The Alexandrian War by Aulus Hirtius

Julius Caesar’s 130-page account of his civil war with Pompey up until the latter’s defeat at the battle of Pharsalus is always published alongside three shorter accounts – of the Alexandrian War, the African War and the Spanish War – even though there is nowadays scholarly consensus that Caesar didn’t write any of these. No one knows for sure who did. Maybe his lieutenant Aulus Hirtius, who is recorded as writing the eighth and final commentary in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, wrote the Alexandrian War, but probably not the African and Spanish texts which are stylistically below Caesar’s standard and also incomplete.

The Alexandrian War

1 to 4: Military preparations

Julius Caesar had arrived with a fleet and army in Alexandria, in pursuit of Pompey. After disgustingly being presented with the head of Pompey, Caesar set about interfering in the civil war between King Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra, and found himself under attack for his pains. He and his forces are penned into a specific quarter of the city and besieged by the Egyptian army led by Achillas.

Description of Alexandria, built of stone with little wood or flammable material. Caesar’s policy is to isolate his sector of the town and secure supplies of water and food. The Egyptians are highly educated and have copied Roman siege engines and manoeuvres.

The motivation of the Egyptians, namely resentment at the way the Romans keep coming here, first Gabinius (sent by Pompey to reinstate Ptolemy XII Auletes) then Pompey, albeit briefly; now Caesar. The population, from the richest to the slaves who they freed to fight, believe they are fighting for Egypt’s independence and to prevent her becoming a Roman province (as she of course did, after the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC).

Cleopatra was Ptolemy XII Auletes’s eldest daughter. His younger daughter, Arsinoe, slips out of the sector of the city which Caesar controls, going to join the Egyptian general, Achillas. However, the campaign doesn’t progress, the pair fall out and Arsinoe has Achillas assassinated, handing control of the army over to her favourite, Ganymedes.

5 to 9: the water supply poisoned

Ganymedes conceives the idea of tainting the Romans’ water supply, by clever engineering turning the water supplied to the buildings the Romans had occupied either salt or brackish. This panics the Roman troops who want to leave, but Caesar delivers one of his Great Speeches (as per the Gallic Wars) reassuring them and then taking the practical step of ordering them to dig wells. Soon enough they come across fresh water. It’s noticeable that the speech is markedly less clear and concise than Caesar’s speeches in The Civil War. One among many indications that this account was not written by Caesar.

The 37th legion arrives by ship with corn, men and weapons, but misses the harbour and a strong wind prevents them from entering Alexandria harbour for weeks.

10 to 25: Naval engagements

Caesar is taken out to his ships and then takes them to Chersonesus. Troops going ashore to fetch water are attacked and captured by Egyptians. Caesar wants to avoid battle and moors outside the city. But a Rhodian ship anchored further away than the others tempts the Egyptians to attack and this turns into a full scale battle, in which Caesar captures one enemy trireme and sinks one, with combatants on many of the others killed. If night hadn’t fallen he would have captured the entire Egyptian fleet.

Initially the Egyptians lose heart but Ganymede rouses them to fight back and rebuild the fleet Caesar had burned. They recall guard ships from the mouth of the Nile, find old ones tucked away in the dockyards, strip roofs to provide the oars for ships. In a short space of time they prepare 27 ships.

Caesar has 25 ships. He sails out of the Great Harbour to face the Egyptian fleet. There’s a battle and the 9 ships from Rhodes again distinguish themselves under their gallant leader Euphranor. He makes a little speech to Caesar promising not to let him down. The narrator explains that it is all or nothing for the Romans; if they are defeated their campaign is over; whereas the Egyptians can take setback after setback. Therefore Caesar rouses the troops and they incite each other, with the result that the Romans and allies win the battle, capturing a quinquereme and bireme and sinking 3 other ships to no Roman loss.

To fully control the port Caesar realises he needs to capture the island the Pharos is on and the causeway which leads to it. He lands troops on the island, ten cohorts of infantry and cavalry. There’s a problem finding a landing place, with Egyptian ships harassing them but once ashore they fight and turn the defending forces, and those in the defended positions panic and run, some throwing themselves into the sea and swimming the half mile back to town.

Caesar allows his men to loot the area, then demolish the buildings then set a garrison to defend the island and lighthouse. But when he tries to take the arch on the long causeway back towards the city, the Egyptians counter-attack and it turns into a rout. The fleeing Romans overload their own boats many of which sink. Caesar is forced to abandon his main boat when it becomes swamped, leaps overboard and swims further out to waiting ships, and from here directs the retreat onto smaller boats. Having secured this arch the Alexandrians fortified it with defence works and siege engines (22).

Frankly, I found it very difficult to follow what was meant to be happening in this description. I get that there was a causeway but I didn’t understand whether it had a kind of lock at the city end through which ships could pass, which the Romans were trying to seize. And I didn’t quite understand how the Alexandrians were able to take the Romans by surprise or get round them if it was a narrow causeway. In this as so many other descriptions in the Gallic and Civil Wars, even though the authors are eye witnesses, I find descriptions of physical layouts and battles often incomprehensible.

Caesar rouses his men who make daily skirmishes and sallies against the enemy fortifications. I have no idea what this looked like because I got no good visual sense of the defences in question.

A deputation of Egyptians asks Caesar to release their king who might become a conduit to negotiate a ceasefire. They’re fed up of being ruled by a girl. When he sends for the king the young lad bursts into tears and begs not to be sent away. And yet as soon as he joins his people on the outside he renews the war with new ferocity, leading the narrator to reflect on the nature of Egyptians: ‘they were a deceitful race, always pretending something different from their real intentions.’

The Egyptians learn that overland forces are coming from Syria and so try to block off the food supplies which are reaching the Romans by ship, stationing ships near Canopus. So Caesar exits the Grand Harbour and engages in a major battle off Canopus. Upsettingly, almost the only leader to die is the hero of the Rhodians, Euphranor, who destroys one ship but goes too far in his pursuit of another, is surrounded and sunk. C’est la guerre or, as the author puts it:

Fortune, however, very often reserves for a harsher fate those upon whom she has showered her most prolific blessings.

26 to 33: The last stages

Caesar had sent his loyal friend King Mithridates of Pergamum to Syria and Cilicia for reinforcements and food. Now Mithridates arrives, having marched back from Syria. He comes to the border garrison town of Pelusium, storms and takes it in a day. Then marches on towards the Nile Delta. Fights another engagement with the Egyptian army sent to stop him, initially having the best of it.

The King of Egypt sets out to confront him by sailing a fleet down the Nile. Caesar sails his fleet along the coast. The king camps on a bluff overlooking a tributary of the Nile. When Caesar approaches he sends some cavalry and light infantry to block his way. But Caesar’s German mercenaries cross the tributary and massacre this advance guard.

When he reaches the king’s camp he realises how well fortified it is. The king has built a fort next to a village and a defensive wall joining fort and camp and encompassing the village. Caesar attacks the fort and a weak spot where the walls of the camp touch the river, leaving a slight gap. Caesar notices they have left the highest part of the camp undefended and orders his men to storm it there. They succeed and from this high point attack downwards into the lower parts throwing the Egyptians into a complete panic. They throw themselves over the ramparts which then collapse crushing many. Many try to swim out to their ships in the river but drown and it is thought the king himself makes it to a ship which is then swamped by panicking sailors and sinks and he drowns. End of Ptolemy (31).

Then Caesar returns to Alexandria with his men triumphant and the remaining Egyptian army surrenders, coming towards him dressed as supplicants and offering him their sacred objects in submission and he makes his way through the former ‘enemy lines’ to the part of town his men held and received their congratulations.

Having secured Alexandria and Egypt, Caesar returns to his original aim which was to enforce the will of the recently dead king, Ptolemy XII Auletes. The older son being dead he instals the younger one on the throne to share it with Cleopatra. He leaves legions to enforce this settlement and maintain the new rulers in power (just as Pompey had left Gabinius after he had installed Ptolemy XII Auletes back on the throne) and departs for Syria.

Here’s a summary by modern historian, Robert C. L. Holmes with illustrations, which makes the battle of the causeway a little clearer.

34 to 41: Events in Asia

The narrative now switches to describe what has been going on during the civil war in other key Roman provinces. In Asia (i.e. modern-day Turkey) the king of Armenia appeals to the Roman governor, Domitius Calvinus, because Lesser Armenia and Cappadocia have been overrun by Pharnaces, king of Pontus. [It will be remembered from Plutarch and other sources that Pharnaces was the son of the great Mithridates who was such a thorn in the side of Rome from 88 to 63, when he committed suicide after this son of his, Pharnaces, overthrew him.]

Domitius sends messages to Pharnaces telling him to withdraw and assembles a force from various legions, including ones raised from native soldiers, then sets out for Armenia. He approaches the town of Nicopolis where Pharnaces has made camp. The two sides jockey for position, Pharnaces builds a long defensive trench in front of the town. Domitius has received envoys from Caesar, who is in a parlous condition back in Alexandria and demands reinforcements. But he knows he can’t turn his back on Pharnaces, who will attack him.

So there’s a full-blown battle and the Romans lose. The 36th legion acquit themselves well but the centre and the right flank (the Pontic legions and the entire army of King Deiotarius who had asked the Romans for help in the first place) fold and are annihilated. Domitius survives and withdraws the surviving forces back through Cappadocia to west Asia i.e. back towards the coast.

Pharnaces advances into Pontus, his ancestral kingdom, where he behaves like a tyrant, taking towns, brutally punishing their populations. The narrator singles out his fondness for identifying beautiful young men and having them castrated.

42 to 47: Events in Illyricum

Where was Illyricum? Illyricum was the Roman province which encompassed the east coast of the Adriatic and up into the mountains, sometimes referred to in translations as the Balkans, the territory which, under the emperors, came to be called Dalmatia. The Roman governors of the province consistently supported Caesar, but the natives sided with Pompey. The heavy fighting at Dyrrhachium in 48 was just south of the border of the province. Unlike Greece, Asia or Egypt it is described as a very poor province, with ‘very meagre prospects.

Illyricum in the Roman Empire

Caesar had been proconsul of Illyricum all through the Gallic war and at the end of each fighting season in Gaul had crossed back over the Alps to come and administer this province, so he knew it well.

At the outbreak of the civil war with Pompey Caesar had left it to be run by his quaestor Quintus Cornificius, who had acted wisely and discreetly, slowly taking fortresses built by rebellious natives and pacifying the province. Cornificius captured Marcus Octavius‘s fleet fleeing after the battle of Pharsalus.

Caesar now orders Aulus Gabinius to take newly levied legions and unite with Cornificius, but he arrives in the depths of winter and sustains many reverses, coming off worst when he attempts to storm fortresses in bad weather without food supplies. Gabinius is defeated while withdrawing on Salona, losing 2,000 troops, 38 centurions and four tribunes. He dies soon afterwards of illness.

Caesar had left Publius Vatinius in charge of Brundisium. When Vatinius learns that the Pompeian fleet of Marcus Octavius is raiding up and down the Illyrian coast, he repairs and knocks together a scratch fleet of ships and sails out to engage Octavius. He forces Octavius to abandon his siege of Epidaurus.

Vatinius engages Octavius’s fleet off the island of Tauris. Octavius has the bigger ships and more of them but Vatinius’s men are more fierce for battle. Thus, when the ships ram each other and become entangled it is Vatinius’s forces who storm the enemy ships and fight fiercely, sinking many of Octavius’s ships. Octavius abandons his own ship, swims to a small boat which is swamped by survivors and also sinks then, despite his wounds, to an escort vessel and, as night falls, escapes.

Vatinius rests his men and repairs his ships before sailing on to the island if Issa where he a) takes submission of the townspeople b) learns that Octavius has sailed to Africa, where most of the other Pompeian forces are now regrouping. And so Vatinius returns to Brundisium with his fleet and army intact, having rid Illyricum of its sea-borne attackers and secured it for Cornificius and Caesar.

48 to 64: Events in Further Spain

[Spain was divided into two Roman provinces, Hispania Ulterio and Hispania Citerior, which can be translated into slightly old-fashioned English as Further Spain and Hither Spain.]

This section is more enjoyable than any other part of the book for the simple reason that it is clear and comprehensible. The author gives a lucid, comprehensive and rational explanation of why the governor of Hither Spain, Quintus Cassius Longinus, was deeply hated by both the provincials and his own troops, for his systematic extortion of the former and his cynical bribery of the latter.

When Caesar orders him to bring an army across to Africa, to march through Mauretania to the border of Numidia, like a character in a Plautus play, Cassius is overjoyed because this means more opportunity for bribery, extortion, corruption and loot. He travels to Lusitania to raise more taxes, men and build ships.

He assembles his troops at a camp near Corduba and promises the ones coming with him 100 drachmas each, then returns to Corduba. That same afternoon he was entering the judgement hall when he is set upon by half a dozen Roman conspirators who stab him and his guards.

It’s interesting that they use the same technique as with Caesar i.e. one person buttonholes the victim with a document, a petition, distracting them and manoeuvring them into the optimum kill position, and then the others attack. Also interesting how difficult they found it to kill someone. It took about thirty stabs to kill Caesar, and even though there are half a dozen assassins here, they fail to kill Cassius.

Cassius is rescued by his bodyguard and carried home, most of the assassins flee to safe houses, but L. Laterensis goes to address the native troops and second legion, telling them that their hated leader is dead and they are both overjoyed.

So it comes as a dreadful disappointment to everyone to learn that Cassius has survived and is not that badly hurt. The legions promptly march to Corduba to show their loyalty to their commander, as they know what is good for them.

Cassius has the main assailants interrogated, and they reveal the names of plenty of other conspirators including some of the most senior figures in the province. Cassius has the junior ones executed or tortured but negotiates a ransom from the richer ones. His greed was legendary.

When Cassius hears that Caesar has triumphed over Pompey, he orders a levy of all the richest men in the province, told those he owed money to that he wasn’t going to pay it, extorted more loans, held a levy of knights i.e. leading businessmen to conscript them to the army unless they bought their way out. Then dispatched the legions he was planning to tranship to the embarkation point.

En route he learns that the native legion and the second legion have mutinied chosen Titus Thorius, a native of Italica, as their leader. He sent the quaestor Marcus Marcellus to secure Corduba but then heard that Marcellus had gone over to the mutineers along with some cohorts of the legion kept in Corduba to maintain it.

Thorius marches his veteran legion towards Corduba. They did so in the name of Pompey because they didn’t want the reputation of being simple mutineers. The people of Corduba beg them not to loot and pillage the city. The army realise they don’t need to proclaim their allegiance to Pompey and revert back to loyalty to Caesar (!), acclaim Marcellus their leader and camp near Corduba.

Cassius approaches with his loyal legions. He sends for help to king Bogud in Mauretania and Marcus Lepidus, the pro‑consul of Hither Spain. He lays waste the territory of Corduba. The two armies camp opposite each other by the river Baetis. Marcellus’s troops beg him to engage but he withdraws at which point Cassius sends his superior cavalry to harass the rearguard.

When Marcellus blocks access to the river for his troops, Cassius struck camp and marched to Ulia, a town he believed to be loyal. Marcellus besieges Ulia and Cassius’s camp but before the encirclement is complete Cassius sends out his cavalry to be free to forage.

King Bogud arrives with a legion loyal to Cassius and harasses Marcellus’s fortifications, though without a decisive blow either way.

Lepidus arrives with 35 legionary cohort and enforces a truce. In fact Marcellus immediately defers to his authority and goes over to him. Cassius is more suspicious and only agrees to submit if Marcellus’s fortifications are dismantled. To everyone’s surprise King Bogud attacks part of Marcellus’s defences and only an angry Lepidus’s intervention stops there being a massacre.

Lepidus and Marcellus are now unified and then Trebonius arrives to govern the province as pro-consul. Cassius posts his troops to their winter quarters and hastened to Malaga where he embarked on ship. His enemies say he wanted to avoid the humiliation of having to submit to Lepidus and Marcellus, and also avoid travelling through a province he had thoroughly pillaged and looted.

His ship foundered in bad weather at the mouth of the river Ebro and he was drowned.

65 to 78: Operations in the East leading up to the battle of Zela, August 47 BC

Having marched up from Egypt to Syria, Caesar learned of political unrest in Rome (as usual) but knew he had to secure the East before he returned. By this he meant leaving all the provinces:

  • organised in such a way that they would be immune from internal disagreements
  • had accepted a legal constitution
  • had no fear of aggression from without, either through peace treaties with neighbouring enemies or by having beaten and intimidated them

Syria, Cilicia and Asia would be easy but Bithynia and Pontus were still being tyrannised by Pharnaces.

So Caesar posts Sextus Caesar, his friend and kinsman, to command the legions and govern Syria, and sets off for Cilicia where he calls a conference at Tarsus and secures the peace and security of the province from its tribes and kings.

Then forced marches through Cappadocia to Comana. Here Caesar adjudicates a dispute between Ariobarzanes III (king of Cappadocia from 51 to 42 BC) and his younger brother, Ariarathes, granting the latter the kingdom of Lesser Armenia.

Deiotarius, originally tetrarch of western Galatia, had been rewarded by Pompey for his help against Mithridates with land in eastern Pontus and the title of king. Now he came to Caesar very shrewdly dressed in the clothes of a suppliant and begged forgiveness for siding with Pompey, saying he didn’t have much choice. Caesar is quite hard on him, saying he should have known who would triumph. But forgives him on condition he joins his native legion for the campaign ahead.

Caesar marches to Pontus and assembles his forces which are not large (four legions) but battle hardened. Pharnaces sends embassies of peace truckling favour by pointing out that he had refused to send auxiliaries to Pompey, unlike Deiotarius. The text quotes Caesar’s reply to Pharnaces in which he says they can’t undo the past outrages (the murders and emasculations) but Pharnaces must now:

  • withdraw from Pontus
  • release the household slaves of the tax‑gatherers
  • make all other such restitution as lies in his power to the allies and Roman citizens

Realising Caesar is pressed for time, Pharnaces delays. So Caesar marches to the town of Zela. Pharnaces occupies an old camp of his father on a nearby hill, Caesar camps 5 miles away. The text once again gives a confusing description of how Caesar moved his forces to take advantage of the terrain, especially as the notes point out that nothing in the description correlates to any of the natural features around Zela. Were these descriptions just made up?

Caesar moves up his army to the south side of a valley whose north side Pharnaces occupied and gets them to start building fortifications. If there’s one thing you learn from all these texts it’s that the Roman army spent far more time building camps and fortifications and entrenchments and siege works than actually fighting.

With mad confidence Pharnaces orders his army to descend the steep ravine and begin ascending the other side towards Caesar’s camp. The initial assault throws the Romans into confusion but they form up and start to repel the enemy who, once they are forced backwards down a slope, fall over their own reinforcements, drop their weapons and flee to the other side of the valley where they are now defenceless.

It is a complete victory and Pharnaces flees with a handful of men. Caesar is overjoyed at having such a quick victory in what he feared would be a long drawn out campaign. He made a present to his troops of all the royal plunder. He instructed the Sixth legion to leave for Italy to receive its rewards and honours, sent home the auxiliary troops of Deiotarus, and left two legions in Pontus with Caelius Vinicianus. Then he himself set out on the following day with his cavalry in light order.

78: good administration

The key to success was not just thinking strategically and winning battles. It was about the widespread and consistent good administration of the existing provinces and newly captured territories.

Thus Caesar marches east through Galatia and Bithynia into Asia, holding investigations and giving his rulings on disputes in all those provinces, and assigning due prerogatives to tetrarchs, kings and states. The Mithridates who had brought him such vital help in Egypt he made king of Bosphorus, which had formerly been under control of Pharnaces, and thus creating a buffer state ruled by a friendly king between the Roman provinces of Asia and ‘barbarian and unfriendly kings’ i.e. Pharnaces and the Parthians beyond.

Video

This video clarifies a lot of details which are obscure in the text, particularly about the fighting in Alexandria.

It clarifies that Caesar took refuge in the palace complex and demolished the surrounding walls and buildings in order to create a fortified base which he could hold against repeated attacks, despite sustained fighting in the streets around it. The video explanation is clearer than anything in the text.

Similarly, I found the naval battle which starts in section 10 hard to follow in the text:

In order to take some personal decision as to what he thought ought to be done, Caesar boarded a ship and ordered his whole fleet to follow him. He did not embark any of our troops, since, as he was going somewhat too far afield, he was loath to leave our entrenchments unmanned.

He ordered the entire fleet to follow him In order to take some personal decision as to what he thought ought to be done? Doesn’t make much sense. Taking the fleet off somewhere rather feels as if he has made a decision. At places like this, you strongly feel the narrator was not privy to Caesar’s plans. In The Civil War Caesar generally explains his thinking and strategy in such a lucid way they can easily be converted into bullet points. Not in this text. One more piece of evidence that it was written by someone close to Caesar’s operations, a trusted lieutenant, but not the man himself.

Were the Romans good governors?

The central topic of the Civil War was defeating Pompey. In this text, however, it’s much more about trying to establish good, secure and lasting administrations, starting in Egypt, but ultimately stretching all around the Mediterranean. It’s a simple question but I wonder whether it can be answered: were the Romans good governors and administrators? A little more precisely: did the provinces the Romans governed benefit from their rule?

The arguments against are very evident in these texts being:

  1. the process of being conquered involved mass slaughter, towns obliterated and country ravaged (as vividly depicted in the Gallic Wars)
  2. even when you’d been ‘pacified’ and accepted Roman province status, chances were that one of their civil wars would break out and you’d find your cities and land devastated all over again
  3. even in complete peacetime you might find yourself lumbered with a criminal like Quintus Cassius Longinus as a governor, with absolutely no court of appeal from his extortions

So the downsides are obvious. But what of the benefits? Someone somewhere must have done a definitive study of the simple question.


Related links

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Menaechmi (The Brothers Menaechmus) by Plautus (c.200 BC)

Prologue

The prologue explains that there were once two little boys, identical twin sons of a merchant of Syracuse, named Menaechmus and Sosicles. One day the father took little Menaechmus on a business trip to Tarentum but while walking through a carnival together they got separated. A trader from Epidamnus found the little boy and took him home with him. The father fell sick with grief and died. His father i.e. the boys’ grandfather, back in Syracuse, renamed Sosicles Menaechmus (the name of the lost boy, who he had always preferred).

So we have now got identical twins both named Menaechmus, one living with his grandfather, one growing up far away in Epidamnus.

(Incidentally, you can see how the title The Brothers Menaechmus is a pastiche of Elizabethan or olde worlde word order. In modern English it would simply be The Menaechmus Brothers or, if this was a brat pack movie, The Menaechmus Boys.)

The years passed and the boys grew to manhood in their separate cities. Back in Epidamnus, Menaechmus reached manhood and the trader gave him a wife and dowry and, when the trader died, Menaechmus inherited his large estate, where he now lives. Anyway, that’s the back story, and now the play begins.

The plot

Enter Peniculus

Enter Peniculus, a prime example of the stock character, the parasitus. The editor and translator of this edition, E.F. Watling, has previously explained that the best way to understand this character type is as a kind of dinner companion for hire – educated men who go from patron to patron ingratiating themselves, trying to get invitations to dinner where they amuse with their witty conversation (the other characters call him a ‘table companion’).

As a result the parasitus is associated with comic speeches about food and Peniculus is no exception, entering to make a speech on the comic premise that, if you wanted to lock people up, to make them secure, you’d do better to give them stunning feasts each day rather than put them in chains. Who would willingly run off and lose the chance of a daily feast?

Thus Peniculus explains that he is Menaechmus’s ‘bond slave’ but willingly reports for duty at his villa for love of the amazing spreads.

Menaechmus the adulterer

Peniculus arrives just as young Menaechmus emerges from his villa, yelling back through the open door at his wife (a very characteristic position for a Plautus character). This opening speech establishes that he is not a noble character but a bad tempered adulterer. He accuses his wife of asking endless questions about his movements and spying on him. In the next breath he justifies her suspicions by revealing that he’s going to meet his mistress, Erotium, tonight and – in a comic manoeuvre – has smuggled out of the house his wife’s dresses by wearing it under his toga.

It’s at this point that Peniculus comes forward, they greet each other, shake hands and Menaechmus shows off to Peniculus his cunning little prank i.e. displays himself wearing the gown.

Menaechmus’ mistress, Erotium

Scared of Menaechmus’s wife, they move shiftily over to the house next door (as in so many of the plays, the set consists of two neighbouring houses) because, lo and behold, right next door is the house of Menaechmus’s mistress, Erotium. He knocks on the door, she comes out he declares his eternal love for her and gives her his wife’s gown, then declares they’re going to have a party at her place, Menaechmus, Peniculus and her, so can she get her cook to start cooking. And with that Menaechmus declares his off to town and exists, followed by his lackey Peniculus.

Erotium calls out her cook, Cylindrus, gives him three pounds and bids him go to the market to buy grub for lunch. When he hears one of them is Menaechmus’s table companion’ he complains that people like him can do the work of of eight men, but off he goes anyway, grumbling.

Quite obviously Menaechmus having a mistress is not designed to make any highfalutin’ moral or ethical points but to maximise the amount of confusion to be caused by the comic conceit of the identical twins: I predict not only his wife but his mistress will be thrown into turmoil by the arrival of the twin.

Enter Sosicles and Messenio

And sure enough enter Sosicles, or that was his original name until his brother was abducted and his grandfather renamed him Menaechmus. He’s just arrived by ship accompanied by his slave Messenio and a group (number unspecified) of slaves carrying his baggage.

Messenio is the grumpy sort of slave and complains to his master, and thus informs the audience, that Sosicles has been traipsing round the entire Mediterranean searching for his brother, calling in at the Danube, Spain, Massilia, Illyria, all over the Adriatic, the Greek colonies and the entire coast of Italy (p.111).

Messenio goes on to explain that the inhabitants of the place they’ve arrived at, Epidamnus, have a bad reputation.

Obviously they’ve arrived in front of Menaechmus’s villa while Messenio makes a long speech about how they haven’t a hope in hell of finding Menaechmus, he must be long dead. At which point Erotium’s cook, Cylindrus, arrives back from the market. When he sees Sosicles he of course thinks he is Menaechmus, the guest for the planned lunch party, waiting outside his mistress’s house. And so into the first of many comic misidentifications and misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding 1 Sosicles and Cylindrus

Cylindrus, of course, thinks Sosicles is Menaechmus arrived for lunch and engages him in casual conversation. Sosicles, of course, is completely bewildered at being addressed familiarly by a strange slave, and when he assumes he (Sosicles) lives next door, with his wife, Sosicles thinks he must be mad and gives him money to buy a sacrifice to make at the shrine of the god of lunatics. Of course, Cylindrus thinks Sosicles is mad – with Sosicles’ slave Messenio chipping in from the sidelines.

Misunderstanding 2 Sosicles and Erotium

Cylindrus goes in the house and is replaced by Erotium who appears and, of course, calls Sosicles ‘darling’ and carries on a normal conversation with him (p.115), reminding him that he a) brought her a gown of his wife’s b) asked her to prepare lunch for him and his table companion (p.116). Obviously, Sosicles thinks she is mad, though is puzzled how she knows his name.

N.B: It’s important to remember that the twins both have the same name. Menaechmus was always the name of the boy who was abducted, the other one, Sosicles, was renamed Menaechmus by his grandfather. So they both have the same name. When I refer to Sosicles in this summary it is to clarify who is who, but he isn’t referred to as Sosicles in the play.

All these confusions give Messenio the opportunity to say he warned his boss about Epidamnus – looks like the reputation is true, it really is full of lunatics.

After conferring with his slave Sosicles takes the decision that he’s going to play along with this pretty woman. If she wants to give him a free lunch and witter on about his non-existent wife, then, sure, he’ll play nice. So he apologises to Erotium for being confused and she, now mollified, invites him into her house. Messenion warns him to watch himself but Sosicles reckons he’s on to a good thing, a free lunch and then maybe some afternoon delight.

Misunderstanding 3 Sosicles and Peniculus

The table companion Peniculus has been at some public meeting all morning and arrives in a bad mood to spy Sosicles emerging from Erotium’s house, obviously drunk, with a laurel wreath at a rakish angle on his head and calling back to Erotium that he promises to take the gown (the one Menaechmus gave her that morning) to a dressmaker’s in town to have it adjusted.

When Peniculus steps forward to castigate Sosicles for starting (and finishing) lunch without telling him, Sosicles, naturally enough, says he’s no idea who he is or what he’s talking about. As in every one of these encounters, they each think the other must be mad. Peniculus vows revenge, swearing he’ll tell Menaechmus’s wife all about his affair.

Misunderstanding 4 Sosicles and the maid

Erotium’s maid pops out of her house and asks Sosicles one more favour. Can he please take these gold bracelets, the ones he stole from his wife and gave to Erotium, to a goldsmith and have some gold added and reshaped. Sosicles is no longer bewildered, he is master of the situation and milking it for all he’s got, so he willingly accepts gold bracelets.

Then the maid takes things a bit further by asking if he can get her some pretty little gold earrings, please. Then next time he pops over she’s be everso nice to him (flutter eyelashes). Sosicles says, Sure, where’s the gold? But when the maid says she doesn’t have any, she was hoping he’d buy her some as a gift he loses interest and, realising it, the maid goes back into Erotium’s house.

At which point Peniculus emerges from Menaechmus’s house with the latter’s wife. He has told her everything. She is furious and asks herself how much longer she has to put up with this insulting behaviour? They spot Menaechmus coming and hide.

Misunderstanding 5 Menaechmus and wife

Sosicles had exited the stage in one direction. Now from the opposite direction enters the real, or original, Menaechmus. He delivers a page long soliloquy about what a pain it is being patron to a number of clients; he’s wasted his whole morning sorting out litigation around a client of his, an obvious crook, but in a patron-client society that’s what you have to do. He laments not having got away earlier for lunch although hopes the gift of the gown he stole from his wife will placate her. His wife is hiding behind a bush and hears him say this!

She steps out and accuses him of being a slimeball, egged on by the irate table companion Peniculus (‘That’s the way to talk to him’). Menaechmus desperately back pedals, disclaiming any knowledge of a mistress or stolen gown. This goes on for some time with Menaechmus until the furious wife finally says he’s not getting back into their house till he returns the gown, and goes into the house slamming the door!

Misunderstanding 6 Menaechmus and Erotium

Oh well, if his wife’s locked him out at least Erotium will give him a warm welcome. She’s pleased to see him back so soon but, of course, when he asks for the gown she is confused: she gave it to him not half an hour ago. His insistence that she give it back infuriates her and she slams the door in his face. Oops. Now he’s locked out of both women’s houses. He says he’ll go back into town looking for a friend to cheer him up.

Misunderstanding 7 Sosicles returns

Menaechmus’s wife looks out the door and sees Sosicles return with the famous gown. She thinks he’s come to make up with her. But when she confronts him, Sosicles is, of course, completely non-plussed and denies any knowledge of her. At which point, understandably, she reverts to her former fury. When she tells him that an hour ago he promised to find the gown and give it back to her he has no idea what she’s on about. All Sosicles knows is he spent a nice time with Erotium who gave him a gown to be altered. Who’s this madwoman ranting at him?

She’s so furious she sends a servant to fetch her aged father. He’ll sort out her faithless husband! When he arrives he tells his daughter off for being a scold and keeping such a tight watch on her husband i.e. he takes Menaechmus’s side. But then…

Misunderstanding 8 Sosicles and the father

Then the father actually confronts Sosicles, thinking he’s Menaechmus and, like everyone else, thinks the latter must have gone mad when he denies all knowledge of him. In fact it occurs to Sosicles that if people keep accusing him of being mad, maybe there’s some advantage to actually behaving mad, so he starts ‘gaping and flinging himself about’ (p.133) and starts to rant and rave and claiming to hear the gods’ instructions telling him to beat this ‘bitch’ and the ‘old goat’ i.e. wife and father.

Terrified, she runs back inside the house leaving her father to grapple with Sosicles who pretends to be hearing instructions from Apollo himself telling him to run the old man over with a (non-existent) chariot and horses. They grapple till Sosicles falls to the floor. The father thinks he’s had a stroke so says he’d better hurry and fetch a doctor. Once he’s gone Sosicles gets up, dusts himself off, declares everyone here is mad, and decides he’d better get back to his boat while the coast is clear.

Misunderstanding 9 Father, doctor and Menaechmus

The father returns, out of breath, with a doctor who is just asking the symptoms of the patient when the real Menaechmus enters. Obviously he knows nothing of the encounter which just ended in which his identical twin feigned madness and fell to the floor. So he hasn’t a clue what the father is describing and the doctor is quizzing him about and answers all the latter’s impertinent questions rudely (‘Jupiter and all the gods blast you and your silly questions’, p.137). But he quickly becomes so angry, and answers so sarcastically, that he does himself appear mad, just like his twin had. So the doctor suggests Menaechmus is brought over to his house so he can supervise his treatment (hellebore seems to be the recommended drug). They exit to go and get some strong slaves to grab, bind and take Menaechmus away.

They both exit leaving Menaechmus alone. He sits down and a) wonders what on earth has possessed these two to accuse him of being mad and b) what the devil is going to happen now he’s locked out by both his wife and mistress.

Misunderstanding 10 Menaechmus and Messenio

Messenio is Sosicles’s slave. Last time he saw his master he told him to see the slaves and baggage settled at an inn, which he’s achieved. Now he re-enters and goes up to Erotium’s door because that’s the last time he saw his master, going in to have lunch with Erotium. But before he can knock on her door, he witnesses the father returning with four strong slaves. And then sees them set on Menaechmus, with a view to binding him and carrying him away.

Menaechmus calls for help and Messenio comes to his rescue and there’s quite a fight with our pair finally getting the better of the foursome who run away. Now, of course, Messenio not only expects Menaechmus to recognise him but asks for a big reward: will he set him free?

(I commented in my review of Captivi how almost all the plays include a slave who performs adroit services for his master and promptly asks to be freed, wondering if this was a reality of Roman life or just a hilarious staple of stage comedy.)

Menaechmus, of course, has now idea who Messenio is and thought he was a good samaritan coming to his aid. He tells him to his face he’s no idea who he is but, by all means, go free. Messenio takes this as meaning he has been liberated and cries tears of joy. He says he’ll go and get the purse of money, baggage and slaves from the inn and rushes off. Menaechmus refuses to be fazed by this but has no idea what he’s talking about.

He knocks on Erotium’s door with a view to trying to get the famous gown back and give it to his wife, completely unaware that Sosicles went off with it some time ago.

Misunderstanding 11

On the way to the inn Messenio has bumped into his real master, Sosicles. Now they enter arguing. Sosicles of course knows nothing about Messenio rescuing him from the four slaves and giving him his liberty. Oh no he bloody well didn’t, says Sosicles.

The catastrophe

In classical literary theory, the catastrophe is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

It’s at this moment, just as Sosicles is telling his slave Messenio he has no idea what he’s talking about, that Menaechmus walks out Erotium’s front door and comes face to face with his identical twin, Sosicles. The comedy is dramatised by being seen through the eyes of a third party, Messenio.

The two brothers are slow to recognise each other but it is Messenio’s comic intervention, claiming to be the slave of each in turn and getting them muddled up, which is played for a few more laughs.

In fact it is Messenio who takes Sosicles aside and points out that this other fellow may well be his long lost twin brother. He suggests they ask him a few more questions and Sosicles readily agrees. The play then mutates into a kind of courtroom drama with Messenio playing the role of interrogating counsel as he asks Menaechmus a series of questions which confirm that he is indeed the little boy from Syracuse who lost his father in a crowd, was kidnapped and adopted by a stranger who raised him here in Epidamnus.

At each answer Sosicles cries out in wonder with Messenio impatiently telling him to wait his turn to question the witness. Presumably a) the conceit of being a courtoom was meant to be funny as was b) the idea of a slave like Messenio impersonating a magistrate.

There’s still a smidgeon of doubt at which point Menaechmus asks Sosicles what their mother’s name was. Sosicles replies Teuximarcha. All doubts are removed, they both realise they are each other’s twin brother and embrace in tears.

The resolution

If you remember, Sosicles has been on a vast 6-year-long odyssey round the Mediterranean looking for his long-lost brother. Now that quest is at an end. Menaechmus resolves to accompany him back to the family home in Syracuse. He says he’ll quickly sell up all his property here then they can depart. Oh and Menaechmus asks Sosicles to give Messenio his freedom, as a favour to him, seeing as how he stoutly defended him in the battle of the four slaves.

1. It is very striking that the catastrophe did not involve either of the women, Menaechmus’s wife or mistress. Surely there was a world of comic potential, not to mention some kind of reconciliation with his wife, waiting to take place here. But it simply doesn’t happen. As if the women really are just pawns in the plot, who can be dispensed with as soon as they’re not needed; as if the only reconciliation which counts is male, among men, between the brothers, and to some extent Messenio.

2. The very last passage of the play is when Messenio cheekily asks the brothers if he can be their auctioneer, they say yes, and this gives Plautus the opportunity to show the cheeky slave impersonating an auctioneer, using his patter to quickly describe the contents and effects of Menaechmus’s house – everything must be sold off, including his wife (‘should there be any purchaser’) – before quickly bringing the play to an end with the traditional request for the audience’s applause.

Roman slavery

As in most of the other plays the thing which catches my attention most is the ubiquitous condition of slavery, of ordinary, everyday, commonplace slavery which everyone took for granted. Messenio is given a speech in which he describes how he’s made a conscious decision to be a good slave, which he defines as one who attends to his master’s welfare, plans his business and organises his affairs as effectively in his absence as in his presence. OK. Then goes on describe what life has in store for slaves who are worthless, idle or dishonest, namely:

floggings, chains, the treadmill, sweating, starving, freezing stiff. (p.138)

Is this an accurate description? It brings home the way a master would be friendly with, spend most of his life with, joke, laugh, cry, share his ups and downs with a person who he also order to do everything for him, run errands, fetch and carry, serve and please and who, if he (all the slaves in these plays are men) upsets, irritates his master or falls short, can be submitted to a staggering range of physical punishment and abuse.

And, as in so many of the plays, the top thing on Messenio’s mind was winning his freedom. As soon as he’s helped Menaechmus fight off the four slaves, he asks for his freedom. Is this what it was like? Did slaves think all the time of how to get free, and pester their masters for requests to be freed? Did they ever make such requests? Was there a recognised time or occasion which might merit it? Were there social conventions and forms of words?

Interestingly, Messenio says that, if he is freed, his one-time master becomes his patron. Is that how it worked. Was ‘freedom’ the exchange from one recognised form of hierarchical relationship for another? Did a freed slave remain within the orbit and indeed the service of his master/patron, only with freedom of action?

Messenio, after he thinks Menaechmus has freed him, hurries to say he still wants to take his orders and go home with him and carry on living with him. Was this meant to be funny because it indicated what a poor notion of freedom Messenio had? Or was it a commonplace situation, that freed slaves continued to live in their former master’s houses but on new terms? How was that managed by everyone concerned, not least the other slaves who remained in their unfree condition?


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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