Micio is an aging, easygoing Athenian bachelor whose strict and hardworking brother Demea permits him to adopt and rear Aeschinus, one of Demea’s two sons. Unlike his brother, Micio is a permissive parent, choosing to let pass many of Aeschinus’s small extravagances on the assumption that children are more likely to remain bound to their duty by ties of kindness than by those of fear.
Micio comes to wonder if his policy is the better. One day, shortly after Aeschinus tells him he is tired of the Athenian courtesans and wants to marry, Demea comes to Micio and informs him angrily that Aeschinus broke into a strange house, beat its master, and carried off a woman with whom he is infatuated. It is a shameful thing, Demea says, especially since Aeschinus has such a fine example of continence and industry in his brother Ctesipho, who dutifully spends his time working for Demea in the country. It is also shameful that Aeschinus was reared the way he was, Demea observes, with Micio letting the youth go to the bad by failing to restrain his excesses.
After quarreling about their methods for rearing children, the two men part. Demea agrees not to interfere, and Micio, although confused and grieved by Aeschinus’s apparent change of heart and failure to inform him of the escapade, determines to stand by his adopted son.
As it turns out, however, Demea’s report of Aeschinus is correct only in outline. The house into which the young man broke belongs to Sannio, a pimp and slave dealer, and the woman carried off is a slave with whom, ironically, the model son Ctesipho fell in love but cannot afford to buy. Demea’s restraint is more than Ctesipho can bear, and because he is afraid to indulge himself before his father, he chooses to do so behind his back. Aeschinus agrees to procure the woman for his brother but keeps his motives secret in order to protect his brother from Demea’s wrath.
Sannio, furious at the treatment he received, hounds Aeschinus for the return of the slave. Sannio is soon to leave on a slave-trading expedition, so he has no time to prosecute the case in court; moreover, an obscure point of law creates the possibility that the slave might be declared free and that Sannio could lose his entire investment. In consequence, he finally consents to sell her for the price he paid for her.
Meanwhile, other complications arise. Long before the slave episode, Aeschinus fell in love with Pamphila, the daughter of Sostrata,...
(The entire section is 1016 words.)