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



Hesiod - Theogony

There is a modern tendency to think of cosmogony as an attempt to substantiate foundational truth. In our modern brains we feel entit...