by Mary Whitlock Blundell and Ann Cumming revised edition
Focus Classical Library
Niall W. Slater
Department of Classics
Auricula Meretricula is a brief but snappy comedy (it plays easily in under a half hour) written in Latin and designed to accompany the teaching of a first semester Latin course. Its origins lie in the two authors' struggle to find something to enliven their teaching of Wheelock's Latin Grammar (the current title of this standard text) at Berkeley in the early 1980's. Wheelock's book, originally designed as a review or self-teaching text, is very efficient--and resolutely dull, as generations of glassy-eyed freshmen will attest. To leaven its steady diet of paradigms and ennobling maxims, the authors turned to Roman comedy and elegy for inspiration and created this playlet in the style of Roman comedy.
The format is suitable for use either as a sight- reading exercise or as a prepared text. The ten scenes, using a progressively richer vocabulary and syntax, are accompanied by a facing vocabulary. While conceived for use after the student has mastered a given number of chapters in Wheelock (the first scene after chapter 8, the last after chapter 24), the scenes should work well with any beginning text. The new edition in fact trims a little of the vocabulary with just this goal in mind. Some of the early facing vocabulary lists look a little heavier because of this attempt to suit other texts (and in what beginning text will the student not have learned meus, -a, -um by the time one reads the first scene?), but students should still be able to read these scenes with the facility and speed which makes the jokes funny.
The plot is the standard romance and resistance vehicle. Auricula, the little courtesan of the title, is in love with a penniless poet named Marcus. Her owner, the pimp Ballio, tries to sell her first to the soldier Pugnax, then to a randy old man named Malacus, but true love triumphs in the end.
There are significant plot innovations in this second edition, mostly notably with the addition of two new characters. In the first edition Marcus had only fortune and the parasite Edax on his side. The new edition gives him a clever slave named Pseudolus, who is greatly aided by his slave girlfriend Dolia. The change results not only in a plot much more like the Roman archetypes with their helpless young masters and clever slaves but in a much livelier staging (with eavesdropping scenes).
Time and changing sensibilities have brought other changes as well. The original edition featured an attempted offstage rape, foiled by the soldier's impotence rather than the intervention of any human agency. While successful rapes are a feature of many Roman comedies (a motif often ignored or played down in translations; see Zola M. Packman, 'Call It Rape', Helios 20 , 42-55), even the attempt is out of keeping with the tone of a comedy now, and the new solution of how to keep Pugnax and Auricula apart is a distinct improvement: in a scene inspired by Plautus's Miles Gloriosus the soldier is lured away by Dolia, pretending to be a rich and thoroughly infatuated widow. Less justified may be the toning down of the naughty bits in Ballio's description of Auricula's physical charms. The original passage, based on Ovid's Amores 1.5.19-22 reads: Quos umeros, quos lacertos videbis tangesque! Forma papillarum quam apta premi! Quam planus sub pectore venter! Quam juvenale femur! The new version reads Quem colorem videbis! Quod corpus tanges! Pectus quam aptum premi! and one suspects the reason is not to spare the student the effort of mastering extra vocabulary. Jettisoning discussion of Auricula's claim to be a virgo intacta, however, is a wise move; the concept is as alien to some of our students as the legalistic phrase, and Marcus won no points with them for his concern over it, at least in my classroom experience.
In general, the Latin remains a delight: the authors have a genuinely Plautine ear for bombastic alliteration and word chimes, mixed with familiar tags (carpe diem, nam tempus fugit) and parodies or adaptations of nobler verses. Only one moment, really one word, in the new text rings false to me. In the third scene Ballio is roundly insulted by Marcus (a nice adaptation of the flagitatio scene in Plautus's Pseudolus), then threatens Marcus to drive him away.
In the original version, Ballio leaves the threat unfinished, and Marcus runs off, allowing for a threatening gesture and nice bit of stage business. In the new version, Marcus remains on stage as a segue to a new scene. Ballio, before departing, hurls this threat at him: Nam si te cum ea [sc. Auricula] invenero, te quoque occidam. This last word, occidam, strikes me as a serious blunder. In a work that otherwise remains so faithful to the spirit of the Roman originals, this threat of lethal violence from a socially marginal character against a freeborn young lover is both sour in itself and radically false to the original social structure. This generation of students may not even notice it, but death threats against the young do not sound humorous to me.
Finally, the new edition cleans up the appearance of the page by substituting single Roman numerals for the original scene headings (Scaena Prima, Secunda etc.) and replacing the somewhat precious annotations of Capita Vilocis I-XIII with simply 'Wheelock I-XIII'. Annette LeBlanc Cate contributes a splendid series of drawings, based on the miniatures in the illustrated Terence manuscripts, which illustrate the stages of the action. I do mourn the absence of one touch: both the original and the first Focus reprint carried a wonderful parody of the OUP shield with the superscription 'Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxnardiensis' and the inscription on the open book device Aut lana aut lena. These have alas vanished in the new incarnation, whether victims of a more vigilant eye for copyright infringement or an unwillingness of Focus to see itself as the Bibliotheca Oxnardiensis.
Having used the first edition in my Latin I classes with great pleasure and some success, I look forward to trying out the new version. The slightly longer scenes of the new version may be a little harder to fit into a class hour in which one expects to introduce or cover other material as well, but the payoff in increased student interest is well worth the effort.
'There s a dance in the old dame yet', as Mehitabel would say of herself. Those who already know the original edition of this delightful aid to the teaching of beginning Latin will welcome Auricula's return with a few new tricks up her palla; those who do not are in for a real treat.
Niall W. Slater