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Saturio's Inheritance

The Greek Ancestry of the Roman Comic Parasite

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Elizabeth Ivory Tylawsky

The parasite, the flamboyant and ever-hungry character of the Roman stage, had a complicated family tree reaching back to the beggar of the Homeric poems and to the fashionable circles of philosophizing sophists satirized by poets of Old Comedy at Athens. That caricature evolved into the stereotype figure whose jokes, prolixity, and peculiar obsessions continued to mark his Roman descendant many generations later. Along the way the stage figure of the parasite served as a funny and distorting mirror in which to reflect the preoccupations of the masculine society at whose table the parasite constantly endeavored to dine. The parasite was willing to make jokes and to suffer any degree of degradation and ridicule, provided that he got fed: he thus embodied that marginal member of society who lived always on sufferance. From Homer to Plautus the parasite defined the boundary of inclusion or exclusion in society by his precarious position on its outermost edge.