Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1058
Pamphila, the daughter of a respected but miserly Athenian citizen, is raped by a drunken young man of ordinarily good behavior during the night festival of the Tauropolia. The only clue she has to his identity is a signet ring that he leaves in her possession. A short time later, Pamphila is married to the young man, an Athenian named Charisius; Smicrines, her father, provides a good dowry for his idealistic but rather priggish son-in-law. Pamphila, who soon begins to love her husband, gives birth to her child during his absence and, acting on the advice of her nurse Sophrona, exposes the infant and leaves with the baby a pouch containing assorted tokens, including the ring. Charisius, learning of the birth from his servant Onesimus, decides that the child cannot be his. Instead of repudiating Pamphila, however, he leaves home and begins to waste his substance in rich feasts given at the home of his friend Chaerestratus, who lives next door. Pamphila is distracted because the husband she loves deserts her for the company of hired dancing girls and harp players.
That is the way matters stand when Smicrines comes to investigate reports of Charisius’s conduct; he hears that his son-in-law is spending every night for a hired harp player a sum sufficient to feed a slave for a month. Just before his arrival a conceited, loud-mouthed cook named Carion, on his way to prepare a meal in the house of Chaerestratus, vainly questions Charisius’s servant Onesimus about his master; the cook also wants to know why Charisius neglects his wife and pays twelve drachmas a night to be entertained by the lovely harp-playing slave Habrotonon. While Carion and Onesimus are talking, the musician is delivered by her master. The slave dealer manages to persuade the bemused Charisius that he owes money for several previous nights’ entertainment. Charisius pays, but wily Onesimus recovers the overpayments for himself.
When Smicrines appears, Onesimus manages to befuddle the anxious, angry father with the story that it is Chaerestratus who is giving the parties and that Charisius attends only to protect his friend’s possessions and good name. After Smicrines goes into his son-in-law’s house, two of Chaerestratus’s tenants appear to pay their rent. They are Davus, a goatherd, and Syriscus, a charcoal burner accompanied by his wife carrying a baby. While they wait they argue over another matter. A month earlier, Davus came upon a baby exposed in the hills. His first impulse was to adopt the foundling, but then, having calculated the cost of rearing a child, he began to think of returning the infant to the place where he found it. Syriscus thereupon offered to adopt the baby in place of his own child, who had just died. When Syriscus found that Davus intended to keep the trinkets left beside the baby, he claimed them because they might someday help to identify the child’s parents. Davus refused to give up the tokens, but he agreed to let someone else decide the matter. Smicrines, reappearing from the house of Charisius, is persuaded to listen to the story and give his decision. Deciding that the trinkets ought to go with the baby, he orders Davus to give Syriscus the pouch.
While Syriscus and his wife are looking over the contents of the pouch, Onesimus recognizes the signet ring that his master lost at the time of the Tauropolia festival a year before. The slave borrows it to show his master, then hesitates because to return it would be to accuse Charisius of having fathered the abandoned baby. Habrotonon comes along about that time, sees the ring, hears the story, and concocts a scheme of her own. She will learn the truth by wearing the ring and seeing if Charisius recognizes it. In that case, she will claim that she was the girl he raped and so rescue the child from the life of a slave. Onesimus knows very well that her chief purpose is to win her own freedom.
Smicrines reappears, determined to demand the return of his daughter and her dowry. The neighbors try to dissuade him by saying that everything will turn out all right. As the party ends, broken up by Habrotonon and her claim that the child is hers, Onesimus infuriates the miserly Smicrines by congratulating him on bringing happiness to everybody by his arbitration.
Pamphila begs her father not to meddle with her marriage; she has no desire for another husband, she declares. If Charisius is infatuated with a harpist, that is only a temporary estrangement. At her father’s announcement, however, that her husband’s current love is the mother of his child, Pamphila faints.
Regaining consciousness, she accuses her nurse Sophrona of causing all the trouble by preventing her confession to Charisius after the birth of the child. While they argue, Habrotonon happens by and recognizes Pamphila as the girl who was Charisius’s companion one year earlier. She tells the patrician so when he comes to keep his promise to arrange for her freedom. At first, he regards the story as another of her lies. To save himself, Onesimus also accuses her of having invented the story. Habrotonon maintains stoutly that it is true, and she declares that she would rather see the child looked after properly than win her own freedom.
Chaerestratus, who always admired the lovely slave, begins questioning her about her own early history, but she remembers nothing of her infancy, not even her name. Then the sight of a small silver cup with an indecipherable inscription among the trinkets of Syriscus causes her to comment that she once possessed a similar cup. Smicrines, seeing the cup for the first time, identifies it as having once belonged to his oldest daughter, who was kidnapped by the slave traders during the siege of the city some years before. Sophrona, recognizing the harp player as Smicrines’ long-lost daughter Clearista, stirs the girl’s recollection by using her baby name of “grasshopper.”
Chaerestratus, who loved the girl from the first, now asks to marry her, and when he shows miserly Smicrines how he can get his daughter back without spending money in court trials, he gets both the girl and her father’s blessing. Rascally Onesimus, instead of getting the beating he deserves, is probably given his freedom.
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