living classics: Amphitryon cuckolded & Geta duped via book learning

Mighty abstractions, when connected to ordinary life, tend to lead to folly. In the twelfth century, the Latin comedy Geta appropriated Plautus’s classical Roman comedy Amphitryon to challenge the abstract book learning preoccupying European universities. Within today’s sphere of decaying European cultural heritage, Geta is equally relevant to much less sophisticated abstractions now captivating universities and other organs of authoritative discourse.

To raise his social status, the wealthy Greek householder Amphitryon goes to study at the most prestigious center of scholarly learning. That of course is Athens.[1] Amphitryon has with him his head slave Geta, who also participates in learning. They study piles of books. They learn new words and new ways of thinking. They learn to argue about all the burning concerns in twelfth-century European universities.

Meanwhile Jupiter, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos, is looking down from his seat on high. He laments that Amphitryon’s wife Alcmene is beautiful and pleasing. His own wife is the domineering goddess Juno. She acts like a hateful fury. Jupiter declares his desire for Alcmene to the messenger god Mercury, called Archas:

I’m burning for Alcmene, yet I don’t burn her, but I’m burning.
Her spouse Amphitryon is temporarily absent. I myself will enjoy his place.
Let Jupiter study Alcmene in the marital bed. Let her husband in Athens
philosophize. Let Jupiter love, let the husband read.
Let Amphitryon dispute and let Jupiter deceive. The arts
let him cultivate. Jupiter himself will plow his Alcmene.
But already he prepares to return. Therefore I pray, assume Geta’s form.
I, your father god himself, will assume Amphitryon’s form.

{ Uror in Almenam, nec eam tamen uro, sed uror.
Tempore sponsus abest, utar et ipse loco.
Jupiter Almenae studeat thalamo, vir Athenis
philosophetur; amet Jupiter, ille legat.
Disputet Amphitryon et fallat Jupiter; artes
hic colat, Almenam Jupiter ipse suam.
Jam parat et reditus. Ergo, precor, indue Getam:
induet ipse tuus Amphitriona pater. }[2]

In medieval Europe, wives rejoiced when their husbands returned from long absences. Pious Christian wives wouldn’t rejoice to the degree that they would at the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, but they would rejoice highly:

Acting through various rumors, news announces to Alcmene
the return of her husband, and the news delights her.
She orders that the household rejoice at the return of its lord.
The halls are newly surfaced ivory-white and purple is spread on beds.
The marital bedroom smiles and shines, decorated with gold.
She brings out the wealth of the absent Amphitryon.
Her joy attests, with splendor and magnificence in her clothing
proclaiming, that her husband has returned home.
Her hair artfully flows down, her right hand is also ringed with gold,
and she paints her face such that art vivifies her beauty.
So she conquers other women, so she conquers even herself.
Made new and more attractive, she thus pleases Jove more.

{ Nunciat Almenae variis rumoribus acta
Fama viri reditum, famaque juvit eam.
Ad reditum domini domus exultare jubetur;
Atria vestit ebur, purpura lata thoros.
Arridet talamus positoque refulgerat auro,
Absenti assurgunt Amphitrionis opes.
Gaudia testatur dominae nitor atque superba
Significat domui veste redire virum.
Arte jacent crines, auro quoque dextra superbit,
Pingit et haec vultus vivit ut arte decor.
Sic alias vincit, sic a se vincitur ipsa.
Fit nova plusque decens, plus placet ergo Jovi. }[3]

Jupiter, also known younger as Jove, appreciated Alcmene’s efforts. He proclaimed:

Just look at
how Alcmene is, how good and how beautiful,
how much better than my Juno! Alcmene vanquishes my constellations,
outshines the stars, and makes daylight seem like shadows.
So she pleases me, so let her come out and meet me,
and now let her undergo Jupiter as her Amphitryon.

{… Ecce
quanta sit Almena, quam bona quamque decens,
quam melior Junone mea! Mea sidera vincit,
praeradiat stellis obtenebratque diem.
Sic placet illa michi, sic exeat obvia nobis,
iamque suo subeat Amphitrione Jovem. }

Jupiter and Archas, assuming the forms of Amphitryon and Geta, respectively, immediately descend from the heavens to Alcmene’s home. They arrive before Amphitryon and Geta return.

Alcmene and Amphitryon from Plautus's Amphitryon

Perceiving Jupiter to be Amphitryon, Alcmene delights in her husband’s return home. They greet each other and warmly embrace:

They multiply kisses, they give and repeat giving.
Alcmene is temperate, and she soothingly restrains kisses,
and virginal modesty tames her words.
The god lusts. With his mouth pressing her mouth, he eagerly licks.
His kisses taste of an adulterer, and his words of Jove.
Hanging from Jove’s neck, she presses with blessed
heaviness the god’s shoulders. Thus he loved to be weighed down.
“I truly would not be happier if I embraced Jove himself,”
she said, and thus she compares Jove to Jove.
They pour together kisses. Now Jove burns hotter.

{ Oscula multiplicant, dant iterantque data.
Temperat Almena, castigat et oscula blande,
et sua virgineo verba pudore domat.
Luxuriat deus, ore premens os lambit hiulco,
et moechum sapiunt oscula, verba Jovem.
Dependet collo Jovis illa premitque beato
Pondere colla dei: sic amat ille premi.
“Non equidem mage laeta Jovem complecterer ipsum,”
Dixerat, atque Jovem comparat illa Jovi.
Oscula confundunt; jam Jupiter acrius ardet. }

Jove immediately orders Archas-Geta to shut the door and bolt it.[4] Jove orders that if any sailors or others arrive, they be driven away. Then he leads Alcmene to an intimate chamber and unites with her in bed. To the unknowing, this would be just a normal medieval spousal homecoming.

Meanwhile, the ship carrying the real Geta and Amphitryon has docked. Alcmene has sent her kitchen slave Birria out to meet them and carry baggage. Birria walks slowly and takes detours. He hopes to avoid carrying baggage. Glimpsing Geta coming and carrying a massive load of books, Birria hides. Geta notices that Birria is hiding in a cavern. Stopping to rest nearby, Geta complains to himself of the books’ weight. He complains of the terrible conditions he suffered as a student in Athens. But he proclaims to himself:

But as a prize for my punishment, I bring back amazing sophisms.
Now I know how to prove that a human is an ass.
When my plates, hearth, and greasy kitchen are returned to me,
I will prove that these persons are asses, and those, cows.
I am a logician! I will make all whatever animals I wish.
Birria, since he’s excessively slow, will be an ass.

{ Sed pretium poenae miranda sophismata porto,
Jamque probare scio quod sit asellus homo.
Dum michi me reddent patinae, focus, uncta popina,
Hos asinos, illos esse probabo boves,
Sum logicus, faciam quaevis animalia cunctos;
Birria, nam nimis est lentus, asellus erit. }[5]

Overhearing this nonsense, the no-nonsense Birria affirms to himself the prize of his cherished manliness:

What? Birria will become an ass?
Will he take away what nature has given to me?
To Geta, whatever problems he may roll out, Birria thus
will respond: “Birria will always be a human!”

{ Quid? Birria fiet asellus?
Quod natura dedit auferet ille michi?
Birria sic Getae, quaecunque problemata volvat,
respondebit: erit semper Birria homo. }

Geta continues to philosophize grandly and incoherently:

I have also learned this: that nothing can ever perish,
that once anything is, it never can be nothing.
A thing to which is given to be, never is permitted not to be,
but it changes appearance and renews its state.
Thus it cannot not be.

Death destroys all. It’s reported that learned Plato has died,
and also that Socrates himself lies in the grave.
My reputation will live, but it too will perish with death.
Death destroys all. With death all ceases.

{ Hoc etiam didici quod res nequid ulla perire;
quod semel est aliquid, hoc nichil esse nequid.
Cui semel esse datur nunquam non esse licebit,
sed faciem mutat et novat esse suum.
Sic nequeo non esse. …

Omnia mors tollit; doctum cecidisse Platonem
atque ipsum Socratem occubuisse fertur.
Fama mei vivet, sed et hoc quoque morte peribit.
Omnia mors tollit; omnia morte cadunt. }

Geta throws stones at Birria hiding in the cavern. Birria calls out that it’s he, Geta’s friend. Geta at first refuses to believe. They argue. Only when Birria shows his face does Geta finally acknowledge Birria’s identity.

After sending Birria to meet Amphitryon at the ship, Geta continues home. At home, he encounters a locked door and a silent house. He yells for the door to be opened. Archas-Geta comes to the door and tells Geta to go away. Geta is stunned to encounter his double. He questions what’s going on. Archas-Geta answers that Alcmene and Amphitryon are enjoying themselves in bed, and that Birria has also returned after Archas-Geta threw stones at him hiding in a cavern. The god Archas-Geta knows all that Geta knows. Geta is stupefied:

His voice and deeds prove that he’s the real Geta.
Have I gone astray? Has Birria, whom I just sent on,
returned faster than I or by a shorter way?
It is I who am talking to myself, but I don’t know
by reason how two could have been made from what was one.
All that is, is one, but I who am speaking am not one.
Therefore Geta is nothing, but nothing cannot be.
I was one when my voice against the closed door first
thundered, but he answered me with myself.

{ Hunc verum Getam factaque voxque probant.
Numquid aberravi? Numquid modo Birria missus
me citius rediit vel breviore via?
Est ego qui mecum loquitur; sed nescio fiat
qua ratione duo qui primus unus erat.
Omne quod est unum est, sed non sum qui loquor unus.
Ergo nichil Geta est, nec nichil esse potest.
Unus eram clausa cum prima limina voce
intonui, sed me reddidit ille michi. }

Learning has confused Geta about who’s who. Geta and Archas-Geta argue, with each evoking Roman gods in cursing the other. Their dispute doesn’t concern the now-contentious issue of cultural appropriation, but the even more vital issue of personal identity and personal appropriation. Geta thus asks Archas-Geta to describe himself so that Geta can know whether someone other than himself is he. Archas-Geta responds:

First of all, for you to be wise, you must not believe that you are Geta.
I don’t think you really believe that, but believe me just now:
my Greece knows no other Geta than me.
You seek to deceive me with a name that’s certainly mine.
I alone am Geta.

{ Principio ut sapias Getam te credere noli,
Nec puto quod credas; sed modo crede michi.
Non alium Getam nisi me mea Graecia novit;
fallere me quaeris nomine nempe meo.
Solus ego Geta. }

But does Archas-Geta have lived experience to support his identity claim? With his university learning, Geta asks that question. Archas-Geta answers:

“Listen to my tricks and wiles,” Archas-Geta says,
“so that you will swear that I am Geta and you are nothing.
Even though Geta is ugly, women rejoice to love me.
Would you wish to know the motive? She herself is ugly.
Yet there’s an even better cause: my dick is never sated.
It always has the madness of desire and length without measure.
So I should confess the truth: they love not Geta but his groin.
Women whom my face makes enemies, my groin returns to me as lovers.
Thus one part of me makes it such that I am loved as a whole.
I deceive the old man, I lessen goods committed to me, I secretly steal.
With stolen resources I nourish my sex-worker Thais.

Take up now the truth of how I recently behaved in Athens
so that you will prove me to be Geta by my deeds.
Schools preoccupy Amphitryon. Geta’s sex-worker Thais preoccupies Geta.
When I change countries, I seek a new sex-worker Thais.
A good supply of these Thaises seek Geta.
With gifts I conquer. Love conquers with gift.”

{ “Furta dolosque meos audi,” Caducifer inquit,
“ut jures Getam me fore, teque nichil.
Est quamvis turpis Geta, qua gaudet amari,
Scire velis causam? turpis et illa quidem.
Causa subest melior: nunquam satiati priapi
semper inest rabies, et modus absque modo.
Ut verum fatear non Geta sed inguen amatur;
si qua meos vultus non amat, inguen amat;
quas hostes vultus, inguen michi reddit amicas.
Sic ut totus amer pars facit una mei.
Fallo senem, minuo commissa, recondita furor,
furtivisque opibus Thaida pasco meam.

Accipe nunc verum quod gessi nuper Athenis
ut fore me Getam per mea facta probes.
Amphitriona scholae, sua Getam Thais habebat.
Dum muto patriam Thaida quaero novam;
Thaidas exquiro quarum bona copia Getam;
Vinco muneribus: munere vincit amor.” }[6]

Archas-Geta accurately represented Geta, who immediately recognized his own ugly person and barren activities. Men deserve to be loved for their whole, fully human persons, not just their groins and their material gifts. Yet Geta didn’t understand himself in that way.

Geta in Terence's Phormio

Despondent with his nothingness, Geta heads back to Amphitryon at the ship. He complains to himself:

“Woe to me who was, who now is nothing!
Geta, who can you be? You are a human being. No, by the hero Hercules, since
if Geta is a human being, who can not Geta be?
I am Plato? Perhaps my studies have made me Plato.
If I’m not Geta they shouldn’t call me Geta.
I used to be called Geta. What will my name be?
I will have no name because I am nothing. Alas, I am nothing!
Yet still I am speaking and seeing and I touch myself with my hand.”
Touching himself with his hand, he thus adds: “By the hero Hercules, I am touched!
That which has the power to be touched assuredly cannot be nothing.
Whatever has been something, does not cease to be.
That which once was given to be, always is.
Thus I am, thus I am not. May the logic perish
by which I have perished so completely! Now I know: knowing is harmful.
When Geta learned logic, then he ceased to be.
What makes others cows has made me nothing.
For me these sophistries have been heavily experienced.
Merely changing others, they have deprived me of my very self.
If it is thus, woe to all logic.”

{“Vae michi! qui fueram, quomodo fio nichil!
Geta, quid esse potes? Es homo. Non, Hercule, namque
si quis homo Geta est, quis nisi Geta foret?
Sum Plato? Me forsan artes fecere Platonem.
Geta quidem non sum Getaque dicor ego.
Si non sum Geta non debeo Geta vocari.
Geta vocabar ego; quod michi nomen erit?
Nomen erit nullum quia sum nichil. Heu michi sum nil!
Jam loquor et videor, tangor et ipse manu.”
Seque manu tangens sic addidit: “Hercule, tangor!
Quodque valet tangi non erit, hercle, nichil.
Est aliquid quodcumque fuit, nec desinit esse.
Est etiam semper cui datur esse semel.
Sic sum, sic nil sum. Pereat dialectica per quam
sic perii penitus. Nunc scio: scire nocet.
Cum didicit Geta logicam, tunc desiit esse,
quaeque boves alios me facit esse nichil.
Sic in me gravius experta sophismata! Mutans
tantum alios michimet abstulit esse meum.
Vae logicis, si sic est, omnibus! …” }[7]

Condemning logic follows from reasoning to folly. A slave-student deserves to be taught better than that.

Amphitryon sees the woeful Geta approaching. Geta reports that Amphitryon, Geta, and Birria have already arrived home, and that he is nothing. Birria, a common-sense household thinker, perceives what has happened:

Birria laughs. “Greece received them sane,”
he says, “but sent them back insane.
Logic makes everyone to be insane fools.
Let this intellectual skill never be known to you, Birria.
It’s good that you lack this intellectual skill that by some fantasy
makes humans into asses or nothing.
Let whoever wishes have logic. You, Birria, be always a human.
Let them be pleased with study, and you with a greasy kitchen.”

{ Birria subridens: “Accepit Graecia sanos
hos,” ait, “insanos illa remisit eos.
Insanire facit stultum dialectica quemvis:
ars ea sit nunquam, Birria, nota tibi.
Arte carere bonum est quae per fantasmata quaedam
aut homines asinos aut nichil esse facit.
Sit logicus quivis; tu, Birria, sis homo semper.
His studium placeat, uncta popina tibi.” }

Amphitryon is concerned about his wife. Calling Geta a fool, Amphitryon suspects that an adulterer is with Alcmene. He urges all to seize weapons and prepare to retake their home. Amphitryon will attempt to regain his wife’s love by force. But soldiering for love is folly. Geta will attempt to conquer his nothingness with a sword. Fighting cannot overcome nothing. In reality, men are never nothing. Men are entitled to love and men’s lives always matter, whether in bed with their wives or in the kitchen.

Birria in Terence's Andria

Brandishing weapons and invoking the aid of the god Jupiter, Amphitryon, Geta, and Birria arrive at home. Jupiter and Archas have already left. Alcmene rushes out to meet Amphitryon. She’s bewildered by their weapons. She kisses him and seeks to comfort him. He forgets his suspicion and enjoys embracing her. But Geta boldly calls out threats to no one. Alcmene laughs and explains that Geta himself barred the door when she was in bed with Amphitryon. Knowing that she wasn’t in bed with him, Amphitryon is enraged at being cuckolded. Alcmene explains that she must have been dreaming. Affirming a dream is sometimes necessary to re-establish happiness:

“Dreams they surely are!” lowly Birria suggests. “Geta
is insane. He’s made stupid by his intellectual skill.
Put far away all these insane disputations. I’m heading to the kitchen.
Let Amphitryon rejoice, and let Geta be a human.”
Amphitryon is happy with his wife, Birria with his gleaming kitchen,
and Geta is happy to be human himself. Each of them is contented.

{ “Sompnia sunt, hercle!” subjecit Birria; “Geta
insanit factus stultus arte sua.
Jurgia sint insana procul. Succedo coquinae,
gaudeat Amphitryon, Getaque fiat homo.”
Laetatur sponsa Amphitrion, nidore coquine
Birria, Geta hominem se fore. Quaeque placent. }

Alcmene subsequently gives birth to two boys, the fully mortal Iphicles, son of Amphitryon, and the half-god Heracles, son of Jupiter.[8] Like Joseph, the father of Jesus, Amphitryon loved his extra-marital son Heracles. Moreover, despite their different fathers, Iphicles and Heracles became loyal friends. That’s the sort of love that would have pleased Catullus.

For today’s students, study of medieval Latin literature offers the best hope for avoiding an idiocy of book learning. Unfortunately, university-level study of medieval Latin literature and the humanities more generally often are not welcoming, supportive, and affirming for men students. Everyone in today’s universities should be concerned, because such a situation is bad for women. All students should seek to encounter a culture that embraces the labyrinth of life and that doesn’t impose doctrinaire ideological conformity. Minds, hearts, and souls are terrible gifts to waste.

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[1] Bate states that Athens “here stands for Paris, the centre of philosophical studies.” Bate (1976) p. 16, note to v. 31. Early in the twelfth-century Europe, Paris came to be known as the Athens of the North. Peter Abelard was a leading twelfth-century master-teacher in Paris. Id. p. 5, Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 2-3. Study of the Greeks in twelfth-century Paris would have meant Platonism and Aristotelianism, particularly as taught in the cathedral school of Chartres.

Geta, in fact, explicitly sets Athens in Greece. Amphitryon arriving home by ship suggests that he lives in a place where long-distance travel by land from Athens isn’t feasible. Geta doesn’t specifically indicate the location of Amphitryon’s home. Amphitryon’s wife is named Alcmena, the Doric Greek form of the Attic Greek Alcmene. In Plautus’s Amphitryon, Amphitryon lives in Thebes. Thebes in the classical period was associated with the Aeolian dialect.

[2] Vitalis of Blois {Vitalis Blesensis}, Geta, vv. 29-36, Latin text of Bate (1976), with a few variant readings and normalized with classical Latin spellings and distinguishing u/v and i/j based on Wright (1844); my English translation, benefiting from those of Crawford (1977) and Elliott (1984). For another freely available Latin text, Montaiglon (1848). The best current critical edition is Bertini (1980). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to consult that work. Bertini’s Latin text formed the basis for Elliott’s English translation. Subsequent Latin quotes from Geta are similarly sourced. They’re all substantively consistent with Elliott’s translation and hence Bertini’s Latin text.

As a god associated with communication and commerce, Mercury acted as a go-between in facilitating other of Jupiter’s extra-marital affairs. For example, Mercury, known as Hermes in ancient Greek myth, distracted and killed Argus to facilitate Zeus’s affair with the mortal woman Io. Lucian represents Hermes complaining about the burden of serving as a go-between for Zeus in his numerous affairs with mortal women:

The sons of Alcmena and Semele, whose mothers were only women and came to a bad end, can gorge themselves without a care in the world, while I, the son of Maia, the daughter of Atlas, must wait on them hand and foot. I’m just back from Cadmus’ daughter at Sidon, where he sent me to see how things were with her. Now, without giving me time to get my breath back, he’s sent me off again to Argos to have a look at Danaë. “Then,” says he, “you’d better go on from there to Boeotia, and take a peep at Antiope on your way.” But I’m already worn out, half-dead. If only it were possible, I’d gladly ask to be sold in the market, like mortal slaves who find their lives too onerous.

{ καὶ οἱ μὲν Ἀλκμήνης καὶ Σεμέλης ἐκ γυναικῶν δυστήνων γενόμενοι εὐωχοῦνται ἀφρόντιδες, ὁ δὲ Μαίας τῆς Ἀτλαντίδος1 διακονοῦμαι αὐτοῖς. καὶ νῦν ἄρτι ἥκοντά με ἀπὸ Σιδῶνος παρὰ τῆς Κάδμου θυγατρός, ἐφ᾿ ἣν πέπομφέ με ὀψόμενον ὅ τι πράττει ἡ παῖς, μηδὲ ἀναπνεύσαντα πέπομφεν αὖθις εἰς τὸ Ἄργος ἐπισκεψόμενον τὴν Δανάην, εἶτ᾿ ἐκεῖθεν εἰς Βοιωτίαν, φησίν, ἐλθὼν ἐν παρόδῳ τὴν Ἀντιόπην ἰδέ. καὶ ὅλως ἀπηγόρευκα ἤδη. εἰ γοῦν δυνατὸν ἦν, ἡδέως ἂν ἠξίωσα πεπρᾶσθαι, ὥσπερ οἱ ἐν γῇ κακῶς δουλεύοντες. }

Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods 4 (24), “Hermes and Maia {Ερμου Και Μαιασ},” ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from MacLeod (1961). Lucian here alludes to Zeus’s affairs with Alcmena, Semele, Europa, Danaë, and Antiope. In Dialogues of the Gods 14 (10), “Hermes and the Sun {Ερμου Και Ηλιου},” the sun complains to Hermes about Zeus ordering him not rise for three days so that Zeus can spend that time in bed with Amphitryon’s wife Alcmena.

Bate’s Latin text of Geta is based closely on MS Berne, Burgerbibliothek 702. That manuscript is closely associated with the Loire Valley in central France. Geta apparently was copied into MS Berne 702 about 1150. Bate (1973) p. 6. The only significant deviation from Bate’s Latin text in the Latin quotes here are two additional verses for one particular quote, which are noted for that quote.

Vitalis of Blois apparently was a learned cleric who lived in the middle of the twelfth century in the Loire Valley. He wrote Geta in the first half of the twelfth century, probably about 1125-30. Elliott (1984), citing Bertini (1980). Vitalis of Blois also wrote another Latin comedy, Aulularia (Latin text). In his prologue to Aulularia , he explicitly describes adapting both Geta and Aulularia from Plautus’s Amphitryon and Plautus’s Aulularia, respectively. The Roman comic playwright Plautus wrote in Latin in the second century BGC. However, Vitalis adapted Aulularia from a pseudo-Plautine fourth-century text, Querolus sive Aulularia. Some scholars believe that Vitalis adapted Geta from a fourth-century text that Caelius Sedulius in his Easter Song {Carmen paschale} referred to as “ridiculous Geta {ridiculove Geta}.” Bate (1976) pp. 3-4. No other evidence of that Geta text has survived.

In adapting Plautus’s Amphitryon, Vitalis of Blois significantly changed the characters. Plautus’s Amphitryon had been away at war, thus anticipating Gallus’s theme of love and war. Vitalis of Blois made Amphitryon, along with Geta, into students seeking elite Greek knowledge. Amphitryon’s slave Sosia in Plautus is given more prominence as Geta in Vitalis of Blois’s version. Vitalis’s transformation of Bromia into Birria also gives the latter more prominence. Just as in Aulularia, satire of scholastic learning becomes a central focus. At a nominal level, rather than using Plautus’s name for the slaves, Vitalis turned to the second-century BGC Roman comic playwright Terence. The name Geta is used for a slave in Terence’s Phormio and Adelphoe, and Byrria for a slave in Terence’s Andria.

Geta is one of the earliest and most popular of the surviving medieval Latin comedies. Other Latin comedies refer to it. Quotes from Geta were commonly included in medieval compilations of excerpts, known as “gatherings of flowers {florilegia}.” Bate (1976) p. 2-3. Moreover:

The names of Geta and his fellow servant, Birria, became proverbial and the poem became a school-text, the object of glosses and commentaries.

Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 12-3. Geta has survived in sixty-seven complete manuscripts, and seven fragmentary manuscripts. An additional sixteen manuscripts are known to have contained Geta. Bertini (1980) p. 142, n. 6, via Ziolkowski (1993) p. 12. In the fifteenth century, an Italian adaptation, Geta e Birria, was made. Kuhn (2017). About 1421, Eustache Deschamps translated Geta into French as Le traité de Geta et d’Amphitryon. Deschamps, who was dead by 1405, wrote his translation and had it performed as a play perhaps about 1393. Deschamps’s translation has been erroneously dated about 1421. Kendrick (2014) pp. 393-6.

Subsequent quotes above from Geta are similarly sourced. By verse numbers in Bate (1973), they are: vv. 39-50 (Acting through various rumors…), 51-6 (Just look at …), 90-9 (hey multiply kisses…), 161-6 (But as a prize for my punishment…), 167-70 (What? Birria will become an ass?…), 171-5, 177-80 (I have also learned this…), 270-8 (His voice and deeds prove…), 321-5 (First of all, for you to be wise…), 350bc-60, 365-70 (Listen to my tricks and wiles…), 388-407 (Woe to me who was…), 443-50 (Birria laughs…), 517-22 (Dreams they surely are!…).

[3] The reference to wearing a gold wedding ring ironically suggests that she didn’t wear it while Amphitryon was away. Using cosmetics similarly would suggests falseness to the medieval reader familiar with classical critiques of women’s use of cosmetics. See, e.g. Juvenal, Satires 6.457-73 and Tertullian, On Female Fashion {De cultu feminarum} 2.5-7.

After Alcmene sent Birria to meet the home-bound Amphitryon, Birria on his way expresses suspicion about her fidelity to her husband:

A woman wants her slaves to sweat, and Alcmene’s learned to command.
Hardship grips her servants while she renews her skin with cosmetics.
So that an adulterer may enter, she pretends that her husband has returned.
So that you don’t see the adulterers, Birria, you depart, shoved out.

{ Femina vult sudare suos didicitque jubere;
poena tenet famulos, innovat illa cutem.
Moechus ut introeat mentitur adesse maritum;
Ne videas moechos, Birria, pulsus abis. }

Geta, vv. 111-4. In v. 73, Birria is called a servus {servant / slave}. Many men throughout history have, like Birria, experienced oppressive subordination to highly privileged women.

[4] I use the name Archas-Geta to refer to Archas (Mercury) in the form of Geta. Archas as a name for Mercury was unknown in Plautus’s Latin of the second century BGC. Use of the name Archas for Mercury became widespread in Latin after the fifth century GC. Crawford (1977) p. 181, n. 13. The Latin prefix archi-, from the ancient Greek ἀρχι-, means chief or highest. Archas thus might function as a pun for the god Mercury becoming a “higher” form of Geta.

[5] The phrase “sed pretium poenae” is literally written “sed precium pene.” It thus has the punning translation, “But as a prize with my penis.” A similar pun exists in Geta, v. 402, which seems to refer to Peter Abelard’s castration.

Twelfth-century scholars pondered at length logical fallacies. The great twelfth-century Parisian scholar Peter Abelard observed sometime before 1125:

If Socrates is an animal and an ass would be that animal, from very necessity, one must be convinced “Socrates is an ass.”

{ si Socrates est animal et illud animal sit asinus, ex necessitate, et ‘Socrates est asinus’ conuincitur. }

Peter Abelard, Dialectica 317, Latin text from Corpus Corporum, my English translation. Two more twelfth-century sophisms: “Every ass is an animal, and whoever says that you are an animal says the truth. Therefore, whoever says that you are an ass says the truth {tu es vel eris asinus, sed tu non es asinus, ergo eris asinus.” “You are or you will be an ass, but you are not an ass. Therefore, you will be an ass {tu es vel eris asinus, sed tu non es asinus, ergo eris asinus}.” From Rijk (1962) pp. 368, 579, as cited by Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 7-8, with my insubstantial modifications. At Oxford early in the fourteenth century, William of Heytesbury compiled and analyzed such sophisms in his Sophisms of the ass {Sophismata asinina}. On that work, Pironet (1993).

Many other sophisms have also been long known. An early-twelfth-century letter from Wibald of Stavelot to Manegold of Paderborn stated:

Subtleties and sophistic conclusions (which are called Gualidian, after a certain Guaio) you should neither use proudly nor entirely contemn. Examples of such are: “What you have not lost, you have. You have not lost horns. Therefore you have horns.” Another: “Mus {mouse} is a syllable. A mouse nibbles cheese. Therefore a syllable nibbles cheese.”

{ Argutias et sophisticas conclusiunculas, quas Gualidicas a Gualone quodam vocant, nec exercebis superbe nec contemnes penitus. Haec huiusmodi sunt: Quod non perdidisti, habes; cornua autem non perdidisti, comua ergo habes; item: Mus sillaba est; mus autem caseum rodit; sillaba ergo caseum rodit. }

From Ziolkowski (1993) p. 10 (modified insubstantially). These sophisms go back to classical Greek and Roman literature. Id. p. 10, n. 34. Boethius’s Latin translation of Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations {Σοφιστικοὶ Ἔλεγχοι / De Sophisticis Elenchis}, as well as the translation by James of Venice, became available in western Europe between 1120 and 1150. Dod (1982) pp. 46, 75. Concerning Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations, Krabbe (2012).

[6] The first two verse in this quote (Wright’s vv. 357-8) don’t exist in the Geta of Ms. Berne 702 in the edition of Bate (1973), but do exist in the edition of Bertini (1980) according to the translation of Elliott (1984).

Thais was a common classical Greek name for a courtesan (high-class woman sex-worker). Archas-Geta described the scope for Geta’s genital gifts:

I have hairy thighs,
so that licentious itching holds their powers,
and when with repeated shaking my cock swells with passion,
it certainly extends down to my knees.

{ … hispida crura
sunt michi quae scabies ut sua regna tenet,
sed sic dum crebro singultu colligit iram
ad certum muto tenditur usque genu. }

Geta, vv. 111-4. Reflecting historical disparagement of men’s penis, actors in classical comedies wore huge, grotesque penises {φαλλοί / phalloi}. Gallus in Virgil, Eclogues 10.69, influentially declared, “Love conquers all {omnia vincit Amor}.”

Like many men, Eustache Deschamps understood his penis to be central to his life. One of his ballads includes the wistful refrain, “If only I had my (cock / life) of my Orleans student days {Se j’eusse mon vit d’Orliens}.” Yet he, like Geta, sadly thought that women loved him only for his penis. Kendrick (2014) p. 395.

[7] Questions concerning universals (species) and particulars (which have accidentals) were a focus of study in early twelfth-century Parisian schools. Boethius’s Latin translation of Porphyry’s Isagoge largely shaped these questions. Geta parodies scholarly debates about universals and particulars. Bertini (1979); Elliott (1984) pp. xxxvi-ii; Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 18-20, 24-5. The concluding verse of the twelfth-century About Clerics and a Rustic {De clericis et rustico} also refers to this philosophical debate. Very few scholars today are interested in such debate.

“Thus I am, thus I am not {sic sum, sic nil sum}” (v. 409) may be a parody of Peter Abelard’s treatise Yes and No {Sic et Non}. That parody is sharpened with a pun in the next verse: “Thus my penis has perished {sic perii penitus}.” Elliott (1984) p. xxvii. Abelard was castrated for having a sexual affair with Heloise of the Paraclete. He suffered additional abuse for being a victim of castration.

The oath “by Hercules {Hercule}” has the contracted form “assuredly {hercle}.” Repeated use of this oath is humorous in a play concerning the myth of Hercules’s birth. Kendrick (2014) p. 392.

[8] Alcmene giving birth to Iphicles and Heracles isn’t included in Geta. That outcome is known from ancient Greek myth and Plautus’s Amphitryon.

[images] (1) Amphitryon and Alcmene in Plautus’s Amphitryon. Illuminated initial painted in fifteenth-century Italy. Excerpt from folio 1r of Ms. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 36.41. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Geta in Terence’s Phormio, act 3, scene 2. Illumination made c. 1100 in Tours, France. Excerpt from folio 71v of Ms. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, 0924. Via Portail Biblissima. (3) Birria in Terence’s Andria / The Girl from Andros, act 2, scene 1. Illumination made c. 1100 in Tours, France. Excerpt from folio 4 of Ms. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, 0924. Via Portail Biblissima.


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Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. 1980. “Vitale di Blois, Geta.” Pp. 139-242 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Part III. Genova: Istituto di filologia classica e medievale.

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Dod, Bernard G. 1982. “Aristoteles latinus.” Ch. 2 (pp. 45-79) in Kretzmann, Norman, Anthony Kenny, Jan Pinborg, eds. The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the disintegration of scholasticism, 1100-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press.

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