Plautus' play The Pot of Gold reveals the vulnerability and powerlessness of women in ancient society but also shows their unofficial power and influence.
The play centers around Euclio and his daughter, Phaedria. Euclio, with the assistance of his household deity, has recently discovered a pot of gold. The deity intends to provide the riches to pay Phaedria's dowry so that she can marry Lyconides, for she is already pregnant with his child. Euclio, however, has no intention of spending any money on his daughter. He doesn't even realize that she is pregnant. She is almost nonexistent to him.
In fact, Phaedria never actually appears on stage. She is merely a figure to be manipulated for the purposes of other characters. Megadorus decides that he wants to marry Phaedria, for instance, although he doesn't really know much about her. She is at least not wealthy and demanding like other women, he reasons. He can control her because she is poor and will be dependent upon him. He doesn't even require her father to pay a dowry, for that would give Phaedria leverage in the relationship. He wants a powerless wife.
Megadorus does not realize, of course, that Phaedria is pregnant or that his own nephew is the father. Even Phaedria does not know who the father of her child is until the end of the play, for their relations (seemingly not consensual) took place during a festival, and Lyconides was masked. Lyconides does, however, wish to marry Phaedria and seems to have genuine feelings for her. Phaedria is, apparently, agreeable to this marriage—although, again, she doesn't have much choice in the matter.
In contrast to the vulnerable and powerless Phaedria stands Lyconides's mother (and Megadorus's sister), Eunomia. She insists that Megadorus marry, and while Megadorus isn't enthused, he accedes to his sister's will (mostly to quiet her). Eunomia seems to have significant unofficial influence over her brother, although he is so apathetic that perhaps he just goes along because he doesn't really care. When Eunomia finds out about her son's actions, she changes her plans quickly, along with those of her brother. Megadorus again goes along with his sister and renounces his engagement to Phaedria in favor of his nephew.
Finally, Euclio's housekeeper, Staphyla, adds a touch of feminine common sense and compassion to the play. She is devoted to Phaedria and worries about her situation. She does her best to help the young woman even as she comments on Euclio's miserliness. Indeed, Straphyla seems to know better than anyone else what is going on in Euclio's household, which she unofficially and intelligently manages without Euclio even being aware of it.
The play is set in Athens but illustrates the role of women in Roman society just as well. Indeed, in all his comedies Plautus avails himself of a number of stock female characters familiar to patrons of the Roman theater, two of which he uses here.
The unseen Phaedria is a puella, a young, beautiful woman, who is not only the object of both Lyconides and Megadorus's romantic affections, but also a key element in the wily machinations of Lyconides's crafty slave. (Another stock character in Roman comedy.) Immediately, we can see that Phaedria represents the generally submissive role of women in Greek (and also Roman) society. She is little more than an object, not just a sex object but a piece of property belonging to her father which can be alienated entirely at his behest.
Phaedria has no voice in the play, but we do hear her screams of pain off stage when she gives birth. Her gender role in society is reinforced by the action. Women should neither be seen nor heard when important marital transactions are taking place and should confine themselves to being mothers, their most important duty to the state.
Staphyla is an ancilla, or handmaid. Her role in the comedy is much the same as Lyconides' slave: that of intelligent servant. Plautus uses this stock character to provide a sort of commentary on the play, much like a Greek chorus, and also to act as a foil to the absurdity and stupidity of the central characters. For instance, it is Staphyla who informs the audience of Phaedria's pregnancy. Staphyla is shown to be bright, witty and compassionate. She's certainly a good deal more intelligent than her miserly master, Euclio. Despite this, her role in the comedy is somewhat limited, reflecting her position in Roman and Greek society. She can enter the world of men and enrich it with her presence, but she cannot fully live there on equal terms. Ultimately, her wit and intelligence are as much of an adornment as Phaedria's beauty.
The female characters and the way that women are discussed in Plautus' play, The Pot of Gold, clearly reflect the time of the play's writing. In this time, women had very little standing. They were basically considered property of their fathers or husbands, or they were servants. In the play, Phaedria is a female character who much of the plot revolves around, but she never appears on stage. She is subject to her father's whims when it comes to her marriage, and when Euclio finds out that she is not a virgin, and is indeed with child, blatantly states that he can dispose of her and her child as he wishes. The reader also is able to see how women are viewed through Megadorus' descriptions of women as he tries to justify to his sister his desire to marry Phaedria, a poor girl without dowry. He describes them as expensive and difficult. Indeed, his best vision of marriage is that he marries one day and the next day, his wife is dead. Eunomia, Megadorus' sister, does seem to possess a little power, in her ability to sway her brother and her son. The other female characters in the play are servants and they have no power. Staphyla is verbally and physically (in a comic way one assumes) abused by Euclio, although Plautus lets the audience see that she is an example of a wily servant (a servant that is smarter than his/her master) and she is seen as a survivor.