Two Approaches to Examining Slave Presence in the Plautine Audience

Perspective view of a Roman Amphitheatre

Reviewing Brown and Richlin in Conjunction & Comparison

By Sara J. Chopra


I. Background


To the people of ancient Rome, spectacle was an immense aspect of daily life. Whether it be chariot races, festivals, or city-wide processions, these events collectively contributed to Roman arts and performance culture. One significant medium through which this culture developed was drama. Recently, as classicists have grown more interested in exploring social strata of the ancient world, especially the perspectives and stories of the enslaved, several scholars have examined the intersections between slave life and the Roman theater. Two such academics – the late Peter Brown of Oxford and Amy Richlin of the University of California, Los Angeles – authored remarkably different articles on this topic, exploring the question of whether slaves were audience members at performances of comedic playwright Titus Maccius Plautus’ plays.

Brown’s posthumously-published 2020 article, “Were There Slaves In The Audience Of Plautus’ Comedies?” explores passages from Plautus that are often presented as evidence of slave viewership, instead seeking to use these passages to prove the opposite as true. He suggests that slave viewership was not commonplace, a conclusion that is a response to Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy, a 2017 book published by Richlin. Her own article from 2014, “Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience,” draws upon various primary sources and historical evidence to arrive at the conclusion that slaves did view Plautus’ plays, and did so often – a stark contrast with Brown’s finding.


II. Introduction


Using the plays of Plautus as a contextual backdrop, these opposing articles together shed light upon the ways in which slaves may have interacted with the Roman theater in its various forms. The significant differences between the two offer a case study into the ways in which scholars can use the same, or similar, evidence and yet arrive at remarkably different conclusions. By examining each article on its own and in comparison with its counterpart, this article will lay out the methods utilized by each scholar, assessing the various benefits and drawbacks of each, in order to best interpret the collective findings.


III. Richlin: Slave Viewership in Nontraditional Settings


Amy Richlin, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Classics, published “Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience” in the 33rd volume of Classical Antiquity. For several decades of her scholarly career, she has focused on “outgroups and muted groups … people who left few records for themselves,” in her own words.[1] Initially presented at a 2011 conference on the viewership of Roman comedy, her article seeks to examine the interactions between slaves and Plautus’ comedies using linguistic, geographical, and historical evidence. Three years after the publication of this article, she released her book, Slave Theater in the Roman Republic, which covers the topic with a wider scope.

Richlin starts her piece by first providing a glimpse into her argument through the prologue of Plautus’ Poenulus, which addresses various groups of people from security staff to house slaves and pedisequi – slaves who accompany their masters.[2] Using this primary source to introduce the intentions of her research, she then launches into a review of literature from a variety of scholars who discuss peasant and slave life in Rome; Plautine style and themes  such as slave punishment;[3] and the relationship between class and performance culture in both Greece and Rome. From here, after detailing and analyzing literature across these topics, she presents the remainder of her research in two sections: the first explores how Plautus addresses slaves, freedmen, and peasants; and the second provides a historical and cultural context for his plays and their performances.

Richlin further organizes the first section into subheadings, each focusing on a unique aspect of how Plautine language addresses slaves and peasants. In the first subsection, she discusses the ways in which the comedies portray slavery and slave life, especially regarding beating and master-slave relationships. She builds upon this further in the second subsection, “How the comedies ‘give slaves and poor men what they want,’” which examines the prevalence of foolish masters, bold slaves, and the overall role-reversing, Saturnalia-esque culture of the Plautine universe.[4] Lastly, the third subsection studies the playwright’s incorporation of double entendre, and its implications when used by slave characters onstage. Throughout this section, Richlin brings forth primary linguistic evidence, including specific phrases and word choices, from Plautus’ original Latin to support and strengthen her claim that slaves were key members of the Plautine audience.

The second section provides historical context for understanding slaves, social hierarchies, and Roman theater at large, bringing together historical and geographical evidence to supplement the linguistic evidence from the first section. In the first two subsections of this discussion, Richlin provides an overview of the ways in which slaves came to Rome and the history of class-related social conflicts during the third century BCE.[5] Then in the final three subsections, she discusses several aspects of the Roman theater: the status and reception of performers and playwrights such as Plautus; the setting of Plautine theater; and the relationship between society and entertainment in the worlds of both Plautus and his peers.[6] The historical context provided by Richlin indicates that there were several opportunities for people of a lower class to have historically attended the plays, beyond traditional settings for theater, such as the Ludi Romani  (the public games of Rome).

Bringing her article to a close, Richlin synthesizes the three aspects of her research to reach her conclusions. Based upon direct linguistic evidence, the historical and cultural backdrop of Plautine comedy, and previous scholarship, many groups of people – including slaves, freedmen, and peasants – indeed watched Plautus’ plays, although most likely in nontraditional settings such as at markets or small-scale festivals.[7] Regardless of this, according to Richlin, slaves nevertheless did have a place in the Roman theater. This, she argues, is crucial to a contemporary understanding of slave life and ancient performance. Her findings implore future scholars and the general public to keep the presence of slave audience members in mind as they consider the plays of Plautus and his contemporaries – an implication that could greatly alter how the scholarly world understands and interprets ancient drama and its audience.


IV. Brown: Slaves—Present in the Jokes, Absent in the Theater


While Richlin’s conclusion that slaves held a place in Plautine audiences is prevalent throughout her other published works, Peter Brown’s article, “Were There Slaves In The Audience Of Plautus’ Comedies?” offers an opposing argument. Brown, who spent the entirety of his academic career at the University of Oxford, was a classics tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, for fifty years until his death in 2018. A specialist in Greco-Roman theater, he wrote his article, published in the 2020 volume of Classical Quarterly, to challenge Richlin’s claims. He argues that her book “takes the presence of slaves in the audience for granted and builds on it to develop a view of Plautine comedy as addressing [their] experiences” [8] – a notion that he suggests is greatly misguided, and perhaps even harmful to a contemporary understanding of the Plautine audience and Roman theater at large. Using the same textual evidence that Richlin and other scholars reference in order to indicate the presence of slaves, he seeks to prove their conclusions incorrect and show that slaves were not everyday spectators of these comedies.

Brown structures his argument in five sections, excluding his introductory and concluding remarks. In the first section, he discusses the physical space of the Plautine theater, drawing from various plays to show evidence that at performances, some fraction of the audience likely stood while the majority sat. He goes on to suggest that while there is reason to believe that  those who had to stand were socially inferior to those who sat, the texts do not directly refer to slaves, who would naturally be standing members of the audience if they were even in attendance.[9] The second section of his argument focuses entirely on the prologue of Plautus’ Poenulus, which Richlin’s article noted as chief evidence of slave viewership. Brown unpacks the passage section-by-section, ultimately claiming that though previous scholars used the speaker’s address of groups such as wet-nurses and various slaves as evidence of their presence, a truer translation and interpretation reveals that the speaker is instead asking these wet-nurses and slaves to leave the theater. He suggests that the speaker may only make mention of slaves in a joking way, as part of the playwright’s comedic vision.[10] Brown continues into a third section, in which he translates and analyzes additional passages that scholars have used to evidence slave viewership. He brings in lines from both Plautus and peer playwrights, once again suggesting that the mention of slaves or other lower-status members of society, such as prostitutes, is a joke intended to have a comedic effect upon those who really were watching the play.

Finally, in the fourth and fifth sections of his research, Brown briefly discusses whether children or young adults attended these shows – he concludes that adulescentes, young men, were perhaps present[11] – before shifting his focus to passages detailing disruptions that occurred at the Roman ludi. Previous authors cited Latin texts, one passage from the prologue of Terence’s Hecyra and the other from Cicero’s De Haruspicum Responso, both of which detailed disturbances at the festival, as proof that slaves were in the theater during the performances. However, in reviewing both sources, Brown argues that they are not descriptive enough in this regard, and states that no information can be gleaned regarding the crowd’s composition.

In his conclusion, Brown brings together these five sections as he asserts  that although other academics read and applied them in one way, the texts of Plautus and others do not indicate that slaves were among the attendees of Roman comedic performances. He suggests that perhaps the reason the Plautine slave was shown to “triumph over his citizen master”[12] was that no real slaves were able to see his plays; Richlin viewed this aspect of Plautus’ comedy in the opposite way. According to Brown, the textual evidence does not offer a reason as to why slaves were not permitted at such events, but it nevertheless implies and, in some passages like that from Poenulus, shows that slaves were not privy to this cultural space. His finding suggests that in conducting research and analyses, scholars should accept that slaves were not in attendance during plays and dramatic spectacles, and that the public should read these comedies with the understanding that they were not written to be performed for slaves.


V. Analysis & Conclusion


As discussed briefly above, Richlin and Brown’s research approaches and findings offer vastly different, highly conflicting perspectives on whether or not slaves had a place in the audience of Plautine comedy, and in that of Roman theater more generally. Their findings are nearly opposite from one another, as are the implications: Richlin suggests that future scholars should consider the slave as an audience member – and thus consider slave responses and reactions to these plays – while Brown advises scholars not to “take the presence of slaves for granted,”[13] and instead acknowledge that slaves were not key members of the Plautine audience.

Beyond the prominent disagreement between their conclusions, one significant difference between the authors’ research approaches is that Richlin’s three-section research approach included a robust literature review, language analysis, and historical research, whereas Brown consistently interposed ideas from other scholars in complement to his own ideas, rather than within a separate review of literature. In addition, Brown’s approach was primarily text-based and language-focused, and he did not examine or analyze the cultural, historical, or social contexts to the extent to which Richlin did. It is quite understandable why this would occur, as Richlin’s past work has largely discussed aspects of Roman social culture and groups, while Brown’s has focused on the language and reception of Roman theater.

Despite – or, perhaps, due to – their different approaches, the two scholars and their work remain indubitably in conversation with one another; the conflict between their articles is especially noteworthy in light of the fact that each author has referenced (and in Brown’s case, responded to) the other in their own work. In his final footnote, Brown thanks Richlin for reviewing a previous draft of his essay, “in spite of our coming to very different conclusions,” [14] and states that she referenced his work in her 2017 book Slave Theater in the Roman Republic – the book to which Brown’s article responds. In “Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience,” Richlin’s own bibliography references a 2002 article by Brown, “Actors and Actor-Managers at Rome in the Time of Plautus and Terence.” This dialogue expresses how even when scholarly works – and their authors – differ greatly with regard to their findings, implications, and research approaches, they can nevertheless collaborate synergistically, whether they inspire new research questions or paths for scholarship, or work to advance the field and contemporary world’s knowledge of antiquity. If Richlin’s work had not affected him thus, Brown would not have felt so compelled to respond to her with his own research and findings; however, as a result of this exchange of thought, scholars and students can now consider both perspectives in comparison and contrast, in a similar manner as this very review.

To that end, when noting relationships and differences between the two authors, it is also essential to return to the research interests and intentions of each scholar, especially when considering their individual research methods and findings. Throughout her academic career, Richlin has been primarily interested in shedding light upon underrepresented groups and communities in the ancient world, including slaves; her work focuses on telling the stories of ancient individuals and groups whose lives were largely unrecorded. Following her conclusion from “Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience” that slaves were viewers of Plautus, she published a book expanding upon this notion. Thus, it is possible that Richlin’s research approach and findings in “Talking to Slaves” were affected by an unconscious confirmation bias, and that the article’s conclusions serve to support her personal interests as an academic. This may also have affected Brown, as well, but likely to a lesser extent due to the subject matter of his own research interests. The possibility of bias is one aspect to consider when discussing any scholarly publication, although given that it is difficult to ensure pure objectivity, especially in articles examining topics such as these – which consistently require the translation and interpretation of texts – it is likely that some amount of bias will always exist.

Nevertheless, both Richlin and Brown present well-supported conclusions to their research, and upon reviewing both, it is clear that there are benefits to reading each article and approach. Scholars seeking a paper that discusses the presence of slaves while delving fully into the language of Plautus’ comedy may deem Brown’s approach more useful to them. On the other hand, those looking for an article that includes significant research beyond language may opt for Richlin’s. Scholars and students with general interests in exploring the breadth of perspectives within the academic area of Roman theater and classical studies at large may find that reviewing both authors’ works in conjunction provides the best insights.




“Amy Richlin – Department of Classics.” UCLA.

Brown, Peter. “Were There Slaves In The Audience Of Plautus’ Comedies?” The Classical Quarterly, 2020, 1–18.

“Musician and Academic Who Left His Mark on the City.” Oxford Mail. Oxford Mail, December 13, 2018.


“Peter Brown.” Literary Encyclopedia | Profile of Peter Brown.


Richlin, Amy. “Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience.” Classical Antiquity 33, no. 1, 2014, 174–226.



[1]“Amy Richlin – Department of Classics.” UCLA.

[2] Richlin, Amy. “Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience.” Classical Antiquity 33, no. 1 (2014): 175.

[3] Ibid. 177.

[4] Ibid. 187-202.

[5] Ibid. p. 202-210.

[6] Ibid. p. 210-219.

[7] Ibid. p. 220-221.

[8] Brown, Peter. “Were There Slaves In The Audience Of Plautus’ Comedies?” The Classical Quarterly, 2020, 1–18.

[9] Ibid. p. 6-7.

[10] Ibid. p. 7-11

[11] Ibid. p. 13.

[12] Ibid. p. 18.

[13] Ibid. p. 1

[14] Ibid. p. 18.

Sara Chopra is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying Classical Languages and Literature.

1 Comment

  1. Amy Richlin says: Reply

    Peter Brown was a great man, now sorely missed. I heard him give the paper on which this sadly posthumous article is based when we both spoke at a conference in Glasgow in 2013; there was a delay in its publication, and though I nagged Peter for it, I was able to cite only the conference paper in _Slave Theater_. But I cited a great deal of his other work, and he was even able to solve for me a mystery about whether or not P. G. Wodehouse had read Plautus at school (you’ll have to search the footnotes for that one). He disagreed with me, I disagreed with him, and yet we developed a strong mutual respect. I am proud to have known him. He was a good man and a fine scholar.
    Amy Richlin, December 20, 2020

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