The Adulescentes of Plautus

September 17, 2016


1. Introduction ........... ........... ........... ........... ........... ........... ........... ........... ........... 3

2. Mostellaria 1153-62: A Way In 5

3. Like Father, Like Son 8

i. The absent father: Truculentus 8

ii. The returning father: 11

a. Mostellaria 11

b. Trinummus 12

iii. The (all-too-) present father: Asinaria 14

4. The Adulescens as Philosopher 18

i. Philolaches: The failed philosopher 18

ii. Ingenium: The born identity? 20

5. The Adulescens as Comedian 24

i. Entrances: Iteration and Inflection 24

ii. Ridiculus: An absolute joke(r) 27

a. Hyperbole 27

b. Wordplay 28

c. Theatrical self-awareness 29

6. Conclusion 31

Bibliography 32

1. Introduction

The term ‘stock character’ is both useful and dangerous. Useful because it allows us to view a vast literary corpus through certain simplifying parameters, and lays a basic framework for more technical theoretical discussion. Dangerous, however, because it so often runs the risk of oversimplifying the forces at work in characterisation. As soon as we confine a character to a stock type, we limit our understanding of that character to specific presuppositions. Plautus’ adulescens, arguably more than any of his other characters, has traditionally fallen victim to such a limitation.[1] Duckworth provides a useful index of the typical adulescens, and rejects homogenous characterisation: ‘as a group they are much less uniform and monotonous than is often believed’.[2] But he proceeds to describe the features of the adulescens far too broadly, and concludes with an unhelpful and contradictory statement: ‘He is, in general, the least vivid and least interesting’.[3] Such generalisations are potentially toxic to a character study, since they engage in indiscriminate categorisation in the interests of brevity, and negate further investigation.

More recent examinations, on the other hand, have attempted to re-imagine the adulescens through an excessively specific lens. In a polemical study, Rosivach denounces the misogyny of New Comedy plots, whose resolutions focus on the triumph of the young man, often at the expense of female characters, in ‘a reaffirmation of the legitimacy of the current social order’[4]. But not every Plautine plot holds a happy ending for the adulescens.[5] Indeed, even when the adulescens does win out, he is often so undeserving that the resolution is not a satisfying reassertion of social order, but an anarchic dystopia in which the worthless hold the trump cards. In over-specifying the role of the adulescens as both catalyst and object of social relignment – in other words, uncritically writing the adulescens into a stereotype – Rosivach fails to step back and acknowledge the nuanced dramaturgical and social implications involved when a playwright explores the limits of such a stereotype.[6]

But what do we mean by the adulescentes of Plautus? If we take a universal translation of adulescentes, we find such ‘young men’ passim, in the form of companions (Most., Bacch., Trin.), slaves (Pers.), gods (Amph.), and soldiers (Miles, Truc.). A number of plots even see old men attempting to fill the amorous shoes of their adolescent sons. It is extremely difficult to delineate the type clearly; our ‘stock character’ is more plausibly an unseizable unit who both appropriates and influences the personalities of other characters. Plautus himself knew the games he could play with the preconceptions of this ‘stock formula’. In the prologue of Casina, he deliberately and self-consciously excludes the adulescens from the proceedings (Plautus noluit, Cas.65).[7] The challenge to the audience (ne expectetis, Cas.64) exposes their expectation for the playwright to work within certain parameters. The conscious rejection of these parameters demonstrates not only the playwright’s artistic adroitness, but also the perceived importance of the adulescens as a generic trope.

The fact is that there does not yet exist an account of the adulescens’ character that satisfactorily explores the nuance of his portrayal across the Plautine corpus, let alone how this portrayal toys with the critically unquestioned notion of a ‘stock character’. This thesis will assess the adulescens’ polyvalent role, the potential contradictions of his character, and the immense social significance that such a character held for a Roman audience.

2. Mostellaria 1153-62: A Way In

Critics are typically keen, when discussing Plautine friendship, to raise the classical archetype, Achilles and Patroklos, and set a given example over this axiomatic framework of self-sacrifice.[8] But Roman Comedy is in reality only interested in dissecting such a paradigm. Plautus sets his adulescentes in direct competition; they struggle with various degrees of success to adjust to the social pressures placed on their shoulders. Friendship in Plautus is thus implicitly synonymous with rivalry. The term sodalis is deceptive, implying solidarity but in fact engaging in a discourse of difference; it is by examining the subtle distinctions between the young men – framing the discussion purely within adulescentia – that we can begin to understand how the ‘stereotype’ of the adulescens is being manipulated.

As Mostellaria draws to a close, a happy ending seems unlikely: the slave Tranio’s conniving against his master Theopropides has been uncovered, and he and the son Philolaches face the prospect of punishment (Most.1065). But in a miraculous turn of events, Philolaches’ friend Callidamates, who we saw disappearing into a house in a drunken stupor over four-hundred lines previously, emerges as an articulate deus ex machina, to rescue his friends (Most.1153-62):

CALL: Tace parumper, sine vicissim me loqui, ausculta. TH: Licet.
CALL: Omnium primum sodalem me esse scis gnato tuo.
is adiit me, nam eum prodire pudet in conspectum tuom
propterea quia fecit quae te scire scit. nunc te obsecro,
stultitiae adulescentiaeque eius ignoscas: tuost;
scis solere illanc aetatem tali ludo ludere.
quidquid fecit, una nobiscum fecit: nos deliquimus.
faenus, sortem sumptumque omnem, qui amica <empta> est, omnia
nos dabimus, nos conferemus, nostro sumptu, non tuo.

Philolaches is written out of the play after a mere four hundred lines, and his final words highlight a complete lack of autonomy: in tuam custodelam meque et meas spes trado (406). The callidus mate Callidamates, on the other hand, is presented with authority beyond his years. He asserts immediate control with a string of firm imperatives, to which Theopropides swiftly consents (1153). By defining himself as Philolaches’ sodalis (1154), he emphasises the role-reversal he has undergone. When we last saw him he was making dirty jokes at his friend’s expense (386), but he now represents everything his friend has failed to become. Philolaches has regained a sense of pudor (1155), but this is ostensibly ill-informed, based not on respect for his elders but a self-absorbed sense of shame, and fear of retribution. In a respectful speech, Callidamates embodies the pudor that his friend lacks. Unlike Philolaches, he has successfully matured, leaving behind youthful ludus (1158) and is thus able to address adolescence with external authority (1157). His emphasis on joint culpability (1160-62), seeking to dissipate Theopropides’ judgment on his son, paradoxically makes us all the more aware of Philolaches’ failures. Callidamates exemplifies the Roman adult, speaking as a statesman (sum orator, 1126), inviting Theopropides to dinner (1129), and becoming an arbitrator of Roman legal disputes (iudicare, 1143).[9] So too in Mercator, Charinus’ friend Eutychus arrives to suture social order and put the senex amator in his place. Displaying a considerable knowledge of the workings of the state (Merc.664)[10] and indignation at the father Demipho’s attempt to overturn social order (Merc.986), Eutychus reveals Charinus’ failure to achieve a similar level of integration into adult society. Just like Philolaches, Charinus is noticeably absent at the curtain call.[11] The necessarily competitive aspect of friendship exposes a number of social anxieties apropos the adulescens’ rite of passage in adulthood (Chapter 3).

The clash between friends’ selfishness and selflessness also contributes to the comedy. Charinus is inexplicably abusive (Merc.908, 954-5) to Eutychus, who desires only to be seen as helpful (Merc.662), framing the latter as the butt of a cruel joke.[12] But Eutychus can also give as good as he gets, bluntly undermining Charinus’ hyperbole: ‘CHAR: satine ut oblitus fui tibi me narravisse? EUT: hau mirum est factum.’ (Merc.481-2). Likewise in Trinummus the two friends, Lysiteles and Lesbonicus, are comically opposed, the former as a ridiculous bastion of the moral code whose assertion of knowledge is in fact a strong indication of his ignorance, the latter as a pathetic victim of the judgment of this moral system. The comedy emerges from their failures: both youths believe that their actions are in accordance with the requirements of friendship, but their opposing motivations place them comically at odds.[13] This interplay between two manifestly distinct types of adulescens highlights the character’s bivalent function within the comic framework, as both a perpetrator and butt of the comedy (Chapter 5).

The young men of Plautus assert knowledge of their friends (scio omnia, Merc.476; scio… novi tuom, Bacch.635; pernovi equidem, Lesbonice, ingenium tuom, Trin.665), but often their friendship is characterised by a mutual misunderstanding.[14] By posing variations on a type against each other, Plautus questions the nature of identity itself; how the adulescens responds to this question, how he faces his own stereotype, will prove a fundamental aspect of his characterisation (Chapter 4). A brief analysis of Plautine friendship has opened up numerous branches of inquiry, and immediately shown that the typical one-dimensional treatment of the adulescens only as a lovesick good-for-nothing is inadequate.

3. Like Father, Like Son

In Roman society, a huge premium was placed on male seniority as a source of authority. The paterfamilias stood at the receiving end of an upward-directed hierarchy of duty and respect – the Roman notion of pietas - which kept the son subordinate to his father, but also socially conditioned him to eventually fulfil this role.[15] Such a relationship of deference is problematic, in that it is fundamentally unsustainable. As a father grows older, he becomes unable to look after his own affairs, and more dependent on his son to manage them. The Roman paterfamilias is constantly reminded that the power relations that give him superiority over his son must eventually be inverted. While pietas will remain by social decree, it is systematically undermined by the son’s increased power.[16] In squandering the finances of his gens, we see the adulescens failing to outmanoeuvre the pressures posed by this clash between the patriarchy and the family estate. The moments, then, when he actively seeks to re-engage with his social responsibilities, and remedy the injured relationship of pietas, variously expose how this primal struggle of competitive masculinity came to a head in Rome.

i. The absent father: Truculentus

The most vivid manifestations of the influence of pietas appear in plots where the father is absent. In his opening speech, Diniarchus establishes the conflict between love and money without any reference to his father or family. This is perhaps because he is slightly more mature than the average adulescens: he displays knowledge of the financial system (70) and hints at an involvement in state affairs (92). But Diniarchus’ integration into the world of business has been merely superficial; even he acknowledges a lack of control over negotium (vos meum negotium apstulistis, 139). Diniarchus is not sufficiently mature to appreciate that romantic love and duty to the family estate are irreconcilable. He brags that his estate has not yet been completely ruined by Phronesium (sunt mi etiam fundi et aedes, 174) before promptly surrendering it to the demands of love (fundi et aedes, per tempus subvenistis, 186-7). Age and independence have brought the youth knowledge and experience in business, but these are rendered useless by his inability to apply them.

Truculentus is a play that pluralises the adulescens, seeking to dismember the stereotype by way of subtle variation. The rustic youth Strabax, who emerges as competition for Phronesium’s affection, serves as a vivid comparison with Diniarchus. His entrance is marked by obsession with his father (645-650):

… hinc me ire iussit pater,

ad villam argentum meo qui debebat patri,

qui ovis Tarentinas erat mercatus de patre,

quaerit patrem.

In fact, Strabax mentions ‘father’ six times in a mere eighteen lines. His bold disclosure of a plan to eradicare (660) his parents is undermined by this repetitive hyperawareness of filial duty. Diniarchus, on the other hand, doesn’t mention his parents once, speaking of fatherhood only in terms of legitimating his own paternity over an unclaimed child (850). But this realisation – that the child is his – functions as a turning point in his trajectory. The father-son relationship, until now entirely absent from his mode of thought, is reasserted by the discovery of his own paternity. A sense of pietas, which Diniarchus had rejected in favour of sexual satisfaction, is reinvested into a new family, installing the youth as a paterfamilias and constructing a new relationship of pietas. The cyclical transferral of familial duty that allowed Roman society to flourish is supported by a resolution that sees the errant youth reintegrated into adult society.

Diniarchus’ change of heart seems abrupt, and triggered by the discovery that Phronesium in fact has affection not for him, but only his gifts (758), and by a realisation that he must face up to his rape of Callicles’ daughter (820). By doing ‘the right thing’ in apologising to the play’s only father-figure, Callicles, and seeking to marry his rape victim, Diniarchus seeks to correct the chaotic and antisocial act he has committed.[17] For a Roman audience, then, he is redeemed by a renewed interaction with the model of the paterfamilias. He becomes aware of his duty to society and his newfound family (ab hac puerum reposcam, 850) and, despite his lingering desire for Phronesium (853), he exercises the restraint and self-control of the ideal adult male (nil ego nunc de istac re ago, 861). Looking back, it becomes clear that this has in fact been an ongoing process.[18] The res of amor has been replaced by the res of negotium, and the persistent absence of a father figure is redeemed by the son’s newfound paternity. Diniarchus’ parting words display a satisfactory understanding of his duty to society and family; he exits finally able to distinguish between otium and negotium (operae ubi mi erit, ad te venero, 883).

Callicles acts as a surrogate father figure, inciting the pious fear (timore torpeo, 824) in Diniarchus that his absent father cannot. When the old man finally enters, the youth is desperate to reassert the hierarchy of father-son pietas that he has been missing (per tua opsecro genua, 827). This initiates a catharsis; he breaks free from the spell of the meretrix, re-affirming a social order structured on male dominance.[19] Strabax and Stratophanes, without a similar authority at hand to instil pietas, are consumed by the desire that Diniarchus has escaped. But we must ask whether Diniarchus has truly been amended. He is, after all, shamed into social conformity by the pressure of admitting his crime, and his repentance comes from fear of death (sunt capiti comitia, 819) rather than bona fide remorse. Indeed, in his promise to return to Phronesium at leisure, we might identify failure to overcome his desire: ‘the tension between love and obligation is permitted to survive the pact that culminates the drama’.[20] Diniarchus is effectively broken into the world of adult responsibility by society; fatherhood is not presented as a natural state, but as the performance of a socially enforced role. This, as we shall see, has important implications for the supposed fixity of the adult male identity.

ii. The returning father

a. Mostellaria

When the father’s return looms as a possibility, however, the adulescens seems far more aware of his failed pietas. Philolaches stresses in his simulacrum that under the influence of his ‘builders’ he was still probus (133); the blame for the collapse of his ‘house’ is entirely on his shoulders (me neglegens fui, 141). His display of repentance and attempt at intellectual maturity, however, are superficial. As soon as Philematium enters, he is immediately reabsorbed by the temptations of Love (o Venus venusta, 162). Love is the obstacle that the adulescens fails to outmanoeuvre, and is therefore a force against family stability. Not only does it drive the youth to shun family life and revel in sexual satisfaction, but also more specifically it threatens the stability of the father’s negotium with a transient obsession with youthful otium.

Plautus has drawn a delicate line for his audience to consider: should they support Philolaches’ lack of self-control and resent the restrictions placed on him by filial duty, in the spirit of comedy and carnival? Or should they see his lack of pietas as a threat to the very fabric of society? After all, without successfully subsuming youths into the world of adult business, the Roman republic, dominated as it was financially and politically by the working paterfamilias, would fall apart.[21] Considering these primordially as comic plays, we might argue with Segal that they represent ‘Saturnalian overthrow’, and a carnival release from the monotony of the day-to-day that can be promptly forgotten once the play is over.[22] But this approach draws too firm a distinction between reality and the theatre, and encourages us to abstract the plays from their social context altogether.[23] In fact, the implications are far more serious: in expressing a wish for Theopropides’ death (233) Philolaches engages in a quasi-oedipal desire to remove his father from the equation.[24]

This is set in somewhat tragic contrast with Theopropides’ misplaced joy at his son’s financial achievements – a set of lies fabricated by Tranio. The father rejoices not only that his son has integrated himself into the world of business of his own accord (iam homo in mercatura vortitur, 639), but also that he is actively emulating his father (Philolaches patrissat, 639). The irony of this celebration serves to emphasise the son’s complete undermining of his own literal and metaphorical ‘house’. That the friend Callidamates makes peace with the furious Theopropides, rather than the son himself, ensures that the damaged relationship between father and son is only partially remedied. Theopropides is satisfied by Philolaches’ sense of shame (si hoc pudet, 1165), since such an emotion seeks to realign the pietas-hierarchy. But Philolaches has no agency in his own resolution. His ‘house’ is rebuilt by the community, through the assistance of his friend and the forgiveness of his father. In other words, in the plot’s resolution, he undergoes a social reconstruction.[25] If comedy is to some degree an exercise in catharsis, then there is something to be said for these loaded depictions of familial relationships serving to release tension built up by social anxieties, specifically the pressure on a Roman son to emulate his father.

b. Trinummus

Trinummus pushes this dynamic of re-assimilation of pietas through pudor still harder. The play begins with a typical set up, executed with an atypical degree of emphasis; a young man has selfishly squandered his father’s money (corruptum filium, 114; corruptum vides, 116; animi impoti, 131; in deliciis disperdidit, 334). We expect Lesbonicus to be characteristically immature and generally unrepentant, but his first words show a precise understanding of financial exchange (minas quadraginta accepisti, 403), and an anxiety about his accounts. He immediately appears a man of negotium, rather than the lovesick, penniless youth we were anticipating. The pseudo-tragedy of this plot lies in an inherent misunderstanding of Lesbonicus’ personality. Every other character around him is determined to define him as the predictable ‘stock’ adulescens who appears in so many Plautine comedies.[26] But he has outgrown this profile. What we actually see is the aftermath of his social realignment: his pudor has triggered genuine repentance. In his desire to be taken seriously, he becomes a victim of the hyperbole of the surrounding characters. This can be seen most clearly in the blunt undercutting of his numerous anxieties by his slave Stasimus (i modoi modo… etc. 582-90), which culminates in Lesbonicus’ lament for his absent father: ‘o pater, enumquam aspiciam te?’ (589-90). Stasimus’ response (i modo i modo i modo, 590) represents the collective reaction to Lesbonicus’ repentance. In his keen anticipation of his father’s return, he reinitiates pietas, acknowledging his social transgression and seeking the guidance of his father to rectify it – a persona shift brusquely ignored by all other characters.

His friend Lysiteles’ accusations of his failure are thus made all the more cutting: tibi paterque avosque facilem fecit et planam viam ad quaerendum honorem (645). Lesbonicus refuses his friend’s assistance out of a sense of social duty; to marry off his sister without a dowry would bring disgrace to her and to his family.[27] With this social awareness, he is actively seeking to realign himself with the mos maiorum that Lysiteles reveres, and accuses him of rejecting. Lesbonicus knows the importance of reconciliation with the father – of reconstructing and maintaining the pietas hierarchy – if he means to enter adult society. When Charmides finally returns at the end of the play, we are met with a touching scene of filial reconciliation: o pater, pater mi salve (1180). Paradoxically, at the moment of forgiveness, the point of his acceptance into adult society, Lesbonicus is at his most child-like and vulnerable.[28] The play swiftly wraps up, with a sentiment of certain reformation: iam posthac temperabo (1187). The tension triggered by an absent father is neatly resolved in his return, and the adulescens is again permitted a secure pass into adulthood, in the form of marriage.[29]

iii. The (all-too-)present father: Asinaria

Marriage, then, functions as a vital means of correcting the anti-social nature of sexual relations that have no civic consequence, and Plautus presents the institution as invaluable in the reaffirmation of social order.[30] Marriage is a moment of social watershed, a definable point of entry into the world of autonomy, but, at the same time, it threatens to do away with the freedom of youth. Marriage in Plautus is often referred to by fathers as a punishment,[31] and there is palpable suspicion of wives.[32] Marriage therefore serves a bivalent function for the adulescens, posing as both potential benefit and risk.



Pursuing Marriage

Pursuing Lust


Already Married

Blocking Father

Alcesimarchus (Cist.)

Argyrippus (Asin.)

Pistoclerus (Bacch.)

Mnesilochus (Bacch.)

Stratippocles (Epid.)

Charinus (Merc.)

Philolaches (Most.)

Calidorus (Pseud.)[33]

Helping Father

Lysiteles (Trin.)

Lesbonicus (Trin.)

Eutychus (Merc.)

Father Not Present

Lyconides (Aul.)

Phaedromus (Curc.)

Agorastocles (Poen.)

Plesidippus (Rud.)

Diniarchus (Truc.)

Diabolus (Asin.)

Chaeribulus (Epid.)

Menaechmus [Sosicles] (Men.)

Pleusicles (Miles.)

Toxilus (Persa.)

Strabax (Truc.)

Callidamates (Most.)

Charinus (Pseud.)

Amphitryon (Amph.)

Menaechmus (Men.)

Epignomus (Stich.)

Pamphilippus (Stich.)

Table The adulescens’ various approaches to marriage, in relation to the dramatic role of his father.[34]

The results of the tabulation above demonstrate an interesting correlation. With a father in the picture, the adulescens shows far less interest in legitimising an amorous relationship with marriage.[35] Instead, he rejects the pater model and seeks to satisfy his own lust and retain the freedom of youth. Setting lustful son and ‘blocking’ father at odds in this way highlights the insufficiencies of the role model ideal, and establishes a comic conflict to be resolved at the denouement. But, never one for half measures, Plautus revels in pushing such a conflict to its extreme, and frequently places the pair in direct sexual competition. With this, the idealising notion of marriage as a watershed that divides turbulent youth from stable adulthood is brutally dismembered, and the performative requirements of paternity (see discussion of Diniarchus above, 3.i) are played out many years down the line in the unstable identity of the senex amator.[36]

Asinaria toys with the limits of these social anxieties at their interface. The father of the play, Demaenetus, is presented from the start as utterly emasculated; through her dowry (86), his wife Artemona controls the family finances and effectively replaces him as paterfamilias.[37] This loss of masculine identity utterly confuses his understanding of his position within the family; in an abandonment of the pietas hierarchy he attempts to become his son’s friend and benefactor in the field of love. Whereas Roman fathers typically disapproved of such ‘costly and embarrassing’ liaisons,[38] Demaenetus wishes to help, in order to gain the approval of his loved ones (volo amari a meis, 65). This emasculation overturns the normative pietas relationship, placing him in a position of subordination to his son. Through this, Demaenetus is reduced to adolescence, and becomes his own son’s sexual rival out of the blue (735). Argyrippus, utterly confused by the inverted relationship, submits to his father in a last-ditch attempt to regain a sense of filial deference (pietas, pater, oculis dolorem prohibet, 831). Demaenetus, on the other hand, is transgressing social rules in order to reconstruct his abducted masculinity and autonomy, which inevitably results in failure. His eventual humiliation by his wife represents a repeat rite of passage, a re-emergence from his second adolescence into the bounds of social conformity.

Demaenetus essentially functions as a tool for comparison with his son’s social progress. In his mature response to his father’s immaturity, Argyrippus displays a more acute understanding of pietas and its social requirements. The result is a critique of the unquestioned patria potestas. The ‘fair’ exchange (848) is in fact inherently unfair and oppressive; the son is encouraged by society to submit to the father’s will even when it is entirely misguided. The conclusion of the play happily sees the anti-social father getting his comeuppance, and the son and his beloved are reunited through the authority of the materfamilias (921). But Artemona inadvertently draws our attention to the reason why such a resolution can never be socially satisfactory. The failure of the father to act as a moral role model (istoscine patrem aequom est mores liberis largirier? 932) means that the adulescens’ understanding of his duty to society is fundamentally incomplete. Instead of being assumed into adult society via the institution of marriage, as we see in a number of other plays, Argyrippus resumes a state of youthful irresponsibility. In order for the youth to become a citizen, he must be educated in the social hierarchies of age and gender that constitute ancient society. Fundamentally flawed by his desire (volup, 942) to reconstruct the relationship of pudor (ne puduit eum, 71-3), Demaenetus can never be the social guiding-force that his son requires.[39] Though Argyrippus wins the day temporarily, the threat of compromised independence looms over him in the form of an unsatisfactory marriage, and the burden of paternity.

The destiny of the adulescens amator looms in the actions of the senex amator. Demaenetus wishes to help his son, just as his father helped him (eos me decretumst persequi mores patris, 73); the Plautine world becomes a bizarre endless cycle of New Comic plots.[40] The happy ending for the adulescens is thus revealed to be only a temporary arrangement; it might be ‘a reaffirmation of the legitimacy of the current social order’,[41] but more importantly it invests in an anarchic, dystopian representation of the future. The Roman social code that placed such a premium on adult male dominance over female and child is left notably uncorrected. In its subjection to the trappings of comic subversion, the world of the play undergoes social surgery, and its aftermath encourages the audience to question the legitimacy of placing such a social premium on the power of the paterfamilias.

4. The Adulescens as Philosopher

‘Most ancient literature is concerned to represent personal identity as coherent, stable and often distinctive.’[42]

Philosophy, when explored through dramaturgy, and especially through comedy, takes on a very different significance.[43] A fascination with the constructs of identity, seemingly anti-humorous in tone, is paradoxically fundamental to the structure of humour. It is through dissection of the nature of identity that comedy draws attention to its elasticity: comic scenes involving disguise, mistaken identity and plot-resolving recognition all serve to highlight the flexibility of the self.[44] Indeed, by donning the mask of an adulescens for a performance, the actor metaphorically represents the performative flexibility of the Roman adolescent’s identity. The comic mask is fundamental to the ‘stock character’: frozen, unchanging, it asserts an unnaturally stable identity for an adulescens undergoing the intrinsically turbulent transition into adulthood.[45] We laugh because our categories of identity, superfluously imposed by humanity, are exposed on the comic stage as superficial: ‘the manipulation of identity… makes a joke of our anxieties and makes them less painful through laughter’.[46] This is an intense and involuntary process, simultaneously mocking the human condition and providing an outlet for the anxieties of the self.

i. Philolaches: The failed philosopher

When Philolaches enters near the beginning of Mostellaria, he entirely subverts our expectations of his identity. The moralising slave Grumio has described his descent from uprightness into squandering his father’s wealth on food and girls (20-25), and introduces him as corruptum ex adulescente optumo (83). It comes as a surprise, then, when the expected lovesick youth turns out to be palpably introspective. From his first word he displays unusual insight, with overtly philosophical language (recordatus… cogitavi… argumentaque… disputavi… arbitrarer, 81-6). It soon become clear that the topic of discussion is identity and its flexibility (quando natus est, 88. quando hic natus est, 92). We are overwhelmed by his unexpected perspicacity, at moments displaying profound insight (si est quod mihi cor, 86) rather than the usual brash histrionics. But this attempt at intellectual maturity is soon exposed as a parody by virtue of its ineffective application. He spends more than ten lines indulging in a repetitious description of how he is going to draw out his simulacrum between a child and a house, before a rather desperate plea for the audience’s approval (simul gnaruris vos volo esse hanc rem mecum, 100). We start to see cracks in his feigned wisdom, and an underlying insecurity that will prove to burden the adulescens with a misplaced sense of self-knowledge.

Philolaches’ simulacrum is initially tightly structured, displaying an acute understanding of his own decline into depravity at the hands of love by comparing himself to a house being dismantled by a storm. The simile is delicately balanced: the notion of gradual change is emphasised (cum… iam… saepe… iam… donicum, 106-116),[47] and the interplay between the two elements is succinctly reinforced (118). He also makes use of verba adcommodata, terms that can be applied with equal sense to either element of the comparison (paratae expolitae 101), to further emphasise its suitability.[48] Thus far, Philolaches has showed an astute awareness of his own identity, and even shows signs of repentance. But as soon as Amor becomes the topic, he cannot help but indulge in histrionics. He suddenly begins to revel in the potential for hyperbole offered by the simile (in pectus permanauit permadefecit, 143), and his previously formal inflection is undercut by jerky rhetoric (nunc simul res fides fama virtus decus deseruerunt, 144-5), negating any former hint of penitence with an indulgence in ‘verbose abundance’.[49] He has become an obstruction to his own philosophy, and thus to his passage into adulthood. Any attempt to cling on to philosophy inevitably becomes pseudo-philosophy, thwarted by love’s corruptions (o Venus venusta, 161-2).

The enactment and resolution of Philolaches’ identity crisis occurs entirely within his first speech. By the end of it, he has failed to respond to his self-analysis and embraces the instability of adulescentia, which will define him for the remainder of the play. This is manifest in the following scene, in which he oscillates tempestuously between compliments to his beloved’s opinionated nurse Scapha (170, 252), and threats to murder her (213, 223); he has lost all sense of intellectual stability and readopted the identity of an amator. Thus when he does attempt to return to philosophising, it is nothing short of ridiculous. Upon discovering that his father is returning home while his party is in mid-flow, he brashly attempts another simulacrum, comparing an attempt to conceal the festivities to digging a well when one is already thirsty (379). The image is rushed and half-hearted (igitur… sicut, 380-81), and is swiftly terminated by the situation at hand (ecce autem, 382). This vague attempt to reinitiate philosophising at an entirely inappropriate time represents his failure to overcome emotional immaturity. His previous attempts at identifying the self are exposed as games of rhetoric and he unsuccessfully extricates himself from the stock adulescens amator we were initially promised. That he tries to extricate himself at all, however, is clearly of huge importance.

ii. Ingenium: The born identity?

Lewis and Short render the word ingenium, which appears seventy-four times in Plautus, as ‘innate quality’, ‘nature’, ‘temperament’, and ‘constitution’. However, the word frequently occurs at a crisis of personality – a juncture at which the individual participates in corrective self-analysis – and in this context it is more accurately translated as ‘identity’. The word nominalizes the verb ingigno, with the implication that identity is defined at the moment of birth, but also that it is the product of lineage. When the adulescens assesses his ingenium, therefore, he initiates an examination of how he, as an individual, should define himself within a broader social and cultural context.

Full comprehension of ingenium is permitted only to certain characters, and ironically those who fail to understand the term are often using it in a firm assertion of self-knowledge, and thus become victims of the comedy. The adulescens Mnesilochus of Bacchides, upon discovering that he has falsely accused his friend of treachery, descends into a crisis of the self. Mnesilochus’ first words introduce him as profoundly concerned with his own identity (nunc, Mnesiloche, specimen specitur… malus bonus quoivis modi, Bacch.399-400), and this earnest self-interrogation sets him up for a fall. Realising his anger was misplaced causes him to panic; he is unable to fathom that his well-considered ingenium might be flexible, or worse, flawed. He violently self-assassinates (malevolente ingenio natus, Bacch.615), revealing the source of his problem: he believes that his identity was defined for him at birth, and that his current personality is a direct product of it. But by the very act of assessing his identity, and thus subconsciously beginning to manipulate it, he draws attention to its unfixity.

In contrast, some characters successfully perceive the flexibility of the ingenium. The slave Libanus of Asinaria, for example, commands himself to do away with idleness and return to his vetus ingenium as a cunning slave (Asin.255). Libanus’ ingenium has changed, and it is only through philosophical contemplation of his original identity that it can be regained, and he can take control of the comic proceedings once more. The flexible ingenium is more prevalent in Plautus than the static. Thus the pedagogue Lydus in Bacchides laments that without the interference of Pistoclerus’ father, he could have kept him on the straight and narrow (haberem rectum ad ingenium bonum, Bacch.412). We see here an important example of the ingenium of the adulescens being sculpted by society, for society. The sense of the root ingigno is lost; the young man’s identity is malleable, and actively redirected by those around him. Alcesimarchus of Cistellaria presents a valuable insight into this relationship. Lamenting the fact that he has ‘omnia ingenia’ (Cist.212), he shows an awareness that the notion of a fixed, individual ingenium is a fallacy; instead he is constantly manipulated and reformed at the hands of love (agitor simulor versor in amoris rota, 206-7). This dilemma is characterised by a confessed inability to distinguish between the animus and the ingenium (ubi non sum, ibi est animus, Cist.211).[50] To reach emotional and intellectual ‘maturity’, the youth is demanded by society to suppress his animus – which is ruled by the selfish desires and volitions of the individual, and is therefore inherently antisocial – and artificially stabilise his ingenium. The youth is culturally required to learn a lesson in continentia, and, as we saw in chapter three, disguises the insecurity of his ingenium behind a veil of performed stability.

Adulescentia is therefore characterised by an inability to reconcile the natural instability of the ingenium and the artificially imposed notion of continentia. Pistoclerus in Bacchides, assailed by the temptations of a meretrix, asks himself: ‘sumne autem nihili, qui nequam ingenio moderari meo?’ Pistoclerus conflates the animus and the ingenium, believing it is his ingenium that causes him to lust after Bacchis, when it is in fact his animus. As a result, his ingenium must suffer at the hands of his desire, as any trace of adult is obliterated by youthful fantasy. The very next words he speaks show the potential adult defeated (nihil est… Bacch.92). The word ingenium is visibly acting as a signpost at the juncture of personality. By self-assessing, the adulescens gives himself the opportunity to reinvest in his adult identity, but only he can determine whether he is successful. Pistoclerus is a decided failure; when he returns in the next scene, he is a garbling slave of Love (Amor, Voluptas, Venus, Venustas, Bacch.115-6).

Philolaches’ attempts at philosophy once again prove valuable, bringing him very close to understanding the nature of ingenium. After ‘taking up lodgings’ in his identity (immigravi ingenium in meum, Most.135), he ruined it entirely. The simulacrum of the house gives him the power of insight; he realises that his ingenium is ultimately his own identity, but is constructed for him by external forces. It resembles in many ways Freud’s super-ego, which “can be described as a successful instance of identification with the parental agency”.[51] In adopting the ingenium constructed by his architect parents, the adulescens subscribes to their influence and strives to reject his animus (Freud’s id: the instinctual desire of pleasure) in favour of socially appropriate behaviour. His corrective self-analysis is therefore a product of his social guilt. But Philolaches’ concluding sentiment utterly undoes this self-awareness: id vero meopte ingenio repperi (Most.156). The argument threatens to become cyclical: he has obtained knowledge of his ingenium through his own ingenium. Philolaches cannot understand that his ingenium is not simply his capricious personality, but rather his entire identity, constructed over his whole life through a complex series of interrelating external and internal influences.

Stabilising the ingenium is always the implicit aim of ancient society, since it promises the emotional and intellectual constancy of the individual, and so stability for the whole. But it is only when one understands the nature of ingenium that one’s ingenium can be properly aligned: non aetate, verum ingenio apiscitur sapientia (Trin.367). In striving to appreciate his own nature, the adulescens traverses this rite of passage, and with varying degrees of success conforms to the normative requirements imposed on him by society. The concept of ingenium therefore carries huge social and cultural weight. But at the same time, Plautus’ comedy explodes the concept, by framing it as a rhetorical device to be wheeled out without understanding at the hands of adulescentes such as Mnesilochus and Philolaches. Social commentary in Plautus is constantly at the mercy of the subversive trappings of comedy, and in my final chapter I should like to investigate the role the adulescens had to play in such proceedings.

5. The Adulescens as Comedian

It is a truism that no element of Plautus should ever be extricated from its comic setting. Every twist and turn, every message, however subtle, is underlined by the fact that these plays were essentially popular entertainment. The adulescens, standing at the interface of virtually every section of society, provides Plautus with an ideal reference point for the comic proceedings. He has been paid little attention in any critical discussion of Plautus’ comedy, mainly because he generally presents a far less ‘vivid’ comic persona than the boisterous pimps and braggart soldiers. But this critical dismissal has only occurred because his role within the comic scheme is much more subtle and complex than these other characters, and just as – if not more - valuable. In asserting that certain elements of character should excite laughter, I run the risk of becoming laughable myself.[52] But this fine line between the intentional and unintentional incitement of laughter is the exact framework for the adulescens’ role, and will prove invaluable in considering his function within the comic scheme.

i. Entrances: Iteration and Inflection

The adulescens, perhaps more than any other character in Plautus, revels in the impact of his entrance. When Alcesimarchus of Cistellaria bursts in with a whirlwind of tempestuous language, we immediately know who he is. His first three words (credo ego Amorem, 203) are the enactment of a promise that has been repeated throughout the opening of the play. Two different characters, Philaenis and the goddess Auxilium, have explicitly referenced a young man inflicted with love (amore… deperit, 131; 191). His grand entrance is therefore a release of the dramatic tension accrued by these references, immediately settling into the role of lovesick youth prescribed to him. He wails directly to the audience, beginning with laughable pseudo-philosophising on love’s affliction of mankind (203-4), moving on to a graphic exaggeration of its torturous nature (205-6) and finally abandoning grammatical coherence altogether in a blustering stream of ten deponent verbs (206ff); “This is Latin under extreme pressure”.[53]

Alcesimarchus’ language is essentially paradoxical, cramming ridiculous hyperbole into a neatly structured anapaestic metre.[54] It is both firmly under control and wildly out of it, the isochronic rhythm channelling an air of punchy excitement.[55] He eventually becomes utterly nonsensical (ubi sum ibi non sum, 211), and resorts to confused polyptoton (miser… misero… miserum, 223-9). These attitudes – the self-proclaimed philosopher, the obsessive egotist, the unrepentant hyperbolist – are the building blocks of the adulescens amator’s personality. All are functioning to establish the character as fundamentally laughable. He becomes a caricature of the histrionic lover, luxuriating in exaggeration: ‘It is the too much – always and absolutely – not the much, that is funny’.[56]

But if we compare other entrances, we discover that Plautus is in fact engaging with a more complex comic device than pure histrionics. Calidorus of Pseudolus also revels in his own misery (miseriae te tam misere, 4; misere miser sum, 13) and subjects us to sickly-sweet alliteration (lepidis litteris lepidis tabellis lepida conscriptis manu, 28). Diniarchus of Truculentus, like Alcesimarchus, delivers a gratuitously self-pitying monologue. The antecedent prologue mentions a mulier (12) and a miles (18), but the adulescens is left out. When Diniarchus enters, he briefly diverts us with some half-hearted philosophising (non omnis aetas ad perdiscendum sat est, 22), but the enjambment of amanti in the second line swiftly dispels any doubt over the character type we are dealing with. The change into lyric verse, often inflected with the ὑψηλόν style of tragedy, would also have been a powerful aural indicator.[57] By constructing a recurring character that deals uniquely in catchphrases of misery, Plautus designs the adulescens as a ‘catchphrase’ in and of himself. The surprise comes from there being no surprise at all; the gallingly familiar can be just as comically effective as the innovative.[58] Every time the adulescens enters the stage, the audience is seduced by the reduction of

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