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Defining Neighborliness in Republican Rome: Plautus’ Mercator

Jordan Reed Rogers

University of Pennsylvania

While several studies have investigated social relationships within the Republican city—including patronage (Hölkeskamp 2010), friendship (Konstan 1997, Burton 2004), and collegia (Liu 2016)—there has been a remarkable lack of research focusing on the social expectations and obligations of urban neighbors. When the social phenomenon of neighborliness is broached, it is typically in institutional or legal terms that privilege a static understanding of communal relationships (Palma 1988, Saliou 1994, Lott 2004, Bannon 2009). Recently, however, interest has shifted towards elucidating the dynamic social mechanisms by which Romans created and maintained their urban communities (Courrier 2014, Coffee 2017, Flower 2017), prompting a reexamination of ideals of neighborliness (Dutoit 1969).

To illuminate Republican ideals of neighborliness, I apply a sociologically inflected framework (Mann 1954, Boren 2006, McDonough 2017) of urban interaction to Plautus’ Mercator as a case study in urban neighborliness. I argue that the Mercator is best understood in light of discursive notions of neighborliness that serve to frame the actions and behaviors of Plautus’ characters for his Roman audience—an audience that experienced neighborly interactions daily and shared many of these same conceptions. Neighborliness, I argue, involves not only the mundane interactions of urban life, but also an overriding concern with the maintenance of individual and communal reputation. My analysis therefore focuses on two pairs of neighbors in the Mercator—the old men, Demipho and Lysimachus, and their sons, Charinus and Eutychus.

Demipho and Lysimachus are representative of the often tense and obligatory neighborly relationship that interests Plautus in many of his plays. Upon first seeing his neighbor Lysimachus, Demipho connects him to the malicious simia of his dreams, a typically insulting characterization (Merc. 276). This initial meeting is notable for Lysimachus’ ironic sarcasm throughout and his begrudgingly vague offer of help to Demipho before departing (Merc. 325: numquid vis?). Demipho himself appeals to communal reputation when he refuses to bring Pasicompsa into his own home (405-11), preferring instead to ask Lysimachus to house the young slave girl on his behalf. Lysimachus’ subsequent purchase of Pasicompsa (499-500: uicinus quod rogauit,| hoc emi mercimonium), however, ultimately incites a scandal with his wife, Dorippa. Lysimachus, dreading his newfound reputation as a leno, can only reply with an old proverb—aliquid mali esse propter vicinum malum (773).

Plautus represents the neighborly relationship between the two sons, however, in a far more positive light. The audience is introduced to the youthful neighbors when Eutychus addresses Charinus as his “friend and comrade and, at the same time, his next-door neighbor (vicinus proximus)” (475-6). Eutychus offers his neighborly help in purchasing Pasicompsa but fails, prompting Charinus’ sudden threat of self-exile. To avoid blame for Charinus’ disappeareance, Eutychus sends praecones throughout the neighborhoods (in vicis omnibus) to find the young lover (662-7). Eutychus’ seemingly selfish desire to prevent Charinus’ desertion of the neighborhood, however, is best understood as being prompted by a concern for his reputation in the community (omnes dicent esse ignavia). Similar to Demipho’s feigned appeal to communal reputation, Eutychus’ actions are framed by the desire to avoid public shame and, in doing so, to preserve the members of his neighborhood. Nevertheless, Plautus’ judgment of these two examples of neighborliness is clear in the outcome of the play, as Charinus reunites with Pasicompsa while Eutychus humorously assumes the role of patron to the disgraced Demipho (995).

Ultimately, Plautus characterizes a “good neighbor” as one concerned not only with the social niceties of communal living, but also with the maintenance of reputation for the individual and the entire community. As I argue, Plautus’ presentation of neighborly ideals is not only important for our interpretation of his plays, but also reflects the social realities of urban life. By acknowledging the nuances of Republican ideals of neighborliness and their activation and subversion in Plautus’ Mercator, we can begin to appreciate the often neglected and complex social relationships that characterized everyday life for those living in Rome.

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Roman Cultural History

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