Return to Born Eunuchs Library



[Translated by me, using the Italian translation by Giuseppe Zanetto as a reference, which was published by Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, Milan, 1999.]

The basic plot of "EUNUCHUS" by Publius Terentius Afer is as follows:
The young Athenian PHAEDRIA is fed up with the infidelities of his foreign girlfriend THAIS, a courtesan. The last straw has been her asking him to leave town for a few days so that she can pay attention to a rich soldier THRASO. PHAEDRIA agrees to leave town, but isn't sure whether he will return to her. But he loves her, and he hopes against hope that he can win her over in the end. To achieve this, he has bought her a present, or rather two presents, an Aethiopian slave girl and a eunuch. PHAEDRIA means to have them delivered by his servant PARMENO while he himself is out of town.
THAIS tries to reassure PHAEDRIA that she does indeed love him, but that she has to spend some time with this soldier because he means to make her a present as well, a present that she is very interested in receiving. The soldier's present is a slave girl, or so he thinks, who comes from PHAEDRIA's home town. The soldier does not know that this slave girl is actually THAIS's sister. Well, actually she is not her sister, but she was raised as her sister. In fact, the girl PANFILA, who never actually appears on stage, was originally an Athenian of citizen rank, who was kidnapped as a young child by pirates and sold into slavery, which is how she ended up in THAIS's family home.
THAIS not only wants to reestablish contact with her foster sister, she also expects to be able to improve her social standing in Athens by returning PANFILA to her Athenian family, represented by her brother CHREMES.
This is where the plot goes slightly awry. PHAEDRIA has a younger brother, CHAEREA, who is just returning from military service when all the above events are unfolding. At the port, CHAEREA sees PANFILA coming off the boat on her way to be delivered to THAIS, and he is enraptured by her beauty. He tries to follow her but he loses her. Luckily, however, CHAEREA runs into his family's servant PARMENO who has just seen PANFILA go by, escorted by THRASO's servant GNATHO. PARMENO reveals to CHAEREA that the girl he is chasing is the gift of the soldier to THAIS, and that he himself is supposed to deliver a eunuch to THAIS's house for PHAEDRIA. Based on a joking suggestion by PARMENO, CHAEREA decides to substitute himself for the eunuch in order to get into THAIS's house and he forces PARMENO to cooperate. Since he has been away on military service, THAIS and her household staff do not know his face. CHAEREA's plan works, and he is in fact accepted for a eunuch and put in charge of guarding the girl in whom he is so strongly infatuated. Of course, when he is left alone with her, he has his way with her, and then, discovered by THAIS's maid PYTHIAS, he flees the scene.
Of course, everyone is scandalized. THAIS's plan to get in good with PANFILA's Athenian family seems to be ruined. At this point PHAEDRIA returns and discovers what his brother has done. CHAEREA is dragged back to THAIS's house and explains his love for PANFILA and agrees to marry her. CHREMES is grateful for the return of his long-lost sister, PHAEDRIA and THAIS are reconciled, the soldier amd PHAEDRIA agree to share THAIS, and all ends well.
The following lines are excerpted from the play because of what they tell us about the social status and role of eunuchs in third century BCE Roman and Greek society. We learn that eunuch slaves are an extreme luxury item, usually owned only by royalty, although eunuchs themselves have very low social status. Eunuchs could be quite effeminate. They were given free access to women's private space, because, though friendly toward women, they were thought to be impotent with them and trustworthy as their guardians. Therefore, to impersonate a eunuch was a great crime. It was easy enough to impersonate a eunuch, though, by having the right kind of look and being introduced as a eunuch. When a eunuch proved untrustworthy by having sex with a woman, he was reclassified as a "male" [vir]. Otherwise a eunuch is never referred to as a male, but rather only as a non-gender-specific "human being" [homo].
Notice also from Thraso's reaction to Chaerea in the guise of a eunuch, that, although usually less enticing than a boy, a eunuch was considered a possible sex object for a man, especially after the man had been drinking.

Lines 163-169
PHAEDRIA (complaining to THAIS about her request to spend time alone with THRASO)
Tell me, is he the only one who gives you presents? Did you have the impression that I had become less generous to you? When you told me that you wanted an Ethiopian chambermaid, didn't I move heaven and earth to find you one? Then you told me that you wanted a eunuch, because only queens are accustomed to having them, and I found you one: yesterday I paid twenty minas [about $2000] for the two of them. Even when you treated me like a dog, I forgave you: and now as compensation you drive me away!

Lines 229-231
PARMENO (on seeing the soldier's servant escorting PANFILA)
He has the girl with him who is to be presented to her! My goodness! What a beauty! I realize that I am going to look pretty bad today bringing this sorry decrepit eunuch. That girl is even prettier than Thais!

Lines 294-297
CHAEREA (after losing PANFILA's trail, and just before meeting PARMENO, CHAREA foreshadows his upcoming impersonation of a eunuch)
Where can I find her? Where can I go to ask after her? And whom can I ask? What road should I take? I am unsure! There is one hope: wherever she may be, she cannot remain hidden for long. What a beautiful face! From this point forward I erase all women from my mind: their commonplace beauty is nauseating.

Lines 356-358
(Big-mouthed PARMENO tells CHAEREA about PHAEDRIA's present to THAIS)
PARMENO: Do you know what present [your brother] is going to offer to try to compete with this [girl from THRASO]?
CHAEREA: What, please tell me!
PARMENO: A eunuch.
CHAEREA: Please! Not that ugly human being [hominem] that he bought yesterday, that womanish old man?
PARMENO: The very one.

Lines 363-375
(CHAEREA expresses envy for the eunuch, and PARMENO jokingly suggests a solution)
CHAEREA: Where are you going now?
PARMENO: I am going home to get the slaves to bring to Thais: your brother ordered me to do it.
CHAEREA: Lucky eunuch! He is going to be transferred into this house!
PARMENO: So what?
CHAEREA: Don't you understand? At all times he will see before him a fellow slave of the greatest beauty, he will talk with her, they will live in the very same rooms, sometimes he will be able to eat with her, sometimes even sleep with her...
PARMENO: What if you were the lucky one?
CHAEREA: How, Parmeno? Answer me!
PARMENO: You could put on the guy's outfit.
CHAEREA: His outfit? And then what?
PARMENO: I will take you in his place.
CHAEREA: I'm listening...
PARMENO: And I will say that you are him.
CHAEREA: I get it!
PARMENO: And thus you will enjoy all the advantages that you were just attributing to him a moment ago. You'll eat with her, you'll keep her company, you'll touch her, you'll play together, you'll sleep near her. Especially since none of those women there know you or know who you are. On top of that, you are quite capable of playing a eunuch: you have the right look and the right age.
CHAEREA: Well spoken! That is the best advice that I have ever heard! Hurry, let's go back home right away! Dress me, bring me there, introduce me! Let's get to work!
PARMENO: What are you saying? I was only joking!
CHAEREA: Stop talking nonsense!
PARMENO: Oh God! Poor me, what have I done? Where are you pushing me? You're going to knock me down! I am talking to you! Hold on!
CHAEREA: Let's go!
PARMENO: Is it decided?
CHAEREA: Definitely!
PARMENO: Look, this plan is too rash!
CHAEREA: Not really. Let's do it!
PARMENO: Yes, but this egg is going to be cracked over my head!
CHAEREA: Whatever!
PARMENO: What we are doing is a scandal!

Lines 466-479
(PARMENO presents CHAEREA, dressed in the costume of the eunuch DORUS, to THAIS and the soldier THRASO)
PARMENO: With your consent, if you will allow it, I would like to say a few words to Thais.
THRASO: No doubt your gifts will be just as beautiful as mine!
PARMENO: Facts speak for themselves. Hey! Bring out the two that I told you to, quickly! - Come forward! This one comes all the way from Ethiopia.
THRASO: Three minas at most [$300]!
GNATHO (THRASO's servant): Barely!
PARMENO: Dorus, where are you? Come forward! Behold, your eunuch! What a distinguished face! What a fresh, youthful age!
THAIS: How the gods must love me! He is handsome!
PARMENO: What do you have to say, Gnatho? Do you have any complaints? What about you, Thraso? They're silent: that is sufficient praise. Test him out in letters, wrestling, music. I assure you he is the equal of a clever, freeborn youth.
THRASO: I say, if it came to it, even sober, why I'd...

Lines 643-702
(PHAEDRIA returns to find THAIS's maid PYTHIAS screaming bloody murder, because the girl has been raped by the eunuch, his gift)
PYTHIAS: Poor me, where will I find that impious scoundrel, where will I look for him? He dared to commit such an outrageous act?!
PHAEDRIA: My god! Let me find out what happened!
PYTHIAS: Besides the crime, after he played with the girl, he took off all her clothes, and then he tore her hair!
PYTHIAS: If I get my hands on him, I'll tear the poisoner's eyes out with my fingernails!
PHAEDRIA: Something really terrible must have happened in the house while I was gone. Let me approach. - What's going on? Pythias, why are you upset and who are you looking for?
PYTHIAS: Ah, Phaedria, you want to know who I am looking for! You and your delightful gift can go where you deserve!
PHAEDRIA: What is the matter??
PYTHIAS: You're asking me? That eunuch you gave us did something horrible! He corrupted the girl that the soldier had given to my mistress as a present!
PHAEDRIA: What are you talking about?
PYTHIAS: My god!
PHAEDRIA: You're intoxicated!
PYTHIAS: I wish my enemies were as drunk as I am!
DORIAS (another slave girl belonging to THAIS): My Pythias, I beg you, tell us what sort of monstrous event happened?
PHAEDRIA: You're crazy: what eunuch could do that?
PYTHIAS: What he was, I do not know: the facts themselves prove what he did. The girl herself is crying, and when you ask her what happened, she doesn't dare to speak. That proper male [vir], however, is nowhere to be found; and, poor me, I fear that he took a few things from the house as well.
PHAEDRIA: I cannot figure where the coward can have gotten to, unless he went back to our house!
PYTHIAS: Please! Go and see if he is there!
PHAEDRIA: I will let you know right away!
DORIA: My god, I beg you! My dear, I have never heard of such an unspeakable crime!
PYTHIAS: Certainly, I had heard that these guys were great friends of women, but were not able to do anything! It never entered my miserable mind! Otherwise, I would have locked him up somewhere and would not have turned the girl over to him.

[Next scene.]

PHAEDRIA: Come out, villain! Will you not move, fugitive? Come out, evil purchase!
DORUS: Have mercy!
PHAEDRIA: Oh, look at the face that this butcher is making! Why did you come back here? What does this change of dress signify? What can you tell me? Pythias, if I had delayed a minute, I would not have found him at home; he was already ready to flee.
PYTHIAS: Please, do you have him or not?
PHAEDRIA: Of course I have him!
PYTHIAS: Oh, well done!
DORIAS: That is truly good news!
PYTHIAS: Where is he?
PHAEDRIA: You're asking me? Don't you see him before you?
PYTHIAS: Do I see him? Who, please?
PHAEDRIA: This one right here, of course!
PYTHIAS: Who is this guy [homo]?
PHAEDRIA: He is the one who was brought to you today!
PYTHIAS: Phaedria, we have never seen this person before.
PHAEDRIA: You've never seen him?
PYTHIAS: Please, did you think this was the one who was brought to us today?
PHAEDRIA: I don't have any other!
PYTHIAS: Ei! This one isn't even comparable to the other one. That one had a handsome, noble face.
PHAEDRIA: He must have looked that way before, when he was fitted out in a brightly-colored costume. Now he looks ugly to you, because he doesn't have it on.
PYTHIAS: Please! As if there were such a small difference! A teenager was brought to us today, one whom you would be truly pleased to look at, Phaedria! This is a shriveled, tired, senile old man, the color of a mouse!
PHAEDRIA: What? What kind of story are you telling? Are you trying to tell me that I don't know whom I bought? Hey you, did I buy you?
DORUS: You bought me.
PYTHIAS: Tell him to answer my questions!
PHAEDRIA: Go ahead and ask.
PYTHIAS: Did you come to our house today? He says no. A different one came to our house, about sixteen years old, and he had Parmeno with him.
PHAEDRIA: Listen, you, explain one thing to me first: these clothes you have on, where did they come from? Will you talk? Monster of a human being, will you not speak?
DORUS: Chaerea arrived...
PHAEDRIA: My brother?
DORUS: Today.
PHAEDRIA: How long ago?
DORUS: Not long.
PHAEDRIA: With whom?
DORUS: With Parmeno.
PHAEDRIA: Did you know him before?
DORUS: No, I was never told about him.
PHAEDRIA: So how did you know that he was my brother?
DORUS: Parmeno said he was: he is the one who gave me these clothes.
PHAEDRIA: I'm dead!
DORUS: He put on my clothes: then they both left together.

Lines 947-958
(After everything is settled, PYTHIAS teases PARMENO by lying to him and telling him that CHAEREA may receive "an adulteror's punishment" because of his crime)
PARMENO: What happened Pythias? What are you talking about? Who are they going to teach a lesson to?
PYTHIAS: You're asking me, you most reckless man? You have been the ruin of that young man that you brought to us as a eunuch, trying to cheat us.
PARMENO: What? What happened, let's hear it!
PYTHIAS: I will tell you: that girl that was given to Thais today, did you know that she was a citizen here, and that her brother is one of the highest nobles?
PARMENO: I didn't know.
PYTHIAS: Well, that's how it turns out. That miserable boy corrupted her. And when her brother, a most violent man, found out about the deed...
PARMENO: What did he do?
PYTHIAS: He immediately tied him up in a miserable fashion.
PARMENO: He tied him up?
PYTHIAS: Yes, even though Thais begged him and told him not to do it.
PARMENO: What are you saying?
PYTHIAS: And now he is threatening to inflict on him the punishment of adulterors, something I have never seen and do not want to see.
PARMENO: By what recklessness does he dare to do such a thing?
PYTHIAS: What do you mean "such a thing"?
PARMENO: Doesn't this seem to you beyond the pale? Who has ever seen any person arrested as an adulteror in the house of a prostitute?
PYTHIAS: I don't know...