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Plautus’ Truculentus and Terence’s Hecyra: Patriarchal Authority and Women’s Truth

Serena S. Witzke

Wesleyan University

Plautus’ Truculentus and Terence’s Hecyra have the same plot, an ideal locus for examining their authors’ social commentaries on citizen, masculine power and women’s limited ability to assert truth and be believed. They share an unwanted marriage, rape, a baby boy, involvement of citizen women in hiding and disposing of him, angry fathers, and the crucial role of a meretrix’s household in the resolution. Each play is considered the author’s most disturbing (Truc. de Melo, Fantham, Tatum; contra, Dessen; Hec. Anderson 2002, McGarrity, Penwill; contra, Knorr), but one element has been overlooked: both demonstrate that women’s credibility is measured only by the service it does for patriarchal authority.  Examining them together reveals their similarities and highlights the authors’ explorations of gendered epistemology.

Both plays establish masculine disbelief of women’s speech in the opening scenes. In Truculentus, Diniarchus (adulescens) informs the audience through soliloquy that his amica Phronesium’s name means wisdom (sapientia, 78) but she is a bad (mala, 83) woman who employs it badly. He goes on to assert that she pretends (simulat, 86 & 87) and attempts to conceal (celare, 90) things from him. He extends his disbelief to her whole household (178-81). In Truculentus, women are credible to citizen men under torture: after Callicles beats and binds the ancillae, he orders them not to have duplicis linguas (781). Plautus twice juxtaposes binding (lora/vinclis) and truth (verum), reinforcing patriarchal authority’s dependence on corporal punishment (783-4). And it is only because he is told what he wants to hear that women’s truths may be believed.

Hecyra too comments on men’s distrust of non-citizen women’s character early on. A servus remarks that Bacchis’ unpleasant behavior alienated her client Pamphilus (157-70). Bacchis is apparently the typical comic meretrix, demanding and withholding. Believing she has turned Pamphilus against his new wife, and thus their own wives against Pamphilus, the senes demand she be brought before them. They agree to threaten her (minitemur, 718) for intransigence. Upon interrogation, Bacchis tells a partial truth, because the men are uninterested in challenging their beliefs about the characters of their wives and son (750-2). Because she tells a story that may reunite the married couple and secure the safety of the senes’ heir, reinforcing their patriarchal authority in the process, they look no further. Pamphilus silences Bacchis, insisting that she never speak the whole truth about his role in the rape (866-8). Masculine status quo preserved, women’s knowledge is unnecessary.

In a seemingly ironic twist, both of these women’s households tell rape stories that are believed by powerful men. But this is not feminist triumph or a #metoo moment. Their stories are believed because they can fit a narrative that serves masculine citizen authority. Callicles believes because he can use the information to control Diniarchus. Hecyra’s senes don’t even need to hear the rape tale. Pamphilus believes Bacchis’ story of rape because it solves his problems. The consequences for Diniarchus are financial, for Pamphilus nonexistent. Even when believed, these plays observe, women do not get justice.

Session/Panel Title

Believing Ancient Women: A Feminist Epistemology for Greece and Rome

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