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Civic Reassignment of Space in the Truculentus

Robert Germany

The first few lines of Plautus’ Truculentus develop the conceit that the stage is a temporary incursion of Athens into the heart of Rome.  The prologus addresses the audience as a public assembly and asks that they consent to this ad hoc territorial redefinition of Roman city space.  Scholars have sometimes noted the similar turn in the Menaechmi (7-12; 72-76), where the prologus draws attention to the arbitrariness of the stage’s “here,” which may change from city to city between plays.  The themes of these passages do indeed overlap and help to illuminate each other, but it is worth examining the Truculentus passage in greater detail by itself with an eye to the peculiarly Roman institutions Plautus invokes here to formulate the audience’s political and spatial position vis-à-vis the stage.  The allusion to early Roman (as distinct from Athenian) assembly practice, specifically in a negotiation over this mock territorial loan, is not merely an instance of plautinisches im Plautus, but a pointed indication of the cultural means by which the audience is expected to navigate its relationship to the Greek world of palliata.

The arbitrary assignment of foreign status to a miniscule patch of land in Rome has an interesting corollary in the Roman procedure for declaring war, as a brief survey of the evidence relevant to indictio belli will show.  The pater patratus may indeed once, in Rome’s very early past, have marched to the hostile territory to cast in the blood-dipped spear and announce war (Livy 1.32.6-14), but this protocol could only be followed when Rome’s enemies were her neighbors.  From the early 3rd century BCE on, a new form of the ritual was instituted, one that seems (pace Rüpke) to have been observed at least intermittently down to the 2nd century CE or later.  A captive soldier from Pyrrhus’ army was forced to “buy” a tiny plot of land in the Circus Flaminius, just in front of the Temple of Bellona.  This patch of earth, now a foreign pied-à-terre, was declared sovereign territory of Rome’s enemy, so the traditional requirements of indictio could be fulfilled there, including the spear cast from Roman into hostile terrain.  It was on this spot that the Romans erected the columna bellica, a diminutive pillar, which would subsequently serve as alien soil ad libitum, a tiny pocket of the generalized enemy’s polity in the middle of Rome.

I do not mean to claim that there is a direct allusion to indictio belli in the prologue of the Truculentus.  There is, rather, a suggestive homology between the way space is fictionalized in Roman theater and in the fetial practice, a homology that becomes especially clear in the Truculentus’ play with its audience.  A foreign cityscape is incorporated into Rome for a time, to be watched, thought with, and finally obliterated at the end of the ritual.  The spatial synapse and directional disorientation required for this incorporation is part of what seems to structure this topographical discourse, as is the urban alterity of this similar yet alien place.  In dramatizing this civic stand-off between the world of the audience and the world of the play, the prologue of the Truculentus recapitulates a spatial poetics Romans will know from another context.

We cannot know in which ludi the Truculentus was performed, but it is tempting to speculate that it may have been at the Ludi Apollinares, in which case the audience would presumably be sitting on the steps of the Temple of Apollo Medicus, exactly next to and parallel with the Temple of Bellona, with the stage set up literally beside the columna bellica.  For any other ludi the echo would not be quite as obvious, though it would probably be clear enough whenever the same basic configuration of stage and temple obtained, as was certainly the case in the Megalensia and very likely in others as well.

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Performance and Space in Ancient Drama

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