You are here


The anonymous Latin comedy entitled Querolus siue Aulularia is probably the most curious surviving piece of Roman drama. It is a self-proclaimed rework of Plautus dedicated to a Rutilius, most likely Rutilius Claudius Namatianus; this, along with several other references, places the play in early fifth-century Gaul.

Since Namatianus’ poem De reditu suo contains an aggressive anti-Christian invective (1.439-453)—one of the very few preserved in Latin from the period—several scholars attempted to detect traces of similar tendencies in the Querolus (Lana, Smolak, Jacquemard-LeSaos), following the pioneering article of Corsaro. The scholarship is far from unanimous on this issue, though the case for anti-Christian allusions in the play is fairly strong. The present paper aims at arguing in favor of such interpretation by offering a reading of two passages in the Querolus as complementary counter-attacks on anti-pagan polemic of the Christian poet Prudentius.

Near the beginning of the play the protagonist Querolus makes a joke about the physical appearance of his household patron god, Lar familiaris. In summary: “Hey, I always thought you dwell around the coal-bin, and now look at you, so shiny and whitened!” (dealbatus; Quer. 8.23-9.4). Lar equally sarcastically acknowledges the joke, but the humor of Lar being so unexpectedly white escapes us. The clue to the joke lies in Querolus’ pretended assumption that his Lar should be black, wittily explained by charcoal from the fireplace where Lar figurine was held. Yet actual visual representations of Lares on various media preclude the possibility that either of the colors could have been their dominant iconographic stamp (LIMC, s.v., figs. 17, 39, 63, 67), and Lares figurines from late antiquity are unlikely to have been colored (Stirling). Likewise, Lares were treated as colorless in earlier literary sources (e.g., Pl. Aul. 23; Tib. 1.3.34; Ov. Fast. 2.631; Juv. 9.137, etc).

The only instances where color is applied to Lares are in the poetry of Prudentius: as one might expect, the symbols of pagan idolatry par excellence were denigrated, literally and metaphorically: nigri in Contra Symmachum 1.202, and explicitly ‘soot-black,’ fuliginosi, in Peristephanon 10.261. Interestingly enough, both Prudentius and the anonymous author derived the blackness of Lares from charcoal, but the Lar in the Querolus turned out to be dealbatus after all. The adjective used is very rare outside patristic biblical exegesis, where it most often refers to cleansing and remission of sins (e.g. Aug. Psal. 73.16; Ambros. Apol. Dav. 12.59, and esp. De myst. 7.35). Whitening of Lar in the Querolus is as sophisticated as blackening of Lares by Prudentius and perfectly fits the polemical purpose of the joke.

There is a strong indication that the anonymous playwright responded to Prudentius’ invectives: the adjective fuliginosus used for Lares by Prudentius occurs only two times elsewhere in entire Latin corpus, one of which is in the Querolus. There, however, a mysterious cohort “which crawls underground during the day and prowls on roofs in the night” is qualified as ‘soot-black,’ fuliginosa (Quer. 23.1-3). In this case sooty filthiness came, presumably, from the chimneys. I argue that this neat sequence of polemical allusions thus continues with a reference to lucifugae, ‘light-shunners,’ a label used for a group of Christian monks by Rutilius Namatianus (De red. 1.440; cf. Min. Fel. Oct. 8.4).

Therefore, the representatives of Prudentius’ faith—some of which he called candidatae cohortae only to contrast them to pagan nigra idola (Perist. 1.67, 1.42)—are finally ridiculed in the Querolus in the same black-and-white fashion. The color-polemic of the two references in the Querolus aptly replies to Prudentius’ fondness of contrasts of light and dark, which Gosserez referred to as “poetry of light.”


  • Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. Contra Symmachum; Liber Peristephanon. Ed. M. P. Cunningham. Turnhout 1966.
  • Querolus sive Aulularia: incerti auctoris comoedia. Ed. G. Ranstrand. Göteborg 1951
  • Querolus (Le Grincheux). Comédie latine anonyme. Ed. C. Jacquemard-LeSaos. Paris 1994.
  • Rutlius Namatianus. De reditu suo siue Iter Gallicum. Ed. E. Doblhofer. Heidelberg 1972-77.
  • Corsaro, Francesco. “Garbata polemica anticristiana nella anonima commedia tardoimperiale Querolus sive Aulularia.” In Oikoumene: Studi paleocristiani pubblicati in onore del Concilio ecumenico vaticano 2, 523-533. Catania 1964.
  • Gosserez, Laurence. Poésie de lumière: une lecture de Prudence. Leuven 2001.
  • Lana, Italo. Analisi del Querolus. Turin 1979.
  • Smolak, Kurt. “Das Gaunertrio im Querolus.” Wiener Studien 101 (1988): 327-338.
  • Stirling, Lea Margaret. The Learned Collector: Mythological Statuettes and Classical Taste in Late Antique Gaul. Ann Arbor 2005.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy