Monday, October 18, 2004


The Smell of Fear

[Warning: Scatological content, with the aim of elucidating a passage from Plautus.]

In the opening slapstick act of Plautus' Amphitruo, the real Sosia encounters the fake Sosia (the god Mercury) in the darkness of night. Mercury flexes his muscles and balls his fist, and Sosia gets scared. At line 321 Mercury says, "Olet homo quidam malo suo" ("A certain fellow stinks, to his own detriment"), to which Sosia replies, "Ei, numnam ego obolui?" ("Yikes! I didn't make a stench, did I?")

Older commentators (Ussing, Palmer) were too polite to inquire about the source of the smell. David M. Christenson in his commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 203-204, discusses two possibilities: either Sosia has broken wind or his armpits are rank. Christenson favors the latter explanation.

But there is another possibility. Perhaps Sosia is so frightened that he soils himself. Jeffrey Henderson, The Maculate Muse, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 189, #402, lists over a dozen passages from Aristophanes where fear has precisely this physical effect. I'll quote only one (Ecclesiazusae 1059-1062, tr. Eugene O'Neill):
YOUNG MAN. Oh! let me go to the can first, so that I may gather my wits somewhat. Else I should be so terrified that you would see me letting out something yellow. OLD WOMAN. Never mind! you can crap, if you want, in my house.
Another relevant passage, which I haven't seen mentioned in this connection, is Pseudo-Aristotle, Problems 27.3 (tr. W.S. Hett):
Why is it that in a state of anger, when the heat collects within, men become heated and bold, but in a state of fear they are in the opposite condition? Or is not the same part affected? In the case of the angry it is the heart that is affected, which is the reason why they are courageous, flushed and full of breath, as the direction of the heat is upwards. But in the case of the frightened the blood and the heat escape downwards, whence comes the loosening of the bowels.
I haven't seen W.B. Sedgwick's commentary on Plautus' Amphitruo (Mancester: Manchester University Press, 1960), and I haven't searched the periodical literature.

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