Plautus on Immigration and Domestic Policy

The Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 BC) wrote a play called Mostellaria (‘The Spectre’ or ‘The Haunted House’).

In the second scene of the play, Philolaches, a young man who enjoys life rather more than he should while his father is away, in an extended monologue, speaks thus –

auscultate, argumenta dum dico ad hanc rem:
simul gnaruris uos uolo esse hanc rem mecum. 
aedes quom extemplo sunt paratae, expolitae,
factae probe examussim,
laudant fabrum atque aedes probant, sibi quisque inde exemplum expetunt,
sibi quisque similis uolt suas, sumptum operam non parcunt suam.

atque ubi illo immigrat nequam homo, indiligens 105
cum pigra familia, immundus, instrenuos,
hic iam aedibus uitium additur, bonae cum curantur male.

Listen while I repeat my proofs of this fact; I want you to be equally knowing with myself upon this matter. As soon as ever a house is built up, nicely polished off, carefully erected, and according to rule, people praise the architect and approve of the house, they take from it each one a model for himself. Each one has something similar, quite at his own expense; they do not spare their pains. But when a worthless, lazy, dirty, negligent fellow betakes himself thither with an idle family, then is it imputed as a fault to the house, while a good house is being kept in bad repair.

The speaker of this passage (whose translation has been taken from here) distinguishes neatly between the deeds of the architect, responsible for the original structure, and the worthless tenant, responsible for the subsequent fate of it. He elaborates:

atque illud saepe fit: tempestas uenit,
confringit tegulas imbricesque: ibi
dominus indiligens reddere alias neuolt; 110
uenit imber, perlauit parietes, perpluont,
tigna putefacit, perdit operam fabri:
nequior factus iam est usus aedium.
atque ea haud est fabri culpa, sed magna pars
morem hunc induxerunt: si quid nummo sarciri potest, 115
usque mantant neque id faciunt, donicum
parietes ruont: aedificantur aedes totae denuo.

And this is often the case; a storm comes on and breaks the tiles and gutters; then a careless owner takes no heed to put up others. A shower comes on and streams down the walls; the rafters admit the rain; the weather rots the labours of the builder; then the utility of the house becomes diminished; and yet this is not the fault of the builder. But a great part of mankind have contracted this habit of delay; if anything can be repaired by means of money, they are always still putting it off, and don’t do it until the walls come tumbling down; then the whole house has to be built anew.

Philolaches then proceeds to compare the upbringing and edification of men to that of buildings, in a passage that is still worth reading for educationalists.

What makes Plautus’ text so interesting, however, is that line 105, in the first item (above), contains the first surviving instance of the Latin verb immigrare (‘to go into’, ‘to step in’ – ‘to betake oneself thither’ in the above translation). Immigrare is, of course, the the etymological root of the English term ‘immigration’, the very term that is at the heart of a heated political debate in the United Kingdom at present.

Would it be all too cheeky, then, to propose a playful allegorical interpretation of the Plautine passage in the light of current affairs (and in keeping with Roman textual scholarship), based on the tenuous link provided by the etymology?

The ‘immigrant’ in Plautus – when ‘a worthless, lazy, dirty, negligent fellow‘ with ‘with an idle family‘ – is thought to be the tenant of the house: the immigrant here is the landlord and head of the household, taking over responsibility for the dwelling’s upkeep after the architect designed it beautifully.

So the immigrant, when lazy and negligent, can bring damage. But what if the immigrant is in actual fact the one who is already in the house, what if the immigrant is the one who has stepped in to take responsibility? It is this immigrant’s, this landlord’s neglect, in Plautus’ version, that ultimately brings shame upon the house, as he fails to take care of it with sufficient care and sense of duty, causing lasting damage and decay.

Philolaches reflects on his own personal development, after his escape from his paternal supervision:

But I was always discreet and virtuous, just as long as I was under the management of the builder. After I had left him to follow the bent of my own inclinations, at once I entirely spoiled the labours of the builders. Idleness came on; that was my storm; on its arrival, upon me it brought down hail and showers, which overthrew my modesty and the bounds of virtue, and untiled them for me in an instant. After that I was neglectful to cover in again; at once passion like a torrent entered my heart; it flowed down even unto my breast, and soaked through my heart. Now both property, credit, fair fame, virtue, and honor have forsaken me; by usage have I become much worse, and, i’ faith (so rotten are these rafters of mine with moisture), I do not seem to myself to be able possibly to patch up my house to prevent it from falling down totally once for all, from perishing from the foundation, and from no one being able to assist me. My heart pains me, when I reflect how I now am and how I once was, than whom in youthful age not one there was more active in the arts of exercise, with the quoit, the javelin, the ball, racing, arms, and horses. I then lived a joyous life; in frugality and hardihood I was an example to others; all, even the most deserving, took a lesson from me for themselves. Now that I’m become worthless, to that, indeed, have I hastened through the bent of my inclinations.

One can only hope that current house owners, literally and figuratively speaking, especially when they talk about immigration will demonstrate a similar level of self-reflection, avoiding to point at others when decrying a state (present or future) of decline and decay of what is remembered as a once beautiful structure.

Incidentally, Plautus uses the verb immigrare once more in this context. At the very beginning of the final quote, where the translation says –

After I had left him to follow the bent of my own inclinations, at once I entirely spoiled the labours of the builders

the Latin reads:

postea quom immigraui ingenium in meum, 135
perdidi operam fabrorum ilico oppido.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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