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The secondary world of Plautinopolis

Rachel Mazzara

University of Toronto

When Gratwick (1982: 113) coined the name “Plautinopolis” as a shorthand for the conventional setting of Plautine plays, he was highlighting the plays’ Greco-Roman cultural hybridity, universal in Plautus’ Roman Comedy but nonexistent in any real-world location. The intercultural phenomena in this “fantasy Plautinopolis” (Henderson 1999: 7), where Greek characters speak Latin on Italian stages and act out Greek plotlines laden with references to Roman cultural institutions, have been well-documented and studied (Gruen 1990, Moore 1998). But the fantastic in Plautinopolis runs deeper than its hybridity, extending beyond the identities of its characters and the cultural content of their plotlines into the nature of their world.

            Plautinopolis operates according to peculiar rules that render it physically different from the real world. Compared to reality, the play-world is extra-fortuitous. Characters turn up in the right place at the right time in nearly every play, whether unwittingly bumping into long-lost friends and family (Rud., Epid.) or finding themselves rescued from dire circumstances by timely coincidence (Poen., Capt.), with the result that one-in-a-million chances become everyday occurrences. Its timelines are cyclical, so that all stories, from the mythical past (Am.) to the last generation (As. 68-72), follow the plot trajectories of Plautine comedy, and the division between past and future is so indistinct that today might as well be tomorrow, but tomorrow never arrives (Mos. 1178-9; McCarthy 2000). Even soundwaves behave differently in Plautinopolis: characters can hear the creak of an opening door from down the street (Mil. 410, Ps. 130-1), but they cannot hear an acquaintance talking right beside them (Cap. 830-5). Plautinopolis is not just culturally but also physically impossible, at least by the standards of the real world.

            Borrowing terminology from scholarship on fantasy literature, I suggest that the setting of Plautine comedy can be considered a “secondary world,” that is, “an autonomous world or venue which is not bound to mundane reality, … which is impossible according to common sense and which is self-coherent” (Clute and Grant 1999: 847). Secondary worlds are based on the real or “primary” world, but they feature alterations to the primary world’s “default” characteristics, from the introduction of imaginary people and places to the creation of new species, languages, and even universes (Wolf 2013). They may resemble the primary world as much as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which imaginary characters are inserted into the primary-world setting of the twentieth-century United States, or as little as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a universe that operates according to its own physics. Secondary worlds offer their authors a unique means of articulating ideology, because the world may be designed to support plotlines and characters that the primary world cannot. I argue that the generic conventions listed above reflect the resetting of primary-world defaults, making Plautinopolis a secondary world.

            Viewing Plautinopolis as a secondary world offers distinct advantages in the study of Plautus’ representation of the world. First, by casting the play-world as neither a Greek nor a Roman world, this model propels us beyond Quellenforschung. We need not sort out Roman additions from original Greek elements, because we recognize Plautinopolis as a fundamentally different, synthetic world. Second, where studies of the non-Roman in Roman Comedy are often confined to single plays or characters (Franko 1996, Faller 2001a), this view shifts our focus from play-bound narrative elements to the transnarrative setting, enabling us to form a holistic sense of Plautus’ representation of the play-world. I argue that the reset defaults of Plautus’ secondary world create a Plautinopolis that is more hospitable than the primary world could be to the narrative trajectories of Roman Comedy, and that the precise ways in which Plautinopolis facilitates comedy shed light on which comic outcomes Plautus prioritizes in his representation of the world.

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What's Roma Got to Do with It?

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