The Brothers

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The Brothers

by Terence (Publius Terence Afer)


A Latin adaptation of a comic Greek play set in fourth-century bce Athens; written and performed in 160 bce.


Two brothers are raised separately, one in the country by their strict biological father, the other in the city by their liberal uncle. The brothers fall in love with girls below their social class and contrive, with their uncle, to outwit their father, but he has the last laugh.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Play in Focus

For More Information

Most scholars agree that Publius Terence Afer was born a slave in Carthage about 190 bce, between the Second and Third Punic Wars. Sold to the Roman senator Terentius Lucanus, Terence was brought to Rome, given a gentleman’s education, and freed from slavery—supposedly because of his intelligence and good looks. At this point he began to translate plays from ancient Greek into Latin, capitalizing on the Roman thirst for all things classically Greek. Terence elevated himself into the upper ranks of Roman society by writing his own first play The Girl from Andros (166 bce), after which he secured a patron. By the age of 25, he had published six plays, all part of the genre of Greek theater known as New Comedy. These six comedies— The Girl from Andros, The Mother-in-Law, The Self-Tormentor, The Eunuch, and Phormio, along with Brothers —constitute Terence’s body of surviving works. Based on the Greek play Adelphoe by Menander, The Brothers is considered Terence’s masterpiece. At the height of his career, Terence left Rome for Greece, never to return. His disappearance and death remain a mystery. The Brothers demonstrates Terence’s gift for irony and his ability to add sophistication to the works he adapted from Greek to Latin. He conceived a complex style of characterization that would influence future comedic writers of the West, from England’s Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) to France’s Moliere (1622-1673) and beyond. In The Brothers, Terence tackles such issues as the generation gap, class conflict, and the tension between traditional and modern ways in the Rome of his day. He furthermore does so in a manner that conveys his humanistic approach and belief in universal truths, such as Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto (I am human myself, so I think every human affair is my concern). At the heart of The Brothers is a young man’s right to woo and wed the woman of his choice; the play features two attempts to exercise this right and the powerful reaction from established society.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

Second-century Rome and Carthage

After the Romans defeated Hannibal and his troops at Carthage in 201 bce in the Second Punic War, the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (as he became known) returned home master of the Mediterranean region. Conquering its most formidable regional enemy had in fact made Rome the undisputed leader of the known world, turning the Roman state into an international empire. Rome and Carthage had long been vying for control of the western Mediterranean region, North Africa, and southern Europe. Though a third war would be fought in 149 bce, the victory in the second war and the 50-year reprieve that followed gave Rome time to conquer the Hellenistic (culturally Greek) kingdoms to the east and to consolidate its power in Europe. In essence, the end of the Second Punic War signaled the birth of a global Roman Empire. Conversely, the loss by Carthage reduced it to a dependent


264-241 bce First Punic War

First of the three wars in which Rome fights Carthage for control of the western Mediterranean

238 bce Roman Conquest of Sardinia

229-228 bce First Illyrian War in the Balkans

First of two wars between Rome and lllyrii for control of a region east of the Adriatic Sea, near Macedonia

219 boe Second lllyrian War

218-201 bce Second Punic War

215-205 bce First Macedonian War

First of four wars fought for control of the kingdoms of Macedonia, a region covering parts of today’s Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia

200-191 boe Gaul invades northern Italy

Romans beat Boii, the main Gallic tribe, after which Gaul never successfully threatens Roman military might

192-189 bce Syrian War

Rome defeats Antiochus III, king of the Seleucid Empire

171-168 bce Third Macedonian War

149-148 bce Final Macedonian War

149-146 bce Third and final Punic War

state of Rome, forced to pay it tribute and reparations. As in other conquered regions, many Carthaginians were enslaved and sold to Romans as a result of the war. From throughout the Mediterranean, millions of former opponents were taken to Italy to perform slave agricultural and domestic labor for wealthy citizens. By the end of the first century bce, slaves comprised 40 percent of the Italian population. The luckier ones—those considered beautiful, skilled, or talented—were sold to the nobility at high prices (a highly skilled slave could fetch 50 times the price of an unskilled slave); thereafter, they were provided with an education and the opportunity to do meaningful work. Terence was one such slave. Prized for his handsome appearance as well as his literacy and intelligence, he was sold to a Roman senator.

Rise of Hellenism

Back in 338 bce, Macedonia’s ruler conquered Greece. An area between the Balkans and the Greek peninsula, Macedonia had by this time established cultural ties to the Greeks, inviting their artists and poets to its capital city and adapting Greek customs. The culturally Greek Macedonian Empire expanded and endured for the next hundred years, then became embroiled in a series of wars against Rome. Macedonia lost, which led to the breakup of its empire and its decline into a Roman province. For Rome, the spoils of war included not just slaves and reparations but Hellenistic, or culturally Greek, artifacts and treasures. The Romans had conquered a Hellenistic domain, including Macedonia and the Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, repositories of vast Greek libraries and old objects that sparked a keen public interest in earlier Greece. Slaves such as Terence, who could speak Greek and Latin, were put to work as translators and soon the works of Menander, Diphilus, Philemon, and other celebrated Greek comedians and tragedians were being produced throughout Rome.

Hellenism was embraced especially by young, educated Romans since it valued youth and promoted a break with old values. The Hellenistic regard for the jeunesse dorèe (wealthy and fashionable youth) contrasted sharply with a more traditional and conservative Roman culture, based on patriarchy, family, and loyalty. Main-stream society was heavily influenced by Cato the Censor (234-149 bce), who won renown for his devotion to the old Roman ideals of simplicity, honesty, and unflinching courage. A strict disciplinarian, Cato believed in austerity (as does Demea, the stern father in Terence’s play) and sharply criticized excesses of wealth and personal gratification. Hellenism, in stark contrast, promoted sophistication, worldliness, and some self-indulgence. The Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus (229-160 bce), to take one example, practiced these forms of excess in the extreme. Paullus was famous for the immense plunder he collected in Macedonia and Epirus, his love of pageantry, and the vast amounts of war spoils he kept for himself. In 164 bce, he was elected censor—the official in charge of public morals; his election reflects Rome’s shift in cultural values during this era and the increasing influence of Hellenism on Roman society. Capitalizing on the shift, Terence produced The Brothers in 160 bce. One of its main characters—the liberal uncle, Micio-embraces the new Hellenistic approach that has begun penetrating Roman society. In fact, the play speaks directly to the culture clash between Cato and Paullus, whose contrasting viewpoints are articulated by the brothers Demea and Micio.

Roman society

Roman society in the second century bce was highly stratified. At the highest level was the emperor, who alone commanded the loyalty of everyone below (all swore allegiance to him personally, not to a flag, country, government, or empire). Under him were the politicians (the senators) and the wealthy businessmen (known as equestrians); next, the ordinary citizens; then, the freedmen; and, finally, the slaves. Though the boundaries between social classes were fairly rigid, slaves could be freed by their masters or buy their freedom for the price their masters had paid for them (often a virtually impossible feat). It was possible for citizens to climb the social ladder through politics, military service, acquisition of wealth, or marriage. Bribery and flattery also went a long way toward elevating one’s status—particularly currying favor with the emperor. But such social climbing did not occur easily or commonly. Rome’s leaders saw class divisions as key to pre-serving the empire’s strength, so they were not lightly crossed and even when they were, the social climber stepped into the new status with indication of their old status. Roman law limited the rights and activities of freed slaves, prohibiting them, during Terence’s era, from serving in the regular Roman army or becoming a senator.

Roman families, like Roman society, were ruled from the top down. Often an entire family line lived in one household, from grandparents to grandchildren, with the eldest male (the paterfamilias) acting as family head. The paterfamilias owned the property and wielded complete authority—including the power of life and death over each family member. It was understood that every family had the right to follow its own household customs and rules. The patriarch could run the household strictly or liberally, as he saw fit. He assumed full responsibility for the actions of his family; if a family member committed an offense, he was liable and could be held accountable. The males had total dominion over the females—typically even a woman who became a widow did not become independent; she was instead assigned a male guardian by the patriarch of the family.

Roman women of Terence’s day enjoyed more physical freedom than their counterparts in ancient Greek society. In 195 bce the women of Rome demonstrated for and won the repeal of an edict (the Oppian Law) that prohibited females from riding about the city in carriages (i.e., in public). Today’s scholars observe that such “progress” amounted to a freedom that was more apparent than real. As in Greek society, the primary role of Roman women continued to be bearing children and managing the household. These were the priorities, not a romantic relationship with one’s husband. Though the evidence shows some marriages were genuine love relationships, young men learned to look outside upstanding families for sexual satisfaction. The men turned mostly to slaves or to former slaves to find “women of easy virtue.” Among other cues, these women could be spotted by their clothing—while a “proper woman” wore a long dress that reached to her heels, the female servant or slave wore shorter dresses and it was mandatory for professional courtesans, or high-level prostitutes, to dress in togas. By the late Republican period, when The Brothers takes place, men were also having affairs with some of the married upper-class matrons (who wore the long dresses). Wealthy male citizens often kept a mistress and a second family in a separate house-hold. There is little information about the marriage patterns that developed among the lower classes.

Another facet of personal life that often involved people outside the immediate family was child-rearing. If a household had too many young people to support, the patriarch might ask childless relatives or friends to adopt the burdensome child—or, in extreme cases, might sell the child into slavery. In Terence’s play, Demea, a married citizen, gives one of his two sons to his wealthy single brother Micio because he cannot afford to raise both.

Rural versus urban life

Until the end of the Second Punic War, 90 percent of Romans were rural dwellers. Most lived in shanties or huts and worked the lands of the wealthy citizens and landowning nobility. Although these wealthy landowners lived in the cities and looked down on peasants, they nevertheless idealized rural life. Overseers meanwhile ran the farms of the absentee owner however they saw fit; the average overseer became notorious for his harsh treatment of the peasants. Because working and living conditions were so difficult, the peasants tried by all means to migrate to the cities where life seemed less brutal. At the end of the Second Punic War (202 bce), they began flocking en masse to urban centers. The rural migrants were joined by a vast influx of slaves flooding into the cities after Rome’s military victories. Exerting a profound influence on urban life, the slaves brought with them a myriad of cultural influences. Most came from Hellenistic cities outside or in other parts of the empire, their presence adding to the Greek influence spreading over Rome.


Terence’s disappearance at approximately age 25 (some say as late as 36) has been a source of conjecture for centuries. His critics charged that he had homosexual relationships with the Roman nobility, that they were ghostwriting his plays, and that he fled Rome in order to avoid public exposure and humiliation. The widely accepted theory is quite a different story: Terence had run out of material to translate and was returning to Greece to find more plays and more closely study Greek culture and history. Where and how he disappeared remains a mystery. Some say he died in a shipwreck returning to Rome from Greece, others that he died of grief in Arcadia or Leucadia because his newly written plays were lost at sea as he tried to return to Rome; still others believe he died on the way to Greece or went into a self-imposed exile.

Urban life had its pluses, however, particularly in the city of Rome. Politicians of the late Republican period tried to win votes by providing for the entertainment of Roman citizens. The popular entertainments were chariot races, theater plays, and wild animal “hunts” (pitting a wild animal [e.g., a lion or panther] against a man given a weapon but no protective clothing before a crowd in the public arena—the man almost never survived). The enthusiasm for spectacles only increased over time, with the staging of comedies and tragedies becoming especially popular in the 100s bce, when Terence wrote his play.

The city population was divided into different social classes, much as it is today. While the impoverished majority occupied overflowing rooms or apartments in a house, above a shop or factory, or in an apartment building that often featured communal cooking and bathroom facilities, the elite occupied palaces and large houses that sheltered not only the owners and their children but also relatives and family slaves. Rome housed at least one million inhabitants by the second century bce, and Rome’s nobility wanted nothing to do with most of them. Aside from daily household contact and reliance on perhaps hundreds of slaves (depending on the nobleman’s wealth), the aristocrats often did not mingle socially with lower-status Romans (except for sexual relations, as noted). Public venues were segregated—the privileged elite had their own private boxes and sections, entertained lavishly for one another at private parties, and attended theatrical and musical performances not open to the general public. Like most playwrights and performers, Terence catered to this demographic. His plays were “written for a small, cultivated audience” that was in his day captivated by all things Greek (Radice, p. 12). Though his plays were often performed in public venues, Terence clearly tailored his craft to the taste of the nobility.

Roman education

In ancient Rome, education was mainly for boys and usually took place at home. Fathers and/or gifted slaves taught sons reading and writing as well as Roman law, history, and customs, and gave them a physical education befitting a soldier. Reverence for the gods, respect for law and order, obedience to authority, and truthfulness were traditionally regarded as the most important lessons to learn. Girls too were taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, but their education focused mainly on the domestic sphere. They learned from their mothers to play music, spin, weave, and sew—all the things needed to run a household.

About 200 bce, the Romans began implementing the ancient Greek system of education. They started sending their boys to school outside their home at the age of 6 or 7. The primary school concentrated on reading, writing, math, and memorization of legends, laws, and poetry, educating boys until about the age of 11. Alternatively the family might bring a Greek tutor into the home, which gave girls a rudimentary education too. Girls as young as 12 got married, and in keeping with this fundamental goal, their focus was mainly on household skills (boys were forbidden to marry before 14). From 11 to 14, upper-class boys might study with a higher-level teacher, who taught them to refine their writing and speaking skills, to analyze poetry, and to attain a command of the Greek language; thereafter, a few boys acquired an even higher education, training for careers in public speaking, law, and politics. In the play, Terence shows the importance of education to the father and uncle in rearing the young men featured in the play. Though the two older characters, Demea and Micio, have different approaches, both emphasize that the primary role of a Roman father is to properly educate his son.

Greek New Comedy, Plautus, and Terence

Rome conquered Macedonia in the decades leading up to Terence’s adaptation, between the 190s bce and the 160s bce (the community of Cynoscephalae in 197 bce, Pydna in 169 bce). By extension, Rome conquered all of the Greek city-states that had been dominated by Macedonia under Alexander the Great. His conquest had encouraged the spread of Hellenistic or Greek literary works throughout the Mediterranean region. Once Hellenism took hold, Roman writers produced very little that was not inspired by or taken directly from the Greeks. This is especially true of a genre that resurfaced in Terence’s day—Greek New Comedy—which had first flourished in Athens c. 323-C.263 bce. Adapting the New Comedy of such Greek writers as Menander, Diphilus, and Philemon, Roman playwrights produced theater that turned a humorously critical eye on society. The plays ridiculed people and institutions, often using obscenity, abuse, and insult to do so. The works of Menander, who was considered the finest of the ancient New Comedy writers, dealt mainly with matters of everyday life, such as young lovers, stern fathers, and bawdy and clever slaves.

Like Plautus (254-184 bce), the great Roman playwright before him, Terence adapted the works of Menander, including The Brothers. Far more than a translator, Terence refined, combined incidents from different Menander plays, and recovered passages that Plautus had omitted in his own earlier adaptations. Terence comments on Plautus’s versions, for example, of the play Joined in Death:

Plautus made a Latin play out of it with the same name. In the beginning of the Greek play there is a young man who abducts a girl from a slave-dealer. Plautus left out this incident altogether, so the present author took it for Brothers and translated it word for word.

(Terence in Radice, p. 52)

Plautus’s comedies brightened the Roman stage 20 years earlier than Terence’s, before Hellenism had truly taken root in Roman society. A product of more liberal times, “unfettered by the conventions of an earlier age,” Terence appealed to an entirely different audience (Radice, p. 12). His adaptations tapped the pulse of his contemporary Roman climate and spoke directly to an on-going struggle between old and new moral values. While the ancient Roman tended to be based in practicality and prized discipline, loyalty, and consistency, the new Hellenized Roman gravitated more to hedonism and romance; he or she believed in the concept of love and was more given to self-gratification and the pursuit of earthly pleasures. Terence’s adaptation does not necessarily condone this shift (some read the play as a condemnation of it, in fact), but it certainly speaks to it and reveals important changes that were taking place in the attitude and behavior of his contemporaries.

In addition to updating Greek New Comedy for a 100s bce Roman audience, Terence changed the staging to more closely resemble Roman life and furthermore infused the plays with a more subtle irony—considered by some a higher form of comedy. Whereas Plautus delighted mass audiences with faithful translations of Menander’s caricatures and satires, Terence strove for more nuanced characterization that would reflect his society and appeal to the sophisticated tastes of his day.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

A so-called “problem comedy,” The Brothers begins with a problem outside the play—that is, the author’s personal conflict with certain critics who accused him of plagiarizing. In a carefully worded prologue, full of irony and wit, Terence details his source material and vehemently denies “the spiteful accusation that eminent persons assist the author and collaborate closely with him” (Terence, The Brothers, p. 137). He implores the audience to “watch carefully” and “judge whether his conduct deserves praise or blame” as he sets the stage for the action to begin (The Brothers, p. 137).

Situated in Athens, the play opens in front of a citizen’s house. The citizen, Micio, is one of two brothers who are raising two brothers. It is morning and Micio is frantic because his son Aeschinus has not come home from the previous night. He chides himself for worrying so much, as he is supposed to be very tolerant and liberal:

Now look at me when my son hasn’t returned, full of fancies and forebodings. The boy may have caught a chill or fallen down and broken a leg.... Why on earth should a man take it into his head and get himself something to be dearer to him than his own self? It’s not as if he’s my own son—he’s my brother’s, and my brother and I have had quite different tastes since boyhood.

(The Brother, p. 139)

Elaborating on how he and his brother Demea differ, Micio describes himself as an urban bachelor who enjoys leisure and spending money. Demea, in stark contrast, is a highly thrifty married man who lives in the country and works very hard. Demea had two sons but could not afford to raise both so Micio adopted the eldest and brought him up as his own. Because the fathers are so different the boys have been reared in opposite ways. A strict disciplinarian, Demea has raised Ctesipho in a highly authoritarian and austere manner, while Micio has indulged Aeschinus and raised him very liberally. Demea’s motto is “fear authority”; Micio’s is “if the threat of punishment alone drives a man to do his duty, he’ll be careful only so long as he thinks he may be detected” (The Brothers, p. 140). Echoing closely the contrasting philosophies of Roman conservatism and Greek liberalism, Demea and Micio illustrate the conflict of values occurring in Roman society at the time this play is being produced.

Nearly full adults, Aeschinus and Ctesipho are growing into their manhood, beginning love affairs, and getting into common types of trouble. As Micio paces outside his house, fretting about Aeschinus, Demea walks up. He is very angry with Micio because he has learned where Aeschinus is. It seems that Aeschinus has abducted a slave girl, severely beaten her pimp, and the entire town knows it. Demea blames Micio entirely for this act because of his permissive, “amoral” child-rearing philosophy. Micio retorts:

It is no crime, believe me, for a young man to enjoy wine and women; neither is it to break open a door. If you and I didn’t do these things it was only because we hadn’t the money.

(The Brothers, p. 141)

Though relieved that Aeschinus is all right, Micio is secretly perturbed by the news and thinks Demea has a point about Aeschinus behaving badly. But he is not about to admit it to his brother. They both leave to look for their respective sons.

In the next scene, Aeschinus enters Micio’s house with the slave-girl Bacchis, followed by her pimp, Sannio. Sannio is demanding that he be paid for Bacchis. Micio’s clever middle-aged manservant, a slave named Syrus, stops Sannio and urges the pimp to humor Aeschinus because he is young and impetuous. Syrus promises Sannio will be paid in due time if he leaves them alone. Sannio reluctantly agrees and leaves for a trip to the slave auction in Cyprus, where he was planning to sell Bacchis along with many others.

Next, the other younger brother, Ctesipho, enters the house, ecstatic. It seems that the girl whom Aeschinus has abducted is actually Ctesipho’s girlfriend. He praises Aeschinus to Syrus: “The splendid man! He put my interests before all his own, took on himself all the hard words and gossip, my own trouble and misdeeds” (The Brothers, p. 148). He thanks his brother, then goes to the slave-girl.

The scene moves away from Micio’s house, next door to the house of a woman named Sostrata. Her daughter, Pamphila, is nine months pregnant. From the nurse comes the news that Pamphila is about to give birth and the suggestion that they send for a midwife and for Aeschinus, who apparently is the father. Just then a household servant, Geta, runs in, screaming, “What times! What crimes! O wicked world, O vile wretch!” (The Brothers, p. 151). She tells her mistress, Sostrata, that the whole town is talking about how Aeschinus ran off with the slave-girl Bacchis and beat up her pimp. Sostrata is furious and laments the situation her daughter is in. ’Things couldn’t be worse than they are now. In the first place she has no dowry, and then she’s lost the next best thing—her reputation is ruined and she can’t be married without one” (The Brothers, p. 153). It seems that Aeschinus promised to marry Pamphila (he gave her a ring), but now Sostrata and her servants are convinced that he has abandoned both Pamphila and his soon-to-be-born baby to run off with Bacchis. Sostrata vows to take him to court as Geta runs out to get the midwife.

Next Demea returns to Micio’s house looking for Ctesipho, the son he raised. He continues to regard Aeschinus as the bad son, and Ctesipho as the wholly good and innocent one because he has been raised “properly.” Alert as well as clever, Syrus intercepts Demea before he can enter the house and find Ctesipho with his love, Bacchis. The slave has never liked Demea because of his constant condescension toward him. Now Syrus delights in giving Demea the run-around. He sends him off in the wrong direction, to search for Ctesipho at the outskirts of town on what will turn out to be a wild goose chase.

Meanwhile, Micio is out looking for Aeschinus and runs into Geta. Still fuming, she tells him of her mistress’s intention to take Aeschinus to court for reneging on his obligation to marry Pamphila, who is about to bear his child. Micio is shocked to hear this news—his day is just getting worse and worse—and promises to find Aeschinus and set things straight.

Micio returns home and finally discovers what is really going on with the two younger brothers, Aeschinus and Ctesipho, and the two young women: Aeschinus has abducted Bacchis not for himself but for his brother; he truly loves and intends to marry Pamphila. In fact, both brothers are in love and want to marry—Aeschinus to Pamphila and Ctesipho to Bacchis. Micio resolves to make this happen but just then Demea reappears. He is livid, having searched all over town for his son, only to find him back at Micio’s house with a slave-girl. He too learns the truth of the complex situation and, again, blames Micio’s overly indulgent child-rearing philosophy for everything.

Then suddenly Demea does an about-face. He starts agreeing to all the two boys and his brother want, promising that they can marry the young women they love if Micio pays for everything. Next he turns Micio’s own logic against him and reasons that if he is so indulgent and liberal he should free Syrus and his wife from slavery, marry Pamphila’s mother, and put all the newlyweds under his own roof. In a strange and unforeseen twist, Demea assumes the role of paterfamilias, convincing everyone that he, in his conservative wisdom, is the brother to manage things. Micio is a pushover who finds it hard to say “no.” If they follow his lead, they will squander their lives. But Demea will keep them on the right path, he promises as he offers the family his services. They accept and enter Micio’s house for the wedding celebrations. Whether the final victory goes to Demea or Micio is debatable, as all in the end get more or less what they want.

Romance in Rome

In The Brothers, as in other New Comedy plays, romantic love is a key ingredient in marriage. The attention given it is remarkable in view of the minimal or nonexistent role it customarily played in real-life Greek marriages. Menander nevertheless bases dramatic relationships on genuine affection; his marital partnerships involve physical passion and emotional intimacy borne of an attraction to fine manners, intelligence, loyalty, and the like. Literature had already introduced physical and emotional intimacy in marriage as significant in Homer’s Greece in his Odyssey (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Now four centuries later it gained new importance in Menander’s Greece, with the help of New Comedy. Also novels of the period concerned themselves with marriage for love (see An Ethiopian Story , also in Classical Literature and Its Times). By the end of the next century, the 200s bce, “marriages by consent, for love, had become commoner” in Greece (Grant, p. 25).

Terence tailors his adaptation of the play to second century bce Rome, in which attitudes about love were also changing. Marriage in Rome had long been a businesslike transaction, entered into to make life more stable, to move up in society, to conserve wealth, and to bear children, preferably sons who would care for parents in old age. Patriarchs, who generally arranged the matches, considered bloodlines and social class, not love. But with the influence of Hellenism, which stressed passion, the self, and the arts, Romans began to seek emotional intimacy in marriage, a shift represented by the women pursued in the play. The two younger brothers chose for themselves a couple of young women who meet none of the traditional requirements for men of their status.

Aeschinus, who is a respectable citizen, falls in love with Pamphila, a lower-class young woman whose family cannot provide a dowry and whose condition of pregnancy before marriage is viewed


An elite group of Roman nobles and intellectuals surrounded the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus, the famed general and conqueror of Carthage Because of his ties to these nobles and his previous slave status, Terence was accused of not writing his material at all. His enemies reasoned that no slave could produce such sophisticated work and suggested that his powerful friends were writing it on his behalf. Clearly aware of these vicious rumors, Terence prefaced The Brothers with this witty rebuttal:

The author is well aware that his writing is scrutinized by un-fair critics, and that his enemies are out to deprecate the play we are about to present; he therefore intends to state the charge against himself in person, and the audience shall judge whether his conduct deserves praise or blame.... As to the spiteful accusation that eminent persons assist the author and collaborate closely with him: his accusers may think It a grave charge, but he takes it as a high compliment if he can win the approval of [such] men who themselves find favour with you all and with the general public.

(Terence in Radice, p. 52)

as one of disgrace. In traditional Roman society, these factors would make her an unsuitable match for Aeschinus. But he has given her his love and an engagement ring as a token of it promising they will marry no matter what his family or society says. He “in whom we put all our hopes,” explains Pamphila’s mother, “swore he could not live a day without [Pamphila]!” (The Brothers, p. 152). Not only did he profess his undying love for her daughter, but he promised to “put the baby in its grandfather’s arms and beg the old man’s leave to marry her!” (The Brothers, p. 152). As indicated by this promise, Aeschinus plans to seek approval for the marriage from his adoptive father, Micio, recognizing that traditionally he is the one with the authority and responsibility to give it. However, the young man plans to marry whether or not Micio approves, placing love above conformity to tradition.

Ctesipho has fallen in love with a young woman even further down the social scale. She is a slave who entertains men with singing and dancing, so her status is the lowest possible. But Ctesipho loves her and is ready to flee the country to marry her. When his brother asks why he did not confide in him about this love sooner, Ctesipho replies, “I was ashamed” (The Brothers, p. 149). Rather “stupid,” counters Aeschinus, “to let a little thing like that nearly drive you out of the country. It’s ridiculous. Perish the thought!” (The Brothers, p. 149).

The older generation is not so sold on love. Demea, Ctesipho’s father, who represents stolid Roman tradition, objects. Though he finally relents, Demea is vehemently opposed to the brothers marrying below their stations, whether or not they are in love. He blames Micio for encouraging such romantic notions and feels that Micio’s son, Aeschinus, has corrupted the son whom Demea has done such a proper job of raising. But Micio is not as radical an influence as Demea would have others believe. Micio’s ways are more liberal than his brother’s, to be sure. But Micio is a transitional figure, a father who still adheres to many traditions. When he learns of Aeschinus’s predicament, Micio warns his son to be more responsible.

What kind of a country do you think you live in? You seduced a girl you never should have touched.... That was your first fault. But afterwards, did you give it a thought? … You delayed and did nothing while nine months went by. This was the greatest wrong you could do, to yourself, to that poor girl, to the child.... I trust you are not so thoughtless in all your personal affairs.

(The Brothers, p. 169)

For Micio, the problem is not that Aeschinus “seduced a girl he never should have touched,” but that he did not take immediate responsibility for it (The Brothers, p. 169). He teaches his son that it is natural enough to fall in love, but romance must be taken seriously; romantic love is more than a dreamy ideal—it must be rooted in reality. As he gives his consent to marry, he arranges to have the brothers and their wives move into his house, where they will have stability. Demea is naturally appalled:

Here’s a bride coming without a penny, and a kept woman in the house! Too much money in the home, a young man ruined by indulgence, and the old one off his head!

(The Brothers, p. 173)

In the end, Demea accepts the matches, drawing them into an otherwise traditional family setting, in which he will serve as patriarch. The play ends happily in a spirit of compromise, and in the process, romantic love takes root.

Sources and literary context

The Brothers is a “problem comedy” based on Menander’s original, which the Greek playwright wrote to be per-formed at a ritual in honor of the wine god, Dionysus (renamed Bacchus by the Romans). In Athens, comedies became an official part of the celebration in 486 bce and prizes were awarded for the best productions. Unfortunately Menander’s originals did not survive (except for the play Dyscolus). Because Menander’s original is lost, we do not know if Terence’s ironic ending is his own invention or a restoration of the original.

Scholars have suggested possible parallels between the father figure, Demea, and Rome’s conservative politician Cato. Likewise, they have pointed to possible similarities between Micio and the earlier-mentioned extravagant leader of Rome, Paullus (in whose honor the play was performed). But, while Terence’s characters are certainly articulating some of these separate reallife figures, there are vast differences between them and their proposed fictional counterparts. Attributes of the characters may in fact come from Terence’s own experiences as a slave, freedman, and friend of the nobility. We simply do not know. We do know that he drew from both Menander’s original and incorporated the scene of the young man abducting a girl from a slave-dealer from the Greek play Joined in Death by Diphilus.

Reception and impact

The sixth and last of Terence’s plays, The Brothers was very well received. It was first performed along with the gladiatorial games as part of the funeral rites in honor of the same Paullus mentioned above, who, again, had served as a general and consul. The games were held by Quintus Fabius Maxiumus and Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, who was the adopted grandson of the famous general Scipio Africanus. Both of the younger men were great friends of Terence, and gossips claimed they had a hand in writing his scripts, a rumor Terence pointedly denies in the prologue to his play. Competing playwrights furthermore accused him of plagiarizing and of altering the original Greek texts. Terence, perhaps his own best promoter, refuted all these charges, and despite them, earned high acclaim in his day.

Cicero, Horace, and Quintillian all praised Terence for developing a form of Latin in his plays that was subtle and stylish yet unaffected (Radice, p. 13). He has also been credited with laying the groundwork for the Western comedic tradition. Terence’s influence has resounded through the centuries, affecting the plays written by Spain’s Lope de Vega, England’s William Shakespeare, and Ireland’s George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps the greatest influence has been on the French playwright Molieré, who further perfected Terence’s humanist approach.

—Diane R. Mannone

For More Information

Flacelère, Robert. Love in Ancient Greece. Trans. James Cleugh. New York: Crown, 1962.

Grant, Michael. Greeks and Romans: A Social History. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992.

Grimal, Pierre. Love in Ancient Rome. Trans. Arthur Train, Jr. New York: Crown, 1967.

Hadas, Moses, ed. Greek Drama. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1962.

Howard, Anne. Penelope to Poppea: Women in Greek and Roman Society. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Plautus and Terence. Five Comedies. Trans. Deena Berg and Douglass Parker. Indianapolis / Cambridge: Hackett, 1999.

Radice, Betty, ed. The Brothers and Other Plays, by Terence. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1965.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Terence. The Brothers. In The Complete Comedies of Terence. Ed. Palmer Bovie, et al. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1974.

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The Brothers

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