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Slaves in Ancient Roman Comedy of Plautus and Terence

Slaves in Ancient-Roman-Comedy-of-Plautus-and-Terence

Slaves in Ancient Roman Comedy of Plautus and Terence Free Essay

Titus Maccius Plautus and Publius Terentius Afer are renowned Roman playwrights and representatives of ancient Roman comedy. The dramatic genre, used by Plautus, Terence, and more than a dozen of other authors was called the comediae palliatae from the Latinized Greek word “paillon” meaning “cape.” It was a Roman comedy in Greek clothing as the actions took place in Athens or any other Greek city, and the actors had Greek names. The main plot schemes of the original play remained. For Plautus and Terence, the image of a slave is central in their comedies, as he/she is often a source of intrigue. This paper aims at analyzing the slave characters in the comedies of Plautus and Terence.

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Slaves in Plautus’ comedies

Rome’s plebeian citizens drawn into the new forms of economic life but in many ways still conservative and modest often preferred the competition of pugilists to the actors’ play. Plautus had to adapt the plays to the aesthetic outlook and cultural level of the public visitors of the Rome games, who were his main audience. He reworked the original writings, and the comedy had an Italian spirit. Plautus brought local colors to his works and offered a brilliant farce resembling his Greek predecessors’ comedies. He adapted Greek texts, weakened their serious side, and introduced the elements of buffoonery and farce. Plautus was not interested in the humanism of a new comedy; he did not intend to educate the viewers and showed mostly the plot twists, intrigue, and traditional masks. He did not raise social or political questions. Most of his comedies do not include serious ideas as their main purpose is to entertain the audience. Greek comedy was able to vary the slave character and give him the individual shades. However, clever and cunning slaves are favorite characters in almost all of Plautus’ comedies such as Pseudolus, Bacchides, Epidicus, Mostellaria or The Haunted House, and Miles Gloriosus or Vainglorious Soldier.

The playwright uses the situation qui pro quo meaning that someone is understood as another one. In Pseudolus, a slave disguised as a servant of the Macedonian warrior takes the girl from a pimp, and a real officer’s orderly is taken as a disguised impostor. Plautus plays with words, their sounding and meaning, and creates neologisms, which are sometimes difficult to translate into other languages. For example, in comedies, there are many lines with alliteration. The names of actors are comical; for instance, the name of a cunning slave Pseudolus means “deceiver of the deceivers,” a clever servant Simia’s name is translated as “a monkey,” and an orderly Harpax means “a hook.

Sometimes, the dramatist overestimates the social importance of a slave character. Hardly Plautus sought to emphasize the importance of slaves in society. A slave in a comedy should be regarded as a relic of folklore image pushed around by his master who overcomes and conquers everyone one day. The slaves in each Plautus’ comedy have different names and are not individualized. Even in appearance, they look almost the same: red-headed ugly plump men. Sometimes, at the end of the play, accompanied by an extraordinary good fortune character, who rises as the eagle, and lands as sparrow. At the end of Pseudolus, a slave is a drunk, stumbling, and hiccuping filthy man who feels like a poet and military leader in the middle of the play. It is like the end of the holiday, the morning after Saturnalia. During Saturnalia celebrations, the slaves had special privileges. They were freed from ordinary works, had the right to wear pileus, a special hat, a symbol of liberation, and received permission to participate in a dinner in the clothing of their masters. However, as Saturnalia is over, everyday servant realities begin. The slave’s clever trick is revealed, but he remains a slave searching for another reason for creating intrigue.

In Plautus’ comedies, all the threads of intrigue are in hands of a cunning servant, the most dynamic character. Plautus likes the scenes of the so-called “running servant,” in which a great schemer is in a hurry with the news, message, task, or a new plan, and tells about his mission on the run. Sometimes, he runs threatening to hit everyone on his way, and out of breath falls asleep before the house. This dynamic buffoonery is traditional for Plautus’ comedy.

Another kind of buffoonery is in an image of a slave schemer. In almost all Plautus’ comedies, a quirky servant makes intrigues: he helps a young man, fools an old man, a pimp, and a boastful warrior. Apart from this function, he has a special comic feature. A servant-schemer is usually a braggart; he compares his tricks with military actions and himself with the greatest generals such as Alexander and Agathocles of Syracuse as portrayed in Tranio’s Mostellaria or The Haunted House. The whole system of military comparisons is seen in Miles Gloriosus or Vainglorious Soldier. Palaestrio is going to move all the siege machines against the soldier and bring down a slave Sceledrus from his position. The slaves in Plautus comedies create intrigues, not for love or assistance but mostly for making fun and sharing it with others.

In Pseudolus, when a clever slave has a plan of a scheme ready, he sings a triumphant aria. In such cases, Plautus puts a tragic parody of a high style into the mouth of a slave. This area is full of war metaphors and archaic words. For example, Pseudolus sings about the glory that awaits him. He is at the height of his role; it is easy for him to fool an officer’s orderly by pretending to be a slave of a pimp. This scene is carried with such humor that the audience is willing to forgive the substitution of the promised plan by clever use of a chance encounter. Pseudolus is ready to philosophize about the power of a chance. During the scene of a carnival at the end of the play, Pseudolus is so drunk that he can hardly stand on his feet; he dances an obscene dance and talks about a feast and the love of Calidorus and Phoenicians.

Sharrock claims the power of Pseudolus’ speech and his ability to create intrigues and act with clever words. She focuses on the vocabulary and analyzes the words and phrases given to slave characters to make their speech sound reasonable. Plautus uses a very rich and specific vocabulary for intrigue. For example, a slave-schemer Palaestrio in Miles Gloriosus uses the word “consilium” at every opportunity to show his significance and power. Moreover, Plautus admits that clever slaves in his comedies play tricks on him and surpass him with their cunning tricks. Plautus often uses the word “architectus” to describe a controlling character in a comedy, usually, a slave who writes the plot for or against the author. Therefore, a self-referential plot, a clever plotter, and a comic mess are distinctive features of a Roman comedy.

Plautus draws the image of a dodgy slave with great love and makes him the central figure in Bacchides, Epidicus, Mostellaria, The Haunted House, and others. Pseudolus gets a perfect embodiment of the image which depicts a slave as a quiet, self-confident, and ironic man. He is portrayed as opposed to tearful and helpless Calidorus who quickly falls into despair because his girlfriend Phoenicium is about to be sold to a Macedonian warrior. Pseudolus, posing himself as a loyal servant, promises Calidorus his help. Moreover, Pseudolus wants to act openly and warn the potential victims of his agility in the upcoming affair; he asks them not to believe him. Pseudolus’ superiority over others is found in this scene with particular power. While playing the faithful and honest servant, he recommends his master stay alert. Becoming more and more impudent, he decides to outwit a pimp and take away Calidorus’ girlfriend.

Role of slaves in the comedies of Terence

Similar to Plautus, Terence knew that his audience was far from ethical problems that agitated the minds at that time. The Roman audience wanted to have a good laugh over the foolish behavior of young people and their slaves as it coincided with the notion of promiscuity of frivolous Greeks. Therefore, if Terence wanted to inspire the public with his ideas and try to educate them in the spirit of humanism, he had to make concessions. The same as for Plautus, the slave was one of the favorite characters in his comedies. The examples of quirky slave images are demonstrated in Heauton Timorumenos or The Self-Tormentor and Phormio.

It is believed that the slaves in Terence’s comedies are significantly inferior to the similar characters in Plautus’ plays where they do not hesitate to lord over their young masters and skillfully outwit the old ones. Some scholars consider that Plautus is fun but Terence is a pale imitation of Menander or Plautus. However, many think of Terence as a subtle and playful playwright aware of his place. He is also very farcical and artful in the depiction of salves. The slave characters in Terence’s comedies behave less aggressively towards their masters, but their role in the conduct of intrigue or at least the creation of hopeless confusion cannot be underestimated. For example, a young man is in love with a girl who is in the possession of a pimp. As the latter demands a substantial ransom for her, a man in love can do nothing without his clever slave who can receive desired money from a tight-fisted father.

Advising Pamphilus to agree to the marriage, a slave called Davus gives rise to ambiguity and misunderstanding in Andria or The Girl from Andros. In Heauton Timorumenos or The Self-Tormentor, a slave called Syrus invites Bacchis, his master Clitipho’s mistress, to his father’s house, and presents her as a lover of Clinia, making two old men completely entangled in the attitude to their sons. In Adelphoe or The Brothers, a slave Syrus puzzles Demea by telling the tales thus creating a great confusion; and only a chance can unravel this tangle. A lucky chance often helps to solve the problems mostly made by the slaves. Thus, a poor girl turns out to be a daughter of a wealthy neighbor, as in The Self-Tormentor, The Girl from Andros, or Phormio; a warrior loses; hetaera decides to end with her past, as in The Eunuch; unjustly suspected of betraying young man has an opportunity to prove his loyalty to the fair girl, as in The Brothers.

Besides the standard depiction of the slaves as the creators of intrigues, Terence demonstrates a servant’s devotion to his master. In The Brothers, Syrus, Micio’s slave, is depicted as a very dedicated servant; he rescues his masters and helps to raise master’s sons. Smart Syrus takes an active part in taming a greedy procurer Sannio. Mostly, the slaves are depicted as more humane than their masters in Terence’s plays. Terence uses the same plots as Plautus though the slaves in his plays are wiser, and the motives of their actions are more reasonable. They do not always make plans just for fun but help their masters to establish justice or try to correct somebody’s mistakes.

Terence’s strength is that he has managed to enrich the standard schemes with involving real people with their advantages and disadvantages, faithfulness and moral blunders, hobbies, and remorse. Terence reinterpreted the standard masks of a stingy father, an angry mother-in-law, and unfaithful hetaera opposite to their usual comic roles. His plays are different from those of Plautus because they do not have the description of Saturnalia carnival fun, profanity, or shame. Terence introduces universal and eternal humanistic ideas. He is governed by the principle that a fable has to teach. He is more concerned about the psychological situation rather than intrigue and human characters rather than laugh. Most characters in his comedies like and respect each other, and conflicts arise only through misunderstanding or ignorance. That is the reason Terence’s image of a slave is not only comical but also psychological since a slave is devoted to his master, and a master respects his servant in return.


Both Plautus and Terence tried to transform the Roman comedy so it is closer to people and more accessible to plebeians. Despite the existence of separate touching plays, the comedies of Plautus and Terence have a setting of ridiculous scenes, a caricature, buffoonery, and farce. The favorite playwright’s figure is a slave, the most dynamic comedy mask the least cramped in his actions, words, and gestures. A slave is not only a carrier of intrigue but also a central figure of buffoonery element. He makes the audience laugh by a parody of the high style philosophizing, swearing, and running around the stage with violent gestures. Besides being humorous and comical, the slaves are depicted as clever and witty characters being the source of intrigue but sometimes helpful and wiser than their masters.

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