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Introduction and question

Pl. Men. 1.2.71.

Pēn.
Metuis, crēdō, nē forēs sămiae sient.


Pēniculus
You fear, I believe, that the doors may be Samian*.
* By [Henry Thomas Riley][1] translated as ‘of Samian crockery’.

By context, it appears that Pēniculus is implying that the doors are fragile. In the Perseus text, there is no footnote explaining this comparison. What is it about Samian [crockery] that makes this line work?

Dictionary entries

I apologise for not having more context or suggestions to provide; I do not have any of my books present (they’re not in this country), so I am unable to access much of the information I usually have access to. When looking the word up in L&S, I am redirected to the entry on Sămus, where it is written that:

I. An island on the coast of Asia Minor opposite Ephesus, famed as the birthplace of Pythagoras, as also for its earth and the vessels made from it,

(My emphasis.)

My best guess, is that Pēniculus here is saying that Menaechmus is knocking so quietly that you’d think the doors were made of porcelain (Norwegian idiom meaning fragile). But could it perhaps rather be that Samian crockery was considered of poor quality – so that he is knocking quietly so as to not break some very shoddy doors? The L&S entry suggests otherwise. A bit further into the entry, one reads this:

testa, earthen-ware made of Samian (or other equally fine) clay

This suggests that the reference is more in line with our ‘of porcelain’. This is further strengthened by the Oxford Classical Dictionary entry on Roman pottery:

At the top of the quality scale were mass-produced vessels with a smooth red glossy surface designed for the table, notably eastern and western terra sigillata, or samian ware, whose Italian varieties (especially that from Arrezzo) were particularly widely distributed in the Augustan period.

Question restated

I would love to get more input on this, however. My experience with Plautus, hints that there may be more behind his lines than there appears to be. It could just as well be that I am overanalysing this. If anyone with more insight than me into Roman comedy and/or culture could help clear this up, I would be very grateful.

My question, as stated above, is: What is it about Samian [crockery] that makes this line work? As a follow-up to this, I am inclined to ask about what we can, from lines such as these, infer about how the Roman theatre stage was decorated?

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The commentary that I have for the Menaechmi, by P. Thoresby Jones (Oxford U. Press), has this note for the line:

  1. Samiae: i.e. fragile like earthenware. Samian ware was the commonest crockery used at Rome; cf. Stich. 694; Cic. pro Mur. 36,75.

Definition 3 for Samius in Oxford Latin dictionary states this:

3 (applied to a cheap, brittle type of pottery made in Samos)...

In Bacchides 200–222, Plautus makes a similar sort of joke:

{CHRYS.} Eho, an invenisti Bacchidem? {PIST.} Samiam quidem.
{CHRYS.} Vide quaeso, ne quis tractet illam indiligens; scis tu ut confringi vas cito Samium solet.

CHRYSALUS
How now, have you found out this Bacchis?

PISTOCLERUS
Yes, and a Samian one too.

CHRYSALUS
Prithee, do take care that no one handles her carelessly: you know how soon a Samian vessel is wont to break.

[Translation by Henry Thomas Riley, from the Perseus website]

When Oxford classical dictionary says that Samian ware was '[a]t the top of the quality scale,' I doubt that durability is really one of the criteria; more likely, this assessment has to do with other qualities, such as smoothness and uniformity of appearance (after all, the bit that you quoted from L&S states that Samian clay was 'fine,' which refers to the texture).

In short, I believe it really is as simple as Samian pottery was known to be fragile; and it was used widely enough that everyone in the audience would get the joke. So when Menaechmus tells him to knock gently, Peniculus can use a reference to this pottery to joke that it must be out of fear that the door will break if he knocks too hard. I don't think this passage any implications at all for Roman stage decoration.

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  • Thank you for this excellent answer, and especially for providing another text sample by the same author. A commentary is indeed an invaluable tool, and I do believe much more prior knowledge was expected from a 19th century reader than a 21st century reader.
    – Canned Man
    Feb 2 at 22:54
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    Great research. I do wonder about the apparent conflict between the Oxford classical dictionary on the one hand ("at the top of the quality scale") and Thoresby Jones ("commonest") and the OLD ("cheap") on the other.
    – Cerberus
    Feb 2 at 23:49
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    @Cerberus, I was hoping no one would ask that before I had a chance to do more digging. The quotation from Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD) in the original question suggests that 'commonest' refers just to the fact that Samian ware was mass-produced and widely distributed. It's hard to say whether 'cheap' in OLD refers to price, quality, and/or durability. If it refers to quality, the next question is whether OLD and OCD are using the same criteria to assess quality. If OLD includes durability in that assesment but OCD doesn't, there isn't necessarily a contradiction, just different criteria.
    – cnread
    Feb 3 at 0:35
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    @Cerberus (continued) Examination of the attestations that OLD provides may shed additional light.
    – cnread
    Feb 3 at 0:36
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    @cnread: Hehe. I suppose cheap crockery of good quality will probably be thick and sturdy, not thin and frail. From what I read, samian ware became the standard fine table ware in the early Roman Empire and later. But what was meant by the term in the time of Plautus? I'll consult the OLD when I have time.
    – Cerberus
    Feb 3 at 1:11

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