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Filii Gemini Duo: Brotherhood in Plautus' Menaechmi

Thomas A Wilson

Princeton University

The importance of brotherhood in Roman literature is attested from the earliest stages of literary production, just as the Romans imagined brotherhood to have structured the political life of the city even in the moment of its foundation by Romulus and Remus. The earliest extant works of Roman literature, the comedies of Plautus, present a rich body of evidence for Roman notions of brotherhood, and for their deployment and manipulation in literature.

The recent surge of interest in Plautus has enriched our understanding of this corpus, and of the palliata tradition in general, on a number of levels. Major studies have focused on Plautine drama as performance (Moore) and as text (Sharrock); on Plautine puns (Fontaine) and metre (Fortson). A particular focus of attention has been the presentation of slavery in the plays, with influential contributions by McCarthy, Stewart, and most recently Richlin. In the context of this increased interest in Plautine comedy, family relationships – and siblings in particular – represent a rich and underexplored topic in this field. This is especially true given the importance of brotherhood in the political life of the middle republic (Beck; Padilla Peralta).

In this paper, I consider the presentation of the eponymous twin brothers in Plautus’ Menaechmi. I first analyze the prologue to show that brotherhood is not merely a convenient means of producing farcical confusion, as many critics have suggested; rather, the importance of brotherhood as such is established from the outset. In addition, the prologue foreshadows major thematic concerns of the play, including convoluted family relationships, the ethical ramifications of where one lives, and the inappropriate use of money in structuring household relationships. I then explore the presentation of the brothers in the body of the drama. This analysis reveals the ways in which brotherhood is used to explore questions of personal identity which intersect with migration, nationality, slavery and manumission, the raising of children, and the ethics of appropriate behaviour in the family sphere.

In Menaechmi, the twins' relationship is complicated by extended separation which tests a number of widespread assumptions about these issues. Finally, therefore, drawing on work by Scheidel and others, I argue that separation was a live social and political issue at Rome in the late third and early second century, and that sibling relationships provided an especially rich framework for thinking through these issues in Menaechmi and elsewhere in the Plautine corpus. The mutually entangled processes of war, enslavement, and colonisation combined in this period to dramatically decrease the stability of habitation, family, and career for those living under the shadow of Roman imperialism.  Of course, these concerns disproportionately affected people of low civic status and limited means; nonetheless, few can have completely escaped the ripples produced. In the palliata, and in particular in Menaechmi, articulating these concerns in terms of sibling relationships allowed Plautus to create a broad appeal which could speak to many levels of the diverse audience for whom the plays were performed.

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Roman Comedy

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