Rudens (The Rope) by Plautus (c.210 BC)

Prologue

Rudens is widely considered Plautus’s best play. The setting, a patch of rocky Greek coastline with a cottage and a shrine, make a change from the usual setting of a street scene in Athens.

Plautus’s plays often have quite a bit of backstory i.e. a lot has happened before the action actually begins. In this one a fairly long prologue in verse is delivered by a personification of the star Arcturus (note how E.F. Watling, the editor and translator of the Penguin edition, gives this and certain other long speeches in verse, in loose iambic pentameters):

You see me as I am, a bright white star,
Rising at my appointed time in heaven,
And upon earth. Arcturus is my name.
By night, a god, a bright star in the sky –
By day, a mortal, walking among men.

Arcturus explains that on this rocky coast lives an old man, Daemones, whose little daughter, Palaestra, was stolen from him 16 years ago, when she was three years old, by pirates and sold into the ownership of a ‘pimp’, Labrax (in Trachalio’s words, ‘a pot-bellied old Silenus, bald head, beefy, bushy eyebrows, scowling, twister, god-forsaken criminal, master of all vice and villainy’ p.102).

One day Palaestra was spotted coming out of music school by a young man, Plesidippus, who fell in love with her on the spot and asked to buy her off Labrax. The latter agreed, they signed a contract and Plesidippus made a down payment. But then Labrax reneged on the deal. A business colleague persuaded him to move to Sicily where business was good.

So one night in secret Labrax packed all his girls and his belongings onto a private ship he’d chartered. He made a covering excuse to Plesidippus, telling him he was only sailing round the coast to an isolated shrine of Venus to give offerings. He even made so bold as to arrange to meet Plesidippus there for lunch (here on this rocky shore where the scene is set, by the shrine of Venus which is visible onstage).

However the speaker, the minor god Arcturus, intervened to right this injustice. He whipped up a storm which smashed the ship to pieces on the rocks. The pimp and his Sicilian friend were thrown ashore on a reef of rock, while the beautiful young lady Palaestra and her best friend Ampelisca made it into a lifeboat. For a perilous moment this was heading straight for the rocks when Arcturus whipped up a mighty wave which carried their boat safely to land, just below the cottage of the sad old man Daemones which is the main feature of the set.

As it happens the storm stripped half the tiles off Daemones’s little cottage and the play now opens with his surly, insubordinate slave, Sceparnio, coming out of the house intending to dig up some clay and make some tiles to fix the roof. And with the end of that very detailed prologue, Arcturus retires and the play proper begins.

So the storm is central to the actions and the play could easily have been called The Tempest. And the restoration of justice to an exiled old man after a storm obviously reminds the reader of the Shakespeare play.

Rudens (The Rope)

Barely has the surly slave Sceparnio spoken before the young Athenian loverboy Plesidippus arrives with three of his friends who he a) dragged down to the harbour to try and prevent Labrax’s ship departing and now b) has dragged along to this remote shrine to Venus in the hope that the pimp actually meant it when he said he was just sailing round the coast to anchor here and give some offerings.

Plesidippus introduces himself to Daemones and asks whether they’ve seen a man answering to the description of Labrax. Slave and master both say no but then all three look down at the shoreline where they see some obviously shipwrecked men clambering ashore. Plesidippus and his mates run off to find out whether it’s Labrax or not.

Sceparnio points out to his master some women clambering up the rocks but Daemones complains that they’re continually bombarded with people visiting the shrine to Venus and expecting a meal, so they can look after themselves, and the two men go back into his cottage.

Palaestra clambers up the rocks onto the set where she laments her fate. But she barely finished lamenting how alone and forsaken she is before she is reunited with her friend (and serving woman?) Ampelisca amid much rejoicing.

They climb up onto the stage proper and notice the shrine to Venus and that moment its old priestess, Ptolemocratia, emerges. Surprised to see two wet damsels in distress, Ptolemocratia kindly says she’ll feed and dress them, and so leads them into the shrine.

Some fishermen come up from the short singing sea shanties just as Plesidippus’s servant, Trachalio, arrives. He asks them if they’ve seen Labrax and give his vivid description (quoted above) but they’ve seen no-one and exeunt.

At which point Ampelisca emerges from the shrine and is spotted by Trachalio. (Now, Trachalio loves Ampelisca so if he’s a slave, presumably so is she.) Anyway Ampelisca quickly fills him in about how she and Palaestra were being taken away from Athens by ship by Labrax but the how a storm struck and here they are, washed up and taking refuge in the shrine.

Trachalio goes into the shrine to find Palaetra, while Ampelisca goes over to the cottage with a jug to get water.

The rough slave Sceparnion is aroused by the sudden appearance of a pretty young woman on his front doorstep and chats her up, gropes her and, at one point, appears to refer to his erection. He crudely tells her that he certainly will fetch her some drinking water, if she does him a little favour! She agrees, he disappears into the cottage to go to the well out the back.

While he does so Ampelisca, scanning the shore, is horrified to see Labrax and friend emerging from the sea. She runs back into the shrine to tell her mistress with the result that, when Sceparnio emerges from the cottage with the jug full of water, she is nowhere to be seen. Sceparnio has convinced himself Ampelisca is in love with him and, reading the writing on the jug which says it belongs to the shrine and figuring that’s where she’s gone, goes over and also enters the shrine. Quite a few characters in there, now. Must be fairly big.

Enter Labrax the pimp and his friend Charmides. They lament their lot, cold and shivering, their teeth chattering. Labrax castigates Charmides for every persuading him to set out for Sicily. Now all his belongings are at the bottom of the sea. Sceparnio emerges from the shrine wondering aloud at the two pretty young women clinging to the shrine and crying. Labrax overhears him and, convinced they must be ‘his’ girls, storms into the shrine. Charmides begs Sceparnio for some clean clothes and for his to be dried but Sceparnio is his usual surly self and offers, at most, a roll of raffia matting.

At which point the clever slave Trachalio comes running out crying blue murder that Labrax is attacking the two girls and manhandling the priestess inside the shrine. Shocked, Daemones calls up his two toughest slaves and leads them into the shrine (must be quite a large building!).

Then Labrax is dragged out of the shrine and everyone threatens extreme violence and punishment against him but he defies them and insists the two girls are his property. The girls are clinging to the altar of Venus but Labrax swears he’ll prise them off it and Trachalio and Daeomones threaten him with dire punishment if he tries it.

As usual, the violent talk is very violent and graphic. Labrax threatens to burn the girls away from the altar, while Daemones threatens to knock his eyes out, or throw him into the middle of the fire. Daemones gives his two burly slaves clubs and tells them that if Labrax makes a move on either of the girls, they’re to beat him to a pulp, else he (Daemones) will have them (his slaves) killed. Violence upon violence.

Trachalio re-enters with his master, handsome young Plesidippus, who slips a noose round Labrax’s neck with a view to dragging him off in front of a magistrate. The girls are persuaded to take refuge in Daemones’ cottage where his wife is making dinner.

(In the timeless comic stereotype which has lasted over 2,000 years, Daemones is scared of his middle-aged wife who, he tells us, is always accusing him of looking at other women – so bringing two pretty young ladies home is not going to go down well.)

At which point up from the shore comes Daemones’ fisherman, Gripus. He’s pleased as punch because he’s dragged up in a net a wooden trunk from the sea. It’s very heavy so he’s confident it’s full of treasure with which he’ll buy his freedom and become a rich man, buy a yacht, maybe have a new town named after him which will become the capital of a mighty empire!

Unfortunately for Gripus, Plesidippus’ clever slave Trachalio is hanging round outside, offers to help him with his nets, spots the trunk and recognises it. He asks for half a share in order to keep the thing secret at which they have an extended verbal fight which turns into a tug of war, each one pulling on the main rope of the net (p.134). Trivial though this incident sounds, they’re argument becomes very legalistic, even philosophical, and is dragged out over 6 pages 130 to 135. Hence the title of the play. In fact the argument extends further as Trachalio suggests they get the owner of the nearby cottage to adjudicate their dispute.

It’s odd naming the play The Rope because it should really be titled The Trunk, as it’s the trunk and its contents which form the crux of the action. It certainly is the trunk belonging to the pimp Labrax and Trachalio now tells Daemones that inside it is a little trinket-box containing the lovely Palaestra’s few belongings in the world, a handful of toys she played with as a baby and which she’s kept all these years to help her find her parents.

What follows is a staged Recogniton Scene in which Daemones decides that if Palaestra can identify the items in the trinket-box she can keep it. He – Daemones – will examine them, while Gripus stands grumpily by and Trachalio tells him to keep his trap shut.

What’s a little odd is that the very first item she mentions, a little toy sword, has the name of her father on it. When Daemones asks what her father’s name was and she says ‘Daemones’, well, the game’s up. Daemones continues the identifying game as people in this kind of play do, but the essential ‘reveal’ has taken place.

Daemones is overjoyed, gives a speech of gratitude to the gods and takes Palaestra inside to meet her tearful mother. One last thing remains to be arranged, her marriage to a suitable young Athenian. In a comic scene Daemones tells the canny slave, Trachalio, to run off and fetch his master, but not before Trachalio has extracted from Daemones a promise to free him, and reward him for his good work, and set him up to marry Palaestra’s serving woman, Ampelisca.

Daemones delivers a moral lecture to Gripus telling him it is just as well he didn’t try to conceal Labrax’s trunk. Involvement in any kind of crime never pays. Gripus has a comic moment when he turns to the audience and tell them he often hears these kind of noble sentiments expressed in comedies, but has never heard of the audience going home and actually changing their behaviour as a result.

Re-enter Trachalio with his master who is all moony about his good fortune. Comic banter and Trachalio helps him psych himself to enter the cottage. To my surprise, that’s the end of the Palaestra-Plesidippus love affair. They don’t reappear, in fact they never appear onstage together and they aren’t referred to again. When Beard refers to Plautus’s plays as boy-meets-girl comedies, that’s not really true.

But first there is one last comic scene. Surly old Gripus has been sent outside to clean a spit for the marriage feast, just as Labrax the pimp stumbles up. The latter overhears the former grumbling because he lost the trunk and they quickly establish that it was Labrax’s trunk and full of treasure. Without it, Gripus says he’s ruined. Realising he’s on to a good thing Gripus extracts a promise from Labrax to give him a lot of money (2,000 sestercii, to be precise) if he tells him where the trunk is. And not just promise but lay his hand on the shrine and vow to Venus to give him the money.

So Gripus goes and fetches Daemones and they bring the trunk out. At this point there is a complicated deal. Labrax, like the reptile he is, now refuses to pay Gripus. Gripus asks Daemones to intervene and adjudicate. Daemones establishes that Labrax promised 2,000 sestercii. As the slave’s owner, the debt really falls to Daemones. Therefore he comes to the following deal with Labrax. He remits 1,000 of the debt, saying that in effect pays Labrax for Ampelisca’s freedom. Done. And the other 1,000 will pass direct from Labrax to Daemones, in respect of which he will grant Gripus his freedom. Thus Gripus won’t see a penny of money, but he is now free.

Gripus is distraught at having his phantom riches stolen away like this and wants to hang himself whereupon the play hurtles to an end with a final short speech from Daemones where he invites both Labrax and Gripus into his cottage for the feast and begs the audience’s indulgence and applause.

Slavery

Hiding in plain sight, the most mind-boggling thing about The Rope is that half the characters are slaves. It’s worth taking a minute to let that really sink in. According to Mary Beard between a tenth and a fifth of the population of Rome was slaves. According to her, slaves inhabited a huge variety of social positions from forced labour in the Spanish silver mines, to workforces in factories and on farms, to the kind of domestic slaves Daemones has (grumbling Gripus) through to highly literate, civilised assistants to senior politicians and writers.

This situation created all kinds of social dynamics and relationships which had to be handled at multiple levels and for entire lifetimes. What was it like to manage a household of slaves? What was it like to be raised by slaves, to have a slave or slaves as companions throughout your entire life, right through to your deathbed? And what was it like to be a slave in lifelong bondage?

And, with regard to Plautus’s plays, was the relationship between master and slave as rough and ready as between Daemones continual admonishing of grumpy Gripus? Or more like the lads together relationship between Plesidippus and canny, savvy Trachalio?

Casual violence

Related to the play is the way that, at the slightest provocation, the characters threaten each other with the most extreme violence – tearing the other guy’s eyes out, seeing his legs broken, promising a beating with a cudgel, beating black and blue, being burned alive, dragged by the hair, and so on. Even oaths and promise are accompanied by hair-raising threats of torture and pain.

At first I thought it was entirely masters threatening slaves – and it is mostly in that context that the direst threats are made, reminding me of Mary Beard’s point that the essence of slave status was the permanent liability to physical punishment for which you had absolutely no legal recourse. But all the characters threaten Labrax with just as much horrific abuse and he is a free citizen and businessman, albeit of a type universally despised. But he proves this kind of thing wasn’t solely restricted to slaves, it was a culture awash with the concept of extreme violence and physical punishment:

Thus when Gripus is assuring his master that he found the trunk by accident while out fishing, he vouchsafes his assertions by saying:

GRIPUS: What’s in that net I caught with my own hands, crucify me if I didn’t.

Crucify me if I didn’t!!

Hercules

Hercules is invoked in oaths on pages 100, 116, 124, 125 and 141. Was he really almost the only figure in Rome’s wide and varied pantheon that people swore by?


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

Roman reviews

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