Depictions of religious practice are widespread in Plautus's plays, but literary scholarship has thus far given little attention to how Plautus deploys this "serious" content for comic effect. Gods, prayers, and religious rites are essential to many Plautine plots (as in e.g., Amphitruo, Mercator, and Rudens), and the centrality of religious elements to Plautus's literary style has been broadly outlined in several major studies (e.g. Hanson 1959, Dunsch 2009). Nevertheless, literary discussions of Plautine religion tend to focus on the "mythological" motifs that Plautus uses, often with an emphasis on his putative Greek sources (e.g., Fraenkel 2007 ); alternatively, they attempt to find in Plautus evidence for contemporary historical events, such as the expulsion of the Bacchanalian cult from Rome. While valuable, such approaches do not address the irreverent, even puzzling ways in which Plautus frames religious material, which would have been apparent in performance and so should be considered in relation to Plautus's larger comic technique (Jeppesen 2015).
Roman state religion in Plautus's time emphasized the correct performance of rituals rather than personal belief (Beard et al. 1998). It follows then that the prayers and rituals presented on the Plautine stage, if performed "correctly," would have been notionally inseparable from "real," offstage prayers and rituals (Dunsch 2011). Placing such religious elements in irreverent comic scenes would have been provocative, especially for an audience participating in the ritual ludi where at least some of Plautus's comedies were staged (Goldberg 1998). Moreover, Plautus himself sharpens the provocation by deliberately burlesquing contemporary religious modes, as at Captivi 768–80, when the parasitus character Ergasilus speaks a prayer that is stylistically similar to attested Latin and Sabellic prayers (e.g., Cato, de Ag. 141, Tab. Ig. VIb 60; cf. Poultney 1959, Watkins 1995). Ergasilus asks for an endless supply of food—a parody of Cato's lustration prayer—and while the format of his invocation reflects genuine practice, its speaker and context are conspicuously comical and outlandish. In this frame, the prayer reads like a joke, but it is nonetheless effective, as Ergasilus is eventually made "lord of the hams" and receives the bounty he requested (Cap. 901–8). The dramatic result is a paradox, wherein apparently genuine practice yields results that are real within the world of the play, but are undercut by the irreverence of their comic context.
Plautus playfully extends this same dynamic in the phrase iocus [et] ludus ("joke and jest"), which occurs at key points in several of his plays (e.g., Bac. 116, Cap. 770, Merc. 846, Ps. 65, Truc. 104). Throughout the palliata, both terms carry dual meanings (i.e., iocus = joke or insult, ludus = play or mockery), but both also have a strong religious pedigree, wherein ludus invokes the actual ludi publici, while iocus connects to a deep ritual tradition of Italic ritual (cf. the Umbrian cognate iuku, "vatic word/prayer"). Together, the words encompass the major aspects of comic performance and religious ritual: specific words (iocus) and deeds (ludus) performed to achieve an effect (Ernout-Meillet 2001). Plautus even has a character pray to the gods Iocus and Ludus (Bacc. 116), which are modeled on attested abstract deities such as Pax and Fortuna (Clark 2007). In this role, the terms encapsulate Plautus's approach to religion, and become a meta-joke specific to the ludic audience of the plays. Plautus regularly invites audiences to participate in the on-stage action of his comedies, and he is fond of puncturing the dramatic illusion as a means of building rapport (Moore 1998). By participating in this metatheatricality, the audience became complicit in the "real," ostensibly parodic rites and prayers that Plautus puts onstage. This complicity then redounds to the "real" ludi, and transmutes Plautus's comic parody into an essential feature of the civic ritual. Plautine irreverence thereby blends with performed religious practice, and just like the words iocus and ludus, compactly encodes and explicates two contrasting but allied concepts.
Getting the Joke