You are here

Petty Theft in Plautus

Hans Bork


The creative use of insults and abuse language is notable in many genres of Latin literature, but most Classical scholarship on insults tends not to account for the dynamism with which Latin abuse language is deployed. Philological treatments of insult-language are largely atomistic, and often characterize insults as static, readily-categorized lexical entities (e.g, Opelt 1965, Dickey 2002). However, modern rhetorical and linguistic work on abuse language recognizes that insults are shaped by the discourse-context in which they appear, and that no terms are "inherently" insulting (Culpeper 1996, Conley 2010). Certain terms, particularly obscenities or taboo words, may have a greater probability of being viewed as insulting, but even this kind of language can be used in a friendly or bantering way by speakers who enjoy an established "social intimacy." Conversely, apparently innocuous or friendly speech can be made insulting by context. (Cf. greeting someone with "Hey, dummy!", if said in a joking way and to a friend, vs. the apparent compliment "Oh, good job", if delivered in a sneering tone to a stranger.) As such, to decide the valence of an insult in a piece of Latin literature, we need to take account of social context, the cultural semantics of the term in question, and the utterance in which it is used.

This approach is particularly fruitful when applied to the works of Plautus, as insults and abusive wordplay are key features of Plautine style (Fraenkel 2007[1922], Miniconi 1958, Lilja 1965). The Plautine insult lexicon is extensive (numbering over 700 forms according to Lilja), and includes both marked terms such as verbero or mastigia, which are generally used only to slaves or low-prestige characters, as well as less obviously marked forms such as insanus and fur, which are used by and against characters of all statuses and type. A form like fur is particularly interesting given evidence for a pan-Italic anxiety about theft; cf. injunctions against theft in Etruscan (Ve 3.13), in Oscan (ST Lu 62), in S. Italian Greek (IG XIV.865), and in early Latin (CIL I2 4; see (Rix 1985)). In addition, archaic Roman law allowed for thieves caught in furto manifesto to be killed or detained (Frier (1989); XII Tab. Leg. VIII.12). Nevertheless, thieves and theft play a major role in Plautus' plays: there are over 40 instances of the word fur in Plautus alone, as well as nonce coinages such as trium litterarum homo (Aul. 325) and perfossor parietum (Ps. 979). Moreover, acts of theft drive a number of Plautus' comic plots (e.g., Amphitruo, Asinaria, etc.), and in several instances, thieves serve as the main characters of the plays in which they appear, and are of otherwise "high" social status (e.g., Aulularia, Menaechmi, etc.). At one point, Plautus even has a character accuse the audience of being "full of thieves" (Aul. 717).

It seems incredible that a term and concept this charged (cited in Dickey 2002 as a "strong insult") would be used so widely by Plautus if its insult-value did not change across uses. Plautus avoids obvious "strong language" as a matter of style (Adams 1982), and his lexical choices are carefully made. I propose that in composing his plays, Plautus in fact exploited for comic effect a core lexicon of divisive, loaded terms (e.g., fur), and that the social relationships governing how these terms were used in the plays were an important part of the comic theater experience. In use, a word like fur could be insulting, shocking, or bantering, depending on the social relationship of the characters who uses it, and this relationship would have been obvious, and obviously entertaining, to a contemporary audience. In addition, metatheatric cues would have served to establish a bond between comic actors and their audience (Moore 1998), and this bond would also have influenced how audience members interpreted the insults used on-stage (or even against they themselves, as in the Aulularia example).

Session/Panel Title

Insult, Satire, and Invective

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy