Plautus c. 254 B.C-184 B. C.
(Full name Titus Maccius Plautus.)
Plautus was one of ancient Rome's most popular playwrights. Of the roughly one hundred and thirty comedies attributed to him in antiquity, twenty-one survive, one of which is a fragment. Plautus derived the plots for his plays from Greek originals by such playwrights as Menander, Diphilus, Philemon, and Alexis, adapting them to the tastes and interests of his Roman audience. Plautus' plays, like their models, are characterized as New Comedy, which is generally concerned with exploring the personal relationships of ordinary men and women, their fears, loves, and financial preoccupations.
Very little is known of Plautus's life. He was born into a poor family—some scholars suggest they were slaves—in the village of Sarsina in Umbria. As a youth he traveled to Rome, finding employment as a craftsman in the theater. Tradition holds that during his youth Plautus endured the hardships of poverty and suffered a variety of setbacks, such as the loss of money in a business enterprise. He was therefore compelled to work in a mill to earn a living. Sometime in the middle of his life Plautus turned to adapting Greek plays and eventually became the most successful Roman playwright of his time.
The New Comedy of Plautus is generally characterized by complex plot structures—typically involving love affairs or intrigues—elaborately delineated characters, and scenes filled with topical allusions, ingenious trickery, and reversals of expectations. Furthermore, the comedies of Plautus are suffused with jokes, puns, surprises of all sorts, elaborate songs and vibrant action. Of Plautus's twenty-one comedies, several have been particularly influential. Menaechmi (Twin Menaechmi), about the twin sons of a Syracusan merchant, one of whom was abducted, became the source of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. Amphitruo (Amphitryon), which is concerned with mistaken identities, later formed the basis of comedies by Molière, John Dryden, and Jean Giradoux. The title character of Miles Gloriosas (Braggart Warrior) became an important stock figure in Elizabethan comedy, especially in plays by Ben Jonson. Other notable plays by Plautus include Aulularia (Pot of Gold), which concerns a miserly old man obsessed with a buried pot of gold; and Mostellaria (Haunted House), which deals with the imaginative trickery of a slave, Tranio, in the service of his master.
In his lifetime Plautus achieved great acclaim and renown. An astute and shrewd observer of his times, he tailored his comedies to a theater and an audience which he understood intimately. Scholars note that these conditions permitted the numerous changes Plautus introduced into his adaptations of Greek originals. Among the Plautine innovations critics have identified are characters who directly address the audience, the prominence of the Cunning Slave as a central figure, an emphasis on bawdy or cynical jokes, and a marked increase in the amount of song and musical accompaniment. Critics have also pointed to the energetic farce, rapid pace, and lively dialogue as factors in the immense popularity of Plautus' plays. After his death, the comedies of Plautus became classics. His most popular works were revived throughout antiquity and into modern times. They have frequently been translated and have served as models and inspirations for countless comedies throughout the world.