Monday, March 17, 2014


Wolfgang De Melo, Plautus: Stichus, Three-dollar Day, Truculentus, The Tale of a Traveling-bag, Fragments. Loeb classical library, 328. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 515. ISBN 9780674996816. $24.00.

Reviewed by Ferdinand Stürner​, Würzburg; St. Louis​ (

Version at BMCR home site

While some early volumes of the venerable Loeb series continue to offer sound and satisfying access to important texts, this is no longer true for Paul Nixon's Plautus.1 Although Nixon's charming eloquence and bubbly linguistic inventiveness still elicit admiration, his archaic style and penchant for Puritan censorship render the translations a difficult read for modern audiences and convey today a somewhat distorted impression of Plautus's dramatic style. Furthermore, scholarly progress has made many of Nixon's editorial decisions questionable and some of his translations infelicitous or even unsustainable. Thus, de Melo's new edition, which has now been completed with the fifth and last volume in an admirably short span of time, is not only a welcome, but a highly necessary and long expected replacement.

Like its predecessor, the last part of the new Loeb Plautus contains the plays Stichus, Trinummus and Truculentus and the scarce remains of Vidularia. While Nixon, however, included only a very limited selection from the fragmentary Plautus, de Melo prints, translates and annotates all fragments assembled in Monda's authoritative Sarsina edition.2 Each section is introduced by a short interpretative essay and bibliographical references. The volume concludes with a thorough schema metrorum and a concise but reasonably compiled index of proper names.

Earlier reviews have bestowed deserved praise on de Melo's work as a whole, but there have been certain reservations about the introductory notes. And it must be said that they continue to be the only weak point of the edition.3 Although free of blatant errors, the introductions lack balance and do not respond well to the needs of a largely non-specialist readership. Plainly put: too much precious space is consumed by longwinded plot summaries and the discussion of philological details, while important aspects of interpretation and current scholarship are neglected. In the case of the Stichus, for example, de Melo devotes eight of his nine introductory pages (2-11) to a synopsis of the plot, the intractable problem of the original and an inconclusive summary of Leitao's proposals on a short passage from Gelasimus' entrance monologue (155-170). The crucial question, however, of why the Roman audience enjoyed seeing a comedy that stands out through its complete lack of a conventional plot, receives far too little attention. Where a reference to the general dominance of individual scenes in Plautus' plays and the scholarly debate on this phenomenon would have been appropriate, de Melo contents himself with the fanciful and outdated views of Wagenvoort.4 Similar observations can be made on the introductions to the other plays. Particularly striking is that the editor discusses at length in his introduction to the Vidularia the transmission of the play, but he does not say a single word about the parallels between Vidularia and Rudens, which have been a major focus of scholarship since the days of Taubmann and Pareus. The short, very selective bibliographies mirror in part such conceptual weaknesses. In fact, it is difficult to tell what readership they might address. The specialist will not need them, and the non-specialist will hardly be interested in the titles on special problems that constitute the bulk of the citations. Thus, four of the nine titles listed in the Trinummus bibliography concern some two or three verses, while the only modern monograph on the play is not mentioned at all.5 And in the bibliography introducing the fragments of lost plays, shouldn't we expect to find a reference to Aragosti's recent commentary on those fragments?6

In view of the format, such quibbles might seem excessive carping to some. But it can be expected that the introductions in a major Loeb edition reflect the current state of research, and this is not always the case. This being said, the considerable merits of the edition certainly outweigh its shortcomings. First and foremost, the Latin text fully deserves the praise it has already received, and the present volume thoroughly conforms to the high standards established in the earlier parts of the work. While Nixon closely followed Leo's edition, de Melo establishes his own text, illustrating deviations from the editorial vulgate (Leo, Lindsay, Ernout) by short critical notes. The result can be called the most reliable and up-to-date edition of the complete Plautus available today. De Melo achieves an attractive balance between Leo's propensity to bold athetesis and Lindsay's excessive conservatism; and he presents an impeccable colometry, building on the results of Questa's groundbreaking studies.7 The text takes carefully into account the progress marked by the commentaries of Enk (Truculentus), Petersmann (Stichus) and Calderan (Vidularia) and profits greatly from the splendid apparatus in Monda's new edition of the fragments. Furthermore, de Melo proposes here and there interesting new emendations (e.g. Truc. 4; Trin. 1020; frg. 91). Factual errors or oversights are extremely rare. I only list some incidental observations on minor inconsistencies.

Stich. 159: illaec me is Müller's, not Lindsay's emendation. Stich. 388: poste is an emendation by Leo. Stich. 441-445: Petersmann's athetesis. Trin. 928: Guyet reads in Cercopia, not in Cercopio. Vid. 17: The name "Aspasius" should be bracketed, as it is a mere conjecture; Vid. 18 / 56: The hypothetical inscriptiones scaenarum should be bracketed. Vid. 80: suppl. Leo (omitted in the apparatus, although supplements are usually indicated). Vid. frg. VII sqq.: While the assignation of frg. XVI Calderan to the dialogue between Dinia and Nicodemus (69ff.) is convincing, the arrangement of the remaining fragments relies too heavily on Dér's8 reconstruction. Let us bear in mind that Dér does not reconstruct so much Plautus' Vidularia as Diphilus' Schedia, and that her claims are sometimes questionable (e.g., she seems to assume for the Schedia an arbitration scene with four (!) speaking characters). frg. 143-145 Monda: It is certainly appropriate to avoid the crux desperationis in a Loeb edition as far as possible. In this instance, however, it is inevitable, as Scaliger's conjectures are hardly more than erudite pleasantries…

The translations remain essentially faithful to the principles observed in volumes I-IV. De Melo aims primarily at a philologically correct, close and smooth rendition of Plautus' Latin. In many instances, one is grateful to the editor for resisting the temptation to imitate Plautus's copia verborum at any cost – a frequent vice of Nixon's version. However, de Melo's reluctance to endorse Plautus' stylistic exuberance might seem excessive to some, and his sober translations hardly qualify to convey to a non-specialist readership a realistic idea of Plautus' highly artificial and colorful language. This is definitely not a translation in the footsteps of Erich Segal, 9 then, but rather a rendition intended to provide the reader with a basic knowledge of Latin with reliable access to the beauties of the Latin text.

Let us have a look at a particularly illustrative example from the Truculentus. In Truc. 262sqq. the obtuse eponymous character mistakes Astaphium's harmless request to calm his mood (comprime sis eiram) for an invitation to commit adultery with his era:

Ast: comprime sis eiram. Truc: eam quidem hercle tu, quae solita es, comprime,
impudens, quae per ridiculum rustico suades stuprum.
Ast: eiram dixi: ut decepisti! dempsisti unam litteram.

Nixon translates as follows:

Ast: In a pet, my huffy dear! Truc: In and pet your hussy yourself, drat you! You're used to it. You bold thing, getting fresh with a farmer chap and making vile advances! Ast: I said "huffy". You artful creature! You changed the letters.

This is without any doubt an eloquent rendition that catches realistically the acid temper of Truculentus. However, it is not very faithful to what Plautus actually wrote. On the one hand, the misunderstanding results in the English text not from one, but from several missed letters. On the other hand, Nixon obviously tried to mitigate the sexual humor of the passage by translating the stark comprimere with the less explicit "pet" and by fundamentally discarding the idea of sexual intercourse between Truculentus and his own mistress. Tatum obviously felt less bothered by the sexual content than the censorious Nixon, but his rendition of the wordplay is even further from the original and hardly a specimen of good taste: 10

Ast: For the sake of your mistress, calm down. Truc: Make her come, did you say? etc.

De Melo, by contrast, manages an uncensored version without risking cringe-worthy modernisms:

Ast: Do keep your distress in check. Truc: No, you, who are used to doing it, keep your mistress in check, you shameless creature! You jokingly advise a country lad to have sex. Ast: I said "distress": how you've tricked me! You've changed one letter.

Here, the English wordplay comes admirably close to the Latin original, and de Melo even combines it with a surprisingly faithful rendition of the verb comprimere. Certainly, his translation is less spirited than Nixon's and sounds a bit stilted in Truculentus' answer (have sex…). It also is a rendition actors would find rather difficult to deliver effectively in an actual performance of the play. But it provides the reader with a neat impression of what is going on in the Latin text.

While Nixon's edition was (too) sparingly annotated, de Melo does his best to illustrate succinctly the passages that might cause difficulties to modern readers. The notes deserve the highest praise: they are not only informative, but they also provide the reader with vivid insights into the fascinating world of Plautine scholarship. The few instances where I would disagree are hardly worth mentioning. The editor has a good eye for passages needing further illustration, and only on very few occasions will the reader miss his guidance.

Thus, de Melo has equipped his general introduction in volume I with a useful excursus on "Terms for Greek Currency" – but will this help a reader of volume V wondering what the frequently mentioned Philippics might be? Other passages that are hardly intelligible without further explanations include Stich. 193, 353, Trin. 928, 962 and Truc. 139sqq. It would also be useful to know that frg. dub. 21 has been assigned to the Vidularia by some scholars and can be found again as Vid. frg. dub. III in de Melo's own edition. And as readers are made aware several times that names often have a comic second meaning in Plautus, why not provide them with translations attached to the list of characters (cf. the German edition of Gurlitt)? 11

To sum up: De Melo deserves praise and gratitude for an important update of the Loeb collection. His translation will remain for decades a reliable point of access to the fabulae Plautinae for students and non-specialist readers, and the experienced Plautinist will often profit from its use as well. The Latin text especially is worth a glimpse from anyone working on the poet. The few problematic aspects can easily be adjusted in the many future editions this excellent work will without any doubt receive. It should be added that, apart from a few formatting errors (e.g. pp. 100 and 206-210), the last volume of the edition is carefully produced and practically free of typographical errors.


1.   Plautus, with an English translation by Paul Nixon, 5 vols., 1916-1938.
2.   T. Maccius Plautus, Vidularia et deperditarum fabularum fragmenta, ed. S. Monda, Sarsina / Urbino 2004.
3.   Cf. the reviews by T. Moore (CJ online 2012.08.04), P. Kruschwitz (BMCR 2011.04.53 and 2011.12.32) and F. Franko (BMCR 2012.10.21)
4.   H. Wagenvoort, De Sticho Plautina, Mnemosyne 59 (1932), 309-312.
5.   E. Lefèvre, Plautus und Philemon, Tübingen 1995. Another regrettable omission (especially as de Melo stresses the "moral sentiment" of the play): M. Braun, moribus vivitur antiquis – Bemerkungen zur Moral im Trinummus, in: Braun – Haltenhoff – Mutschler (eds.), Moribus antiquis res stat Romana. Römische Werte und römische Literatur im 3. und 2. Jh. v. Chr., München – Leipzig 2000, 185-204.
6.   A. Aragosti, Frammenti plautini dalle commedie extravarroniane, Bologna 2009.
7.   The colometry of the cantica follows closely C. Questa, T. Macci Plauti Cantica, Sarsina / Urbino 1995.
8.   Cf. K. Dér, Vidularia. Outlines of a Reconstruction, CQ 37 (1987), 432-443.
9.   E. Segal, Plautus. Four Comedies, Oxford 1996.
10.   Plautus: The Darker Comedies (Bacchides, Casina, and Truculentus), translated from the Latin with introduction and notes by J. Tatum, Baltimore 1983.
11.   Plautus, Die Komödien, übersetzt von L. Gurlitt, Berlin 1920. ​

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