Ann R. Raia
The College of New Rochelle

This paper was delivered on October 1, 1983, at The Fourth Conference on Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, at St. Joseph’s College in North Windham, Maine, as one of three papers in a panel entitled “Puella, Matrona, Meretrix: Women in Roman Literature and Life”

Research on women in Roman Comedy has taken its cue from the apparent lack of interest in women in the plays themselves. In the 20 canonical plays of Plautus (I exclude the fragmentary Vidularia), we find 154 male roles and only 54 female. In fact, three of Plautus' plays have no speaking female parts at all: the Captivi, Pseudolus, and Trinummus. Of the wholly extant plays, only three are named after women: the Bacchides, Casina and Persa, while eleven are named after male roles and seven after some key element in the play, such as the Rudens or the Mostellaria.

Certainly there are many explanations we could advance for the lack of female presence in Plautus if that were the issue we wished to address. We might note that Plautus took his materials from Greek New Comedy and therefore inherited from them this bias against women. We might attribute the paucity of female roles to the all-male acting fraternity. Finally, we could suppose that Plautus is reflecting the reality of the minimal presence of women in public life. This, however, is not the direction I would like to take today. It seems far more fruitful to undertake to categorize and describe the women who appear in Plautus' plays and to say something about the comedic stereotypes of women.

The 54 women in Plautus' plays -- and there are 61 if we count the seven women who are discussed but never appear -- can be grouped into five stereotypes: the puella or young maiden, the matrona or married woman, the meretrix or courtesan, the ancilla or handmaid, and the anus or old woman. The comedies feature: eleven puellae, four of whom are invisible; thirteen matronae, two of whom are never seen; 19 meretrices, one of whom doesn't appear; 12 ancillae; and five personages who fit the category of the anus.

We’ll begin with the role of least consequence, that of the old woman. The character of the anus is a minor, single-dimensional one. The role is self-explanatory: she is in most cases an elderly slave, such as Staphyla in the Aulularia or Syra in the Mercator, with a very limited part to play. Even when she is further identified, as with Giddenis, the nurse in the Poenulus, or Ptolemocratia, the priestess of Venus in the Rudens, she remains a weak character who appears in only one scene. Only Leaena, the doorkeeper at the house of the leno Cappadox, in the Curculio, provides dramatic interest by virtue of her venality and her farcical love of wine — a propensity shared by many women in comedy from the time of Aristophanes.

The ancilla is a more versatile character, but she never even approximates the importance of her male counterpart, the factotum servus. She neither has his freedom of person nor is she endowed with the mental resources which make him king of the Plautine stage. However, she has wit, vitality, and a certain tartness of speech which lead to lively exchanges with her mistress, the young lover, and the male slaves. Although she is usually of incidental importance to the play and to the people about her, the maid is capable of entering the world of men and winning admiration for her feminine ways. She is aptly described by one male slave in the Cistellaria as "mala mers et callida.” It is probable that the ancilla has a reputation for craft because Plautus so often portrays maids (eight of twelve) whose mistresses are prostitutes.

Certainly the two maids who stand out in Plautus’ plays for their personalities and for their sizeable parts in the plot are maids of prostitutes: Milphidippa in the Miles Gloriosus and Astaphium in the Truculentus. Milphidippa takes on the function of Palaestrio in deceiving the miles; Astaphium is actually the spokeswoman for her mistress’s policies, accepting gifts and guarding the door against lackluster suitors. Like their mistresses, the maids are often portrayed as scheming, resourceful, and self-interested. Although Stephanium is the maid of a proper Roman matron, she achieves a certain prominence in the closing scene of the Stichus, where she celebrates the happy ending by drinking and dancing with her two slave boyfriends. A noteworthy exception to generalizations about the ancilla is Bromia, who functions in the Amphitryo rather more like a nuntius, a messenger in Greek tragedy, than a comic slave.

Let us turn, then, to the first of the three major roles that Plautine comedy assigns to women. The puella, who is the object of the young lover’s affection and the slave’s efforts and whose marriage frequently provides the happy ending of the comedy, is the least dramatic of the three stereotypes. I have divided the characterizations of the puella into two main sub-groups. The first is the young woman who, because of the plot emphasis and the limited expectations of her stereotype, never appears on stage. This is the case with Casina, in the play of that name, over whose future a husband and wife battle by proxy through their slaves. In the Trinummus, two young unnamed daughters are betrothed in absentia to the two young men whose contrasting lifestyles are of some importance to the moral of the comedy. Similarly unnamed is the young maiden who was raped by Diniarchus and whose son is stolen by a prostitute in the Truculentus; the maiden's father, upon discovering the identity of her rapist, promptly orders him to marry her and take her home, punishing him by reducing the amount of his daughter's dowry. To this group also belongs Phaedria, the raped daughter of the miser in the Aulularia; although her name appears in the list of characters and she may indeed appear in the lost closing section of the play, nevertheless her future has already been decided without her presence and she can make no appreciable contribution to the action of the play on her own behalf.

This group of absent maidens offers the most illuminating evidence about the puella in comedy. Since she is totally under the domination of her father or guardian until she is handed over to her husband, she is seen in a positive light, as a paragon of socially approved female virtues. Thus her personality, as well as her consent and even her physical presence, are irrelevant to the comic action. While her plight is intriguing, she herself is not. She is, in the words of the male contenders for her possession in the Casina, a "praeda.” Her various assets, then, are her birth, her natural beauty, her chastity, her dowry -- and her silence.

The second group of women within the puella stereotype provide us with some important additional insights, both by example and by contrast. These maidens speak for themselves, even if they parrot the virtues valued by Roman men. Here we find the puella who is a contradiction in terms: stolen from a good family in childhood, she was raised to become a prostitute. The final act of the play usually brings the recognition of her freeborn status, her restoration to her family, and her betrothal to her lover. In this populous category are Selenium in the Cistellaria, Planesium in the Curculio, Palaestra in the Rudens, Adelphasium and Anterastilis in the Poenulus, and Telestis in the Epidicus. Although these young women are less passive than the previous group discussed, they, too, manifest the helpless vulnerability of the puella, due to their youth, inexperience, and slave status. They are a Roman male's fantasy -- pure, well-born, and beautiful, this group is accessible, responsive to male preferences, and devoted to their lovers. They combine the virtues required for the nupta, or bride, with the forward behavior and enthusiasm for pleasure proper to a courtesan. Each of the young women in this group exhibits the qualities appropriate to her free- born status to a greater or lesser degree. This fusion of stereotypes is least successful in the character of Adelphasium, who looks like a meretrix but, in marked contrast to her sister, speaks excessively like a puella. Her ingenuae mores, or noble comportment, are at odds with her position as she exclaims at the confusion and bother of having a woman around, as she ruefully comments on the expenses incurred by the leno, the pimp, in dressing them for the festival of Venus, and as she later primly declares that modesty is the best embellishment for a meretrix.

Easily the most virtuous and appealing puella in Plautus is the character who gives life to a rather passive minor role, the parasite's daughter in the Persa. In ringing tones reminiscent of Alcmene in the Amphitryo, she defends her honor to her father and from the leno. A free-born young woman, she is sold by her father as part of an elaborate trick to set a slave's mistress free from her master. Although poor and without a dowry, she is intelligent and mindful of her reputation, her virtue, and the obedience she owes her father. Although she reluctantly cooperates in deceiving the leno by her appearance, she manages not to lie in the process. While the scheming slave comments admiringly on her shrewdness and wit in deceiving the leno, we are favorably impressed by her pudicitia and her courage. In Persa, Plautus has deviated from the comic norm of the puella and produced a character of depth and complexity.

Whereas the puella in Plautus is the object of male romantic interest and marriage to her is a much sought-after goal, the matrona is quite another matter. She is the focus in comedy of male frustrations with women and with the institution of marriage. From the day of their wedding, the young lover, who was so eager to have the puella for his nupta, or bride, no longer finds common cause with her or she with him. The pseudo-bride in the Casina is tutored by the females of the household as she is lifted over the threshold in the bridal ceremony. In order to be a successful matrona, she must unlearn her maiden virtues; they advise her to win imperium, or absolute power, over her husband, to let her voice be heard, to take the shirt off his back, and to be crafty day and night.

Although familiarity and loss of youth have a great deal to do with the positive hate that the senex feels for his wife, the comic mode of hastily arranged marriages seems not to have made for harmonious relations on a permanent basis. With few exceptions, the comedic matrona is an unsympathetic figure at best. She serves as a focus for farcical comic action and a threat of tragic con- sequences, like the leno (pimp) and the danista (money-lender).

Let us begin by looking first at the group of women who are exceptions to the negative portrayal of the wife in Plautus. They tend to be more serious figures and to play a smaller role in the play. When the matrona functions in the plot primarily as a mother and when her husband is not involved with her as such, the shrewish matrona stereotype is ignored. Eunomia, who is seen rather as a sister and mother than a wife in the Aulularia, is a good example, as are Phanostrata in the Cistellaria and Philippa in the Epidicus. The latter are unmarried older women who, having each been raped as a young virgin, bore and then lost a daughter, for whom they are searching. Ironically, the two rapists are now eager to marry their respective victims and bring their scattered family together. Although at first she does not seem to fit in this group, Myrrhina in the Casina is also a wife of this type. The comic plot requires her to be rather a good friend to her neighbor, Cleostrata, than to interact with her husband. In fact, Myrrhina advises her friend to conform to the traditional model of the Roman wife. She announces that a wife should be grateful for the protection given by the home, goods, and position of her husband, that she should be morigera, or compliant with her husband's wishes, and that she should overlook her husband's infidelities. Although she has only just mouthed these conventions, Myrrhina is easily persuaded to join Cleostrata's attack on her husband's lechery.

Among the wives who are exceptions to the stereotype I also place Panegyris and her sister, the two steadfast wives of the Stichus. We meet them, in their father's words, as widows, as sisters providing support for each other in adversity, and as obedient daughters, gently but firmly opposing their father's wishes that they abandon their husbands’ home and return to him in order to remarry. The play explores the primal potestas, or power, of the father, which his daughters are permitted to manipulate with tears and pleas. At one point in the play, the father, who wishes to choose a new wife, asks his daughters to describe for him the optimae matronae mores, the character of the best kind of wife. They describe as the best sort of wife one who gives no cause for gossip, who has the power to do wrong but chooses not to, who avoids behavior she will regret the next day, and who knows herself and is cheerful and patient in good fortune and adversity. As we have seen, these virtues do not address the criticisms that the comic senex hurls at his wife. As for Panegyris and her sister, upon the return of their husbands in the middle of the play, they leave the stage and are never seen again. Since the plot does not require them to deal with their husbands, we see them primarily as virtuous daughters, and not as matronae. Even so, one returning husband complains of his wife's mismanagement of their affairs during his absence and both men spend more time with their father- in-law than with their wives, a sure sign that even their modest, loyal, and dutiful behavior doesn't change the fact that these women are matronae and therefore inherently unappealing to their husbands.

The negative character of the matrona is given flesh by Artemona in the Asinaria, Cleostrata in the Casina, Dorippa in the Mercator, and Matrona in the Menaechmi. The audience is so clear about the nature of this stereotype that even brief references by the rueful husband to her offstage presence in the Rudens and the Mostellaria is cause for comic alarm. Although she has numerous other unpleasant traits which her husband is eager to divulge and decry, the two identifying adjectives of the negative stereotype of the matrona are: irata (angered) and dotata (doweried). The wife who becomes irata is clearly not morigera: she does not let her husband have his own way in everything, and with great clamor and complaint she lets the whole world know this. As a result, the wife in comedy is accused of spying on her husband, of talking at him incessantly, of imposing her will on him, of being warlike, abusive, proud, and entirely too present in his life. Each of the four matronae I have just mentioned is dotata, although little is made of it in the Casina. In the Aulularia, Megadorus, the prospective older bridegroom, lists some of the evils that arise from marrying a wife with a dowry: the woman is imperious, proud, unafraid of her husband's authority, status-conscious, and expensive. For himself, he asks that his wife-to-be have only a dowry of good manners. But clearly Demaenetus in the Asinaria shares the more common experience; he complains that he sold his imperium for a dowry. In the Miles Gloriosus, Periplectomenus congratulates himself that his voluntary bachelorhood has preserved his liberty and saved him the attendant bothers and expenditures of a wife.

Although the stereotypical matrona is allowed to defend herself in her own words, she rarely gets a fair hearing. By the time she bustles onto the stage, she has already been provoked into assuming the role for which she is notorious and for which she is needed -- to cow the lustful senex and to create comic laughter. She objects that the sanctity of her marriage has been violated and that her husband has stolen her goods, but even her father and her female friends find fault with her. Consequently, her husband freely abuses her outside of her hearing and regularly wishes her obedient -- and dead.

Cleostrata is an unusual example of a sympathetic matrona irata. The Casina gives imaginative scope to her anger by allowing her to assume the dominant role of the trickster, which is often reserved for the Plautine slave. In the spirit of an old female slave in the Mercator, who wishes that the law penalized men for adultery as harshly as it does women, Cleostrata determines to punish her husband's lechery and to keep him from enjoying his affair. The very qualities which make her an unacceptable wife admirably suit her for this task. Cleostrata roundly defeats her amorous husband with the full approval of the comic community; the audience laughs not at her but with her. Her husband’s rehabilitation is signaled by his plea for pardon and hers by her statement “non sum irata." “I am not angry.” As frequently happens in Plautus, the “happy ending” entails senex getting matrona -- again.

One matrona remains to be classified: Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryo. In contradistinction to the comedic stereotype of the matrona, she is at once noble, admirable, and sympathetic. Too large for the comic plot, Alcmene is better suited to epic, tragedy, or history. She is a serious composite of the best elements of the three major female comic roles: the pudica puella, or modest maiden, the morigera matrona, or obedient wife, and the amans amica, or passionate girlfriend. Paradoxically, she is a paradigm of the traditional Roman matron and the only matrona in Roman comedy to become involved in an adulterous relationship. The divine deception permits Plautus to explore the comic possibilities of this paradox, for Alcmene enacts the loving meretrix with Jupiter and the matrona irata with her husband. Of all the comic wives, Alcmene alone holds out the promising vision of pleasurable love in marriage.

In the prologue of the Captivi, Plautus identifies the final and most popular female stereotype as the meretrix mala, or wicked prostitute. In the meretrix, the comic dialectic of business and pleasure is fused. Unlike the matrona, she can never stop working at being alluring, because her relationships with the men in her life are not based on a one-time dowry, but on continual transactions. In the prologue of the Trinummus, Plautus offers for our edification a parable of the officium meretricium , or function of the prostitute: a young man has squandered his family fortune with the aid of Luxuria; since, as a result, he can no longer afford the company of Luxuria, she sends her daughter, Inopia, to live with him. Later in the same play, the honorable young man, Lysiteles, describes the details of this sequence of events as the malitia, or roguery, that the Plautine meretrix wreaks on her lovers.

The stereotype of the meretrix has three distinct faces, which span the prostitute’s active career. The first is that of the young, inexperienced beautiful, one-man meretrix, who is represented by Philaenium in the Asinaria, Pasicompsa in the Mercator, Philematium in the Mostellaria, and the silent Phoenicium in the Pseudolus. Each has a young lover who is enamored of her looks, her manners, and her conversation, and who struggles to raise the money to purchase her freedom from her owner. At the end of the plays in which she appears, the lovers are finally joined and permitted the illusion of a permanent union. It is a romance that is doomed to end --but at some future time --with the young man’s marriage or his impoverishment or his shift of affections. This meretrix is another male fantasy — schooled in the prostitute’s art of pleasing, she also offers her lover the modesty, loyalty, and innocence associated with the less-interesting puella.

The second face of the meretrix provides a startling contrast to the first, for the lena, the procuress, represents the prostitute at the end of her career. She is the old, worn out, tough and cynical, wine-drinking, rapacious madam who gives worldly advice to a young daughter or pupil. She knows nothing of love, only money, and she commands the young meretrices to think of themselves, not their lovers and to use their assets while they can to achieve financial security. She is quick to remind her charges that it is the role of the matrona and not of the meretrix, to serve one lover. While she is hated by the young lovers as another of the agelasts, or blocking figures, in Roman Comedy, the lena is not as harshly treated as the leno, her male counter-part. Instead, she is outmaneuvered and her advice is forgotten before the end of the play. The comic ending never considers the prospect she raises that the young meretrix, however she chooses to spend her youth, is destined to become a lena.

The third and most typical face of the meretrix stereotype embodies nine women in mid-career who are frankly plying their trade: the two Bacchises, Gymnasium in the Cistellaria, Erotium in the Menaechmi, Acropolis in the Epidicus, Philocomasium and Acroteleutium in the Miles Gloriosus, Lemniselenis in the Persa, and Phronesium in the Truculentus. They are depicted as women of luxury, but not of leisure-- their days are spent bathing, perfuming, and ornamenting themselves with the clothing and jewelry that their lovers shower upon them. They entertain men of all ages and occupations and social classes who are attracted by their painted beauty, their clever conversation, their blandishments, their promises. The comic meretrix mingles freely in public places; although she is kept at a distance from the puella and the matrona, she associates privately with men at feasts and drinking parties. Plautus' plays are rich in alternate names for the meretrix-- amica, scortum, mulier, lupa, and concubina are the most frequent -- and in terms of endearment with which she and her lovers address each other. But the meretrix in this category is not an unmixed blessing -- she is both anima (life-breath) and exitium (destruction) for her lover; she delights him, corrupts him, and ruins him.

Bacchis and her sister are excellent representatives of the non-destructive meretrix within this sub-group. In the comedy named after them, their pleasant personalities and fascinating life-style serve as the impetus and framework for the plot. They are the only female characters in a play full of men. They clearly enjoy their role in society and bring a world of infectious enthusiasm to the long seduction scenes that open and close the play. What is absent from their enactment of this stereotype is not any of its meretricious qualities, but rather the bitter attitude of the cheated male who condemns the meretrix as mala. We cannot claim that Bacchis and her sister are examples of the meretrix bona, for they are merely in the advantageous position of pursuing strictly personal ends which happen to bring pleasure and happiness to others. The inexperienced young man who is seduced in the opening of the play fears that Bacchis is dangerous and calls her a mala bestia, a wicked wild animal, but he is delighted to succumb to her charms. His horrified tutor labels the two prostitutes “blood-suckers,” “man-destroyers,” and “windstorms,” but his ranting is disregarded and his prophecies of doom are never realized. The old fathers are well aware of the nature of these sisters, but they are easily enticed into the house of prostitution at the end of the play.

For the most part, Plautus' meretrices act without malice. Like a law of nature or a Roman businessman, they practice their trade matter-of-factly, giving opera pro pecunia, product for price. Occasionally they find themselves preferring one man over another because of his lavish gifts, but he cannot for long sustain the expenses of their large establishments or the demands of their leno. In the face of diminishing tokens of their lover’s ardor, these women act swiftly to dismiss their lover with none of the romantic sentimentality of their younger counterparts. Further along in their profession than the one-man meretrix, and responsible for their own independence and future, they seem to be attending to the warning of the aged lena to her meretrix-in-training. This sub-group conforms rather closely to the popular stereotype of the meretrix in that these women show few signs of concern for the welfare of their lovers. Acroteleutium in the Miles is pleased to have the opportunity of doing a favor for a generous patron while she enjoys herself thoroughly playing an adulterous matrona. Erotium in the Menaechmi gives Menaechmus free rein in her house because he treats her so generously; when she suspects that he is trying to cheat her by taking back his gifts, she slams the door on him and promises to open it again only for silver.

The most negative examples of the meretrix mala are to be found in the Truculentus, in the persons of Phronesium and her maid Astaphium. The play has been described as a satiric comedy because its character portrayals and its humor are often cynical and ironic. Not only is the malitia of the meretrix exaggerated in Phronesium's heartless dealings with her three lovers, but Astaphium is the most vicious ancilla and Diniarchus the most corrupt and spineless lover in the Plautine corpus. The world of the Truculentus is unrelievedly immoral. It is presided over by a faithless and rapacious prostitute who ensnares and destroys the pathetic men who come near her. But the folly, blindness, and helplessness of the three males she indiscriminately entertains is so total that we are not even tempted to sympathize with their plight.

Phronesium's wretched lover, the play's male lead, opens the play with a long monologue detailing her rapacious and faithless behavior toward him. The plot graphically details his inability to free himself no matter how flagrantly his mistress and her maid display their lack of humanity. One after another, the miles, the country boy Strabax, and even the boor Truculentus are entrapped, roughly parted from their goods, and without conscience rejected. Astaphium boldly recites the iron rule of their house: as long as the lover has the wherewithal, he can love; when he has nothing, he had better look for another job. One slave accuses Phronesium of swallowing down goods and never being satiated, like the sea. The closing scenes of the Truculentus uncritically end this grim portrait of the unrepentant, corrupt meretrix and her devastating effect on male society.

Drawing upon Greek New Comedy, Plautine comedy establishes a koine of female stereotypes which became part of the vocabulary of later Roman literature. The stereotype of the meretrix is the strongest, most varied, and most fully realized of the female roles. Not inherently comic herself, her associations with pleasure, food, drink, and money contribute to the general comic atmosphere of the plays. Because of the very real ambiguity of feeling that her presence on the fringes of Roman society inspired, the meretrix offered many possibilities for comic development. The character of the matrona is a rich source of comedy in Plautus. Her significant role in the home as materfamilias, mother of the family, brings her into conflict with her husband, the paterfamilias, and his traditional authority. Strong-willed and independent in a very dependent relationship, she is portrayed as an anti-type of the meretrix, with whom she actually shares many qualities. The third of the major female roles in comedy is that of the puella; as a character she is much less interesting dramatically than the matrona or the meretrix, but her demonstrated marriageability often furnishes the requisite "happy ending."

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