Roman Law in Roman Comedy

A paper by Victor Castellani, University of Denver, for the Ancient World Seminar at 1:00 on Monday 20 August in the South Theatre, Old Arts, room 224.

Even the humblest plebeian in the audiences of Plautus’ rowdy comedies and of Terence’s more elegant ones thoroughly understood Jus Civile, its rules and procedures.  Much humor missed today in the plays of both depended upon easy familiarity with law, the laws, and more softly enforced custom regarding slavery and freedom, patria potestas, connubium and matrimonium, client-patron relationship, debt and oral contract and concepts of res acta, bona fides and diverse injuria.

Sound awfully dull?  In fact it all should be (and surely was) awesomely hilarious to Romans of every order when they saw or read plays like Plautus’ Menaechmi, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria and his masterpiece Pseudolus (inter alias) or Terence’s exquisite Phormio — which purveys history’s first lawyer joke, a smart young playwright’s ad hoc invention for a Roman audience at the Ludi Romani [sic!] of 161 BC.