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16.10.19 Hello, Freedom!


Please everybody: if the old man comes back, don’t tell him which street I ran down!
from Plautus’ ‘The Brothers Menaechmus’

It’s the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, sometime around the year 2000. I’m at a Christmas pantomime with my family, perhaps Jack and the Beanstalk, but I can’t be sure, and amidst all the fun and farce there is one joke I remember. Two actors are dressed up as cow (one front, one back), and someone holds up a pail of milk and inquires as to its quality: ‘Is it pasteurised?’ To which the cow exclaims in a thick Dublin accent: ‘No, it’s only up to me ears!’ Pantomime is one the things I come back to when reading the plays of Plautus: twenty-one comedies first produced around the year 200 BCE, which constitute the earliest bits of Latin literature to survive whole, rather than in fragmentary form. There is slapstick and farce mixed with keen social observation, all delivered in a light, sparkling kind of Latin.

Plautus shares with his successor Terence (the subject of my next post) a commitment to the artistic representation of everyday speech: dialogue and conversation, argument and banter, in short a kind of colloquial Latin that is very different from the ‘classical’ variety. If you want the Latin for ‘hey, what’s up?’, ‘get lost’, or ‘We’re screwed!’, you’ll find it in Plautus and Terence, not in Cicero or Virgil. Plautus’ Latin in particular is its own brand of fireworks, loaded with puns, alliteration, and song, but always rooted in people talking to each other.

Here’s an exchange between a man who’s been mistaken by a sex worker for the man’s identical but long-lost twin brother; the man is thoroughly confused. It’ll give you a sense of the plays’ often farcical plots, but also of the sexual politics they put on stage: Menaechmus quickly goes from disbelief to happily going along with it.

Menaechmus:    Who’s this woman talking to?
Erotium:    Why to you, of course!
Menaechmus:    Do I know you? Did we ever have business together, or do we now?
Erotium:    By Pollux it’s because you’re the one man Venus wanted me to magnify, and with good reason. For in Castor’s name it’s you alone that make me happy with your favours.
Menaechmus:    This woman must be mad or drunk, Messenio, to address a stranger like me so intimately!

Amy Richlin has done great work recently in drawing attention to the historical contexts that shaped the original productions of these plays. They would have been put on, not in theatres, but on basic makeshift stages at festivals and on market-days. Not only many of the actors but many of those in the audience too would have been slaves; the 200s BCE was a time of prolonged warfare and misery in Italy, with people displaced, newly-enslaved (as prisoners of war), and hungry across the peninsula. The plays are full of jokes about slaves and masters, slavery and freedom, and when you imagine an audience in which the free and unfree would have at times stood or sat side by side and laughed at the same jokes, you get a sense of the politics of performance. For Richlin, the Plautine plays are a kind of slave theatre, less the work of a single hand than a combative and collaborative tradition:

‘Slaves’ claims to full humanity in the plays tie in with the first of several arguments that have occupied the attention of historians of slavery and occupy mine as well. It is a major contention of this book that not only did slave characters in the palliata [i.e. Plautus’ plays] tell how they thought and felt, but the palliata itself constituted a reservoir of anger, helping audience members to keep alive the memory and hope of freedom, of wholeness.’

The title of today’s post comes from a fragment of the one the lost plays. As with most Latin fragments, its lack of context makes it both tantalizing and difficult to puzzle out fully. But a freed slave appears to be offering a riposte to someone who has just questioned his or her free status: before telling the person to get lost, they say Libertas, salve (perhaps a formulaic phrase of some sort), or  ‘hello, freedom’. These plays seem to me very modern in lots of ways, and that is what, alongside the jokes and the language, makes them good to teach with.

Note: Amy Richlin’s book on Plautus is called Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Slave Theater and Popular Comedy, and was published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press. Plautus’ play The Brothers Menaechmus is, among other things, one of the major inspirations behind Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.