You are here


The paper examines the ancient evidence for comedies written by the early Roman playwright Pacuvius and argues that several fragments that are currently attributed to his tragedies are more likely to come from comoediae palliatae. Pacuvius is today commonly regarded as the first Roman playwright who only wrote tragedies (cf. e.g. Valsa 1957: 8, D’Anna 1967: 242, Erasmo 2004: 34, Manuwald 2003: 137-8, 2011: 209). However, there are two quotations from comedies written by Pacuvius in Fulgentius’ Expositio sermonum antiquorum (Serm. Ant. 12, 32 = testimonia 11, 12 Schierl). These quotations have been either explicitly rejected or simply excluded from recent editions or discussions of Pacuvius’ fragments, because Fulgentius has been considered a fraud and there is no reference to Pacuvius’ comedies in any other author (cf. Ribbeck 1897-8, Warmington 1936: xix, D’Anna 1967: 179, 242, Magno 1978, Schierl 2006: 10). This argument does not bear scrutiny. Firstly, the 19th century view that Fulgentius invented many of his references (cf. Lersch 1844: 19-88, Wessner 1899: 135-9) has been called into question a long time ago (cf. Roth 1845: 606-15, Klotz 1845: 81-95), and more recent scholars have emphasized that Fulgentius’ references to extant classical texts are sometimes corrupt or imprecise, but certainly not invented (cf. Helm 1899: 113-14, Costanza 1955, Pennisi 1963: 99-196, Pizzani 1969: 8-17, Baldwin 1988, Smith 2005: 109-110). Secondly, there is a priori no good reason why we should doubt that Pacuvius also wrote comedies like Livius Andronicus, Naevius, and Ennius had done before him. And thirdly, it is unlikely that an ignorant fraud should have invented two quotations that are consonant with the rules of early Latin metre and comply with the motivic and linguistic conventions of Roman comedy (cf. Koterba 1905: 152-3, Pizzani 1969: 101-4, 144-6). Hence, we cannot simply discard Fulgentius’ testimony, but have to take it seriously. This has important consequences. If Pacuvius also wrote comedies, we can no longer assume that fragments which have been preserved without an indication of title or genre must come from a tragedy. Several of the respective fragments have far more in common with New Comedy than with tragedy. A good example is the philosophical reflection about the blindness and fickleness of Fortune in fr. 262 (Schierl). The verses have been attributed to Pacuvius’ historical play on Aemilius Paulus or to one of his two tragedies dealing with the myth of Orestes, but the tragic parallels adduced in Schierl’s extensive commentary are not particularly close, because they lack a philosophical dimension (cf. Enn. trag. 338-40 Jocelyn, Acc. trag. 619-20 Ribbeck, TrGF II, fr. 89b). Far closer parallels can be found in Middle and New Comedy (cf. e.g. Philemon fr. 74, 125, 178, Men. fr. 372, 682, 853 Kassel/Austin and Grey 1896, Vogt-Spira 1992). A similar case can be made for fr. 274 and 275, where ad manticulandum (‘for the purpose of cutting purses’) and the metaphorical use of plaga (‘net’) point to a non-tragic, everyday-life context and have their closest linguistic parallels in the comedies of Plautus (cf. TLL s.v. plaga 2300.50-58). For several other fragments (261, 273, 277, 278, 280, 299) a comic context is just as plausible as a tragic one. Apart from the immediate consequences for the interpretation of the respective fragments, the observations also have two broader implications. Firstly, they cast doubt on the view that Pacuvius freely inserted philosophical digressions into his tragedies without considering the mythical or historical context (cf. e.g. Manuwald 2003: 105): several of the fragments on which this theory rests have been transmitted without an indication of title or genre, and the longest and most significant of them (262) could come from an adaptation of a Greek comedy. Secondly, the discussion has shown that previous editions impose a tragic perspective on the reader and prevent us from exploring other possible interpretations; a more cautious or neutral edition along the lines of the Poetae Comici Graeci is urgently needed.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy