Sometime around 254 B.C., in the tiny mountain village of
Sarsina high in the Apennines of Umbria, ancient Rome's best-known
playwright was born--Titus Maccius Plautus. Born "Plautus"
or "splay-foot", he apparently managed to escape his
backwoods village at a young age--perhaps by joining one of the
itinerant theatrical troupes which commonly traveled from village
to village performing short boisterous farces.
We know, however, that at some point the young Plautus gave
up his acting career to become a Roman soldier, and this is probably
when he was exposed to the delights of the Greek stage, specifically
Greek New Comedy and the plays of Menander.
Sometime later, he tried his hand as a merchant, but rashly trusted
his wares to the sea and at the age of 45, he found himself penniless
and reduced to a wandering miller, trudging through the streets
with a hand-mill, grinding corn for householders.
Meanwhile, translations of Greek New Comedy had come into
vogue and Plautus--who remembered the comedies of Menander from
his days as a soldier in Southern Italy--decided to try his hand
at writing for the stage. His earliest plays, Addictus
and Saturio, were written while he still made a living
with his hand-mill. Soon, however, his comedies began to suit
the public taste and Plautus was able to retire his hand-mill
and devote himself to writing full-time.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Plautus plays were no mere
translation of Menander. He adapted the rough and tumble colloquy
of the environments he knew best--the military camp and the marketplace--wild
and boisterous like the Roman farces he may have performed in
as a young man.
In those days, plays were never performed alone. They were
presented at public celebrations and had to compete with chariot
races, horse races, boxing matches, circuses, etc ... Since a
close translation of a play by the refined Menander would hold
little interest for a rowdy Roman crowd, Plautus quickly parted
company with the Greek original. He generally took only the outline
of the plot, the characters, and selected segments of dialogue--then
stepped out on his own. His objective was to entertain. At all
costs, he kept the pot of action boiling, the stream of gags
and puns and cheap slapstick flowing. Anything to make the audience
laugh and keep them from peeking in on the boxing match nextdoor!
To this end, Plautus often included scenes in song and dance.
Unfortunately, the musical accompaniments to his plays have now
In all, Plautus composed approximately 130 pieces--21 of which
have survived to this day. He was eventually granted citizenship
and given permission to assume three names like a true-born Roman.
The name he chose for himself was Titus Maccius ("clown")
He continued to some extent the social satire of Aristophanes.
His Miles Gloriosus refers to the imprisonment of the
for satirizing the aristocracy. His Cistellaria alludes
to the conflict with Carthage. Epidicius and Aulularia
refer to the repeal of the puritanic Oppian Laws. And Captivi
and Bacchides mention the wars in Greece and Magnesia.
For the most part, however, he preferred the style of the more
recent Greek writers like Menander. Along with his younger Roman
counterpart, Terence, Plautus kept
Greek New Comedy alive for later generations of theatregoers.
Plautus' works have been adapted by many later playwrights.
His Amphitryo was the basis for Giraudoux's Amphitryon
38. Menaechmi or The Menaechmus Twins inspired, among
others, Shakespeare's The Comedy
of Errors and Rodgers' and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse.
The Pot of Gold became Moliere's The Miser. And Pseudolus,
Casina and several other plays were combined in Stephen Sondheim's
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to