The New International Encyclopædia/Plautus, Titus Maccius

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PLAU′TUS, Titus Maccius. The greatest comic poet of ancient Rome. He was born c.254 B.C. at Sarsina, a village of Umbria. It is probable that he came to Rome while still a youth, and there acquired a complete mastery of the Latin language in its most idiomatic form, as well as an extensive familiarity with Greek literature. It is uncertain whether he ever obtained the Roman franchise. His first employment was with the actors, in whose service he saved an amount of money sufficient to enable him to leave Rome and commence business on his own account. What the nature of this business was, or where he carried it on, we are not informed; we know, however, that he failed in it, and returned to Rome, where he had to earn his livelihood in the service of a baker, with whom he was engaged in turning a hand-mill. At this time—a few years before the outbreak of the second Punic War—he was probably about 30 years of age; and while employed in his humble occupation, he composed three plays, which he sold to the managers of the public games. The proceeds enabled him to leave the mill and turn his hand to more congenial work. The commencement of his literary career may, therefore, be fixed c. 224 B.C., from which date he continued to produce comedies with wonderful fertility, till 184, when he died in his seventieth year.

Of his numerous plays—130 bore his name in the last century of the Republic—only 20 have come down to us. Many of them, however, were regarded as spurious by the Roman critics, among whom Varro (in his treatise Quæstiones Plautinæ, cited by Gellius) limits the genuine comedies of the poet to twenty-one. With the exception of the twenty-first, these Varronian comedies are the same as those we now possess. Their titles, arranged (with the exception of the Bacchides) in alphabetical order, are as follows: (1) Amphitryo, (2) Asinaria, (3) Aulularia, (4) Captivi, (5) Curculio, (6) Casina, (7) Cistellaria, (8) Epidicus, (9) Bacchides, (10) Mostellaria, (11) Menæchmi, (12) Miles, (13) Mercator, (14) Pseudolus, (15) Pœnulus, (16) Persa, (17) Rudens, (18) Stichus, (19) Trinummus, (20) Truculentus, (21) Vidularia. As a comic writer, Plautus enjoyed immense popularity among the Romans and held possession of the stages down to the time of Diocletian. The vivacity, the humor, and the rapid action of his plays, as well as his skill in constructing plots, commanded the admiration of the educated no less than of the unlettered Romans; while the fact that he was a national poet prepossessed his audiences in his favor. Although he laid the Greek comic drama under heavy contributions, and 'adapted' the plots of Menander, Diphilus. and Philemon with all the license of a modern playwright, he always preserved the style and character native to the Romans and reproduced the life and intellectual tone of the people in a way that at once conciliated their sympathies. The admiration in which he was held by his contemporaries descended to Cicero and Saint Jerome: while he has found imitators in Shakespeare, Molière, Dryden, Addison, and Lessing. and translators in most European countries. The best complete translation of his works into English is that by Thornton and Warner (5 vols., 1767–74); there is another by Riley (London, 1880), and a partial translation in the original meter, by Sugden (London, 1893). Unfortunately the text of the extant plays is in such a very corrupt state, so defective from lacunæ, and so filled with interpolations, that much yet remains to be done by the grammarian and the commentator before they can be read with full appreciation or comfort. Ritschl and his disciples gave the text its first exhaustive recension, on which are based the modern editions, such as those of Ussing (5 vols., Copenhagen, 1875–86) and Goetz and Schoell (3 vols., Leipzig, 1893–96). Among the many good editions of separate plays, with commentary, may be mentioned those of Brix, Lorenz, Morris, Palmer, and Tyrrell. Consult Sellar, Roman Poets of the Republic (Oxford, 1881).