|Setting||Aetolia, before the house of Hegio|
Captivi is a Latin play by the early Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. The title has been translated as The Captives or The Prisoners, and the plot concerns slavery and prisoners of war. Although the play contains much broad humor, it is a relatively serious treatment of significant themes compared to most of Plautus’ other comedies. Plautus himself points out the difference in tone between this play and his other works in Captivi’s prologue.
Philocrates and his slave Tyndarus, of the Greek district of Elis, have been captured in war with another Greek region, Aetolia. They are now prisoners and slaves bought by Hegio, a well-to-do resident of Aetolia, who is planning to trade them for his son, Philipolemus, who has been captured in Elis. Pretending to be each other, the supposed slave Philocrates is sent to make the trade, while Tyndarus risks his life by remaining.
A friend of Philocrates named Aristophontes has also been captured, and Tyndarus’ efforts to fool Hegio by claiming that Aristophontes is insane are unsuccessful. When Hegio finds out from Aristophontes that he has been deceived, he sends Tyndarus to the quarries for backbreaking labor. Declaring that dying courageously is not an everlasting death, Tyndarus tries to convince Hegio that his own loyalty to Philocrates is right.
Comic relief is provided by a sponger, Ergasilus, looking for a free dinner from Hegio. He has learned that Hegio's son Philopolemus has returned to Aetolia, and he uses this knowledge to get a free meal from Hegio, then proceeds to go wild in the kitchen. Hegio’s former slave Stalagmus, who stole Hegio's other son when he was four years old, also arrives on the scene and confesses his iniquity. Eventually everybody discovers that Tyndarus is that stolen son, causing Hegio to realize he should have treated him better when he was his captive slave. Hegio and his two sons, Philopolemus and Tyndarus, are reunited in a happy ending.
Unlike most of Plautus’ comedies, this play offers little in the way of sexual titillation and instead concentrates on rather serious subjects: personal freedom, slavery and war. Although the mistaken identity elements of the plot are sometimes played for laughs and the sponger Ergasilus is brought on for some silly stage business, there are also quite serious speeches about the fate of slaves and the realities of war. In fact, the play begins with Philocrates and Tyndarus heavily and painfully shackled, and the harshness of their treatment counterbalances the humorous by-play that Plautus injects into the proceedings to keep his audience amused.
The protagonist Hegio is an interesting, multi-faceted character, more deeply drawn than most of Plautus' other figures, who tend to be comic stereotypes. He is shown as capable of cruelty and quite impulsive, but also as generous and ultimately sympathetic. The master-slave relationship between Philocrates and Tyndarus is also portrayed with a sensitivity rare in Plautus, who actually congratulates himself on his unaccustomed seriousness in the play’s prologue. Still, Plautus offers enough horseplay, especially by Ergasilus, to keep a Roman audience from souring on his “noble” aspirations.
The German poet and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing famously pronounced Captivi to be the finest play ever staged. This hyperbolic praise has been deprecated by later critics, but the play has still earned plaudits for treating important ethical issues. Ben Jonson indirectly paid tribute to the play by adapting the plot of Captivi for his early comedy The Case is Altered. The lack of obvious sexual humor, so common in Plautus’ other works, has also occasioned much critical comment and occasional approval.
Less sympathetic critics, such as E.F. Watling, have written harshly about Captivi’s loose plotting, rushed conclusion, and too-short time scheme. Others have dismissed these concerns as rather pedantic and irrelevant to a play that does not pretend to be rigorously realistic.
- Henry Thomas Riley, 1912: Captivi full text
- Paul Nixon, 1916-38: Captivi full text
- Sir kibwe fletcher, 1942
- E. F. Watling, 1965 
- Paul Roche, 1968 
- Moore Richard, 1995
- David M. Christenson, 2008 Reviewed in BMCR