The obscurity of the reference to “King Jason” (regem Iasonem) in Pseudolus 192 has led Morris (1890) and Willcock (1987) to suggest that King Jason refers to the fourth century tyrant Jason of Pherae. Auden (1895) and Sturtevant (1932), however, identify this figure as Iasion, the father of Plutus. Finally, Arcellaschi (1978 and 1990) has identified the elusive king as Jason the Argonaut and husband of Medea as part of a larger argument for direct influence of Pacuvius’ Medus on the Pseudolus. This paper will adduce two key areas of evidence hitherto unconsidered that suggest that the audience of the play would have understood the reference as Jason the Argonaut: the popularity of the Medea myth in Latin tragedy and the frequent depictions of Argonautic myth in Etruscan mirrors. Moreover, the evidence from these mirrors opens a window on the understanding of the reference to Medea later in the Pseudolus and the use of myth throughout the entire play.
The popularity of Medea in Roman tragedy in the second century is evidenced by the Medea Exsul of Ennius (and perhaps a second play that treated Medea’s sojourn in Athens by the same author), the aforementioned Medus and the Medea sive Argonautica of Accius. Therefore, Jason and Medea were apparently familiar to Roman audiences, while there is no evidence of any knowledge of Jason of Pherae or Iasion in the same era. It is possible that the Greek original of the Pseudolus was alluding to Jason of Pherae, but such a reference would likely have been lost on the audience of Plautus.
The material evidence for the popularity of Argonautic myth in ancient Italy is also widespread. Van der meer (1995) identifies five mirrors and one gem depicting Jason and three mirrors that portray Medea (only one with Jason). Moreover, if the Metaia on a seventh century Etruscan olpe is Medea, then the myth was known and “naturalized” (Smith 1999) very early in ancient Italy. The Etruscan mirrors also specifically name Jason and Medea and are therefore textual as well as material evidence. Adams (2003) has also suggested a similar path for the description of a picture of Catamitus into the Menaechmi.
Not only the frequency but also the manner of Etruscan depictions of Greek myth shed light on the use of Argonautic myth in the Pseudolus. The Etruscan mirrors take liberties with Greek myth by means of substituting one named character for another or conflating two different stories, as van der Meer has demonstrated. Jason could be an unexpected substitution for a figure such as Croessus or a conflation of two figures. The depiction of Medea rejuvenating Jason in one mirror (ES 5.93) is a case in point and bears directly on the cook’s claim that he will make the pimp Ballio young as Medea made Pelias (Pseud. 869-72). The healing of Jason as depicted in the Etruscan mirror instead of his father Aeson is not unprecedented, but at least one early source specifically says that Medea rejuvenated Jason’s father (Nostoi fr. 7 PEG). Although the choice of Jason instead of his father is not an unexpected or unprecedented substitution, Pelias is an unexpected substitution and directly parallel to the reception of Greek myth in the Etruscan depictions.
There are wider implications of the parallel uses of myth in the Pseudolus and in the Etruscan mirrors. The juxtaposition of comparisons of Ballio to Pelias and Jason and Pseudolus to Ulixes may also be taken as substitutions that suggest a programmatic use of myth in the play that raises the competition between Ballio and Pseudolus to (mock) mythic stature. Furthermore, Fraenkel 2007 argues on other grounds that Greek myth in the Pseudolus is independent of Plautus’ Greek model but this rupture with the Greek tradition is traditional in terms of its reception in ancient Italy, and thus another aspect of Plautine artistry waiting to be explored.
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