Category: Latin literature

148. Phormio by Terence (161 BC)

148. Phormio by Terence (161 BC)

Plot:  Young Antipho marries Phanium while his father Demipho is abroad. She is penniless with no dowry, which enrages Demipho on his return. Meanwhile Antipho’s cousin Phaedria has fallen in love with Pamphila, a slave girl about to be sold off, but he has no money to rescue and marry her. His father, Chremes (Demipho’s brother) is also abroad on one of his frequent visits to his secret second wife and his daughter but they have disappeared. Phormio , a clever rascal and  friend to Antipho and Phaedria, promises to help them both.

My thoughts:  More enjoyable than the earlier plays, especially as there was no overt violence to women, but it didn’t quite have the sparkle of The Eunuch. The plot is twisty but doesn’t lose the audience (that is, me).

I mentioned in the last post that the stage setup remains quite basic and consistent, with just the two neighbouring houses. I should also mention that, while the courtesans and older women (wives, slaves and nurses) appear on stage, the beautiful young women (in this case, Phanium and Pamphila) never appear but are spoken to as if they are in the houses. I presume that if only male actors were allowed to perform on stage, they could not provide a sufficient illusion of feminine beauty necessary to make the desperation of the male characters believable and lift the comedy above farce.

As mentioned in earlier posts, Terence borrowed content from Greek plays, which was almost standard practice for Latin playwrights at this time, and subsequently both this play and Terence’s next (The Brothers) were used by Moliere as the basis of two of his plays. As Terence said in his prologue to The Eunuch: “Nothing is ever said which has not been said before”

Personal rating:  6/10

Also about this time: Public libraries appear in Rome. Yay!

Next : The final play by Terence, Adelphoe (The Brothers)


147. Eunuchus (The Eunuch) by Terence (161 BC)

147. Eunuchus (The Eunuch) by Terence (161 BC)

Plot:  Chaerea has fallen in love at first sight with the young maiden Pamphila, and disguises himself as a eunuch so he can gain access to her bedroom where he ‘seduces’ her. His older brother Phaedria is in love with the courtesan Thais, but has a rival in the soldier Thraso. The latter has made a present of Pamphila to Thais (who is trying to restore her to her family), but only if Thais will make Thraso her number one suitor.

My thoughts: Paradoxically I enjoyed this play far more than Terence’s other plays, in spite of the fact that at the centre of this ‘comedy’ there is still a young woman sexually assaulted.

The storyline was better structured, and the intentions of all the characters were easy to follow. It also featured the whole host of stock characters – the bragging soldier, his toady companion milking him for meals, the artful courtesan, the obsessed young men and the dottery old father, with much more opportunity for actual comedy – the young man dressing as a eunuch, the braggart and his sycophantic ‘yes-man’.  I can almost be persuaded that everyone has a happy ending, even the young girl, reunited with her family and offered marriage by her love-struck assailant.

I guess I just have to take on board this treatment of women, particularly slaves, was an everyday occurrence, rating only a small amount of sympathy from a Roman audience, and justified due to  the uncontrollable desires of young men ‘boys will be boys’ mentality.

The stage presentation is remarkably static in all the Roman plays so far. Two houses side by side, with the city centre off to the audience’s right, and the countryside off to the left. Terence also uses the same range of characters mentioned above, and even recycles the names of characters across his plays (although they do not represent the same people from play to play)

Personal rating:  A surprising and somewhat guilty 7/10. If you read one Terence play, this is probably the one.

Next :  Staying with Terence, his fifth play, Phormio.


146. Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) by Terence (163 BC)

Plot:  Menedemus is working himself relentlessly night and day in his fields as private atonement for driving his only son Clinia away rather than condone his son’s love interest, the young maid Antiphila.  His neighbour Chremes tries to cheer him up, unaware that his own son Clitipho is infatuated with the courtesan Bacchis, who now arrives along with Antiphila at Chremes’ house,   where Clinia is hiding. The family slave Syrus tries to swindle the money Clitipho needs to keep Bacchis satisfied, and convinces Clinia to pretend he loves Bacchis. Meanwhile Chremes persuades Menedemus to hide the regret and affection he feels overwhelmingly for Clinia when he does return.

All clear so far…? No??

My thoughts:  A difficult play to follow – I kept losing track of what Memedemus and Chremes were supposed to believe, who was supposed to be in love with who, and where Syrus was going to get the money from. I read the middle third of the play twice and it only just helped.

Halfway through, It is revealed that Antiphila is actually the daughter of Chremes, who he had ordered to be abandoned to die in the wilderness as a baby years ago because she was a girl. His anger with his wife for not obeying him, and thereby risking the ignominy of having his daughter become a slave or a courtesan rather than starve to death as an infant, sours the whole story and took any hint of comedy away completely for  me.  Terence seems to gloss over the atrocities and sorrows inflicted on the women in his stories, using them simply as so much background to his plot entanglements.


Personal rating: 3/10

Also around this time:   From 167 to 160 BC, Maccabean Jews were rebelling against the Seleucid Empire and Greek influence. Their victory at the Battle of Beth Zur in 164 BC led to the recapture of Jerusalem.

My reads in between:

  • Tales of St. Austins, a very early Wodehouse in his School stories era, with short stories featuring the students and teachers of said school, mostly revolving around the next rugby or cricket match, and not getting caught outside school bounds. For Wodehouse addicts only.
  • Playing with Fire, the second in the Skulduggery Pleasant series. Not as good as the first but only because the joy of meeting the characters has already been had. Still a great read.

Next :  The Eunuch by Terence


145. Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) by Terence (c.165 BC)

145. Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) by Terence (c.165 BC)

Plot: Young Pamphilus is convinced to break off his affair with the courtesan Bacchis and marry Philumena. But seven months later, Philumena runs back to her parents’ house, and it is generally believed that it must have been some quarrel or  insult from Pamphilus’ mother Sostra that caused her to flee. In reality Philumena is trying to hide a pregnancy resulting from her being raped by an unknown man two months before the arranged wedding.

My copies of the comedies of Terence are all taken from the Penguin Classic The Comedies, translated by Betty Radice (ISBN 014044324X)

My thoughts:   And here was I thinking that the dating of Terence’s plays was straightforward and past dispute. While The Girl from Andros (166 BC) is agreed to be the first, the fate of what I will treat as the second (The Mother-in-Law) is a little chequered. Originally staged in 165 BC, the play was interrupted by a surge of people responding to a rumour that a tight-rope walker was appearing. In its second outing in 160 BC, again a mob interrupted proceedings expecting a gladiatorial battle. Finally in its third outing, again in 160 BC, the cast got through to the end and the play was a success. In the meantime, three of Terence’s other plays had been performed. Anyway as Lucius Ambivius Turpio, lead actor and producer of this third attempt would have undoubtedly said, let’s get on with the show.

By now, prologues are no longer used to set the scene of the play but to beg the audience’s indulgence, or to respond to the attack of critics. Dialogue between two characters in the opening scene is used to explain the background to the situation where the story begins, in this case that Pamphilus has married Philumena and stopped his attentions to the courtesan Bacchis, and that Philumena has gone back to her parents without explanation.

The play itself is  more like a soap opera than the comedies that Plautus wrote, but with the same misunderstandings and coincidences abounding. The women are all treated badly because of the misunderstandings, yet each behaves nobly; even and perhaps especially the courtesan Bacchis who agrees to visit Philumena’s family home and swear that she has not seen Pamphilus since his marriage.

The mother-in law in question is Pamphilus’ mother Sostrata, who is ill used by all. Suspected of having driven Philumena away, and used as an excuse by Pamphilus to abandon his wife, she is also accused by her own husband of causing the problem;  just as Philumena’s father Phidippus blames his wife Myrrina for using the pregnancy to try and break up the young couple. Worst of all, poor Philumena has been raped, forced into marriage with a man known to be obsessed with a prostitute, and now has to somehow hide her pregnancy from her husband and his family.

As I try to never tell readers the entire plot, I will leave off with the obvious spoiler that there is a happy ending so it ranks as a mild domestic comedy, but it has all the potential of a tragedy.

Personal rating: 5/10

Next : Terence’s ‘third’ play,  Heauton Timorumenos  (The Self-Tormentor) (c.163 BC)

PS The excellent pic attached to this post comes from Monica Dorkface at DeviantArt

144. The Girl from Andros by Terence (166 BC)

144. The Girl from Andros by Terence (166 BC)

Plot:  Pamphilus wants to marry disgraced Glycerium, a girl from Andros and sister of a immigrant prostitute, who he has fallen in love with and made pregnant.  But his father Simo has arranged for him to marry instead Philumena, the daughter of his friend Chremes. To further complicate things, Pamphilus’ friend Charinus is in love with Philumena. The slave Davos convinces Pamphilus that the planned wedding is a ruse by Simo, as he knows Chremes has called it off, and convinces Pamphilus to agree to the ‘wedding’ to confuse and delay Simo long enough to allow the real wedding of Pamphilus and Glycerium. But of course things don’t go according to plan. And is Glycerium really the sister of a courtesan from Andros?

My copies of the comedies of Terence are all taken from the Penguin Classic The Comedies, translated by Betty Radice (ISBN 014044324X)


My thoughts: At first glance, this seems like a rather tame Plautine comedy, with a slave trying to fool his master so that the son can marry his true love. And like Plautus, Terence is using plays from the Greek New Comedy corpus as inspiration (in this case, two Menander plays, The Girl from Samos, and The Girl from Perinthos). But as the translator Radice points out in her introduction, Terence treats his characters with more realism and less caricature, resulting in less raucousness. Whether this is an improvement depends on your taste – I  like my comedy both clever and a bit raucous.

What Terence did introduce to drama was the double plot – having two plots intertwine – in this case, two sets of lovers entangled in misunderstandings – very Shakespearean – although the second love affair is given very little stage time.

Terence was a young man, a freed slave of a Roman senator, when he wrote the first of his six plays. He went missing, presumed dead, on a trip to Greece to search for more material, but no more is known on what exactly happened, and a number of theories have arisen over the years.

He was accused of plagiarism, and at the same time ruining Greek plays by cherry-picking parts to form a different whole. His most vociferous critic went by the gloriously villainous name of Luscius Lanuvinus. It was also claimed that his plays were really written or at least heavily influenced by his more illustrious friends, but the fact that new plays did not surface after his disappearance seems to disprove that rumour.

Personal rating:  5/10

Also in that year:  In the twenty odd years since 188 BC, Philip V of Macedonia dies (179 BC) and is succeeded by Perseus who is hostile to Rome, leading to the Third Macedonian War (171-167 BC), ending in Perseus’ imprisonment and death. Roman forces takes some Greek hostages to Italy, including the historian Polybius (167 BC).

The Chinese have discovered porcelain, while the Romans have started making stone bridges and laying pavements.

Next : Terence’s next play, The Mother-in-Law

143. Mostellaria (The Ghost) by Plautus (c.188 BC)

143. Mostellaria (The Ghost) by Plautus (c.188 BC)

Plot:   Young Philolaches has been spending his absent father’s money on wine, women and song, abetted by the slave Tranio. On the return of the father Theopropides, Tranio sets out to hide the goings-on, firstly by suggesting that the house is haunted (to hide the current drinking party) and that they have bought the house next door (to wangle money out of Theopropides, to pay a moneylender). But Tranio is not as clever as he thinks ….

This was the last of the plays in Plautus’ The Rope and other plays, translated by E. F. Watling and published by Penguin (ISBN 0140441360)

My thoughts:  An extra complication allows the play to take another swerve before coming to a sudden and too-convenient ending. The frequent mention of crucifixion also leaves an uneasy echo to the antics of the slaves. 

Favourite lines/passages:

Another great insult :

Tranio : “Phew you stink – mud-begotten clod of goat and pig dung; you stink of dog and goat and garlic!”            page 27

….  and to balance, a compliment

Scapha : “What do you want with a mirror? You can show it more than it can show you.”   page 37

Diversions and digressions:

quinsy : an abcess on the tonsils   (Philolaches : “Oh, that I were a quinsy, to choke the life out of the poisonous old hag!”)

titivate : to make minor improvements to one’s appearance; to groom or spruce oneself up

Personal rating: 5/10

Also in that year:  Rome continues to flex her muscles as a world superpower; defeating Antiochus III again at Magnesia (190 BC), and forcing him to relinquish Asia Minor to Rhodes and Pergamum.

The read in between:  Mr. Mercedes, the first in a crime trilogy by Stephen King. An absorbing read (as he usually is) but very uncomfortable given the recent attacks in  London, Barcelona and most specifically Manchester, which are foreshadowed (without the religious or political motivations) in this book.

Next : Jumping twenty or so years to more Latin comedy with Terence and The Girl from Andros.

142. Pseudolus by Plautus (191 BC)

142. Pseudolus by Plautus (191 BC)

Plot:  Pseudolus the slave pledges to find enough money in one day to buy the girl that his owner’s son has fallen in love with, before she is sold off to a Macedonian soldier.

The last play in the Penguin Classic collection The Pot of Gold and other plays by Plautus, translated by E. F. Watling.

My thoughts:  Back to the clever and tricky Plautine slave who outfoxes the villain to save himself and his masters. I expected the shenanigans to be more intricate, or a last minute hitch to give the play a bit more suspense and comedy. Good but could have been better. Nevertheless it would be a joy to  watch on stage with great comic parts in Pseudolus and the pimp Ballio.

Favourite lines/passages:

Ballio : “I’d as soon trust you as tie up a stray dog with a string of sheep’s guts!”     page 229

Personal rating:  6/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Did someone say sheep’s guts??

 Also in that year: Roman forces crush the Syrian Antiochus III at Thermopylae and expel his army from mainland Greece.

The sanity in between:  Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, a great read for ages 10 to 110. Imagine Harry Potter written by Joss Whedon.

Next : Plautus’ last surviving play Mostellaria (The Ghost)