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It is well established that the defeat over Carthage in the 2nd Punic War marks a watershed moment for Roman but also for wider Mediterranean history. Large-scale militarisation, imperial aspirations, a growing network of non-Roman allies and a huge influx of plunder and people are all ramifications of Rome’s ascendancy over the region in the 3rd and 2nd cent. BCE. The centripetal force of Rome as the capital of a budding empire caused the remarkable creation of a literature in Latin by low-status non-Romans who channelled their creative talents into ways of earning a living in the metropolis (cf. Feeney). The perception of Rome as a powerful social, cultural and political centre, its unprecedented territorial expansion and the redefinition of the sacred space of the pomerium in this period have led scholars to diagnose a full-blown revolution in the Roman spatial imaginary (cf. Carlà). Against this sociocultural backdrop, the relative neglect in classical scholarship for the spatial parameters of the earliest literary texts in Latin is striking. Both the volumes edited by Rimell/Asper and by Fitzgerald/Spentzou that set out to establish the analytic toolkit of spatial theory in Latin literary scholarship tilt towards later imperial texts and remain curiously silent about early Roman drama.

My paper will attempt to partially close this gap by analysing extracts of Plautine comedies for their imagination of space and their awareness of imperial expansionism. Whereas Terence sets his comedies almost exclusively in Athens, Plautus’ settings are more diverse (featuring also Aetolia, Sicyone, Epidaurus, Epidamnus, Ephesus, Calydon and Cyrene). I am going to address the paradox that although Rome’s cultural evolution has left tangible traces in Plautine palliata (including the militarisation of society, controversies about the display of luxury, appropriation of non-Roman religious practices,…), the staggering alteration of spatial boundaries is but a subdued presence in the extant scripts. Going beyond the narrow and rather concrete conceptions of space in earlier research papers (cf. Rosivach, Andrews, Blackman), this study is going to combine the alterity and migratory background of early Latin poets (cf. Sciarrino) with a probing assessment of the latest research on the religious and ideological function of the ludi as pilgrimage attractions and vehicles of inculcating Rome’s divinely ordained supremacy (cf. Padilla-Peralta). Rome – despite being the new undisputed centre of the Mediterranean – emerges in Plautine comedy as an absent presence (intriguingly, the adjective Romanus occurs only once in his whole oeuvre, in Poen. 1314). Though replete with discernibly Roman cultural practices, Plautus’ comic plots and characters are self-consciously interchangeable and ‘placeless’. Analogously, his nonchalant construction of space (cf. Truc. 1-11) chimes with the ephemerality and improvised nature of stage arrangements in the Roman cityscape. Plautus’ comic imagination, I submit, retains a markedly ‘local’ and small-scale perspective that cannot conceive of the vastness of empire, but continues to think in terms of concrete peoples that have all begun to be submerged by Roman culture (cf. the frequency of the phrase (n)usquam gentium and the total absence of the nouns mundus or orbis terrarum).