New Comedy and
Roman New Comedy

323 - 240 BC

The writers of New Comedy used the same archetype characters as Middle Comedy and added a mercenary soldier to the cast. Their plays were for the most part satires on Athenian society and common folk faced with confusing situations. Maybe their most important contribution to the theatre was the love theme: The resourceful servant or friend, willingly or not, helps the young man meet a young lady who lives with an uncompromising father, uncle, administrator...

Roman New Comedy stems from two sources that are similar in essence: the New Comedy that originated in Greece and slapstick comedy predominant in southern Italy. They merged and evolved into three groups called Fabulae. The most popular playwrights in this style were Plautus and Terence.
The Fabula Crepidata (also called Togata from the Greek toga) were adaptations of Greek New Comedy. Though the plays were written in Latin, the characters had Greek names to avoid possible problems with the Roman authorities.

The Fabula Praetexta used Roman themes and Roman names.

The Fabula Atellana originated in southern Italy. The performances were satires performed in the country during festivals. The Atellana style used the same characters and plots of New Comedy but actors relied on mime and improvisation to tell their story. The action was fast-paced and packed with unexpected turns mostly due to misunderstandings.

Though Atellana was the least sophisticated of the three, it would be this farcical style to survive and evolve as it traveled around Europe during the Middle Ages with troups that performed in markets and fairss. The term "farce" allegedly comes from a country dish served during gatherings, to describe stuffing.

Mime originated with the Etruscans, some say to make themselves understood due to language barriers. For a long time the word "mime" was used to describe any form of acting, acrobatics or dancing.


The playwright Plautus (born 254 BC) was closer to the Atellana form of theatre found in southern Italy, unlike Terence who remained faithful to traditional Greek New Comedy. Plautus used Greek characters and plots but his comedies reflected the exuberant and earthy humor of the Romans, which is why they were so successful. After his death his writings were required reading in Latin classes.  

His plays were originally musicals, with about a third of the dialogues sung but the music has been lost. Even so, when he was rediscovered during the Renaissance his works inspired over five hundred comedies.

Shakespeare, in the 17th century, used the following story as a base for his play The Comedy of Errors.

The Menaechemi, or The Twins

A merchant in Syracuse has twin sons, Menaechus and Sosicles. One day young Menaechus goes to town with his father and they are separated. The boy is found by a wealthy merchant from Epidamnus, and adopted.

The grieving parents and grandparents are inconsolable and rename the remaining twin, Sosicles, after the lost son. Sosicles/Menaechus grows to manhood and takes off with his slave Messenio in search of his brother. They’d been traveling six years when they reach the gates of Epidamnus.

Prior to their arrival the real Menaechus was arguing with his wife, as usual. To spite her, he takes her mantle and bracelet and gives it to the courtesan Erotium. He asks Erotium to fix supper and departs on some business. While Menaechus is gone she sees Sosicles and, thinking he’s Menaechus, feeds him. Before he leaves she gives him the mantle and bracelet to be repaired.

In the meantime Menaechus’s wife discovers her husband’s little trick and makes such a scene he goes to retrieve the mantle and bracelet from Erotium, who thinks he’s trying to pull a fast one on her.

Menaechus’s wife sees Sosicles with the mantle and, thinking it’s her husband, flies in a rage. Sosicles insists he’s innocent and resists with the help of Messenio.

She calls the police and finally the twins come face to face but (oddly enough) they still don’t recognize each other. Messenio solves the riddle, thereby gaining his freedom. Menaechus leaves his wife and moves back to Syracuse.


Terence (born 190 BC) was a slave from Carthage whose grace and sense of humor earned him his freedom. His comedies show how people behave when they have to make decisions in unpredictable circumstances. He remained faithful to the traditional Greek style and used Menander as his inspiration. 

Both he and Plautus integrated morals and advice to the ingeminate New Comedy characters and plots, but here end the similarities. Where Plautus wrote for the common folk, Terence wrote for aristocrats. His elegant writing became the standard for the Latin language. Terence coined the famous adages “Many men, many minds” and “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”


The brothers Aeschinus and Ctesipho live apart, but not too far away from each other. Ctesipho lives in the country with their father Demea, and Aeschinus lives with their uncle Micio in Athens. While Ctesipho is brought up strictly, Aeschinus lives the easy life. He gets a young girl from a good but poor family pregnant, and promises to marry her but has not found a way to tell his uncle.

Meanwhile Ctesipho meets the Music Girl and falls under her charms. His brother arranges for them to meet at their uncle’s house.

The mother discovers her daughter’s pregnancy and goes to the father’s house in the country to complain. He in turn goes to his brother’s house in town to find out what’s going on. Micio’s clever slave, Syrus, prevents the father from entering and discovering Ctesipho with the Music Girl.

In the end both boys are allowed to marry and, to everyone’s surprise, Uncle Micio is persuaded to give up his bachelor’s life and marry the mother of Aeschinus’ bride. Predictably, Syrus contrives to recover his freedom as well as a bag of money for his contribution to the happy ending.

Summary of plays by Plautus and Terence