Captivi (The Prisoners) by Plautus (c.200 BC)

Prologue

Hegio is a wealthy man living in the Greek city of Aetolia. Years ago his slave, Stalagmus, stole Hegio’s four-year-old son and ran off, never to be seen again. Hegio had one other son, Philopolemus.

Now, years later, Philopolemus is grown up. But Hegio’s city is at war with the Greeks of Elis and Philopolemus has gone off to fight in the war and gotten himself captured. He is a prisoner of war with the Elisians. So Hegio has been buying up prisoners of war from Elis with a view to finding one who is of such high status that he can be exchanged for his son.

Plot

This explains why the play opens outside the house of Hegio with the sight of two prisoners of war chained to the wall. These Elisian prisoners are Philocrates and his slave Tyndarus. Before the action of the play started they exchanged clothes with the idea that the noble master might be safer if he’s disguised as a slave. The play opens with them exchanging noble sentiments and respect for each other. In fact the play is dominated by very uncomedic sentiments of nobility and dignity from all involved, more like one of Shakespeare’s problem plays than a comedy.

Philocrates-posing-as-Tyndarus goes on his mission

Anyway, when Hegio lets Philocrates and Tyndarus know that his son, Philopolemus, is now a slave in Elis belonging to a doctor named Menarchus, the Elisian pair excitedly declare that they know this doctor and should be able to easily ransom him if one of them is sent back to Elis to bargain (p.68).

They keep the pretence of having each other’s identities so that when Hegio decides to send the slave, Tyndarus, while keeping the (more valuable) noble Philocrates with him, he is, in fact, all unknowingly, actually sending Philocrates and keeping the slave Tyndarus.

Once the decision is made and Hegio has left the stage, there is a great deal of noble ‘it is a far, far better thing I do’ kind of speechifying between the two noble Greeks, master and servant. And so Philocrates-posing-as-Tyndarus is sent back to Elis. Then Hegio declares he is going off to his brother’s to check on some of the other POWs he’s bought.

Ergasilus

The gap is filled by the arrival of Ergasilus. He is described in the text as a parasitus. E. F. Watling in his introduction explains that the straight English translation of this term, ‘parasite’, is too harsh. Ergasilus is a social type who has disappeared, a kind of professional table companion, a man who makes a living by hawking himself around in the forum as a dining companion available for hire, who has ‘nothing but his witty conversation to live on’. As a comic stereotype, because his main aim in life is to get invited to dinner, the parasitus‘s stock conversation is fantasies of gluttony.

(He reminds me a bit of the character John Beaver in Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust, who is always available for society hostesses when someone drops out of a dinner party at the last minute; a quick phone call to Beaver and he’ll be round in 20 minutes to make up the numbers, grovelling and grateful.)

Anyway, Ergasilus gives a comic soliloquy about what a wretched day he’s having trawling round the forum for work and how everyone’s ignoring him. He comically fantasises about bringing criminal proceedings against all the fine gentlemen who have ignored him in the forum, demanding they each give him ten dinners for free!

Enter Aristophontes

But really his scene was a filler to cover Hegio’s departure and return, for now Hegio returns with a fine  Elisian prisoner of war who he’s recently bought, one Aristophontes. Aristophontes has told Hegio that he’s a good friend of old Philocrates (the master of the pair of Elisian POWs at the heart of the story) and would love to see him.

Except that Aristophontes is, of course, astonished when Hegio introduces Tyndarus as being Philocrates. Not being in on the ruse, Aristophontes begins to protest, telling Hegio that this isn’t Philocrates, this is his slave Tyndarus. Tyndarus, in a panic at having his cover blown, comes up with a comic excuse on the spot: he claims that Aristophontes is mad! Famous for it. Has epileptic fits. Once attacked his family with a spear! Don’t believe a word he says (p.76).

Hegio starts out by believing Tyndarus but Aristophontes’ indignation and anger and repeated impassioned oaths, swearing on his life that Tyndarus is not Philocrates, eventually wins him round and persuades him that he has been duped by the pair and sent the master back to Elis, not as he had intended, the slave.

Hegio punishes Tyndarus

Tyndarus is eventually forced to admit it’s the truth, he is Tyndarus, it was Philocrates the master who Hegio sent back to Elis. But he points out that he did it out of love for his master, ensuring his master Philocrates was sent home safe and sound to be reunited with his family while he, Tyndarus, bore the risk that he might not return even at the risk of his own life.

Tyndarus asks Hegio if he wouldn’t reward a slave who showed the same fidelity to him? Hegio grudgingly concedes that maybe he would, but nonetheless he is furious at being deceived. He has Tyndarus tightly bound with ropes and swears he’ll be sent off to have iron shackles set on him and then sent to the worst fate possible, forced labour in the underground stone quarries (p.82).

Far too late Aristophontes realises what a noble thing Tyndarus has done and how his insistence on blowing Tyndarus’s cover has consigned him to a wretched fate, but Hegio orders that Aristophontes, also, is bundled away.

Hegio’s disappointment

It’s maybe worth emphasising that Hegio’s towering rage has two sources: one is that he has been made a fool of; he had told his brother and his friends about how he’d released Philocrates-as-Tyndarus and sent him back to Elis to reclaim his son – so now he fears that he will exposed as a ‘laughing stock’ (p.84).

But the other spur to anger is that he had genuinely got his hopes up about his son – and now believes his one chance at getting him released has been foiled by these rascals. So it is bitter disappointment that he won’t be seeing his son again which also fuels his anger, and the audience can understand that. For a farceur, there are surprising depths of characterisation and feeling in this play.

Guess what Ergasilus has seen

He’s in the middle of explaining all this in a soliloquy when the parasitus Ergasilus comes bustling in very pleased with himself. Ergasilus insists that Hegio sends out for the best food available and whips up a huge feast and treats him as his best friend, puzzling Hegio who asks him what the devil he’s on about. Plautus has Ergasilus drag out his explanation of what’s going on for pages and pages until the audience becomes as restive and cross with Ergasilus’s obfuscation and delay as Hegio does.

Eventually Ergasilus bloody spits it out: down at the harbour who has he just seen getting off a boat but Hegio’s son Philopolemus!! And not only him, but also Hegio’s old slave Stalagmus, the one who ran away with Hegio’s first son when he was just 4 years old!!!

Ergasilus gets his reward

At first Hegio can’t believe it but when Ergasilus keeps swearing it’s true in a series of escalating oaths, Hegio finally believes it and tells Ergasilus to go into his house and run riot in the kitchen and stuff his face – in fact he makes him his butler! So Hegio exits, running down to the harbour, while Ergasilus goes into his house.

In scenes of broad farcical comedy, Ergasilus’s ingress is followed by sounds of mayhem coming from within until a boy runs out of the house to deliver a description of the chaos Ergasilus is causing, breaking down the pantry doors and ransacking the place for goodies. Again, like Ergasilus’s interlude earlier in the play, this is really just stage business, an interlude, to cover the notional time required for Hegio to make it down to the harbour and now, as he does, to return onstage.

The return of Philopolemus

For Hegio now enters accompanied by his beloved son Philopolemus, by the notorious slave Stalagmus and by Philocrates the noble POW, who has kept his word, freed his son and brought him home.

Hegio is, of course, overjoyed. But the finale of the play has an oddly unemotional feel: it is more by way of being a kind of logical distribution of just deserts. It is a sort of dramatised lesson in ethics. So:

For keeping his word and delivering his son to him, Hegio grants Philocrates anything he wishes which, of course, is his loyal slave Tyndarus. Hegio apologetically admits he’s had him consigned to the quarries (although, as this was only about 8 minutes ago, we can’t imagine he’s got very far; another example of the way the plays work in a kind of imaginary time, not real, logical time at all).

Mary Beard described Plautus’s plays as stereotypical ‘boy meets girl’ stories, but none of the ones I’ve read are like that. It would be more accurate to describe them as ‘master frees slave’ stories. The master-slave relationship is much more central to Plautus’s plays than ‘romantic’ love.

Stalagmus’s secret

Anyway, the noble Elisian Philocrates accompanies the recently freed Philopolemus into Hegio’s house, leaving the stage to Hegio and the surly slave who stole his son all those years ago, Stalagmus.

Hegio tells Stalagmus that if he speaks the truth he may avoid the heinous punishment which is otherwise looming over him. So Stalagmus, briefly, makes the startling revelation that he stole Hegio’s son, ran off to Elis and there sold him to a man named Theodoromides…who we know from conversation earlier in the play is none other than Philocrates’ father. For a split second I thought this meant noble Philocrates was Hegio’s long-lost son, but Stalagmus goes on to confirm with Philocrates that the latter received a little playmate-slave when he was 4, a boy known everyone knew as ‘Laddie’ but formally named Tyndarus (p.93)!

So that explains why Tyndarus has since the start of the play behaved (and spoken) with such super-aristocratic nobility – it is because, as in so many fairy stories, he is of aristocratic blood and good breeding always shows.

Tyndarus is released – happy ending

At which point Tyndarus arrives back onstage, shackled and carrying a crowbar and looking rough and dirty from what is implied has been years of suffering in the terrible stone quarries (which we saw him depart for only 15 minutes ago; we are operating in imaginary theatrical time).

And so Hegio and Philocrates tell a startled Tyndarus the full story: that he is Hegio’s son, stolen all those years ago, and now they are going to release him from the quarries and make him a free man and restore him to his father.

Stalagmus turns to the audience and makes the final speech. He points out the qualities of the play, namely that it contains no wenching, no intriguing, no exposure of a child, no cheating out of money, no young man in love without father’s knowledge or permission. On the contrary, it is founded on chaste manners, a rare example of a drama showing how good men might become better. And so he asks for the audience’s applause.

THE END.


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.

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