Thanks to a didaskalia that identifies the ludi Megalenses in 191 B.C.E. as a known performance occasion for the play, Plautus’ Pseudolus presents scholars with a unique opportunity to connect the content of a Roman comedy to its immediate performance context. In spite of this prospect, the standard line that scholarship takes on this issue is that there is no substantive connection between the text and the festival. Although it is true that there are no overt mentions of Cybele in the play, when Pseudolus is performed in the context of the ludi Megalenses, certain scenes take on an additional parodic meaning that connects the play with the festival and comments on the cultural politics of adopting foreign cults into Roman religion.
The Romans used the term dies natalis to refer to the annual commemoration of a deity’s temple dedication (e.g. Cic. Att. 4.1.4; Varro Epist. Fuf. 1.1). The ludi Megalenses of 191 were particularly special because the temple of Magna Mater on the Palatine was dedicated during this festival. When Ballio the pimp enters the stage for his first scene (133 ff.), he informs everyone that it is his birthday, thus connecting him with Cybele through the shared motif of the dies natalis, a phrase that receives repeated emphasis throughout the play (165, 179, 234, 243, 775, 1237). As any self-respecting deity would do, Ballio requires offerings from his followers (i.e. his salves and prostitutes) on his dies natalis. The items that Ballio requests from his prostitutes (171-229), namely cattle, grain, oil, and general provisions, are the same goods offered to Magna Mater during the festival, through the rituals of the sacrifice and lectisternium (Beard, et al. 1998: 148-53; Scullard 1981:22-24; Livy 29.14.14). The overall image of the scene itself, which requires nine actors in performance, the most of any Plautine scene (Marshall 2006:99-104, 111), could even have provided a visual reflection of the procession of Magna Mater that preceded the performance (Ovid Fasti 4.183-6; Lucretius 2.600-43).
Furthermore, the equation of Ballio with Magna Mater early on in the play encourages the viewer to connect the unfortunate puer of lines 767-89 with the Galli, castrated priests of Cybele who, like the puer, had to beg for donations for their mistress/master and were associated in invective poetry with oral sex (Mart. Ep. 3.81; Kwinter 1992). The connection with Magna Mater also prompts the audience to associate the cook’s diatribe about how his rivals only prepare giant piles of herbs for their guests (810-25) with the magistrate’s ritual offering to the goddess of moretum, an herb and cheese concoction (Ovid Fasti 4.367-72). The cook in Pseudolus will instead give this play’s Magna Mater the food of comedy, not herbs mixed with cheese.
All three of these scenes involve a parodic send-up of the rituals and personnel associated with the worship of Magna Mater, which not only fits in with the carnivalesque atmosphere of the ludi generally, but also speaks to a purposeful tension between the Roman and the foreign that is maintained in the cult of Magna Mater (Beard 1994), a cult that was dependent on effeminate, foreign priests and ecstatic rituals but was nonetheless brought into the heart of the Roman religious system. In the expanding realm of Roman imperialism in the second century B.C.E., Romans were continually faced with the question of self-definition (Gruen 1996: 5-33). One way of addressing this was to incorporate religious practices that involved a degree of acceptable foreignness, or even at times constructed foreignness, in order to provide a counterpoint against which Romanitas could be defined. This analysis of Pseudolus at the ludi Megalenses can be considered a case study in the culturally beneficial effects of embracing acceptable foreignness and cultivating rather than eradicating the tension created thereby.
What's Roma Got to Do with It?