You are here

A Surfeit of Gods: Performing Roman polytheism in Plautus’ Bacchides

Christopher Jon Jelen

University of California, Berkeley

Plautus often uses comically long lists of nouns, or other words, to get an easy laugh out of his audience, a feature which Alison Sharrock calls, the "surfeit of nouns" (Sharrock 2009: 172). This paper proposes that when these lists are comprised of gods, it provides us with a perspective of polytheism that is characteristically Roman. In the Bacchides in particular, Plautus presents us with a view of Roman religion that is not normative and unified, but varied and incorporative. Whereas republican writers of tragedy, epic, and philosophical prose often attempt to standardize the many gods of Rome or to account for and explain any apparent disunity, Plautus in his comedy embraces this disunity. We are left with an image of Roman polytheism that is at once civic and personal, ritual and lived, anthropomorphic and abstract. I argue that this lack of a unified, philosophical stance is itself the result of an explicit choice and is worth considering as a legitimate view of divine multiplicity in its own right.

This project relies on the modern research of Roman religion that moves beyond treating it solely as a civic or ritual obligation, but instead considers the possibility of a lived, personal religion at Rome. For a significant period of time, scholarship on Roman religion left aside questions of individual religion and focused on issues of ritual and orthopraxy. As Niall Slater notes, "Now the tide has changed again, and the sufficiency of a solely ritual-based model for Roman religion seems questionable" (Slater 2011: 299). This paper continues the movement away from a ritual-based model and offers a concrete example of a possible alternative. In service of this, I use Jörg Rüpke's concept of the individualized or personal view of lived religion, a concept that treats the individual actor within Roman religion not as a figure who simply reproduces normative conceptions of the divine, but as an agent capable of evaluating those norms alongside alternatives and choosing whichever suits his or her own purposes (Rüpke 2016: 4).

While I examine several instances where Plautus uses strings of divinities, I focus on a dialogue between Pistoclerus, a young man who has become enamored with the courtesan Bacchis, and Lydus, his stodgy tutor. Pistoclerus has led them to the brothel and when Lydus asks whose house it is, the young man reinterprets his tutor's question about the owner of the house as a question about which gods hold power over it, saying: Amor, Voluptas, Venu', Venustas, Gaudium, / Iocu', Ludus, Sermo, Suauisauiatio (115-6). The humor of Pistoclerus' list peaks with the mention of the final deified abstraction, Suauisauiatio, or "Sweet-kissitude", a portmanteau of Plautus' own creation. One possible reaction to such personal, deified abstractions is to condemn them as ridiculous, or even immoral. In fact, Lydus does just that, using language that anticipates discussions of similar deified abstracts in Cicero's De Natura Deorum. While it is true that Pistoclerus is comically amplifying the characteristically Roman practice of deifying abstractions, we should resist merely echoing Lydus' moralizing dismissal. Instead, as this paper argues, Pistoclerus and Lydus represent two opposed views of the divine; Pistoclerus voices an individualized, personal view of lived religion at Rome while Lydus represents a moralizing and rationalistic view, anticipating the language of later prose works. The humor, then, is not simply a product of the dismissal of one view and preference for the other, but rather, the comic juxtaposition of two legitimate but conflicting views of Roman polytheism.

Session/Panel Title

What's Roma Got to Do with It?

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy