Rome and the Mysterious Orient: Three Plays by Plautus

Rome and the Mysterious Orient: Three Plays by Plautus

Rome and the Mysterious Orient: Three Plays by Plautus

Rome and the Mysterious Orient: Three Plays by Plautus


Still funny after two thousand years, the Roman playwright Plautus wrote around 200 B.C.E., a period when Rome was fighting neighbors on all fronts, including North Africa and the Near East. These three plays--originally written for a wartime audience of refugees, POWs, soldiers and veterans, exiles, immigrants, people newly enslaved in the wars, and citizens--tap into the mix of fear, loathing, and curiosity with which cultures, particularly Western and Eastern cultures, often view each other, always a productive source of comedy. These current, accessible, and accurate translations have replaced terms meaningful only to their original audience, such as references to Roman gods, with a hilarious, inspired sampling of American popular culture--from songs to movie stars to slang. Matching the original Latin line for line, this volume captures the full exuberance of Plautus's street language, bursting with puns, learned allusions, ethnic slurs, dirty jokes, and profanities, as it brings three rarely translated works-- Weevil (Curculio), Iran Man (Persa), and Towelheads (Poenulus) --to a wide contemporary audience.

Richlin's erudite introduction sets these plays within the context of the long history of East-West conflict and illuminates the role played by comedy and performance in imperialism and colonialism. She has also provided detailed and wide-ranging contextual introductions to the individual plays, as well as extensive notes, which, together with these superb and provocative translations, will bring Plautus alive for a new generation of readers and actors.


A few years ago, I began to feel an increasing need for materials I could use in teaching about Roman attitudes toward the people they conquered, especially in Africa and the Near East. Since my undergraduate days I’ve been interested in Roman humor and invective, Roman xenophobia and ethnic stereotyping, and I wanted to teach about Roman attitudes that arguably amount to a kind of racism and are certainly connected with imperialism, and how those attitudes are expressed in comedy and pop culture. Hence Rome and the Mysterious Orient. the title takes its form from comedy (“Jeeves and the Impending Doom”) and melodrama (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and I hope the translations in this book are funny, but that doesn’t mean this book is a joke. the title also deliberately uses an old Orientalist cliché (see Said 1979). My point here is that jokes have a cultural job to do, and I hope this book will help people think about that job and how it gets done.

Between the time when I started and the time of publication, world events have only made such a book more useful. the histories of fighting in (what the West thinks of as) the Near East and of incursions by the West into the East and vice versa are very old, and people need to bear this in mind. I think it is also useful to watch an earlier culture, our ancestor in many ways, process its hatred, fear, curiosity, amusement, fascination, enjoyment, adoption—all this and more—and think about how that tallies, or doesn’t, with what goes on now.

But nothing is simple, and I also want this book to raise the possibility that Plautus’s plays represent the voice of an underclass talking (partly) to an underclass. That means that what the plays have to say about empire and immigrants and race and language has to be taken in its social and historical context: what was going on in the Mediterranean, who the playwrights were, who the actors were, who was in the audience, who paid for the production. the introductions to the volume and the individual plays, along with the notes, are meant to help answer those questions.

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