Monday, January 29, 2018

The Confessions - Augustine

There is a misconception about belief, stemming from Plato’s cave, that once we have crawled out into the light we have found the answers. The ancient philosophers poured themselves into the questions of ‘what is good’ and ‘what is reality’ in order that they might understand their place in the cosmos. The oracle at Delphi commanded them to “know thyself”. When Descartes picked up the baton with cogito ergo sum there was the fundamental supposition that it is possible to locate the self in the midst of reality. 

For Augustine, only through truly knowing God will he ever then know himself, and the act of writing is a way of synthesizing his quest. This ‘knowing’ is not a singular definitive act, but a relationship. Augustine blazes a trail where the soul is allowed to wrestle with the complexity of the world around us while still holding fast to truth. His life quest to know God would be constant, always seeking and searching, “created to be the creature who beats its fists against the breast of the divine: ‘because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.’”(xxii)

According to Patricia Hampl (1997) what would have made Augustine’s contemporary readers of The Confessions gasp “was not his admission of lust, but his acknowledgement that, after conversion, indeed even as a bishop of the Church, he is still searching and speculating about God and himself.” (xvi) 

The Confessions is comprised of thirteen books, the first nine are autobiographical and begin with his conception and end with the death of his mother Monica and his subsequent overwhelming grief. Then, abruptly, almost without warning or interlude in Book X he begins an inquiry into memory and then delves into speculations on time and eternity, and finishes off with Book XIII, his own treatise on the allegorical retelling of the Creation narrative in Genesis. While this all feels very abrupt and disjointed to the uninitiated (me) Patricia Hampl says this: 

“In fact, the movement from his life to his reading of Genesis is not smooth- it is ablaze. The writing becomes more, and not less, urgent. His story, for Augustine, is apparently only part of the story. There is a certain logic at work. Having constructed himself in the first nine books, Augustine rushes on to investigate how God created the universe- how God, that is, created him. And all of us, all of this. Reading Genesis with his laser-beam gaze is a form of concentrated life. Reading, pondering, is experience.” (xxiii) 

What makes Augustine’s work so profound is the strength he has to ask questions. There are more questions than assertions peppered throughout his work, nothing is taken for granted in this mysterious world and in this incomprehensible process we call living. As we get into the narrative, Augustine is clearly troubled by the mystery of existence. Instead of David Copperfield’s succinct “I was born”, or Felix Krull’s self congratulatory platitudes “there you lay in the subterranean twilight…etc” Augustine, the Bishop of Milan, is honestly stymied by his existence.

Yet allow me to speak, though I am but dust and ashes, allow me to speak in your merciful presence, for it is to your mercy that I address myself, not to some man who would mock me. Perhaps you too are laughing at me, but still you will mercifully toward me, for what is it that I am trying to say, Lord, except that I do not know whence I came into this life that is but dying, or rather, this dying state that leads to life? I do not know where I came from.” 
(Book I 6:7)

This is crazy. I have conversations on a regular basis with people about existence and cosmology and I am frequently shocked by the level of certainty that people express about life. There’s a certain adherence to a simplistic worldview. Life is simple. Existence is simple. The words of Jesus are simple. I find this whole acceptance of simplicity to be somewhat disconcerting. Augustine gets right to the heart of the matter: we exist, but how and why now?

Between the lines there is a constant narrative with contemporary philosophical thought. The complexity of life, the omniscient and omnipresent creator is in direct contradiction to The One of the Neoplatonists. The One from whom all things exist is ultimately unknowable. Existing not as a being but rather an emanation. The further away from the source of being we get the more we lack the ability to discern what is good, therefore evil exists within us as a result of our distance from truth. 

According to Plato, we all have a postnatal memory of being good, and deep within the recess of our soul, if we excavate far back enough we can regain our goodness. This baton will be picked up by Rousseau and his conception of the ‘noble savage’…if we can get back to the moral simplicity of the savage, unsullied by the degradation of society we can find untarnished moral truth. To Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’, Augustine counters with an actual savage, using the narrative of his youth to dispel any notion of a pure being existing at birth. Every base impulse exists within him without prompting or nurturing and he finds himself upon adolescence a petrie dish of lust and desire.

“From the mud of my fleshly desires and my erupting puberty belted out murky clouds that obscured and darkened my heart until I could not distinguish the calm light of love from the fog of lust.” (Book II 2:2) 

I’ve read reviews of the Confessions that say that Augustine was trying to come to terms with his early lifestyle of depravity. These reviews tend to equate “confessing” with shame and guilt. What Augustine is doing is the exact opposite of this. Despite his youthful depravity God is not far off, his relationship with his creator is not conditional on his being good or just or faithful, but on the faithfulness of God. 

You were ever present with me, mercifully angry, sprinkling very bitter disappointments over all my unlawful pleasure so that I might seek a pleasure free from all disappointment.” (Book II: 2,4)

Left to himself he becomes infected with the ‘foul mange of the soul’. He blindly struggles through, until he happens upon Cicero. It is while reading Cicero that there is a trickle of hope for something more. Cicero promises an immortality that comes only through wisdom. Yet ultimately proper speech and style are not enough, one must also seek truth. Augustine hangs up the mantle of his youth, and instead dons the cloak of a seeker. 

“Feverishly I thrashed about, sighed, wept and was troubled, and there was no repose for me, nor any council. Within me I was carrying a tattered, bleeding soul that did not want me to carry it, yet I could find no place to lay it down.” (Book IV 7:12)

Here’s the thing, Augustine doesn’t live in a vacuum of faith. He happens to have an overbearing mother, who has been praying for his salvation from day one. She seems to discredit the life trajectory he has been on by the faith based assertion that God will draw him to himself. She simplifies his quest for truth into something almost pitiable. He resents her faith, he resents her assurance, and more than that he has grown up as a casual observer of this faith and finds it wanting. 

There are at least two serious hurdles for him with this christian faith:

#1: He views the bible as a series of inelegant writings, even at times barbaric. How can a christian synthesize the embarrassing scenarios of violence, rape and deceit that are found throughout the Old Testament?

#2: The origin of Evil. If God is supreme and pure goodness, evil could not be a divine creation. If all things were created by the Divine, including evil, God could not be as good as the church claimed. 

In Book V he finds an answer to the first problem in the renowned rhetorician and  Bishop of Milan, Ambrose. Initially Augustine listens to his sermons fascinated by his style and presentation of the scriptures, but before long, he finds Ambrose’s exegesis of the scriptures compelling. Augustine had been reading everything literally, and through the lens of the allegorical a whole new interpretive meaning becomes illuminated. He realizes that the christian faith is after all intellectually respectable. His rational arguments against the christian faith are faltering, so he decides to become a catechumen in the Catholic Church, and with one foot in the door, he waits until some kind of overt certainty presents itself. 

As to the origin of evil, by Book IX we have a clear understanding of where it comes from. Not from God but from man. Augustine uses himself as a case study for original sin. After spending nine years with the Manichaeans that believed every person is comprised of the spiritual light and material darkness, he moves on to the Neoplatonists, where evil is simply moving away from the one eternal source. They believed the solution to evil was diligent study, discipline and mystical contemplation that would lead them back toward the ineffable One.

Sounds great. But how exactly does one do this? Is study and contemplation enough? What about the part of him that enjoyed doing what was wrong? Augustine wants us to realize this: “well after his intellectual questions had been answered, he continued to resist conversion because, to him, baptism means chastity. In fact, the most famous line in The Confessions is the prayer: ‘Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.’”(xxi)

How do you get beyond the hump of ‘please not yet’? Augustine comes to the realization that there is only one way: through the mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ. Recognizing truth is not enough, we must be picked up and carried into it. 

“Come Lord, arouse us and call us back, kindle us and seize us, prove to us how sweet you are in your burning tenderness; let us love you and run to you.” (Book VIII 4:9) 

He sees truth. He sees God, he is at the entrance of the cave, and yet that human gesture to reach out and grasp it, to step out into the light is impossible. Every night he says to himself, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow I will put an end to my depravity’. His weakness is soul crushing. Eventually he finds himself in a garden, under a fig tree and pours out his heart to God. He has found him, but he is too weak to embrace him. Then he hears a little child shout out “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read!” He finds his bible and at random opens it up and begins to read: 

“‘Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires.’ I had no wish to read further, nor was there need. No sooner had I reached the end of the verse that the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away.” (Book VIII 12:29) 

This brings us to Book X. After nine books illuminating his need for a redemption and his ultimate salvation, he wants us to know that this is not the end of the story. He is daily beset by temptation, whether from his senses seeking after their own pleasure or the occasional images of Roman dancers in his dreams; even his dreams are in need of redemption. The only ‘safe haven’ for his soul is in God. 

After spending time looking at himself under the microscope of introspection, he zooms out to the macro. Just as God was the author of the narrative of his life, He is the author of the universe. While he needed to be carried into truth, creation needed to be carried into existence through the spoken Word. The Logos. In Plato’s Timaeus the offspring of the Demiurge is called the Logos, the creative source behind existence, yet incapable of relationship. For the christian, the Logos, while being the author of creation, is also our mediator and exists to daily intercede on our behalf as the man Jesus Christ. Neoplatonist philosophy led Augustine back to Christianity, but eventually even this philosophical template was wanting. He found the Truth that is written in the scriptures to be even greater.  The Logos is more than an impersonal creator, He is the Son of God, indeed God himself. The Word that is uttered eternally and through Him all things come into being in one simultaneous creation that exists beyond time and our ability to comprehend.

The next three books are an act of worship; an act of seeking relationship with the incarnate wisdom. He searches the scriptures, listening for the voice of God. 

“Augustine, grappling with Genesis in his study, is no less heated - more so really- than Augustine struggling famously with the flesh. He invents autobiography not to reveal his memory of his life, but to plumb the memory of God’s creative urge. ‘My mind burns to solve this complicated enigma.’ he says with an anguish more intense than anything that accompanies his revelations about his own life. He understands his life as a model of the very creation that is beyond him and of course within him. He writes and writes, and reads and reads his way through the double conundrum, the linked mystery of his own biography and of Creation.” (xxiv) 

The Confessions are bookended between his birth and in the birth of creation, he’s starting all over, but this time from a different perspective. While the Spirit of God was brooding over him, when he was still formless, this same Spirit of God hung poised above the void of creation. Augustine has found his way into the complexity of the Trinity. While his contemporaries had differing views on hierarchy and substance of the godhead, Augustine avoided the fray by turning his attention to a similar triad that exists within ourselves. An imperfect reflection of our creator, summed up as: I am, I know and I will. 

“Let anyone with the wit to see it observe how in these three there is one inseparable life: there is one life, one mind and one essence.” (Book XIII 11:12)

Book X was a tour de force of the complexity of the self. We are multifaceted and in this we reflect our creator. To ‘think” and to ‘know’ is not enough, there is another part of ourselves that exists outside of our knowledge of it; it hovers and broods, coaxing and guiding. When physically Augustine was in anguish about his need for salvation, when he intellectually had been persuaded of truth, the last remaining hurdle was the sanctification of his spirit. This is where we recognize the love of God, in a place beyond intellect, where the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given us.

And what is the conclusion of all of this? Again, Augustine uses himself as an example. When he first found the joy of his salvation he wanted to sequester himself in Cassiciacum, a small community devoted to study. He wanted his days to be spent in quiet meditation and worship. But things don’t go according to his plan. In 391 he travels from Cassiciacum, a small village on the outskirts of Milan, to Hippo, which is in modern day Annaba, Algeria. His goal was to convince a friend of his to join his quiet little community back home, but instead Bishop Valerius decides that Augustine should be his successor. Very much against his will Augustine is ordained as a bishop and a life of quiet contemplation seems to evaporate before his eyes. 

God wants more than reflection and contemplation, he wants charity. Augustine is called into community, and this is where The Confessions end; with an allegorical interpretation of the days of Genesis that doesn’t take place in a vacuum but within the hearts of the church. When god speaks light into creation and into our hearts, it isn’t for our benefit as individuals but for the kingdom. 

“Let there be light; repent for the kingdom of heaven is near, repent, and let there be light.” (Book XIII 12:13) (Gn 1:31; Mt 3:2; 4:17) 






Friday, December 22, 2017

The Eunuch - Terence

CHAEREA: ‘I’m going out to dinner’, said Thais, and off she went with her maids, leaving a few new young ones to wait on the girl. They began at once to get her ready for a bath, while I kept telling them to hurry. Meanwhile the girl sat in her room, looking at a picture on the wall which showed the story of Jupiter pouring the shower of gold into DanaĆ«'s lap.I began to look at it too, and my spirits soared to think how he had played the same game long ago: a god turning himself into a man and crawling secretly across another man’s roof coming down to seduce a woman - down through the skylight! And what a god! ‘who shakes the topmost towers of heaven with his thunder’. Couldn’t a mere man like me do the same? He could -  and gladly. During these meditations of mine, the girl was summoned to her bath. She went, had it, and came back. Then maids settled her on a couch. I stood around to see if they had any orders for me. Then one came up and said: ‘Here, Dorus, take this fan, fan her gently with it while we have a bath, and when we’ve finished you can have one too if you like.’ I took it with a bad grace.

ANTIPHO: What wouldn't I give to have seen your shameless face and the figure you cut, you great ass, standing there with a fan in your hand. 

CHAEREA: The words were hardly out of her mouth when there was a rush for the door. They all went off to the bath, chattering the way servants do when their masters are out of the house. The girl meanwhile fell asleep. I took a secret peep at her, sideways behind the fan, like this, and at the same time looked round to make sure the coast was clear. I saw it was. Then I bolted the door. 

ANTIPHO: What then? 

CHAEREA: What do you mean, ‘what then’ you fool? 

ANTIPHO: Oh, all right. 

CHAEREA: Was I to lose the chance offered me, an opportunity so brief, so unexpected and so much desired? My God, if I had, I should really have been what I pretended. (A Eunuch) 

ANTIPHO: True, as you way. Meanwhile, what’s been done about our dinner?

I decided I might as well start with the jugular. The above passage, as one would imagine. horrified St. Augustine (Confessions 1.16 and City of God 2.7) and he cautioned that allowing Terence to be read would likely corrupt schoolboys. 

Because of the elegance of his writing, the plays of Terence were taught not only to children but those joining monasteries and convents throughout the Middle Ages. Augustine argued that there were more innocent ways to learn words like “shower”, “golden”, “lap”, “trick” and “heavenly temples”. The scene described not only serves to work up the lusts of a dissolute youth, but it also fosters a dangerous conception of masculinity. While Jupiter pours himself through the skylight into DanaĆ«’s lap, the youth thinks: “ Well, a poor fellow like me can’t do that, but I have imitated him in the other thing and what fun it was!” (Confessions 1.16:26)

The Eunuch hinges around the rape of Pamphila, which is perpetrated by Chaerea, who has disguised himself as a eunuch. This is the only play in the history of Roman comedy where the rape takes places during the play itself. As we saw in Hecyra, the rape or assault usually took place before the play began and was resolved by marriage within the play itself. The perpetrator in Hecyra, Pamphilus, was inebriated and on his way to visit his courtesan, his acts were unmeditated and spontaneous. Pamphilus eventually navigates the treacherous rite of passage from impressionable youth to respectable member of society and the play ends with his happy exultations about his successful little nuclear family. His wife, Philumena, has a name strikingly familiar to the mythic heroine Philomela, who was raped by Tereus and then had her tongue cut out to ensure her silence. In the Hecyra, Philumena does not appear and her character is voiceless, the crimes committed against her quietly covered and hidden, passed over as the trials and indiscretions of youth. 

Ovid had some unfortunate things to say about women and sex, claiming they liked it rough and often fell in love with their violators. “For the rape victim, forced and violent sexual intercourse is a blessing, while the woman who is unmolested remains dejected and unwanted. In Ovid’s Ars Amatoria when a woman says no she really means yes.” (1) Even though Ovid was born more than one hundred years after the death of Terence, this seems to be a profound insight into the Roman mind and has an almost sinister feeling of modernity about it. 

In the Eunuch Terence subtly challenges the conventional dialogue about rape by pausing and discussing the emotional turmoil and shock Pamphila is submerged in. She is crying and unable to speak, what has happened to her is clearly morally wrong and unjust, even if by Roman standards it does not technically classify as rape. (Only Roman citizens could be raped, as property slaves had no rights or protections under the law.) 

When Pamphila’s mistress, Thais, confronts Chaerea (in disguise as the eunuch Davos) she asks what he as done and he says “not much”…

THAIS: Nothing much! Have you no shame? Do you call it nothing much to assault a virgin and free-born citizen?

CHAEREA: I took her for a fellow slave. 

His defense is that as a fellow slave she would have no rights. But does this argument hold up? As a fellow slave would he be entitled to rape? Within Roman sexual ideology, masculine sexual behavior was strictly defined by hierarchy. Only if you were a Roman citizen, were you the “active” participant and everyone socially lower than you, male or female (the passive, disenfranchised demographic) was fair play. As a slave, Chaerea’s defense breaks down, he has no rights to the property of his mistress, but Thais doesn’t seem phased by his argument. In fact she seems way too cool about the whole thing. She goes along with the charade, pretending to believe Chaerea’s subterfuge, but eventually she gently says: “Chaerea, your conduct was unworthy of you. Even if it were right for me to be insulted like this it was wrong for you to behave in this way…” 

Again… not really sure what is going on here. 

So Chaerea changes tack. He admits that he disguised himself as a eunuch in order to sneak in and have his way with Pamphila. Premeditated. He admits this, but he argues his motives were pure. He did it all out of love. And Thais responds with: 

THAIS: I realize that, Chaerea, and it makes me all the more ready to forgive you. I’m not altogether lacking in human feeling or experience; I know something of the power of love. 

WHAT? 

When Chaerea realizes that Pamphila is a free born citizen, rather than remorse, he feels exultation. He can marry her and all his dreams will come true! Despite play acting as a eunuch, he is far from emasculated. The most awkward and embarrassing episode occurs when his father witnesses his son wearing the costume of a eunuch. It is far more embarrassing and shameful to be caught impersonating the riffraff than perpetrating an assault. In the end Chaerea, a youth with a checkered past, emerges the hero and takes his place as the prototype for masculinity. When given the opportunity to take advantage of a beautiful woman there was only one option a true man would take, assault. To do anything less would be fit for only a true eunuch. That’s the line in the sand. Men actively possess. 

Chaerea’s counterpoint is the soldier Thraso. An officer in the army, and in every way the antithesis of our hero. Thraso is a seasoned veteran, while Chaerea is a rash and impulsive youth; Thraso brings as a gift for his mistress a beautiful sixteen year old virgin, while Chaerea professing love to the audience steals her chastity. Thraso is jealous and suspicious of everyone, while Chaerea has no concept of people existing for anything other than his pleasure. 

Thraso is wealthy, and established. He has had a friendship with Thais in the past and for all intents and purposes can offer her the security that no one else has offered. Her current lover, Chaerea’s older brother Phaedria, has no equity of his own and little to offer beside his passion, ardor and tendency towards histrionics, but for reasons that do not seem entirely clear Thais has evidently made up her mind in his favor. 

While everything falls into place for these good looking brothers, willing to take what is rightfully theirs by their station as real men, Thraso plays be the rules and loses. His jealousy seems petty and boring. His army career seems pale compared to a man willing to style himself as Jupiter. 

As the play comes to a close, all the details are neatly being tied up. Chaerea’s father has agreed to pay all the bills for his son’s courtesan so they can live in peace without the disturbance of visitors or old friends having expectations, subsequently kicking Thraso out of the picture. The father also agrees that now that Pamphila’s citizenship has been vouched for, Chaerea can marry her. 

CHAEREA: Where shall I begin? Who deserves more praise? Parmeno who gave me the idea (to dress up like a eunuch) or myself who dared to carry it out? Or should it be Fortune who guided me and brought so many vital matters to a happy conclusion in a single day? Or my father for his kindness and good humor? All I pray is heaven’s blessing will continue! 

While everyone is happily preparing to walk off stage, Thraso runs around trying to figure out a way to be included. He asks his “friend” Gnatho to put in a good word for him, anything so that he may be included in the good graces of Thais. Technically Gnatho is a parasite, a hanger-on and Thraso is the patron, but here the roles are reversed and Thraso begs a social crumb from his inferiors. 

Gnatho agrees and approaches Phaedria with a plan, since he has no money and Thraso is loaded, why not make use of him in some way? He’s the very man to provide for all the “requirements of love” so that Phaedria’s relationship with Thais would henceforth not cost him a penny! He’s lavish and has a reputation for throwing great parties and lastly he’s a “silly idiot”, a dimwitted snorer with bouts of narcolepsy - pretty much the perfect wingman. Women as a matter of principle find him repulsive and Thais will never be tempted to love him. 

After mulling the proposal over for a nanosecond, Phaedria agrees. All very good points after all, and Gnatho gets up the gumption for one last request. He wants to change his allegiances, his task of being a hanger-on to Thraso has been an exercise in Sisyphean boredom, will the group that he has been at odds with for the duration of the play allow him entrance into the sanctity of the inner circle? In exchange he will offer Thraso: ”for the laughs and everything else you can get out of him.” 

CHAEREA: We’ll take him. 

PHAEDRIA: He deserves it.  

In the end the only one who is impotent is Thraso. Unable to love or be loved. A patron unable to offer patronage; a man stripped of his power and masculinity, willing to play the fool if it will allow him to be in the vicinity of the one he loves, even if the love itself is impotent and rejected. 




1) Chrsytal, Paul. 2015. In Bed with the Romans. Amberley Publishing Limited. Digital



A Companion to Terence



Thursday, November 30, 2017

Terence - Hecyra (The Mother-In-Law)

We all know the romantic comedy outline by heart: boy and girl meet, fall in love, overcome an obstacle and then live happily ever after in matrimonial bliss, ultimately proving to themselves and the world that true love exists. Hecyra destroys this formula and the result is shocking and incongruous to my sensitive modern ears. 

According to Niall Slater (“The Fictions of Patriarchy in Terence’s “Hecyra), ”In no other ancient comedy are women so noble- or so readily condemned. Nowhere is the contrast between seeming and reality so sharp as between the perception of women held by men in this play and their actual roles. The actions of the Hecyra is double: the unfolding of the real and potentially tragic story of the male perfidy and the parallel necessity of constructing and maintaining a narrative in which all the difficulties are the fault of the women in the play.” 

There’s a temptation to imagine similarities to contemporary modern culture and the Roman Republic circa 180 BC. Maybe less toga wearing? But really other than that aren’t we virtually the same? We struggle with the same grey cloud of a debate between Epicureans and Stoics and the search for the “good” life. We’re obsessed with the appropriate amount of government intervention, and we are adverse to dictatorships. Some of us love to throw the word “patriarchy” around, and we see a case for a solid correlation depending on how conservative the circle you run with is. 

After the Second Punic war (218-241 BC) Rome’s borders have dramatically increased and the slave population has risen exponentially. There is also now a large class of displaced men and women; residue of the turmoil of almost constant war and the fractious politics of the Hellenistic age. The plight for these women without male relatives to protect them is dire and their position in the social structure is tenuous. Usually the way to survive with any stability would be by becoming a courtesan and hoping for a kind and consistent suitor with minimal demands and an infinite supply of cash.

The opening exposition is given by two such courtesans, one of which has just returned after a two year stint with a “brute” in Corinth. They discuss how devoted the protagonist, Pamphilus was to the courtesan Bacchis, always promising her he would never marry. Men are all the same, they say. Never reliable. 

Philotis: Talking of lovers, Syra, precious few of them prove faithful to girls like me. Take Pamphilus for instance; he promised Bacchis no end of times that he’d never take a wife as long as she lived, swore it on an oath so that anyone might have believe him. Now look at him- married. 

Syra: That’s just why I’m always telling you not to be softhearted with anyone. You mark my words, catch whom you can, rob him, fleece him and skin him alive.

Despite his sworn oaths and promises to Bacchis, the marriage between Pamphilus and Philumena has taken place. His father Laches, having grown tired of paying for the never ending “sowing of wild oats” has decided it’s time for his son to marry. Laches picks out the neighbor’s daughter as a bride for his son, and after a few brow beating sessions convinces his son to do his duty, get married and provide the family with an heir. 

Pamphilus dutifully complies, but never consummates the marriage, feeling like to do so would force him to be unfaithful to his one true love. Eventually through his wife’s quiet and dutiful spirit, he begins to find himself under her spell and to clear his head takes a trip for a few months to put life into perspective.  

Recap: Boy and girl get married despite boy being in love with another girl. 

So Philumena is left with her mother in law Sostrata, and everything seems to be going well, minus the fact that her husband has left her and she’s technically still a virgin. But then as the months trickle by, a peculiar tension seems to hover in the air until it becomes an immense unbreathable fog. It’s been 7 months since her marriage and Philumena sequesters herself in her parents’ house and refuses to be seen by visitors or even speak to her mother in law. 

The action picks up with Laches yelling at his wife for obviously being so odious their daughter in law has been forced to return home:

Laches: Heaven and earth, what a tribe they are! In league the lot of them. Every blessed woman with the same likes and dislikes as all the others, and not a single one can you find who’ll show up a different mentality from the rest! Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-l aw, they’re all of one mind - in hating each other. And they’re all of a piece, too, in setting themselves against their men folk, the same damned obstinacy in every one. I’d say they’d all learned their cussedness at the same school, and if there is such a school I can tell you who’s head-mistress: my wife.

His wife, comes running after him, wringing her hands and making unacknowledged protestations about her character and intentions, but it’s no use. Laches can not fathom a world where there would be a surface level of complexity, belonging singularly to the womenfolk, and as such his reasoning is overly simplistic and impotent. 

As people are running hither and thither across the stage, chaos and distress dripping from characters and props, Pamphilus returns to see his family in crisis and without so much as a knock on the door barges into his neighbor’s home to seek out his wife…only to find her in the act of CHILDBIRTH! 

Obviously the child is not his! He never consummated the marriage…as he stands there in shock his mother-in-law quickly assures him of his wife’s good character! It’s not her fault! One evening, about 2 months before they were married Philumena was assaulted and raped on the way home and they were never able to catch the monster that did it. He managed to escape with a ring torn from her finger and her chastity. But can’t bygones be bygones? They’ll get rid of the child and it will be just the same as before, no harm no foul! 

Pamphilus leaves wracked with emotion and confusion, and refuses to take back his wife and equally refuses to acknowledge the child. Despite the fact that he has been no champion of morals himself, apparently the line is drawn at assault. He decides he will remain a bachelor and will live with his mother for the rest of his life, choosing the happiness of his mother over that of his “unfaithful” wife.

Philumena’s father, Phidippus walks into the birthing room and is confronted with a very different situation. The birth of a son! What joy! Why would the womenfolk be trying to cover this up…unless his evil meddling wife Myrrina was trying to sabotage the marriage…she never liked Pamphilus from the beginning and she’s stirring up strife and trouble in a moment that should be joyous and reconciliatory. 

Phidippus quickly makes his way to find Laches and apologizes: It’s not your wife it’s mine! 

As the menfolk try to makes heads or tails of the situation that seems to be in a perpetual state of crumbling around them, Laches comes up with a plan to convince Pamphilus to reconcile with his wife: he will convince the courtesan to vouch for the character of his son. She will tell Philumena that he has remained faithful to his wife and she no longer has any hold on him…and then maybe his wife will fight for him? It’s unclear how this will help…

Bacchis agrees and while she is talking with the women, Myrrina recognizes the ring on the courtesans finger… 

Bacchis: What happiness I have given Pamphilus by coming here today! I’ve brought him so many blessings and removed so many worries. I have saved his son for him, whom he nearly lost through his own fault and the women here; I’ve given him back the wife with whom he believed he would never live again, and I’ve removed the suspicions of his father and Phidippus. And all this train of discovers was set off by a ring! 

What Baccis then describes is an evening about 9 months ago when Pamphilus drunkenly showed up on her doorstep. His hair and clothes were in disarray and after a few questions he admitted to assaulting a girl and pulling off the ring she wore…which he then gave to Bacchus as a gift and she has worn ever since…?

Now everything is clear, and disconcertingly joyous. The girl Pamphilus raped, as chance would have it, was none other than his own dear wife! Hurrah! And her bastard is none other than his own rightful son! 

Bacchis: I’m glad he has found so much happiness through me, though I suppose other women of my sort wouldn’t agree- it isn’t really in our interest for a lover to be happily married, but all the same, I can’t bring myself to act unkindly…

When Parmeno, the slave who has spent the majority of the play running pointless errands to keep him out of the way, is told to bring his master the news that his wife recognized the ring that Bacchus was wearing as her very own, his master’s response is: 

Pamphilus: I’m in heaven if this is really true! …Oh I’m the most fortunate of men! No one could be so lucky in love! Now what reward can I give you in return for this message? Tell me- I can’t think.” 

Recap: Boy and girl get married despite boy being in love with a hooker. Boy eventually falls for girl only to realize she’s been assaulted at which point his honor keeps him from reconciling with his wife, but then he learns that he was the assailant, so all is well.

Pamphilus jumping around and ecstatic with joy says thing like “You have restored me to life and rescued me from hell!” On his way back home to search out his nuclear family he meets Bacchis who winks and smiles and says he’s married to a true lady. They agree not to mention anything that would constitute a past discretion to his father and Pamphilus adds the famous and ironic line: 

Pamphilus: I’d rather this weren’t like the comedies, where everyone ends by knowing everything. In our case, the ones who ought to know know already; and the others who don’t need to know shan’t be told or know a thing. 

Then he turns to leave with a salutation that hopefully all will go well with them from now on. 

The end. 

Somehow I doubt his wife would agree with the sentiment “You have restored me to life and rescued me from hell!”…Her life has been hell for the previous 9 months and she has a hellish life ahead of her. Her quiet attitude and respectful behavior has only won her the compulsory prize of living with her rapist. 

This play has, as one would expect, a variety of mixed reviews. For one, it’s much easier to read than it would be to watch in an amphitheater. According to Betty Radice (1976) “the lively and farcical element, the colorful word play, the earthly vulgarity, the song and dance which made Plautus deservedly popular have gone; instead Terence offers subtlety of plot, development and interplay of character, and economy of dialogue.” 

Once again Terence rejects the role of the slave/servant as the plot generator and humorously keeps the slave off stage for the majority of the play, with his few short lines offering varying grumblings about his ineffectual life. The virtuous heroine is replaced with a commentary on “rape culture”, something that would have been jarring and uncomfortable to digest. 

Terence needed an educated and sophisticated crowd appreciative of Hellenistic nuance, but instead his rabble of a crowd lost interest as we can see from the first two times the play was put on. During the first attempt, a rumor of a tight-rope walker began to circulate and the “shouting and women’s screaming” forced the play to end abruptly. The second time after having made it a little farther, a rumor spread that there would be a gladiator show, resulting in the crowd stampeding out of the theater in a surge and jostle that left the cast scurrying for cover. 


Finally, at the third attempt the play was carried through to completion and while the contemporary reviews were mixed, what is undeniable is that the result is without parallel.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Terence - The Girl From Andros



Whatever a man sets his mind upon, Charinus, the firmness of his intentions will shape other people's opinion of him.

A Brief Sketch of What We Know About Terence: 

There is much lore when it comes to fabricating the life of Terence. His life is shrouded in mystery. Even the little we do know is all somewhat spurious and many have wondered if he even really existed. Suetonius begins his short biographical sketch saying that Publius Terentius Afer was born in Carthage and was the slave of the Roman senator Terentius Lucanus. (Lucanus has no other existence outside of this obscure reference so that is not super helpful.) Allegedly Lucanus was so blown away by the natural charm and good looks of his slave that he not only gave him a liberal education but also his freedom. 

This seems pretty straightforward, but then Suetonius goes on to say: 

“Some people believe he was a prisoner of war, but Fenstella shows this was quite impossible, since the dates of his birth and death both fall between the end of the Second Punic War and the beginning of the Third. Again, had he been captured by the Numidians or Gaetulians, he could not have come into the possession of a Roman master, as there was no trade between Italy and Africa until after the destruction of Carthage. He lived on intimate terms with many of the nobility, in particular with Scipio Africanus (minor) and Gais Laelius, who it is thought, were even attracted by his personal beauty; but Fenstella disproves this too, arguing that Terence was older than either of them.” 

I would think that the biggest impediment to this bromance wouldn’t have been disparate ages but that fact that Scipio’s family had produced some of the most brilliant men of war that had made it their personal project to destroy Carthage. Scipio Africanus Major (Scipio’s adopted grandfather/uncle) was the legendary commander who had won the decisive battle of the Second Punic War against Hannibal.  In 146 BC, almost 20 years after the death/disappearance of Terence, Scipio’s father, Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus would lead the Romans to victory in the last battle of the Third Macedonian War.

Recap: a Carthaginian slave becomes besties with Scipio after earning his freedom by his good looks and legendary brilliance. 

What we do know is that Scipio was a “cultivated patron and admirer of liberal studies and of every form of learning.”1  According to Gellius, Scipio had the purest diction of any man of his time. 2 We know that Scipio was a writer and philhellene and had a literary band called the Scipionic Circle that included Lucius Furius Philus, and Gaius Lucilius (the muse/man crush/nemesis of Horace)

Terence is credited with writing 6 plays, one of which, The Eunuch was so successful that according to Suetonius it was performed twice in one day and won 8,000 sesterces, which was the highest fee ever won by a comedy. Four of Terence's plays are rough translations of a combination of plays by the Greek playwright Menander, two are based on the works of Apollodorus of Carystus. But rather than word for word translation into Latin, Terence is accused of contaminating the translations by mixing and blending pieces from a sampling of different works. He was also accused of plagiarizing his Latin contemporaries, which in the prologue to The Eunuch he emphatically denies. 

Terence offers us a glimpse of who he was in each prologue of his six plays. We learn in the prologue of his first play The Girl from Andros that he was already being attacked and slandered by an “old playwright” and defends himself by saying that while yes he has used elements from both Menander’s The Girl from Andros and The Girl from Perinthos, he has taken the best and most suitable pieces and transformed them into a better and more cohesive whole. 

Recap: So a Carthaginian learns Latin and then proceeds to translate Greek into “the most lucid and elegantly simple Latin which had yet been written.” 3

After his sixth play was written, and at the height of a burgeoning career, Terence allegedly goes in search of more Greek plays to translate/plagiarize and is never seen or heard from again. 

It’s hard not to join the conspiracy theorist on this one and just assume Scipio and his band of merry men were writing plays and submitting them under the nom de plume of Terence. At the end of the day, who Terence was is a debate of little value; what’s a more interesting and profitable discussion is how Terence has influenced European drama. 


The Girls from Andros:

As the first line is spoken in Terence’s first play, The Girl from Andros, it would have been evident that the Romans were witnessing something new. Terence had scrapped the formal prologue, a staple up until this point, and instead offers a dialogue between Simo, a wealthy Athenian and his freedman Sosia to get the viewing audience up to speed. 

Simo has discovered something very distressing about his son Pamphilus: he is in love with the neighborhood courtesan’s sister Glycerium. At first Simo thought Pamphilus was simply sewing his wild oats with the courtesan Chrysis, nothing harmless, kids will be kids. But then Chrysis unexpectedly died and at her funeral Pamphilus openly wept, clasped in the arms of Glycerium. There was something suspicious about that “clasp”…a little too intimate…and then a prickling sensation of an idea began to plant itself into the soil of Simo’s brain: his son is in love. 

The day before, the next door neighbor Chremes, having noticed the previous good character of Pamphilus, had offered his daughter (with a substantial dowry) for marriage. But now, after the emotional outburst of the funeral some rumors have been spreading that Pamphilus not only loves this woman but regards this impoverished foreigner as his wife! While it was no longer illegal for patricians and plebeians to marry, (lex Canuleia had put an end to that discriminatory practice in 445 BC) marriage was still the exclusive right of the paterfamilias. So for Pamphilus to disregard his father’s authority in such a blatant manner and with a foreigner no less, was an insult to Simo in the most cutting and distressing way.

Simo comes up with a plan that will hopefully force Pamphilus to lay all his cards on the table and admit that he has fallen in love and considers himself married. So he decides to pretend that the wedding to Chreme’s daughter is happening as planned and today is the lucky day, Pamphilus will then admit to his father all his wrong doings and beg his forgiveness. 

Simo calls Davos, the slave of Pamphilus and tells him he needs to prepare his son for a marriage that will take place that evening and warns that if he catches Davos up to any of his old tricks he will be beaten senseless. 

Davos assures his master that’s he’s no Oedipus, he’s no good at riddles and will not act the part of the standard trope of the trickster slave. 

Terence again has deviated from the expected. He has exchanged the controlling clever slave of Plautus, or the bumbling dimwitted one dimensional stock character for a multidimensional human with personhood, devoted to realism and method acting. Not only this, but in Plautine drama the action would have hinged on the slave, either cleverly saving his incompetent master  or maliciously making a mess of his plans. Davos, rather than the generator of all the complexity, is merely caught up in the maelstrom of miscommunication; trying to survive as best he can alongside everyone else.

This is significant. In his Politics Aristotle describes slaves as being subhuman. At birth they are destined to either rule or be ruled and “if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul?” [Book 1: 1254 a5] By giving Davos the same voice, the same latin as his superiors instead of a more urban vernacular, Terence challenges this Aristotelian conception of personhood. Slave and master become almost arbitrary constructs with everyone trying to find their place and a way to survive. 

After his brief dialogue with Simo, Davos turns to the audience with a monologue that brings everyone further up to speed: 

“This girl from Andros, whether she’s wife or mistress, is having a baby and Pamphilus is the father. You ought to hear their crazy plans - they act more like lunatics than lovers. They’re determined to acknowledge the child, boy or girl, and now they’re concocting a silly story that the mother is Athenian born. There was a man once, they say, a merchant, who was shipwrecked off Andros and lost his life. His child was washed ashore and Chrysis’ father took the poor little orphan in…”

While Davos thinks the narrative lacks credibility and realism, he advises Pamphilus to calmly agree to everything right away, hoping this will force his father to admit there is no wedding and that the whole thing was a farce, or at least be so put off guard that it buys them time to come up with a better scenario.

Pamphilus goes along with the plan and when his father approaches him and says “Today, as I told you before, is the day on which I wish you to take a wife” Pamphilus sweetly responds: “Neither in this nor in anything else will you meet with an opposition from me, father.” 

Pamphilus lays it on a bit thick, but momentarily his plan seems to work. His father is shocked by the quiet acquiescence of his son…and then Davos over sells the ruse by saying:

“It was an affair of the youth, sir, which he only carried on as long as he could, and what’s more, he kept it dark and took care his reputation shouldn’t suffer, as a decent man should. Now it’s time he took a wife, and it’s a wife he’s got in mind.”

Before Simo can come up with the appropriate reaction, midwives start running back and forth grabbing supplies for Glycerium who is about to give birth next-door and Simo, pathologically egocentric, assumes this is for his benefit. The women have obviously come up with a plan to deceive him and frighten off Chremes. As Glycerium screams out in the throes of labor, Simo stands in front of her house looking unimpressed. 

Simo [whistling in surprise]: As quick as that? It’s absurd. She must have decided to speed up when she heard I was outside the door. There’s something wrong with your timing Davos. 

Davos decides to admit this has all been a part of the plan. (Again, the action is being generated outside of his control and without his consent.) Davos agrees that the birth was just a device concocted by the women to scare off Chremes, but he’s seen right through it as usual, now there is nothing standing in the way of the marriage. Davos, as usual, oversells the ruse and instead of halting things in their place convinces Simo he’s seen through the ruse and there is nothing stopping him from marrying off his son. Simo convinced, pleads with Chremes, arguing that his son is still an upright young man that has been entrapped by an evil vixen, really they are both obligated to marry their children as a form of public service. 

Chremes agrees! The wedding is back on, now almost entirely due to the poorly calculated enterprises of Davos. 

Davos: And that’s the end of me. Nothing now to stop me from going straight from here to the mill - no chance of begging for mercy. I’ve messed up everything, deceived my master, pushed his son into marriage, fixed up a wedding for today - which the old man never expected nor Pamphilus wanted. Clever aren’t I? If I’d kept quiet there’d have been none of this trouble. Now here he is. I’m done for. I wish I’d something to fall on [with a gesture of stabbing himself as Pamphilus bursts out of Simo’s house]. 

Davos, for all his attempts to craft the least damaging plan, has instead done the opposite and his master is apoplectic. When Pamphilus asks Davos what he should do to him as punishment for destroying his hopes and dreams Davos says he should probably be crucified, but give him a second to figure one last little detail out.

Out of Menander’s 108 plays, only one of them has survived in it’s entirety. Terence says in his prologue that he is using Menander’s Andria and Perinthos as a jumping off place but we have almost nothing left of the Andria except what Donatus can tell us and only a few lines from the Perinthos.

Menander’s version is much more intense. When the slave Daos has been unable to make everything go according to plan his master, Laches, calls for burning faggots:

Laches: Now, Daos give us a demonstration 
Of your knavish tricks; think up a scheme 
To wiggle out of this. 

Daos ends up offering no scheme and only fouling himself as the torches of fire are presumably heaped around him. This is where the fragment ends so we don’t know what happens next, but the interaction is far darker than Terence writes. 

Fortunately for Davos he is only tied hands to feet for a short time as scheme after scheme seems to fail. 

A further level of complexity, is that Pamphilus isn’t the only patrician expecting Davos to help out his matrimonial affairs. Every time there is a lull, Charinus, a friend of Pamphilus skulks onto the set and tries to get his foot into the door of the fake wedding. Charinus actually wants to marry Chreme’s daughter, and has been in love with her secretly this whole time. So each time the plot gets closer and closer to a marriage between the daughter and Pamphilus, Charinus rushes onto the set and provides a histrionic counterpart to Pamphilus’ measured resolve. 

And here we come to the last contribution that Terence brings to Roman comedy that will influence European drama in a profound way: the double plot.  The double plot structure allowed a mirroring plot line to comment or reinterpret events and characters. According to Betty Radice (1976), the double plot enabled Terence to “enlarge on his major interest, the effect of plot on character, and the same contrasted reactions of different types of character to the same situation. He could then draw carefully diversified portraits of closely connected persons.” (Shakespeare would glean many lessons from Terence and would include double plots in both Hamlet and King Lear.)

While Pamphilus is in love and has pursued Glycerium, considering himself married without approval from his father, Charinus represents the appropriate way of wooing a girl in the Roman Republic. He says nothing to the girl and hopes to persuade her father at some point that he is a suitable match. Mostly this involves him swooning a lot and being one second away from a nervous breakdown, as he watches his friend get betrothed unwillingly to the girl he secretly desires to marry. 

At the end, a visitor from Andros shows up looking for Glycerium. He is the cousin of Chrysis (the courtesan) and tells everyone that Glycerium is actually not the sister of Chrysis, but a child refugee that was rescued after a shipwreck…and as luck would have it, she’s the long lost daughter of Chremes! Chremes immediately settles on her a dowry of sixty thousand drachmas, the inheritance of a firstborn daughter, and allows her to marry Pamphilus. Charinus asks Pamphilus if he will remember him also in his moment of happiness and Pamphilus pats his friend on the back and they walk into the house with an over the shoulder farewell to the audience:

“You needn’t wait for them to come out again; the other betrothal and any other business will take place in there. Now give us your applause.”

The alternative ending has Charinus racing around the stage in one last histrionic eruption. All is lost! All is over! His life, his love! Davos tells him to hush, and to wait a second and then brings Chremes over for the marriage discussion appropriate to the paterfamilias. 

Chremes tells Charinus essentially that since marriage is about citizenship and ties to the most important family, he wanted his daughter to be married into Simo’s family. But now, since he has found himself another daughter, there’s no reason why this one can’t be married to a less advantageous match, so he gives his blessing and offers his daughter for a dowry of thirty-six thousand drachmas. 

Everyone wins, both the schemers and the law abiders. And what matters in the end isn’t the actions you take or don’t take but the character of one’s soul. To Terence, we are all humans deserving of dignity, thrown together into the chaos of fate, all exhibiting moments of sanity and common sense mixed in with the propensity for cruelty and unkindness. Terence breathes dimension into his characters, moving away from the tropes and pantomimes to a world of depth and complexity, that values human contribution no matter how small or insignificant. 


2. Delphi Complete Works of Aulus Gullies, ‘The Attic Nights’
3. Terence, The Comedies, trans. Betty Radice, Penguin Classics, 1976.

A Companion to Terence

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