Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Pseudolus is a comedy with many elements of farce. While it pokes fun at the individual characters’ foibles, and its action hinges on stock devices such as deceit, disguise, and mistaken identity, it can also be read as a critique of Roman society. The author, Plautus, set the action in Athens rather than Rome, possibly to enable a social critique that ostensibly addressed Athenian society rather than his own. Interpreting the play in terms of its own time presents challenges, as modern readers and viewers may be unsettled by Plautus’s acceptance of a slave system.
First performed in 192 BCE, this play's remarkable staying power is attested to not only by its continued production but also, perhaps to an even greater degree, by its influence on contemporary theater. Stephen Sondheim’s freely adapted A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring a character named Pseudolus, took Broadway by storm in 1962.
Psuedolus's action turns on the plight of two lovers, Calidorus and Phoenicium. Calidorus is an upper-class young man whose father, Simo, disapproves of his sweetheart. Phoenicium is a slave and prostitute owned by the villainous Ballio. Calidorus has determined that the only way Phoenicium can be with him is if he purchases her from Ballio. Ballio, however, goes back on his word, and instead arranges to sell her to a Macedonian military officer. Pseudolus, a slave owned by Simo, determines to help his master's son, Calidorus. He applies his considerable wiles and enlists the help of numerous friends in rescuing Phoenicium from this despicable treachery. One servant disguised as another, a misdirected letter, and money moving quickly between hands are all stock plot elements that Plautus deploys toward the denouement, which includes the villain’s comeuppance (though not complete downfall).
The disjuncts between Roman social norms and contemporary practices cause most of the problems of interpretation when one peers beneath the comedic surface of this play. In particular, the idea that owning one’s true love is a plausible solution to a romantic problem is one that has vexed modern readers. Even though Phoenicium will gain her freedom once married to Calidorus, the play does not delve deeply into how they can overcome his father’s objections or how a slave would fit into the elite stratum.
The character of Pseudolus likewise presents difficulties. He is clearly the hero, and much of the plot’s resolution and the play’s humor is derived from his actions. While he earns admiration from the success of the tricks he plays and encourages others to play, his character is in many ways a stock figure, rather than an individual. He is firmly situated within the conventions of both Roman theater and Roman society. As a slave, he exhibits a loyalty to his benevolent master that audiences of the day would likely have found laudable. As a trickster figure who dominates the action, rather than merely functioning as his master’s sidekick, he seems to invert social conventions. But the sly, cunning, manipulative aspects of his character still associate him with lower strata, and the author places severe constraints on the extent of his nobility. Although he wins a bet with his master, Simo, he remains a slave, and the Roman institution of slavery remains firmly in place.
Issues of female agency and of women’s place in Roman society are also problematic aspects of this play. The female characters are the weakest in the play, and their desires rarely merit the male characters’ consideration. The slave status of Phoenicium, while particularly problematic, is magnified in the other female characters, many of whom are unnamed prostitutes owned by Ballio. The negativity of these attitudes is tempered somewhat by the fact that the evil Ballio is obviously abusive and thus transgressing social boundaries. That he would have the right, as an owner, to mistreat his property is never overtly challenged, however.