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Chaerea’s description of a painting of Jupiter and Danae at Eunuchus 584-89 has often been a focal point of scholarship on the play, particularly on how Terence manages the themes of rape, mimesis, and theatricality within this comedy (Dessen 133; James 39; Germany; Sharrock 222, etc.). But no study has shown how the ecphrasis, with its intense interest in a Romanized Greek character’s imitation of a scene adapted from Greek mythology, stages an ambivalent receptivity to Greek culture with implications for both Roman identity and ecphrasis itself as a Roman cultural practice. This paper argues that the episode both reflects and contributes to a Roman sense of self reinforced by the plunder of artworks from Hellenic lands, while pointing nonetheless to Rome’s awareness of its own captivation by Greek art and culture. The scene thus problematizes an influential modern view of ecphrasis as a text’s struggle for dominance over visual media, an assertion of the word and its powers over those of the image (Mitchell 151-81; Heffernan 1-8). Terence’s text inevitably controls the audience’s perception of the imaginary painting in question. Yet Chaerea, the risible, self-undermining ecphrasist and audience figure, embodies the image’s overwhelming power over its viewer, and links this power to the god Jupiter, whose might surpasses the abilities of any onstage character, audience member, playwright, or dramatic text.

At about the Eunuchus’s midpoint, the young man Chaerea relates his doings after disguising himself as a eunuch and sneaking into the house of the prostitute Thais so as to be close to a girl, Pamphila, with whom he is infatuated. Once inside, he says, he noticed the girl observing a painting of Danae and Jupiter (584-85; the god is of course called this rather than “Zeus”). Later, finding himself alone with Pamphila, he rapes her in what he describes as an imitation of Jupiter’s sexual conquest (586-91). Chaerea’s words in this passage pointedly assimilate his perspective to that of a Roman viewer. In particular, he refers to the impluvium, an opening in the roof of a Roman rather than a Greek house (Barsby 197), while his language echoes a play of Ennius, probably a tragedy (Karakasis 96). And Chaerea’s winning of a promised marriage to Pamphila makes him a comic hero with whom at least some part of the audience would likely identify, rape notwithstanding (Konstan 387; Smith 38n51; Philippides). An embodiment of human failings and yet an (erotically) engaged spectator, Chaerea is a partial figure for Terence’s audience and the painting he describes an emblem of Terence’s play. If Chaerea, moreover, can claim Jupiter’s precedent in sexual violence, Terence shares with the audience his status as the Roman Jupiter’s subject, and the Danae painting even “functions as an epiphany” of the god (Germany 61), who guides the plot to its resolution as he also oversaw Rome’s continued rise to power. The “rape” of Hellas was a fantasy disturbingly realized in such recent events as L. Aemilius Paullus’s art-laden three-day triumph celebrating his victory over King Perseus of Macedon (167 BCE). The Romans’ use of paintings as illustrations of exemplary military conduct in triumphs and temples (Gruen 90) reinforces the triumphal aspect of Chaerea’s behavior. And yet the Eunuchus’s own prologue, calling attention to Terence’s careful adaptation of two plays of Menander, highlights the formative influence of Hellenic models in this context. Insofar as he adapts Greek material (myth) for his own purposes while falling under its spell, Chaerea is also a comical figure for the Hellenophile Terence. Anticipating what Horace, some 150 years later, would sum up as captured Greece’s conquest of its Roman conquerors (Ep. 2.1.156-57), the Danae ecphrasis allows the Eunuchus’s audience to fantasize about violence and yet tropes in part Greek culture’s powerful, ambiguous effects on a collective Roman identity.

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