Adelphoe (The Brothers) by Terence (160 BC)

According to the production notes, which were preserved along with the text, this was Terence’s sixth and final play, performed in 160 BC. It certainly feels like a summation of the mature side of his style, what with the interest in character and situations for their own sake and hardly any comedy at all. It’s as if Terence is using the conventions of comedy to achieve something more akin to a novel, undertaking investigations of psychology and personality, albeit tumbled into stereotypical comedy situations – just, without any of the actual comic effect.


There are two elderly brothers, Micio who lives in Athens and Demea who farms just outside. Demea had two sons: he gave Aeschinus to his brother to raise, keeping and raising the other, Ctesipho, himself. Micio is an easy going, urbane bachelor; Demea is married, strict and hard working.

Now young men, Ctesipho has fallen in love with a lute player, and Aeschinus with a poor girl. For most of the play Aeschinus takes upon himself the scandal and intrigue of his brother’s affair with the lute girl. So:

  • Micio, relaxed town man, raised Aeschinus
  • Demea, strict farmer, raised Ctesipho

The set is, as usual, two houses facing onto a street in Athens, being the houses of Micio and of Sostrata, a widow.

The plot

Enter Micio

Micio is a suave, confident bachelor. He explains the premise of the whole play which is the contrasting approach to parenting of the two brothers: Micio thinks that if you treat a son openly and generously, he will be honest and open with you and everyone he meets. He thinks that if you impose authority by force and fear you will simply teach your son to tell lies. A young man forced to do good out of fear will only do it so long as he thinks he’s being watched; a young man raised with kindness will be open and sincere with everyone. But his brother, Demea, profoundly disagrees, and is always scolding Micio for being soft.

Enter Demea

Demea looks dirty and careworn. He immediately starts complaining to his brother about Aeschinus’s latest exploits. Aeschinus has broken into a house, beaten up the master and carried off a young woman. Everyone is telling Demea about it. He berates Micio for the slack way he raised Aeschinus and wishes he’d raised him strictly, like the son he kept, Ctesipho, who is a model of restraint and decorum.

Micio says this is all rubbish. Aeschinus is only doing what he and Demea dreamed of doing when they were young but didn’t have enough money. If Demea had any humanity, he’d let Ctesipho behave the same.

Demea is outraged but Micio gets cross. He knows Aeschinus stays out late, drinking, has a mistress. He doesn’t mind, finds all that natural for a young man and is happy to pay. Demea begins to criticise his brother again, but Micio says, once and for all, Demea gave him his son to raise and he is Micio’s responsibility alone.

After a pause Demea changes tone and says he’s really worried, but, yes, OK, it’s Micio’s decision. And so he takes his leave and departs. Micio now admits that he, too, is worried about Aeschinus but didn’t want to admit it. Aeschinus has been the round of all the whores and cost him a lot of money and worry. Then, abruptly, announced he wanted to get married and Micio thought he was finally going to settle down but… then this latest event makes it look like he’s slipping back into his old ways. And so he exits heading into town.

Enter Aeschinus, Bacchis, Parmeno and Sannio

Quite a big problem with reading Terence is he uses the same names in every play. I have fresh in my mind the noble Bacchis and the comic servant Parmeno from The mother-in-law and now here are two completely different characters but with the same names.

So Aeschinus is the wastrel son raised by Micio, Bacchis is the music-girl, Parmeno is his slave and Sannio is a slave dealer. It soon becomes clear the Aeschinus has abducted Bacchis from Sannio’s possession – stolen her – and Sannio has trailed him all the way here complaining. Now, at orders from Aeschinus, Parmeno thumps Sannio to get him to let go of Bacchis, who he’s just grabbed. Parmeno thumps him then bundles Bacchis into Micio’s house.

Sannio goes on complaining that Bacchis is his property and Aeschinus has stolen her and is he going to pay? Aeschinus threatens to have him whipped but, significantly, Sannio says he can’t do that to a free man i.e. you can threaten slaves like that, sonny jim, but not free men like me.

Anyway, Aeschinus comes down to business. The girl cost Sannio 2,000 drachmas, he’ll pay the same to buy her. In fact he thinks she’s a freeborn citizen, but he’s prepared to pay. Think it over, pimp. And with that he goes into Micio’s house, leaving Sannio alone onstage.

Sannio soliloquises about the downsides of his profession, being threatened and beaten up by impassioned young men, or cheated of his money.

Enter Syrus

Syrus is Aeschinus’s smooth slave. He tells Sannio to be realistic and settle with his master. He knows he’s loaded his girls and is just about to set off to Cyprus i.e. he needs to settle in a hurry. So Syrus suggests he accepts 1,000 drachmas cash. Sannio complains that he’s being had and instead gives Syrus a bribe to get him to persuade Aeschinus to pay the full amount. Syrus says he’ll see what he can do.

Enter Ctesipho

Ctesipho strolls in soliloquising about the merits of his brother, Aeschinus. He strolls up to Syrus and prasies his brother for taking on the responsibility, suffering the ‘hard words and gossip’, in order to make Ctesipho happy.

Enter Aeschinus briskly and Ctesipho sets about profusely thanking him to his face. Aeschinus tells Ctesipho to go in to see ‘her’, while he takes Sannio off to town to settle with him.

By this stage it’s pretty clear that Aeschinus has done his brother a big favour by abducting the slave girl Bacchis from the dealer Sannio on his behalf. Aeschinus now sets off into town followed by Sannio still whining about his money.

Ctesipho briefly reappears to tell Syrus to pay off Sannio as soon as possible; if he makes a fuss, it’ll reach his father’s ears. Syrus draws himself up and loftily assures Ctesipho everything will be sorted. Now just go inside and enjoy the girl and start getting things ready for dinner; he, Syrus, will be back from the harbour soon with the fish. All the men exit.

Enter Sostrata

Sostrata is the widow who lives next door. She’s talking to the nurse, Canthara. It quickly becomes clear that Sostrata has a daughter who is pregnant by Aeschinus and reaching her time. Canthara assures her that, once the damage was done, Aeschinus has turned out to be a real gentleman, calling round every day, attentive and kind.

Enter Geta

Geta is Sostrata’s elderly servant and he rushes on in a great tizzy, declaring disaster, collapse, misery, disgrace. He dances up and down with rage and fantasises about tearing down the house next door and subjecting all its inhabitants to a beating, one by one.

Finally he notices the two women and tells them why he’s in such a rage. He with his own eyes has just seen Aeschinus carrying Bacchis away from Sannio and has drawn completely the wrong conclusion. He tells Sostrata that although they invested all their hopes in Aeschinus for respectability and to marry Sostrata’s daughter who is expecting his baby – he has gone and abandoned them!!

Sostrata ponders this disastrous news then makes some decisions: if Aeschinus persists he will take him to court; she still has the ring he gave her daughter as a pledge of marriage. For the present she sends Geta off to her relative Hegio to tell him the whole story. She tells Canthara to go and get the midwife, then goes back into her house.

Enter Demea

Demea has heard that his son, the one he brought up, Ctesipho, was in on the raid on the pimp’s house. Demea has got it totally wrong, believing ‘his’ son is good and virtuous and has been led astray by his debauched city brother, Aeschinus.

Enter Syrus

Syrus enters carrying a basket of fish he’s bought in the market and hands it through the door of the house to servants to prepare, all the time maintaining a conversation with Demea. Demea is scandalised that everyone is taking Aeschinus’s abduction of the slave girl so calmly, and Syrus teases him by agreeing that Aeschinus is a bad boy while his own son, Ctesipho is, of course, a model of morality.

Syrus draws an ironic comparison between himself, as a servant, supervising the other servants in treating and preparing the fresh fish just right, and Micio and Demea as fathers, preparing their boys just right. Then he goes into Micio’s house leaving Demea fuming.

Enter Hegio

Enter Hegio talking to Geta who has been explaining to him how Aeschinus has broken his vow to the girl he seduced and got pregnant. Outrage, Hegio vows that ‘they’ won’t get away with this.

Demea steps forward to say hello but is treated very coldly by Hegio who promptly tells him everything. In Hegio’s account the rogue Aeschinus seduced and impregnated this girl, later made tearful protestations to the widowed mother that he would make everything right and marry her; but now has abducted a slave girl to live with and dumped his fiancee.

At which point they all hear the birth pangs of Pamphila from inside the house: ‘Ah, the pain! Juno Lucina, help me, save me, save me!’ I’ve now read the exact same single line declared by a pregnant woman from inside a house where she’s given birth in half a dozen of these plays and realised it’s a standard, stock and highly stylised moment and phrase, with little claim to realism. It is designed to intensify the drama of the moment, and the importance of the young rogue hero having impregnated the love interest.

In this case it intensifies Hegio’s dramatic determination to go take Aeschinus to court, to use the law and any other means necessary to protect the widowed mother and orphaned daughter. In response Demea promises to go find his brother and sort things out. Geta and Hegio go into Sostrata’s room leaving Demea alone onstage.

Demea self-righteously reflects that he warned his brother that indulging his son would end in tears, and here we are. He exits and Hegio returns, telling Sostrata he will find Micio and force him to force his son to do what is right. And off he goes into town to find him.

Enter Ctesipho and Syrus from Micio’s house

Syrus has (deceitfully) told Ctesipho that his father (Demea) has gone back to his farm. Ctesipho is relieved and wishes Demea would spend more time there. He wants to spend all day (and night) with the slave girl but worries what excuse to give his father. Say you were doing business with a friend or businessman, replies clever Syrus. In fact Demea hoves into view at just this moment so Syrus pushes Ctesipho back into MIcio’s house and tells him to be quiet; he’ll handle his father.

Enter Demea

Demea bemoans the fact that he is always the first to hear bad news, to find things out. Hearing this, Syrus makes an aside to the audience that Demea is always the last to hear anything. Anyway, one of his farmworkers has told him that Ctesipho is not on the farm, as Syrus told him, so now he’s all confused.

Syrus steps forward and bamboozles Demea with a load of fibs about Ctesipho having been to Demea’s farm, alright, but having come back in a towering rage and punching poor Syrus a couple of times. Why? For Syrus’s alleged role in the abduction of the slave girl. This pleases Demea: he is proud of his son for taking such a high moral line. Good Ctesipho! But he wants to know where his brother, Micio, is.

Syrus gives Demea a set of comically complicated street directions. Sceptically and hesitantly Demea says, OK, I’ll try and find him at the place you indicated, and exits. Leaving Syrus to reflect that with this old fool off his hands and Aeschinus late returning, there’s a window of opportunity for him to enjoy a wee drams and the best titbits from lunch, and he goes into Micio’s house.

Enter Micio and Hegio

Hegio has clearly found Micio and put his accusations to him, but Micio has completely disabused him and cleared everything up. Far from abandoning Pamphila and Sostrata, Aeschinus remains true to them. ,He just abducted the slave girl for his brother. Much relieved, Hegio praises Micio as an honest fellow. Should Hegio tell Sosastra? No, Micio thinks it will be better coming from him, and so they go into Sosastra’s house together.

Enter Aeschinus

He comes on in a state of confusion and unhappiness. He’s bumped into Sostrata’s nurse, Canthara, who rudely told him they all know about him running off with a slave girl and abandoning her, her mistress and Pamphila. Aeschinus can’t tell them the truth because that would compromise his brother, Ctesipho, and the whole point of the exercise was to try and keep the latter’s reputation clean.

He realises he has to confront the women and so stands in front of Sostrata’s house, feeling very nervous. Eventually steels himself and knocks on the door. He steps back and to his horror his own father Micio steps out.

Seeing him standing there, suave Micio decides to tease his son. He fabricates a story, claiming he has only just been introduced to their next-door neighbours by a friend of his. He elaborately explains that the mother is a widow and has a grown-up daughter who, under Attic law, must marry her next-of-kin. This (fictional) friend of Micio’s has just taken him to meet the mother and daughter and asked him to be witness to their marriage. Now this (fictional) friend of Micio’s is going to take the girl away to Miletus.

Well, of course, Aeschinus is horrified. When his father continues to tease him by saying the women put up some cock and bull story about the daughter being in love with, and pregnant by, another man, and how he and his friend from Miletus dismissed this as moonshine — Aeschinus can’t contain himself and burst out passionately, ‘What about that first man?’ What if he is real and what if he still loves her?

And pretends to be amazed when he sees that Aeschinus is crying. [This strikes me as being pointlessly cruel and not funny.]

At this point Micio, also, realises he’s gone far enough and comes clean: he knows Aeschinus seduced the girls, made her pregnant, promised to marry her, and is still in love with her. But why didn’t he confess all this to Micio nine months earlier? Everything could have been arranged. They could have had a lovely wedding. He concludes with the simple promise: ‘Cheer up. You shall marry her.’ (p.371).

Aeschinus thinks he’s teasing but Micio assures him he isn’t. Aeschinus hugs his father and tells him he loves him: this is typical of Terence characters who are all, at bottom, very decent chaps.

Micio goes into his house leaving Aeschinus onstage to deliver a little paragraph about how much he loves his father, ‘a man to love and cherish in one’s heart.’ And he goes into Micio’s house.

Enter Demea

If you remember, Demea was sent on a wild goose chase by Syrus looking for his brother on the other side of town. Now he staggers back on stage, tired and cross. Micio comes out of his house and Demea confronts him with what he thinks will be the devastating news that his son has compounded the crime of abducting the slave girl with now seducing a freeborn woman.

Micio calmly and quietly tells him that he knows. Demea asks him what he’s going to do. Micio calmly announces the pair will be married and move into his house. Demea asks him if he’s pleased with this situation and Micio calmly admits he’s not, but you have to make the best of what life throws at you.

Infuriated, Demea asks him what about the slave girl Aeschinus is accused of abducting? Is he going to sell her on? No, replies Micio. She shall remain in the household. Demea is scandalised but Micio finally loses his temper with his brother. His son is going to be married. He should be happy and join in the celebrations. And with that he goes into Sostrata’s house to fetch the women.

Demea only has time to lament the decadence of the times when Syrus staggers out of Micio’s house, very drunk.

Enter Syrus

Syrus is very obviously drunk and cheeks Demea (calling him ‘Father Wisdom’) which makes the latter even more disgusted and furious. Demea is in the middle of giving him a good telling off when one of Micio’s other servants, Dromo, calls out from the doorway saying Ctesipho wants him.

Now Demea has been looking for Ctesipho all day so starts forward. Syrus tries to stop him, having promised to protect Ctesipho from his father, but Demea pushes forward and goes into Micio’s house. Oops. Syrus decides to make himself scarce and go sleep off the booze he’s had at lunchtime.

Enter Micio

From Sostrata’s house. He calls back inside to Sostrata telling her everything’s ready on his side for the wedding. There’s a tremendous hammering and Demea comes bursting out of Micio’s house. He confronts Micio with the fact that he’s been hiding his son from him.

Micio calmly tells him that none of this detracts from Demea’s wealth. Micio is happy to pay for everything.

Demea then says it’s not the money, it’s the morals.

Micio replies that he in fact sees lovely traits in both boys: good sense, intelligence, deference when required. He’s confident they’ll both grow into fine young men.

Demea says that’s as well as maybe but tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn he’s going to take his boy back to the farm, and the girl, and have them working all the hours that God sends, getting sunburned and covered in dirt and grime.

Micio indulges his brother but says, well, at least for tonight come and celebrate with us. They go into Micio’s house.

So you can see how this scene is a kind of setpiece comparison and contrast between the two brothers.

Re-enter Demea alone

Demea is spruced up and wearing smart party clothes. He has a long soliloquy in which he compares himself with his brother. He’s always been the country bumpkin, mannerless, surly and tight-fisted, while his brother has always been relaxed and affable with a smile for everyone. Demea has worked his fingers to the bone, scrimped and saved, and yet what’s the result? Both of his sons hate him and love his careless, affable brother. Well, just for once he’s going to have a go at being soft and winning.

Enter Syrus

Syrus comes out of Micio’s house to politely ask whether Demea is leaving and is astonished when Demea goes out of his way to be courteous and polite to him. He goes back into Micio’s.

Enter Geta

From Sostrata’s house. He is surprised when Demea acts graciously to him and says he deserves to be rewarded for serving his master’s interests.

Enter Aeschinus and Syrus

From Micio’s house. Aeschinus complains to his father that a huge fuss is being made, with flute girls and a choir being hired. Demea gives him some fatherly advice which is to skip all that, knock a hole in the fence, and invite the girl and her mother straight round. Aeschinus is delighted and hugs him.

Rather surprisingly the servants take him literally and go back through Micio’s and start knocking down the fence between the two properties, literally uniting the two families.

Demea then has another surprising suggestion. He suggests that his brother should marry the widow Sostrata. Micio tells him not to be so silly, but Demea gets Aeschinus on his side and they both start to pressure Micio into marrying her. After not very much more coercion, Micio surprisingly agrees.

Demea is casting round for more good deeds to do and next brings up Hegio. He’s been a good father to the girl, is a good man and now one of the family, but he is poor. He prevails on Micio to gift him the parcel of land he owns just outside of town. Initially reluctant, Micio gives in.

In an aside Micio makes clear that he is sort of taking revenge on is brother. For when Syrus comes out to announce that the garden fence is down, Demea boldly declares that Micio should give Syrus his freedom! Demea ironically lists Syrus’s qualities and his recent achievements, such as helping to steal and pay for the slave girl. Surely these deserve a reward. And he recruits Aeschinus to the cause. Aeschinus enthusiastically agrees.

And so Micio, with a blow (apparently the legal form for freeing a slave) makes Syrus free. Syrus promptly asks if his wife, Phrygia, can also be freed, and Micio reluctantly agrees. But he draws the line when Demea goes on to suggest he gives Syrus an allowance to live on.

He asks his brother what’s brought all this generosity on and Demea delivers a rather sharp lecture, announcing that he wanted to show his boys that what they think is Micio’s good nature and charm doesn’t derive from a way of living which is sincere or good, but from weakness, indulgence and extravagance. He says if Aeschinus and Ctesiphon dislike his ways then he washes his hands of them and they can spend and squander Micio’s money.

On the other hand, they may find as they grow that they need a word of advice as well as his support from time to time, in which case he will be there for them.

Aeschinus asks what Demea’s decision is about Ctesiphon and his slave girl. ‘Oh, he can keep her,’ replies Demea, but she must be his last. Micio tells his brother ‘well done’ and then, like all Terence’s plays, it ends very abruptly, with Micio turning to the audience and simply saying: ‘Now give us your applause!’



Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies, edited and translated by Betty Radice.

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