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American Journal of Philology 121.3 (2000) 385-407
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Plautus' Stichus and the Political Crisis of 200 B.C.
William M. Owens
What to make of Stichus? Scholars have written appreciatively of its separate parts: the sisters who are loyal wives to their absent husbands, the sympathetic depiction of the parasite Gelasimus, and even the wild celebration of the slaves that ends the play. 1 However, when considering Stichus as an artistic whole, scholarship has tended to blanket the play with anathema. Thus Norwood: "What of Stichus, which falls into three mere lumps?" 2 Duckworth is more discursive but no less disparaging: "The Stichus is hardly a drama; there is no real plot and complication and denouement of the usual sort are lacking. The scenes fall into three groups: these might be called 'The Abandoned Wives' (1-401), 'The Homecoming, or the Disappointed Parasite' (402-640), and 'The Carousal of the Slaves' (641-775)." 3
Previous readings have focused on the relation of Stichus to Plautus' model, Menander's first Adelphoe, attributing the deficiencies in the Roman play to Plautine departures from the model, either through free invention of scenes and characters or through contaminatio, the introduction of scenes from Greek plays other than Adelphoe. 4 However, even those who believe that Plautus was more or less faithfully following the contents of Menander's Adelphoe consider Stichus to be a poorly constructed work. 5
Given this general critical disparagement and the almost complete [End Page 385] loss of its model, source criticism of Stichus has come to resemble a kind of philological shadowboxing against an invisible and superior opponent. The present reading seeks to understand the difficulties of this play in terms of its Roman audience of 200 B.C. The broad outlines of this approach were developed by Segal in Roman Laughter (1987), who argued that Plautine humor was accommodated to Roman concerns and preoccupations. Wagenvoort (1931) anticipated Segal's approach with specific reference to Stichus in his suggestion that the play reflects the jubilant mood of the people who had defeated Hannibal in the previous year and recently celebrated Scipio's triumph. Such a people, he argued, were in no mood for a play constructed by the book, but wanted one that was accommodated to their mood:
Plautus Stichum [composuit] . . . cum etiam atque etiam aliae aliunde copiae domum reverterentur, isdem fortasse diebus, quibus summo cum gaudio Romani Scipionem aspicerent triumphantem. Tali tempore non id profecto cives a poeta suo poposcerunt, ut comoediam sibi praeberet rigidis normis adstrictam quodque ad compositionem attinet omnibus numeris absolutam, sed ut spectaculum sibi offerret ad commune gaudium quam poterat maxime accommodatum. 6
There is evidence that Stichus was matched to the mood of its audience; the Ludi Plebeii for which the play was produced in 200 B.C. were repeated three times, and the popularity of Stichus may have been one of the reasons for the multiple instaurationes. 7 However, the mood of the people of Rome in 200 B.C., a politically turbulent year, was more complex than summum et commune gaudium. Fresh upon the victory [End Page 386] over Hannibal, the Senate was preparing to fight a war in Greece against Philip V of Macedon. Since the autumn of 201 senatorial ambassadors had been sent to various Greek states to canvass support for Roman intervention; during this same period ambassadors from a number of Greek states had been in Rome to complain about Philip's aggressions. 8 In March 200 the consul P. Sulpicius Galba, having received Macedonia as his province, proposed a declaration of war against Philip to the Centuriate Assembly. But a tribune, Q. Baebius, spoke against the bill, and war was rejected by nearly every voting division (ab omnibus ferme centuriis antiquata est, Liv. 31.6.3). Livy reports that the people were exhausted from the length of the war they had just completed and that Baebius was able to exploit their discontent.
In response, the Senate advised Galba to try again. The war was approved after a vigorous speech from the consul. Livy does...