Plautus: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Nora Goldschmidt

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Titus Maccius Plautus (‘Plautus’) was a Roman comic playwright of the Republican period known as the author of 21 surviving plays, including Amphitruo (his only extant play on a mythological subject), Aularia (‘The Pot of Gold’), Menaechmi (‘The Brothers Menaechmus’), Miles Gloriosus (‘The Boastful Soldier’), and Rudens (‘The Rope’).

Apart from piecemeal remarks by Cicero Cic. Brut. 60 Cic. Sen. 50, who notes that Plautus died in 184 BC and imagines that the Truculentus and Pseudolus were the delight of his old age, the earliest extant story of Plautus’ life—or imaginary life—is found in the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius Gell. 3.3.14. Gellius, who had access to On Poets by Varro (d. 27 BC) and seems to be drawing on it here, tells us that Plautus had been engaged in ‘jobs connected with the stage’ (in operis artificum scaenicorum). At some point, the poet lost all his money in trade (mercatibus), after which he returned penniless to Rome and ended up as a menial labourer at a mill – an activity associated with slaves – where he also wrote three plays. Gellius’ story is echoed by Jerome Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 145.1 = 200 BC in his version of the Chronicle of Eusebius under the year 200 BC (thus giving a different date of death from that stated by Cicero). Jerome, whose account may also ultimately go back to Varro (cf. Leigh 2004: 137), follows Gellius in stating that the impoverished poet hired himself out to work a mill in a bakery, where he ‘wrote and sold plays’ (scribere fabulas … ac uendere), adding that Plautus was a native of Sarsina from Umbria and that he died in Rome. In addition to these sources, we also have an epitaph Gell. 1.24.3, likewise quoted by Gellius, and believed in antiquity to have been composed by the poet himself, as well as an apparently off-the-cuff statement, probably made-up, in the Historia Augusta SHA Sev. 21.2 (a work of disputed authorship and date, but generally thought to have been written around the turn of the 5th century AD) grouping Plautus with ‘Homer, Virgil, Terence … and others’ as famous men who died childless.

Scholars as early as Varro, however, already had trouble with the poet’s identity (Gratwick 1973; Goldberg 2005: 66-8). The problem was that a vast number of plays circulated under the name of Plautus – far more than a single writer could have composed, let alone staged. One way of dealing with the issue of narrowing down the canon, therefore, seems to have been to establish a biographical narrative to account for the selection of the plays themselves (Goldberg 2005: 67; cf. Leo 1912: 70-71; Duckworth 1990: 51). Perhaps more than other ancient authors, then, Plautus’s plays and the story of Plautus’s life are inextricably linked: the biography seems, to a large extent, to be drawn from the agreed corpus of plays, which in turn provide material for the biography itself. A joke in the Mostellaria Plaut. Most. 770 (‘The Haunted House’), for instance, is likely to have suggested the ‘fact’ found in Jerome that the author himself was from Sarsina. So, too, one of the plays Gellius thinks Plautus wrote in the bakery is called the Addictus (‘Enslaved for Debt’), which may itself have inspired the story of Plautus’ disastrous adventures in trade (Leo 1912: 73). Moreover, the narrative of Plautus’ mill-pushing days – and the mill as the site of the composition of many of his works – though in broad outline not alien to the Greek biographical tradition, can likewise be traced to the plays themselves: mills and milling are a virtual motif in the dramas (Gruen 1990: 127), and the clever slave in Plautine comedy – a figure the plays encourage us to see on a metaliterary level as, to some extent, a stand-in for the author in the text (Sharrock 2009: 116-18; Slater 2000) – is often threatened with being ‘sent to the mill’ as a form of punishment (and Tyndarus in the Captiui actually is: cf. Sharrock 2009: 136). Even Plautus’ name can be seen to be drawn from comedy, or at least its earlier precursors: Plautus is a version of planipes (‘flatfoot’), a nickname for performers in the barefoot Latin mime, and Maccius means ‘son of Maccus’, the hero of Atellan farce (Lowe 2008: 97).

In the end, whatever the origin of the biographical legend, the image of the impoverished Plautus as a miller’s lacky, writing his comedies, as Jerome put it, ‘whenever he had time off work’, could easily be imagined by later readers as the natural figure of the author of the comedies. Camillo Miola’s Plauto mugnaio (‘Plautus the Miller’, pictured below), painted in Italy during the classical revival, depicts the poet seated by a mill in a bakery full of authentic detail drawn from excavations at Pompeii; yet the poet, tanned at the collar like a southern Italian labourer, performs to an audience who recall Miola’s Neopolitan contemporaries (Figurelli 2011: 145-46). It is, finally, in the guise of the arch slave form Plautine comedy that the poet often spoke, and continues to speak, to the audiences who received his works.

Camillo Miola’s Plauto Mugnaio.


  • Duckworth, G. 1990. The Nature of Roman Comedy (1st edn 1952). Princeton, NJ.
  • Figurelli, L. 2011. ‘Italian Classical-Revival Painters and the “Southern Question”.’ In S. Hales and J. Paul (eds.), Pompeii in the Modern Imagination. Oxford: 136-52.
  • Goldberg, S. M. 2005. Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic. Cambridge.
  • Gratwick, A. D. 1973. ‘Titus Maccius Plautus.’ CQ 23: 78-84
  • Gruen, E. S. 1990. Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy. Berkeley.
  • Leo, F. 1912. Plautinische Forschungen (2nd edn). Berlin: 63-86.
  • Lowe, N. J. 2008. Comedy. Cambridge.
  • Sharrock, A. 2009. Reading Roman Comedy. Cambridge.
  • Slater, N. J. 2000. Plautus in Performance: The Theatre of the Mind (1st edn 1985). Amsterdam.
  • Stuart, D. R. 1931. ‘Authors’ Lives as Revealed in their Works: A Critical Résumé.’ In G. D. Hadzsits (ed.), Classical Studies in Honour of C. J. Rolfe. Philadelphia: 285-304.
  • Suerbaum, W. (ed.) 2002. Handbuch der Lateinischen Literatur der Antike. Erster Band. Die archaische Literatur. Von den Anfängen bis Sullas Tod. Munich.