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Sosia, the Cook (?)

Sander M. Goldberg


Freedmen are rare figures in Roman comedy. There is only one in Terence—Sosia, who appears in the opening scene of Andria—and he is entirely Terence’s creation. Donatus (ad 14) tells us that this expository scene comes from Menander’s Perinthia, where the old man enters in conversation not with a retainer but with his wife. The substitution may reflect Terence’s general lack of interest in female perspectives in Andria (itself a topic of some interest), but Sosia is a problematic character in his own right. He enters with porters carry provisions for a wedding feast, and in glossing his reference to mea ars (31), Donatus identifies him as a cook. Artistic evidence is congruent with that identification. The best of the illustrated Terence manuscripts, Vat. Lat. 3868, an elegant reproduction of a lost original nearly contemporary with Donatus, depicts Sosia gesturing with a ladle and sporting what is clearly the same mask worn by the cook in the Mytilene mosaic illustrating Menander’s Samia. So far, so good—but it is all wrong.

The text itself is in the way. Sosia lacks all the characteristic attributes of the comic mageiros: he is obsequious, not boastful; laconic, not voluble. Simo singles him out for his fides et taciturnitas (34), hardly virtues of the cooks we know from the Plautine stage. (Syrus, who supervises preparation for a feast at Adelphoe 364 ff. comes closer to that mark.) The mask seems wrong, too. He wears the dark-skinned mask with braided hair that Pollux 4.148 calls the tettix (cicada), which according to Athenaeus 14.659a distinguished non-citizen cooks from citizen cooks. Yet Sosia, raised a parvolo in Simos’ own household (35), is no foreigner. What is going on? Why did (the later?) tradition make him a cook, and why put him in blackface?

What actually happened on the Roman stage at Andria’s debut in 166 BCE is impossible to determine, and this paper will not try. It is instead an exercise in reception, where something important can be said about how readers of a later time came to imagine both Terence and his plays. It develops its argument from two fundamental observations:

1. The evidence that raised this issue in the first place is largely independent of any production history. Neither Donatus nor the illustrated tradition suggests direct experience of the plays on an actual stage. (Thus Wright, pace Dodwell, Dutsch. Cf. Kragelund 2012.)

2. The mask in question stands out for being a distinctive and recognizable type (MINC no. 26) in an artistic context where all the other masks represented are generalized and, within broad categories of age, sex, and social position, impossible to identify more specifically.

What we have, then, is the result of thinking about a text, not seeing a performance. It looks like someone at some pointed wanted Sosia to be a black-faced cook. Why? This paper will argue that in doing so, the tradition is aligning Sosia with two facts of the Terentian biography, that Terence was a freedman and came from Africa. In addition, the association of food with comedy and of comic poets with cooks has an established history at Rome (Frangoulidis, Gower) as well as Greece (Wilkins, Wright). Here, in the opening scene of the entire corpus, Terence is being deliberately but tacitly brought into his own play (whether as African poet or obsequious freedman is perhaps another question).

As a coda—and to show this is not a completely looney reading of the evidence—the paper will look briefly at a set of monumental paintings by the Danish artist Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809) that makes precisely this connection between Terence, Sosia, and the artist himself (Kragelund 1987).

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Forms of Drama

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