How did Roman theater audiences interpret imaginary, in-play odors, when they could not experience these directly? The question has received scant attention in scholarship on dramatic performance. Regardless, olfaction is prominent in Latin comedy: characters regularly remark on offensive or pleasant scents (e.g., pigsties, Most. 40 vs. baking bread, Capt. 808), and “stage odors” drive important narrative turns, as at Curc. 96–157, when the aroma of spilled wine entices someone from a locked house. Surely actors did not imitate in-play smells directly (Ketterer 1986; Marshall 2006). Moreover, real-world odors from the actors, the surrounding crowd, and the city would have dominated the senses of contemporary audiences (Morley 2015; Skotheim 2016). How, then, were staged scents meaningful?
Comic drama requires active audience participation to succeed (Revermann 2006). Research on cognition suggests that to process described odors, Roman audiences supplied individual sense-memories—they did not “smell,” but remembered analogous personal experience in response to performance cues (Evans 2019; Iatropoulos et al. 2018). Of course, people of every background attended comedies (Richlin 2018), and each experienced the “olfactory reality” of Rome differently, thereby bringing different associations to onstage prompts. Consider the varying reactions “goat” (Cas. 1018), “garlic” (Most. 39), “saffron” (Cur. 103), or “myrrh” (As. 929) might have evoked, let alone the humorous amalgam “theft, prostitution, and lunch” (furtum, scortum, prandium, Men. 170). This mixture has no possible real-world equivalent, and shades into pure metaphor, as all scents could (Bradley 2015). For example, certain odors were proverbial to high- or low-status groups, and so could insult, as when an urban slave mocks a country slave for his garlicky stench (Most. 39; cf. Lilja 1972). Some spectators surely laughed at this, but others—perhaps smelling garlicky themselves—surely did not, laughing instead when the city slave himself is mocked for “stinking of fancy perfume” (Most. 42). In both cases, the conceptual associations of the terms “garlic” or “perfume” were significant, not the actual, sensual qualities of their referents.
Lack of specificity was, paradoxically, what made such “performed odors” possible. Comic characters rarely try to describe olfaction in detail, but rather grade scents—and their sources—for basic qualities: good, bad, strange, familiar (a tendency common across languages; Holz 2007). As such, olfactory terms in Latin comedy (e.g., olere, olfacere, fetere) denote figurative meanings as much as literal, and one (subolet) is exclusively metaphorical (e.g., Cas. 277: subolet hoc iam uxori quod ego machinor, “What I’m up to smells fishy to my wife!”; cf. Stevens 2008). Contemporary audiences were thereby primed to recognize metaphor in any onstage olfaction, and by responding to this with individual sense-memories, assisted in constructing the world of the play. A viewer might not know what “tanning fluid” (nautea) smelled like, but from the performance could recognize it as unpleasant—and then mentally substitute some analogous foul smell they did know. Specific, individual sensations thus became tangible bridges to the abstract, collective reality of the stage.