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Acting Your Age on the Roman Stage: The Plautine adulescens in Middle Republican Rome

Evan Jewell

Columbia University

Age roles were fixtures both on the stage of Roman comedy and in the hierarchies of Roman society after the Second Punic War. The comic plot frequently turned upon tensions between the age roles of the adulescens and senex. Scholars have long recognized the “stock” quality of the adulescens in Roman comedy, among a host of other roles (Duckworth 1994). Metatheatrical commentary within the comedies themselves reveals that Roman audiences could expect to see certain types of characters appear in a comic plot (Plaut. Capt. 57-58, Men.7-10, 72-76; Ter. Phorm. 6-7, Eun. 35-40). The use of distinctive types of masks for certain roles, including the adulescens, also seems probable in a Roman context (Marshall 2006, Petrides 2014). In sum, the adulescens would have been immediately recognizable to a Roman audience through both verbal and visual signs.

As performative fixtures in a specific social and historical context however, age roles in Roman comedy—here confined to the fabula palliata of Plautus—have not yet received any level of comprehensive analysis approaching that applied to other social phenomena on the stage, particularly slavery (cf. Parker 1989, McCarthy 2000, Stewart 2012, Richlin 2014). This paper remedies the lack of attention paid to these age roles as Roman phenomena in a historical context, arguing that the performance of these roles actively engaged with contemporary conversations in Roman society about how adulescentes should perform—or act—their age on the social stage of a rapidly changing Rome recovering from the Second Punic War. Building on the work of Claude Pansiéri (1997), Timothy Moore (1998), Matthew Leigh (2004) and Amy Richlin (2014) which has sought to restore Roman comedy to its historical contexts and to analyze its interaction with a segmented audience, my paper begins with a survey of the references in Plautus to age groups beyond the fourth wall of the comic stage, focusing on adulescentes, but including other age groups, such as the iuventus, pubes, pueri and senes. The cumulative sum of these references suggests that our understanding of the segmentation of the Roman audience should extend beyond class, education, gender, and legal status to include age groups.

My study then proceeds from this baseline to analyze how the Plautine adulescens interacts with legal developments affecting the adulescentes in the audience of Middle Republican Rome. I first focus on references to leges which specifically regulated the actions of adulescentes, most famously the contemporary lex Laetoria (Plaut. Pseud. 303, Rud. 1381 with Di Salvo 1979) and the way in which Plautus’ adulescentes attempt to circumvent or rhetorically subvert these leges, as in the coda to the Mercator (1016-1026) which sees the adulescens Eutychus call for applause from the adulescentes in the audience when he proposes that a law be made to regulate the amatory activity of men over the age of sixty. Further Plautine plots which emphasize the legal and fiscal impediments to the activities of adulescentes, such as the Trinummus, will then be considered against this legal backdrop.

Moving from contemporary leges, I conclude with an analysis of father-son relations in the Plautine corpus, but honing in upon moments where the institution of patria potestas appears to be invoked or challenged by the comic discourse. In this regard, I propose that the devastating demographic effects of the Second Punic War upon Rome’s adult male population (Brunt 1971, Rosenstein 2004), and so too its audience of adulescentes who grew to maturity during the war—many left fatherless and, consequently, sui iuris—need to be understood in relation to Plautus’ adulescentes and his ambiguous articulation of patria potestas. By considering the Plautine adulescens as a character who deliberately spoke to the adulescentes in the audience and their contemporary concerns, this paper argues that Plautus should be viewed as participating in a broader Roman conversation occurring at the beginning of the second century BCE about the norms regulating the actions of adulescentes.

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Political and Social Relations

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