Conventions of Roman Comedy

by Ross Wilson

Wellington School, Columbus OH


Roman comedy may seem somewhat similar to comedies we have today, but

Roman comedy diverged from the Greek tradition, and it set up a standard of

comedy that appears even to this day. There were several aspects of a Roman

comedy that defined it, including plot themes, recurring characters, and

physical gags the players carried out time and time again.

There were several character-types that were repeatedly used in Roman

comedy, due to their inherently funny nature. The senex, or old man, was

very popular from play to play. The senex was generalized as a greedy miser

and a generally clueless person. He usually was the brunt of a joke, or the

victim of a cunning scam. The senex seldom actually loved his wife and

usually preferred lusting after young prostitutes. This character was so

popular because of the irony it carried; nearly every aged man in Roman

society held some sort of stately title, and when the audience got to watch

an old man being scammed left and right, or blatantly cheat on his nagging

wife, it was extremely hilarious. Another stock character was the servus,

the slave. He was quick, sly, and always ready to crack a joke. The servus

was constantly trying to win his freedom from his master one way or

another. The servus was usually smarter than everyone in the play combined,

and this was an excellent effect, considering that the slave was the lowest

class in Roman society. It also furthered the irony of the senex when the

slave outsmarted even him. The iuvenis, the youth, was also routinely shown

in Roman comedy. He was just at the edge of true manhood, in love,

insolent, and constantly looking toward his slave for salvation to his

problems. He showed little or no respect for his father and was extremely

irresponsible. The parasite was also a common character. The complete

sycophant would follow the senex around, belittling himself, always looking

for money or some other reward. A young woman also commonly appeared in

Roman comedy. She was usually the love interest of the senex or the iuvenis

, but was usually a second-rate character with very little personality.

Certain plot themes appeared very commonly throughout Roman comedies.

These plot themes were popular because of the ways they forced characters

to interact. A young man and his father would be in love with the same

young woman. A man would be in love with a prostitute, a married woman, or

someone he could not be with under normal circumstances. A slave would do

everything he could to gain a means of bargaining with his master for

freedom. Children would try to find a way to wrest their inheritance from

their aged father's greedy hands. A young couple about to be married would

find out that they were actually long-lost brother and sister. These things

showed up repeatedly in the plots of Roman comedy.