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A Case of Cross-Dressing and Rape in Terrence's Eunuchus

Cassandra Tran

McMaster University

The adulescens Chaerea of Terence’s Eunuchus presents a unique blending of gender and sexual opposites. Over the course of the play, Chaerea disguises himself as a eunuch slave in order to gain access to a young girl in a prostitute’s home wherein he consequently rapes her, and when caught, negotiates a marriage for himself and his victim. In doing this, he exposes his male body as an object of impotence and gender ambiguity while simultaneously asserting sexual dominance and masculinity. This paper investigates the potential legal implications of Chaerea’s cross-dressing and act of rape in the play and how these two actions are mutually dependent in his sexual and gender characterization.

This paper develops from a wave of mid-90’s scholarship examining rape in Eunuchus (see Frangoulidis 1994 on Chaerea’s improvisation, Smith 1994 on audience reception, Philippides 1995 on the rape as a marriage ceremony, and James 1998 on its effect on masculinity) and more recent discussions on Chaerea’s costume by Sharrock (2013) and Caston (2014a). Moreover, it differentiates itself in its interpretation of cross-dressing and rape in Eunuchus as respectively self-castration and adultery. These new terms collectively serve to highlight the instability surrounding sexuality and gender that pervades the play.

I begin by associating the Roman fear of castration with the potential dangers of the adulescens in his transition towards adulthood. In accordance with comic convention, marriage and most importantly procreation lie at the crux of this maturation. I propose that Chaerea’s infiltration of an all-female household reflects a symbolic self-castration that jeopardizes his masculinity and power, as shown through his submission when ordered around by the prostitute Thais and her maids (lines 578, 593-6). Moreover, the rape of the young girl inside the home thus plays an essential role in neutralizing this potential danger. Additionally, I suggest that Chaerea’s freedom in moving from one gendered space to another would have resonated with the general anxieties surrounding eunuchs in mid-Republican Rome. Of particular interest in this discussion is the senate law that excluded native-born Romans from participating in the procession of castrated priests (the Galli) at the ludi Megalenses, the festival in which Eunuchus was first performed (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae 2.19.5).

Next, I argue that the other characters, in hearing about the rape, regard it not as an isolated crime but as one that is closely associated with Chaerea’s eunuch performance. For this, I turn to Pythias’ accusation of Chaerea as an adulterer or “moechus” (957, 960, 992). In shifting this case from rape to adultery, Pythias makes castration a suitable punishment for the fake eunuch (Barsby 2001: 424n40), thereby revealing her desire to “unman” him for his crime. I end my paper by examining the mutual inclusion of Chaerea’s transgressions in scenes addressing his shame or impudence. I highlight this, for example, in the double use of “os inpudens” at lines 597 and 838, as well as in the irony of Chaerea negotiating his marriage to a freeborn girl while still dressed as a eunuch slave.

Session/Panel Title

Legalize It: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Law

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