Michigan (2015) p/b 223pp £22.39 (ISBN 9780472036424)
Michigan Classical Commentaries constitute a new series of discussions of idiosyncratic texts. Currently there are three: Pausanias Book 1, Cicero de Divinatione 1 and this edition of the Poenulus. M. provides a substantial Introduction covering the Roman theatre in general, the relationship of fabula palliata to New Comedy, Plautus’ work and the Poenulus in particular, and the historical context. There are also useful discussions of Plautine language and metre, of the use of music in the plays, and of the manuscript tradition. The introduction concludes with a brief passage on ‘Performance Criticism’ and ‘Metatheater’. The bulk of the book consists of the Latin text (pp. 47-84) and the Commentary (pp. 85-205). There is a well-judged Bibliography and a thorough Index.
Poenulus surely deserves an outing. Admittedly, it does not contain the flamboyant characters and scenes of other Plautine comedies; it has an inordinately long prologue; the title-character does not appear until Act 5 and even then spouts (according to the manuscripts) twenty lines of garbled Punic; and the transmitted ending is a complete mess (M. p.200). Still, that prologue tells us a lot about the conditions of Roman theatrical production. The characters are typical of the palliata: a pimp, young girls free-born but currently enslaved and due to be recognized and freed in the dénouement, an uppity slave, a young man in love, and a boastful soldier. There is deception: two separate deceptions indeed. There is also, uniquely in Plautus, a small chorus: three impoverished citizens wheeled on to cooperate in and grumble about the affairs of their betters. And finally there is Hanno himself, the Good Carthaginian, on the face of it, a great surprise on the Roman stage. His clothes are exotic (975: he is wearing a tunic as an over-garment; 981: he has rings in his ears but none on his fingers; 1008: he has no belt on). He can speak Latin perfectly, as we are told in the Prologue, but he opens in uncompromisingly Punic fashion with a prayer in Punic to his own gods and only lets on that he can speak Latin when provoked by the ignorant and stupid slave. He ends the play as the ‘winner’: he has found all the missing members of his family and married his daughter to her cousin.
If nothing else, this seems a remarkable expression of multiculturalism. In no other Plautine play does a foreigner play so important a role. Of course, everyone in the palliata is a foreigner—all the plays are set in a Greek environment. But their foreign-ness is barely advertised, and there are no extended passages of Greek to baffle the audience. Conveniently, internal evidence dates the Poenulus to around 189 BC, when Rome and Carthage signed a treaty of friendship. M. remarks (p.198) that ‘the embarrassment and downfall of the pimp and the soldier … suggest to the audience that their stereotypes of the Carthaginian character are wrong.’ This seems to be getting close to the risky suggestion that Plautus could write a play to convey a political or social ‘message’. Still, it is an interesting line, and there can be little harm in using it to justify giving this play publicity.
There is one respect in which M.’s approach is unusual for commentaries this side of the Atlantic: although there is a good deal of help with grammar and syntax, there is almost none when it comes to translation. I have the impression that this is policy for the series, which is ‘intended for upper-level undergraduate and introductory graduate courses’. While it no doubt has the effect of keeping the attention of the student where it should be, it limits the way in which the editor can provide her readers with imaginative help. I also felt that it would be useful to set out the text so that passages in different metres were distinguished by line-spaces or indentation—after all, we are constantly told that Plautus’s plays are articulated more by metrical variation than by the (late) division into scenes. But the commentary is admirably clear and full, introducing the reader to a wide range of modern Plautine scholarship and not straying into its wilder fantasies. I detected only one misprint, where mitto in line 1268 is attributed to Agorastocles rather than Adelphasium.
The online blurb describes this as ‘The first English commentary on Plautus’ unabridged text.’ While it is true that this is the first commentary which looks like achieving a wide circulation, I think some honour should go to Adrian Gratwick, whose Oxford dissertation of 1968 surely constitutes the actual ‘first English commentary’.