Titus Maccius Plautus, an author of comic plays, was one of the most accomplished and popular of Roman writers. He was also the author of the earliest Latin literary works that have survived in complete form to the present day. Although Plautus’s plays are important and entertaining as literature, they also provide valuable information about the Latin language as it was spoken around 200 B.C.
Almost nothing is known for certain about Plautus’s life. It is believed that he was born in a part of Italy north of Rome called Umbria. If this is true, he grew up speaking Umbrian, a language related to Latin. Yet Plautus later became so skilled in Latin that he is regarded as a master of puns, jokes, and wordplay in the language. His name itself was probably a joke of his own creation. In Umbria, where people used only one name, he would have been called simply Titus. But Romans generally used three names, and Plautus apparently created the Roman-sounding name Titus Maccius Plautus, which means something like “Titus the clown.” Plautus supposedly began writing plays while working in a mill for a living. Nothing is known about his later years or his death.
Although Plautus was said to have written more than 100 plays, only 21 survive. They are closely modeled on the works of Menander and other Greek playwrights who wrote in a style called New Comedy, which flourished in Athens during the late 300s B.C. Plautus adapted the plots of the Greek originals, giving the characters Roman names and rewriting the plays to suit Roman audiences. Because the Greek originals are now lost, it is difficult to determine how much of Plautus’s plays is a faithful rendering of the Greek plays and how much is his original invention.
New Comedy relied on plot devices such as secret love affairs, misunderstandings, disguises and mistaken identities, and reunions of long-lost relatives. New Comedy also featured many recognizable types, or stock characters, such as the clever slave and the bragging soldier, whose traits were often exaggerated. Plautus employed the story lines and stock characters of New Comedy. For example, his play The Pot of Gold features a miserly, suspicious old man and a pair of young lovers. In Epidicus, a clever slave outwits his master and wins his freedom. The Two Menaechmuses features identical twins, a traditional plot device for creating comic confusion.
Yet Plautus did more than simply translate and copy Greek plays. Although his plays are set in Greece, they have a Roman flavor. They frequently refer to Roman people, places, and events. They are also filled with sparkling wit. Plautus’s humor contains so many puns and other examples of clever wordplay in Latin that it cannot fully be translated into any other language. Plautus altered his New Comedy models in other ways too. He added more music, and he gave some of the traditional stock characters more distinct individual personalities.
Roman acting companies continued to perform the comedies of Plautus for several centuries after his death, and Roman audiences continued to enjoy them. The plays were also popular in Europe between the 1400s and 1600s. Just as Plautus had borrowed his plots from the Greek playwrights, some European playwrights, such as William Shakespeare, borrowed their plot ideas from Plautus. In his Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare uses identical twins to create comic situations—a technique Plautus had employed centuries before. (See also Drama, Greek; Drama, Roman; Terence.)