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"Ut Ego Unguibus Facile Illi in Oculos Involem Venefico!" Pythias and Sight as Power in Terence’s Eunuchus

Sarah Brucia Breitenfeld

University of Washington

Vision and eyes are central to the action of Terence’s Eunuchus. Midway through the play, the young Chaerea rapes Pamphila, believing her to be a slave and drawing inspiration from the sight of a painting depicting divine rape (Ter. Eun. 583-92). The graphic aftermath of this sexual assault is voiced by an enslaved woman, the ancilla Pythias, who describes Pamphila’s torn dress and hair (Ter. Eun. 646) before exclaiming: ut ego unguibus facile illi in oculos involem venefico! (Ter. Eun.648; “I would readily attack his eyes with my nails, the poisonous wretch!”). This paper interrogates the emphasis on sight in the Eunuchus and asks why Pythias expresses this urge to tear out the eyes of a rapist.

The violence of the Eunuchus’s rape plot has prompted scholars to examine the way in which this play breaks with the conventions of New Comedy by presenting a rape at the climax of the play (James 1998, Rosivach 1998). Germany 2016, however, has recently brought Roman conceptions of vision to bear on the issue, arguing that Roman viewership theory provides evidence that Roman audiences would have forgiven Chaerea. The painting that spurs Chaerea to action, Germany asserts, did not just inspire him to assault Pamphila — it physically compelled him to do so. Yet by focusing on Chaerea, Germany overlooks the way in which the play’s most socially marginalized character, the enslaved Pythias, articulates the direct link between vision, lust, and violence in the play. Martin 1995, on the other hand, addresses Pythias and her unusually assertive manner of speaking, but does not engage with her repeated invocation of sight. This paper, by contrast, specifically examines Pythias’s language in the context of Roman viewership theories, especially Bartsch 2006’s assertion that sight was a tactile sense for the Romans, whereby particles emitted from a viewer’s eye touched and even entered an object being seen.

I argue that, as an enslaved woman, Pythias is uniquely aware of the violence inherent in the gaze of a citizen man. First, I establish sight as a distinctly tactile and penetrative sense that is structurally significant for the Eunuchus (Bartsch 2006, Germany 2016). Second, I engage in a close reading of select scenes to assert that Pythias understands and voices the connection between sight and sexual violence (Ter. Eun. 643-48, 855-863, 894-909). Finally, I argue that Pythias’s slave status suggests that her knowledge of the relationship between these concepts is informed by her own experiences as an object of desire and violence. Though Pythias’s marginalized social position has caused her to be overlooked by Eunuchus characters and scholars alike, it is precisely her slave status that makes her the most capable of understanding how vision informs assault. Because sight compels action, Pythias’s eagerness to blind the rapist is not merely an expression of anger, but it is a way of preventing Chaerea from violating additional enslaved bodies. It is, more precisely, an act of self-defense.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Comedy

Session/Paper Number

10.1

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