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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.

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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.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 262


*Athens. Ancient Greek city that was the center of Greek culture. Although Athens provides the setting for the play, the play might have been set in any Greek city or Rome itself. Plautus adapts—and adds elements to—the New Comedy, as represented by the work of the Greek poet Menander. At the turn of the second century b.c.e., Rome was militarily and economically powerful, in transition from city-state to world empire. Plautus’s models are Greek, but he uses them comically to reflect the social and cultural changes that are producing strains in traditional Roman life.

House of Simo

House of Simo (SIH-moh). Middle of three adjacent houses in Athens that is the residence of the stern old father of Calidorus, a teenager madly in love with the young courtesan Phoenicium. Pseudolus, the protagonist, is Simo’s quick-witted, crafty slave. In Plautine comedy, raised stages generally represented city streets with temporary wooden scenery supplying the background facades of several houses.

House of Ballio

House of Ballio (BA-lee-oh). Residence of a slave dealer and pimp. Ballio owns Phoenicium and has sold her to a Macedonian captain. However, before he can complete the deal, Pseudolus swindles him out of both the girl and his fee. Ballio’s house is stage left of Simo’s. His proximity to his very proper neighbors illustrates the intrusion of sordid materialism into respectable Roman life.

House of Callipho

House of Callipho (KAL-lee-foh). Residence of a tolerant old man, who is a foil to the inflexible Simo. His house is stage right of Simo’s.


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Garton, Charles. “How Roscius Acted Ballio.” Personal Aspects of the Roman Theatre. Toronto: Hakkert, 1972. The most renowned actor of his day, Roscius played Ballio, instead of the lead role of Pseudolus. Refers to comments of Cicero and examines the role and how the actor appeared on stage.

Plautus, Titus Maccius. Pseudolus/Plautus. Edited by M. M. Wilcock. Bristol, England: Bristol Classical Press, 1987. Latin text with valuable introduction and commentary. Includes close plot analysis.

Segal, Erich. Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. Valuable study of Plautus’ work, setting social and cultural contexts for the plays and commenting on their appeal to Roman audiences.

Slater, Niall. Plautus in Performance: The Theatre of the Mind. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Chapter on Pseudolus follows the evolution of Pseudolus’ scheme, which he concocts as he goes. Emphasizes the power of language through which Pseudolus, speaking for Plautus, constructs a metadrama (a play about making a play) by using theatrical metaphor and direct address to the audience.

Wright, John. “The Transformation of Pseudolus.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 104 (1974): 403-416. Reflects on problems with the play, including inconsistency over Calidorus’ awareness of the fact that his mistress has been sold by Ballio and the apparent weakness of Pseudolus as a fully developed character. Argues that Pseudolus is transformed by metaphoric language, being associated with such various roles as cook, teacher, and poet (playwright).

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Critical Essays