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Lost in translation: Mapping cultural displacement in the Plautine Mediterranean

Leon Grek

Princeton University

The fictional geographies of Roman comedy are, at least at first glance, entirely un-Roman. Following in the wakes of their New Comic forerunners, the characters of the palliata ricochet around the Hellenistic Mediterranean, from the Black Sea to Cyrenaica, and from Massilia to Ephesus, while Rome and Italy remain, with very few exceptions, over the distant horizon. Yet, I show in this paper, these translated trajectories also map out a set of distinctly Roman anxieties about the city’s uncertain position within the cultural world of the Hellenistic oikumene. After a brief orientation to the geography of the genre, I look in greater depth at two of Plautus’s comedies, Menaechmi and Rudens, the most out-of-place plays in the entire surviving corpus of Greco- Roman New Comedy. In Menaechmi, I argue, Plautus takes advantage of his audience’s newfound familiarity with the specifically western Greek geography of the play’s unknown original to stage a tour of the frontlines of Roman expansion and hellenization in the Ionian Sea. In contrast, the remote setting of Rudens, together with its characters’ radical displacements from their communities of origin, allows Plautus to raise timely questions about the nature of Roman and Greek identity in an increasingly cosmopolitan Mediterranean. In both cases, finally, Plautus consistently reorients the geographical coordinates of his models in order to highlight the entanglement of linguistic, cultural and commercial interactions between Greece and Rome. By pushing us away from familiar binary oppositions between conqueror and conquered, or between philhellenism and hellenophobia, I suggest in closing, these spatial transactions usefully complicate and enrich our understanding of cultural politics in mid-Republican Rome.

Session/Panel Title

What's Roma Got to Do with It?

Session/Paper Number

39.5

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