contrivances by which, in order to suit what were then considered the proprieties, the fair object is kept carefully out of sight while the interest in her fortunes is still kept up, will seem to an English reader a striking instance of misplaced ingenuity.

If, however, in these comedies of ancient domestic life we miss that romance of feeling which forms so important an element—if it may not rather be said to be of the very essence—of the modern drama, we escape altogether from one style of plot which was not only the reproach of our old English comedy-writers, but is still too common a resource with modern writers of fiction, romantic or dramatic. The sanctities of married life are not tampered with to create a morbid interest for audience or reader. The husband may sometimes be a domestic tyrant, or his wife a scold, and their matrimonial wrangles are not unfrequently produced for the amusement of the audience; but there is little hint of any business for the divorce court. The morality of these comedies is lax in many respects, chiefly because the whole law of morality was lower on those points (at least in theory) in the pagan world than it is in the Christian: but the tie of fidelity between husband and wife is fully recognised and regarded. In this respect some advance had been made, at least so far as popular comedy was concerned, since the time of Aristophanes. His whole tone on such points is cynical and sneering; and when he lashes as he does with such out-spoken severity the vices of the sex, it seems to be without any consciousness of their bearing upon domestic happiness. The wife, in his days at least, was not the companion of her husband, but a property to be kept as safe as might be, and their real lives lay apart. Some considerable change must have taken place in these relations at the time when Menander wrote, if we may judge from scattered expressions in his lost comedies. He is not, upon the whole, complimentary to marriage, and he makes capital enough out of its risks and annoyances; he does not think (or perhaps professes not to think) that good wives are common.

"Needs must that in a wife we gain an evil,—
Happy is he who therein gains the least."[8]

But, if a really good wife can be found, he admits with the wise Hebrew king that "her price is above rubies." Verses like the following, salvage from the wreck of his plays, passed into proverbs:—

"A virtuous woman is a man's salvation."
"A good wife is the rudder of the house."

He is honest enough, too, to lay the fault of ill-assorted marriages at the door of those who have to choose in such a matter, as much as of those who are chosen; in this, as in other things, he recognises a certain law of supply and demand.

"What boots it to be curious as to lineage—
Who was her grandfather, and her mother's mother—
Which matters nought? while, for the bride herself,
Her whom we have to live with,—what she is,
In mind and temper, this we never ask.
They bring the dowry out, and count it down,
Look if the gold be good, of right assay,—
The gold, which some few months shall see the end of;
While she who at our hearth must sit through life,
We make no trial of, put to no proof,
Before we take her, but trust all to chance."[9]

The gibes which he launches against women seem to have been not more than half in earnest. He probably borrowed the tone from Euripides, of whom he was a great admirer, and whose influence may be pretty clearly traced in the style and sentiment of his comedies.

We usually find, then, the chief parts in the comedy filled by the members of one or two neighbouring families. Of the other characters who are introduced, two of the most common, and therefore, we must suppose, the most popular, are the Braggadocio and the Parasite. The former is usually a soldier of fortune who has served in the partisan wars in Asia, under some of those who were disputing for the fragments of Alexander's empire; who has made money there, and come to Athens—as a modern successful adventurer might go to Paris—to spend it. He has long stories to tell of his remarkable exploits abroad, which no one is very well able to contradict, and to which those who accept his dinners are obliged to listen with such patience as they may. His bravery consists much more in words than deeds: he thinks that his reputation will win him great favour from the ladies, but on this point he commonly finds himself very much mistaken. How far such a character was common at Athens in Menander's time, we cannot say: he appears, with variations, in at least five of his comedies of which fragments have reached us, and in no less than eight out of the twenty which remain to us of Plautus. He would evidently present salient points for the farce-writer, and it is not surprising to find him reproduced, no doubt an adaptation from these earlier sketches, as the "Spanish Captain" of Italian comedy, or the "Derby Captain" of our own. He is the Don Gaspard of Scarron's 'Jodelet Duelliste,' Le Capitaine Matamore of Corneille's 'L'Illusion Comique,' and the Bobadil of Jonson's 'Every Man in his Humour.' In Spain or Italy he is perhaps more in his natural place—for these military adventurers were not uncommon in the Continental wars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—than he is in the plays of Plautus or of Terence, who transferred him bodily from their Greek original: for the Romans themselves were not likely to furnish examples of him, and no hired mercenary would have ventured to swagger in those days at Rome. To a Roman audience this could only have been one of those conventional characters, made to be laughed at, which an easy public is very often willing to accept from an author's hands. He is sometimes accompanied by the Parasite, who is content to eat his dinners on condition of listening to his military reminiscences, and occasionally drawing them out for the benefit of others,—acting, in short, generally as his humble foil and toady. This is a character almost peculiar to the comedy of this school, and which has not found its way much into the modern drama. In the Athens of Menander, and in the Rome of Plautus and Terence, when life was altogether more in public, and when men of any moderate position seldom dined alone, the character, though not in the exaggerated form which suited the purpose of the comic dramatist, appears to have been sufficiently common. Athenæus, from whose curious 'Table-Talk ' we learn so much about the social life of those times, notes three distinct classes of the Parasite. There was the professed talker—the narrator of anecdotes and sayer of good things—who was invited to "make sport" for the guests who might be too grand or too dull to amuse each other; and this useful class of "diner-out" is not altogether unknown in modern society. This variety of the character seems to have not unfrequently "read up" carefully in preparation for the display of the evening, as modern professors of the art of conversation have been reported to do. "I will go in and have a look at my commonplace-books, and learn up some better jokes," says Gelasimus in the 'Stichus' of Plautus, when he is afraid of being superseded by some new pretenders. There was, again, the mere toady and flatterer, of whom we shall see a specimen presently in one of the fragments of Menander, as well as in the comedies of Plautus;[10] and of whom we have some historical examples fully as ludicrous as any inventions of the stage, if the biographers of Philip and Alexander of Macedon are to be trusted. We are told, that whenever King Philip ate anything sour or acid, and made wry faces at it, his flatterer Cleisophos went through exactly the same grimaces; when the king hurt his leg, Cleisophos immediately put on a limp; and when the king lost his right eye by the arrow at Methone, the courtier appeared next morning with the same eye bandaged up. It is also said that to wear the head a little on one side became quite the fashion in the court of Alexander, because he himself had a slight deformity of the kind. Another variety of the parasite was the still meaner humble companion, who carried messages and did little services of all kinds, sometimes worse than menial, for his richer patron.

An amusing soliloquy of one of these hungry guests who is waiting for his dinner (having possibly found no entertainer, and therefore no dinner at all, the day before) has been preserved for us by Aulus Gellius out of a lost comedy which he attributes to Plautus,—'The Boeotian,'—founded upon one of the same name by Menander:—

"The gods confound the man who first invented
This measuring time by hours! Confound him, too,
Who first set up a sun-dial—chopping up
My day into these miserable slices!
When I was young, I had no dial but appetite,
The very best and truest of all timepieces;
When that said 'Eat,' I ate—if I could get it.
But now, even when I've the chance to eat, I must not,
Unless the sun be willing! for the town
Is grown so full of those same cursed dials,
That more than half the population starve."[11]

These persons are represented, of course, as having not only the habit of living as far as possible at other men's expense, but as bringing an insatiable appetite with them to their entertainers' tables—

"'Tis not to gather strength he eats, but wishes
To gather strength that he may eat the more."[12]

Neither host nor servants are sparing in their gibes as to the gormandising propensities of this class of self-invited guests. The cook in 'The Menæchmi' of Plautus is ordered to provide breakfast for three:—

Cook. What sort of three?
Erotium. Myself, Menæchmus, and his Parasite.
Cook. Then that makes ten. I count the parasite
As good as any eight.

Although the character of the Parasite is a direct importation from the Greek stage, it was likely to be a very common one also in Roman society. The relation of patron and client, which meets us everywhere in the Roman city life of those days—when the great man was surrounded with his crowds of hangers-on, all more or less dependent upon and obsequious to him, and often eating at his table—was sure to breed in plenty that kind of human fungus.

Among the remaining characters common to this Menandrian Comedy we meet with the waiting-maid, more or less pert and forward—who, although a slave, seems to have had considerable liberty of tongue, and who maintains her ground upon the modern stage with little more change in the type than has followed necessarily with the changes of society. There is, again, the family nurse, garrulous but faithful; and sometimes we have another of the household in the person of the family cook. Lastly, there is the hateful slave-merchant, the most repulsive character in the Greek and Roman drama, and upon whose ways and doings there is no need for us here to dwell.

The philosophy of Menander has been spoken of as distinctly of an Epicurean character, and his morality is certainly no whit higher than that of his age and times. Yet fragments of his have escaped the general wreck, which have in them a grave melancholy not usually associated in our ideas with the teaching of that school, and which have led a modern scholar, than whom no one understood more thoroughly the spirit of Greek literature, to remark that Menander after all seems to have been "more adapted to instruct than to entertain."[13] Such a fragment is the following:—

"If thou wouldst know thyself, and what thou art,
Look on the sepulchres as thou dost pass;
There lie within the bones and little dust
Of mighty kings and wisest men of old;
They who once prided them on birth or wealth,
Or glory of great deeds, or beauteous form;
Yet nought of these might stay the hand of Time.
Look,—and bethink thee thou art even as they."[14]

We find also passages quoted as his, though their genuineness is somewhat doubtful, which breathe a higher tone still. The sentiment expressed in the following lines, attributed to the poet by Clement of Alexandria, is almost identical with that of the grand passage with which Persius concludes his second Satire:—

"Trust me, my Pamphilus, if any think
By offering hecatombs of bulls or goats,
Or any other creature,—or with vests
Of cloth of gold or purple making brave
Their images, or with sheen of ivory,
Or graven jewels wrought with cunning hand,—
So to make Heaven well-pleased with him, he errs,
And hath a foolish heart. The gods have need
That man be good unto his fellow-men,
No unclean liver or adulterer,
Nor thief nor murderer from the lust of gain,
Nay, covet not so much as a needle's thread,
For One stands by, who sees and watches all."[15]

The same writer has quoted another line as from the Greek dramatist, referring to the purification required of the worshipper of the gods, which is a close parallel to the Christian teaching:—

"He is well cleansed that hath his conscience clean."

Another father of the Church has cited a terse apophthegm, which he attributes to Menander, as an argument to show the folly of idolatry:—

"The workman still is greater than his work."[16]

We owe the loss of Menander's plays most probably to the fierce crusade made by the authorities of the early Church against this kind of heathen literature. Yet it is plain that this feeling was not shared by the ecclesiastical writers who have been quoted; and it is singular that we have one sentence of his embalmed in the writings of a still higher authority—St Paul:

"Evil communications corrupt good manners."

A manuscript of some at least of these comedies was said to have been long preserved in the library of the Patriarch at Constantinople, but it seems to have escaped the search of modern scholars, and has probably in some way disappeared.[17]

How great the loss has been to the literary world cannot be measured, though something may be guessed. It may be said of him as was said of our own Jeremy Taylor—"His very dust is gold." The number of single verses and distiches caught up from his plays which passed into household proverbs show how widely his writings must have leavened the literary taste both of Athenians and Romans. The estimation in which he was held by those who had access to his works in their integrity is fully justified by what we can trace of his remains. "To judge of Menander from Terence and Plautus is easy but dangerous," says M. Guizot; dangerous, because we cannot tell how much he may have lost in the process of adaptation to the Roman stage. Cæsar has been thought to have spoken slightingly of Terence when he called him "a half-Menander:" but the Roman poet in all likelihood bore no such proportion to his great original.

  1. Of course he did not escape the charge of presumption and precocity from older candidates. He had to defend himself on this occasion, like Pitt, from "the atrocious crime of being a young man." His defence, if we may trust the anecdotist, was by a parable. He brought upon the stage some new-born puppies, and had them thrown into a vessel of water. Blind and weak as they were, they instinctively tried to swim, "Athenians," said the young author, "you ask how, at my years, I can have the knowledge of life which is required in the dramatist: I ask you, under what master and in what school did these creatures learn to swim?"
  2. Meineke, Menandri Reliq., 188.
  3. Meineke, Menand. Rel., 203.
  4. Fabul., v. 1.
  5. Meineke, Menand. Rel., 83.
  6. Should any English reader be inclined to smile, with some degree of superciliousness, at these simple contrivances of the earlier drama, let him remember there was a time when a provincial actor in an English strolling company would borrow of some good-natured squire a full-bottomed wig and lace ruffles in which to perform the part of—Cato; without which conventional costume it was thought no audience could recognise the "noble Roman." George Harding tells us an amusing story of the Eton amateurs of his day impressing a cast-off wig of the Vice-Provost's for the purpose.
  7. Meineke, Menand. Rel., 269.
  8. Meineke, Menand. Rel., 190.
  9. Meineke, Menand. Rel., 189
  10. See p. 44.
  11. Aul. Gell., iii. 3.
  12. Fragment of Plautus.
  13. Walter Savage Landor.
  14. Menand. Rel., 196.
  15. Clem. Alex. Strom., v. c. 14.
  16. Justin Mart., Apol. i. 20.
  17. See Journ. of Educ, i. 138.