134. Asinaria (The Comedy of Asses) by Plautus (c.212 BC)

Plot:   Young Argyrippus is in love with Philaenium, the girl next door who is being rented out to suitors for a year at a time by her mother Cleareta. Argyrippus’ father, Demaenetus, is eager to buy his son’s affection by finding the money to further his son’s desires, and instructs his slaves Libanus and Leonida to swindle someone to get the money, which they do by intercepting a payment for some asses. On delivering the money and seeing Philaenium, Demaenetus wants to enjoy a fling with her too, but will his wife Artemona catch him in the act?

It was difficult to find a satisfactory print copy of this play. Penguin has two volumes of Plautus’ plays covering nine of the twenty extant plays but not this one, while the only complete works I could find in print (published by Johns Hopkins UP in 1995) has the characters speaking like American gangsters;  so its back to Project Gutenberg for a text translated by Paul Nixon (published 1916, Harvard University Press)


A word on the order of reading Plautus. I used my slightly rusty research librarian skills to find a scholarly article (The Dating of Plautus’ Plays, by W. B. Sedgwick, Classical Quarterly, 24(2), 1930) and will be trusting to this. Those assigned to his early period (Asinaria, Miles Gloriosus, Mercator, Poenulus, Cistellaria and Stichus) will take me nicely up to the beginning of the second century BC, where a small and intimate Roman orgy is planned to celebrate. Get your togas dry cleaned now.

My thoughts:  So I have finally reached Ancient Rome! Anyone having seen “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” or Frankie Howerd’s “Up Pompeii” will immediately recognise Plautus’ style. Conniving slaves, clueless young lovers, lecherous old men and their shrewish wives should all sound familiar.

If Plautus has been used as source material for 20th century comedy, it is perhaps fitting that he himself ‘borrowed’ many of his stories from Greek plays. For instance, Asinaria is a rewrite of the now-lost Onagos by the Greek playwright Demophilus, a fact cheerfully acknowledged at the start.

Perhaps not the best constructed of plays, but a bit of fun nonetheless. The two slaves banter and threaten each other even while conning their master’s victim out of his money, and the young girl’s mother is rudely businesslike in her demands for more money as she pimps her own daughter out to the highest bidder. The father shifts from a solicitous, if weak, loving father to an old lech who wants his own way with his son’s lover, and the wife comes in like an avenging harpy to snatch him away, leaving the two young lovers to enjoy their rather tawdry affair.

The two asses are not just the source of money but describes the antics of the two slaves, and perhaps equally the son and girlfriend, or the married couple.

Not sophisticated or polished, but promising of better to come.

Favourite lines/passages:

Leonida has a cunning plan to share with his fellow-slave Libanus:

“But if he’s ready to take part with me and pounce on this opportunity that’s turned up, he’ll be my partner in hatching the biggest, joy-stuffedest jubilee that ever was for his masters, son and father both, yes, and put the pair of ’em under obligations to the pair of us for life, too, chained tight by our services”        Lines 280-284

The Trader explains his reluctance to part with the payment for the asses to an unknown slave

“Man is no man, but a wolf, to a stranger.”    Line 496

Diversions and digressions:  It wouldn’t be amiss to watch a few old episodes of Up Pompeii.

Personal rating: 5/10

Also in that year: China has its first Emperor Shih Huang-ti (221 BC) and the Great Wall of China is built. Rome fights Carthage in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), with Carthaginian general Hannibal crossing the Alps to invade Italy (218 BC) inflicting several defeats on the Romans over the next three years. The Greek allies of Rome prevent the Macedonians from assisting Hannibal.

Next :  I will read lots of Plautus since there are twenty plays to enjoy, the next being Miles Gloriosus (The Swaggering Soldier). If Plautus is not your cup of tea (or amphora of wine), it may  be best to check back in October.

One comment

  1. Thank you so much for your adaptation. I could not connect the family for the thick Latin translations. It’s a very funny play, now that the character’s make more sense.


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