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In teaching Plautus, we must overcome obstacles that distance 21st-century students from their 2nd-century-bce counterparts, among them violence in the plays. The words on the page, as Goldberg (2004) argues, are just one component of the larger performance. An issue like violence in Plautus (previously treated by, inter alia, Parker 1989 and Stewart 2012) becomes more complex and richer by staging those words. Considering the 2014 CAMP production of Rudens and videos of Persa, Truculentus, and Pseudolus from the 2012 NEH Summer Institute, this paper will explore how the performance of violence elicits different responses.

The status of characters is a crucial component for an audience’s reaction to physical abuse. As Marshall (2006) reminds us, status can ebb and flow over the course of the play. A character’s ability to build rapport with the audience, as Moore (1998) notes, also impacts their status. Plautine pimps routinely fail to build rapport, resulting in very low status compared to any other character type. Violence done to the pimps in Rudens and Persa can be staged in fairly unproblematic ways.

In both Rudens (839–891) and Persa (777–858), pimps find themselves trapped, but seeing the abuse of the two pimps can lead to widely different reactions. In the CAMP production of Rudens, two lorarii wield comically oversized clubs that they use to beat the pimp on the head, and the pimp falls down in three stages. In the NEH production of Persa, a band of slaves turns the tables on the pimp, subjecting him to unwanted physical contact. In the former, the audience may respond to the violence with righteous indignation as a pimp is punished by the slaves of the senex whose daughter gets freed. They might also dismiss the violence as real because of its cartoonish nature. In the latter, the situation is much more complicated. Should the audience approve of the downfall of the pimp, or should they feel outrage at slaves physically abusing a freeman (cf. Saller 1994, 136)? Here the contact is exaggerated, but it verges more on real abuse.

The scenes from Truculentus (775–853) and Pseudolus (133–229) call into question a master’s proper control of his household precisely through the use of violence. In the former, the senex probes two resistant slave women, coercing them with his lorarii. In the NEH production, an undersized lorarius metes out punishment. He strolls up to the back-talking ancilla and pokes her in the arm. The maid has been put back in her place, but the extent of the punishment is so minimal compared to the threats of the senex that it becomes harder to take the senex seriously.

In Pseudolus, the pimp’s entrance is rife with slave abuse. The complex display of violence in the NEH Production shows a master who revels in controlling his slaves through violence. The pimp toys with his slaves—striking them when they do not expect and not striking them when they do. The coup for him is draping his whip sadistically across one slave’s back as he asks whether it hurts (155). Keeping in mind Richlin’s (2005) sense of Plautus engaging different segments of the audience at different points, we see here Plautus challenging his audience to approve of Ballio’s tactics (using the whip to motivate lazy slaves) or distance themselves from him.

The performance of violence in Plautus challenges scholars to think at a fundamental level about our assumptions about characters in the play. As we have seen, violence can be used to whip up an audience with a spirit of righteous indignation, distancing themselves from cruel pimps or over-bearing senes. At other times, the performance of violence can elicit a more complicated reaction, pushing the audience to evaluate their own assumptions about the use of power in society. Live performance challenges an audience more directly to come to terms with what is happening on stage.