Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Inventing anchors? The function of ‘Greek models’ within the process of innovation in Early Roman Drama

To what end and how does Plautus constantly underline the Helleni(sti)c provenance of his art? How does this aspect relate the author’s originality?

2015 - 2019


In most of the prologues to his comedies, Plautus openly emphasizes the fact that his works are translations of certain Greek models. Actually, when reading them, one has the impression that Plautine palliatae really follow some Greek New Comedies, given the significant occurrence of the peculiar features of this genre in the Latin version. This raises the question whether the ‘Greekness’ of Plautus’ comedies is entirely inherited from the models or, rather, is also due to the author’s deliberate enhancement of the generic features of the Nea. Furthermore, Plautus adds some further elements that contribute to give his palliatae a Greek nuance, even if they are not required by the genre of the model: the lyric songs, based on Greek metres, are the most paradigmatic example of this aspect. To summarize, there is the suspect that Plautus, by doing that, is striving to connect his comedies to an authoritative and well-acknowledged tradition. His aim is very likely to facilitate and accomplish the establishment of the Roman palliata as an official literary genre. Actually, the strategy of anchoring prevented his recipients from feeling Plautine plays as too abrupt an innovation (being unfamiliar) and thus rejecting them.

As part of the broader project ‘Anchoring Innovation’, the current research aims to analyse the role and the impact of the human factor in the process of launching and promoting an innovation. The analysis will be developed along the twofold guideline familiarity-novelty, which in this specific case must also keep into account the dynamics author-recipients.

Plautus’ art cannot be fully understood if it is considered just as a vorsio of the Greek models altered by the insertion of some original elements (Fraenkel’s Plautinisches). Actually, such a reading would regard Plautine palliatae as mere adaptations and their creation would seem to be due to a lack of inspiration only. Conversely, Plautus’ extraordinary creativity shows itself in his ability to recreate in the plays a Greek atmosphere, both formal and environmental; he does this not only by mirroring a specific model but also by combining elements taken from other kinds of sources.

Plautus’ predecessors and contemporaries too gave birth to their literary works thanks to the so-called process of artistic translation, thus contributing to make their addressees well acquainted with the Greek heritage (myth, formal and linguistic aspects). There are many clues suggesting that, in order to mimic the nature of the Greek New Comedy, besides the model itself, Plautus exploited also this Latin Hellenic material. When composing the Amphitruo, for example, it is likely that Ennius’ Alcumena could have inspired the mythological matter. And Naevius must have already made use of those Hellenizing lyric metres that Plautus mastered in his songs and could not belong to any Greek comical model. Analysing the extent of such a strategy and how it helped Plautus to gain success is the aim of the current research. This not only will shed a new light on a process that, despite its relevance, has not been taken into due account, but it will also give a better and extensive understanding of the concept of ‘model’ in Plautus. Actually, it will be shown that Plautine plays cross not only two different cultures, namely Athens and Rome, but also different genres (in Greek and Latin as well). Mimicry of Greek authoritative predecessors represents the unifying element of all these heterogeneous aspects.

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