Claude Pansiéri, Plaute et Rome, ou les ambiguîtés d'un marginal (Collection Latomus 236). Bruxelles: Latomus, 1997. Pp. 807. ISBN 2- 87031-176-1. BF3750
C. W. Marshall
The Memorial University of Newfoundland
Pansiéri's lengthy examination of Plautus is divided into five sections, which combine interesting detail with flawed approaches to produce a thorough though often frustrating examination of the poet's relationship with Rome, his adoptive city. Plautus is, for Pansiéri, always an outsider, and his liminality is the key to understanding him. There are five sections, accompanied by an introduction (pp. 17-42) and a conclusion (pp. 749- 56): the historical and biographical givens of the playwright's life (pp. 43-250), the presence of Rome in his work (pp. 251-390), what the plays say about Plautus' attitudes (pp. 391-509), Plautus' personal beliefs and the Roman mos maiorum (pp. 511- 94), and, finally, his subconscious response to the Rome that has been described (pp. 595-747). Each section has five subdivided chapters except for the third, which has four. This detailed structure, with indices, means that the work can be consulted selectively. The introduction presents Plautus as the voice of Rome, and though there are very few hard facts about his life, Pansiéri's use of la nouvelle critique (p. 42, though not in the sense that I understand the term) can enable Rome to speak for Plautus. Pansiéri adopts a positivist position, believing that more can be said about Plautus and the Rome of his day than most would allow (p. 20). At the same time Plautus is treated conceptually, as a focalizing agent for what can be said about Rome generally (p. 30). While acknowledging the difficulties posed when getting to the author through a literary text (pp. 32f.), Pansiéri seems almost to revel in the ambiguities created (p. 35): 'Notre propos étant plus psychologique qu'historique' (p. 41), and this justifies a number of guesses about the poet's life.
Section I begins with an examination of Plautus' origin (pp. 45-57). Plautus is an Umbrian, born c. 254 (p. 149), who probably never claimed Roman citizenship. While plausible, this makes assumptions that are not addressed. Acting in his own plays, Plautus played Tranio in Mostellaria (pp. 46f.) and the soldier in Miles Gloriosus (p. 53, with the soldier's age, Miles 629, coinciding with Plautus' own). His principal connection, as we shall see, is with the servi callidi. Discussion of his Roman tria nomina (pp. 55f., 170-80) is made without reference to Gratwick,[] which is severely limiting. The discussion of Umbrio-Roman relations (pp. 58-94) reinforces Plautus as an outsider, 'vrai Huron à Paris' (p. 93). Problems with Pansiéri's positivism emerge: what is largely true generally becomes certainly true particularly, and so Plautus' biography becomes increasingly detailed, albeit in broad strokes. What Varro says (pp. 95- 146) is to be trusted: 'we shouldn't take the ancient biographers to be more naïve and more lying than they were' (p. 102).[] Nevertheless, wishful associations with the early careers on stage of Shakespeare and Molière (p. 105; cf. p. 170) do not prove anything for Plautus, whom Pansiéri presents as a young idealistic actor coming to Rome between the first two Punic wars, an event later dated without evidence to c. 224 (p. 180; cf. p. 162). His little real knowledge of Greek (pp. 205-20) indicates that he arrived in Rome late in life. Supposed similarities with Aristophanes might therefore be accidental (p. 216). Discussion of the (autobiographical?) early play Addictus (pp. 126-40) leads to speculation that after arriving in an economically flourishing inter-war Rome, hard times followed during the war with Hannibal. My more skeptical reading of the primary evidence means that I was not carried along by Pansiéri's prose as some might be. Even asking when Plautus moved to Rome (pp. 148-55) presupposes that he did. There may have been others who made the trip, and it may have been favourable for them, but for all we know Plautus' troupe was based in Umbria (though even that connection may be questioned), and only traveled to Rome when hired. Nor do I believe the presence of military imagery and vocabulary (pp. 163-68) requires Plautus himself to have been a soldier. I am certain Atellan elements have been under- appreciated in Plautus' work, but the discussions of Casina and Rudens along these lines are unconvincing (pp. 185-91). Pansiéri then discusses Rome's treatment of outsiders such as Plautus, who in turn adopts characteristics of a Roman citizen and a plebian (pp. 223-50).
Space does not permit me to examine more than a single chapter in each of the remaining sections, though my principal difficulties with Pansiéri's approach should be clear. In every case in what follows, only selected problems are discussed, though further similar examples could be provided. Section II's chapter on 'the world of the theatre' (pp. 263-77), describes one aspect of the historical Rome seen in the plays. Claims for theatrical reference being unique to Plautus are not tenable, however, and the lack of reference to Wright's Dancing in Chains[] undermines Pansiéri's claims. Discussions follow concerning the few allusions to the actor Pellio (pp. 266-68), metatheatre (pp. 268-72), improvisation (pp. 272- 74), the adaptation from Greek models (pp. 274-76), and the use of masks (pp. 276f.). Each of these is an interesting topic that could profitably have been explored. However none is examined with a thoroughness that leads to a conclusion; one is left only with tendencies and possibilities. The discussion of masks, for instance, while referring to relevant articles, advances only one argument in favour of their use: that it facilitates scenes involving identical twins (e.g. Menaechmi, Amphitruo). Yet this is one argument that is demonstrably empty: Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, derived from these Plautine plays, is habitually performed unmasked, and it has two sets of identical twins.
Section III's chapter on 'the marginality theme' (pp. 434-76) is framed by chapters on 'the poverty theme' (pp. 409-33) and 'the double-personality theme' (pp. 477-509), all of which argue for the importance of these motifs to the plays. But marginality is key to Pansiéri's understanding of Plautus. Marginality is created by poverty, certainly, but also by the city's reluctance to allow full integration of outsiders (pp. 436f.), and this is seen when strangers receive comic abuse (pp. 439-41; cf. Hanno in Poenulus, Harpax in Pseudolus, the merchant in Asinaria). For Pansiéri, Plautus writes such scenes because he too is marginalized. And when Plautus' characters refer to their ancestors as a Roman might, this is Plautus overcompensating for the way he feels, which creates the ambiguities of the book's title (p. 446): similarly Plautus exhibits both xenophobia (pp. 455-68) and Roman patriotism (pp. 468-76). This all creates (at least the appearance of) subversion, which Rome embraced: it is later claimed the collegium scribarum histrionumque was founded in 207 in part to maintain the subversive role of playwrights like Plautus and Naevius (p. 753; their friendship is examined at pp. 51-53, 220-22, 288f., 447f.).
Having established Plautus' distance from Cato (pp. 563-77: 'such comparisons are specious,' p. 570), section IV concludes with a chapter on 'Plautus and the Bacchanalia' (pp. 578-94). Pansiéri argues that Plautus is sympathetic to the Bacchic cult, as is Naevius (who wrote a Lycurgus). This places Plautus far from the traditional Roman that has been posited by Della Corte (p. 593). Plautus projects himself onto his characters, and this response is subsumed under the term 'un subconscient vindicatif' (a phrase found in the title of section V). Following discussions of Saturnalian reversal (pp. 597-607) and 'obscenity' (pp. 608-26), Pansiéri reveals the Plautine worldview, a 'personal myth' (p. 636), found in the plays: there are oppressors (fathers, lenones, soldiers, pp. 639-664) and there are the oppressed (pp. 664- 89). Among the latter, Plautus identifies particularly with the servus callidus. The callidus is an outsider, and is insubordinate (pp. 693-35). The callidus enacts vengeance against fathers, lenones, and soldiers (pp. 707-26), who, as oppressors, embody the intolerance of Rome Plautus himself has experienced. The details are uncontroversial, but the conclusions, tying Plautine characters, imagery, and plot lines to the author's mind-set, are tendentious.
This book should have been much better than it is. Aggressive editing and familiarity with more of the exciting work done on Plautus over the last three decades would be a start: names like Bain, Bettini, Fantham, Gratwick, Lowe, and Zwierlein are absent, and no advantage has been taken of Slater's Plautus in Performance.[] At heart, though, a methodology whereby individual lines in a play taken out of context are used to produce a psychological portrait of the author is unlikely to find wide support.[]
[] A. S. Gratwick, 'Titus Maccius Plautus,' CQ 23 (1973) 78-84.
[] Nor is mention made of the wider criticism of ancient biography, such as M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Baltimore 1981). Citations in English are my own translations.
[] J. Wright, Dancing in Chains: the Stylistic Unity of the Comoedia Palliata (Rome 1974).
[] N. W. Slater, Plautus in Performance: the Theatre of the Mind (Princeton 1985).
[] A final criticism must be leveled against the publishers, for the poor production of an expensive volume. Even before I cut the pages, the spine was broken in several places, and the wraps were separating from the glue at top and bottom, yielding a substantial tear.