domineering, barking wives not worth their wealth in Plautus’s plays

As presented by Plautus in Rome about the year 206 BGC, Periplectomenus was a fifty-four year-old man who had never married. He had a lively mind, was in good health, and owned his own house. He also attended dinner parties, enjoyed dancing, and was still interested in love affairs with women. Periplectomenus explained why he wasn’t seeking to get married:

Yes, a good wife is sweet to marry, if there were any family on earth
where one could be found. But should I really marry a woman
who’d never say to me: “My dear husband, would you buy me wool from which
I can make a soft and warm cloak for you and good winter tunics,
so that you won’t feel cold this winter?” These words you’d never hear from a wife.
Instead, before the cock crows, she’d stir me from my sleep and
say: “My dear husband, give me something to give to my mother on the first of the month,
give me something to make preserves, give me something to give to the sorceress
on Minerva’s festival, to give to the dream interpreter, to the clairvoyant, and to the soothsayer.
It’s a disgrace if nothing is sent to the woman who uses eyebrows to prophesy.
Furthermore, there’s no avoiding a present to the woman who folds the clothes.
The woman delivering our food has been angry for a while already for not getting any tips.
The midwife also complained to me that she’s receiving too little.
What? You’re not going to give anything to the nurse feeding the slaves born in the house?”
Women cause these losses and many similar others.
They keep me away from a wife, for she would torment me with such talk.

{ Nam bona uxor suave ductu est, si sit usquam gentium
ubi ea possit inveniri; verum egone eam ducam domum,
quae mihi numquam hoc dicat “eme, mi vir, lanam, unde tibi pallium
malacum et calidum conficiatur tunicaeque hibernae bonae,
ne algeas hac hieme” — hoc numquam verbum ex uxore audias —
verum prius quam galli cantent quae me e somno suscitet,
dicat “da, mi vir, kalendis meam qui matrem munerem,
da qui faciam condimenta, da quod dem quinquatrubus
praecantrici, coniectrici, hariolae atque haruspicae;
flagitium est si nil mittetur quae supercilio spicit;
tum plicatricem clementer non potest quin munerem;
iam pridem, quia nihil abstulerit, suscenset ceriaria;
tum opstetrix expostulavit mecum, parum missum sibi;
quid? nutrici non missuru’s quicquam quae vernas alit?”
haec atque huius similia alia damna multa mulierum
me uxore prohibent, mihi quae huius similes sermones serant. }[1]

In many countries today, the earnings of a husband and wife belong equally to both. If a woman earns nothing, than a man who marries her effectively provides half of his income to her. That’s a very expensive way to buy the possibility of having sex, or to buy cooking and housecleaning services of the minimal sort that many men actually prefer.

The solution to men’s concern about potential wives wasting money is obvious. Men should encourage women to work in stressful, demanding jobs that provide high pay. Men, in contrast should occupying themselves with important, home-based work such weightlifting, cleaning and polishing motorcycles and guns, and helping kids to play video games. Then men should insist on dating and marrying only women who earn much more money than they do. As long as a husband gets his half of his wife’s much higher earnings, why should he care if she wastes some of the money she earns?

Periplectomenus rejected opportunities to marry wealthy women. He explained:

My house is free, and I’m also free. I want to live freely.
Actually because of my wealth, I should say thanks to the gods,
I could have married a wife with a rich dowry from a very high-status family,
but I don’t want to bring a female barker into my house.

{ liberae sunt aedis, liber sum autem ego; me volo vivere.
nam mi, deum virtute dicam, propter divitias meas
licuit uxorem dotatam genere summo ducere;
sed nolo mi oblatratricem in aedis intro mittere. }

Periplectomenus used the neologism “female barker {oblatratrix}” in referring to a wife. Plautus’s Casina includes a related dialogue between the husband Lysidamus and his servant Olympio:

Lysidamus: What’s that? Who are you arguing with, Olympio?

Olympio: With the same woman you are always arguing with.

Lysidamus: With my wife?

Olympio: What wife are you talking about? You’re like a hunter:
day and night you spend your life with a bitch.

{ Lysidamus: quid istuc est? quicum litigas, Olympio?

Olympio: cum eadem qua tu semper.

Lysidamus: cum uxoren mea?

Olympio: quam tu mi uxorem? quasi uenator tu quidem es:
dies ac noctes cum cane aetatem exigis. }[2]

In contrast to myths of patriarchy, men throughout history have been terrorized and traumatized at the thought of a domineering, barking wife. No amount of money can compensate a husband for being married to a “rabid bitch {rabiosa femina canes}.”[3]

Classicists, medievalists, and other literary scholars have tended to trivialize men’s voices expressing marital horrors and men’s sexed protest. Smugly smearing men for “misogyny” is no way to understand truthfully women’s and men’s intimately related lives throughout human history. Men often remain silent about important aspects of their lives because they sense that their voices won’t encounter compassionate, attentive listening, but will only prompt vicious personal attacks on them. Meninist literary criticism takes men’s voices seriously in their protests about women and gender. That’s merely humane practice. If you’re not a meninist, you’re a bigot. You’re the hater that you imagine men to be.

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Notes:

[1] Plautus, The Braggart Soldier {Miles Gloriosus}, vv. 685-700, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from De Melo (2011). Subsequent quotes from Plautus are similarly from the edition of De Melo (2011). The subsequent quote above is Miles Gloriosus, vv. 678-81. For Miles Gloriosus, the Latin text of Leo (1895) and the English translation of Riley (1912) are freely available through Perseus. Married women {matronae} in Plautus’s plays are “constantly nagging battleaxes,” with the exception of the warmly receptive Alcmene in Amphitryon. De Melo (2011) p. xxxviii.

[2] Plautus, Casina, vv. 317-20. For Casina, the Latin text of Leo (1895) and the English translation of Riley (1912) are freely available through Perseus.

[3] Plautus, The Two Menaechmuses {Menaechmi}, v. 837. One Menaechmus brother, acting mad, refers to his brother’s wife as a “rabid bitch {rabiosa femina canes}.”

Throughout history, men have been commonly been described as dogs. In Plautus’s Amphitryon, Mercury in the guise of Sosia suggests that Alcmene regards Amphitryon like a dog: “She’s as happy to greet him as she would be to greet a dog {exspectatum eum salutat magis hau quicquam quam canem}.” Amphitryon, v. 680.

Braund interprets abstractly husbands’ concerns about wealthy wives:

So here we have it: it’s all about money and power. The uxor dotata {wife with a dowry} is resented because her money gives her more freedom and independence than is acceptable to the male ego.

Braund (2005) p. 48. One could call Braund’s generic characterization of “the male ego” as misandristic or anti-meninist. In Plautus’s plays, the money a wife brings to a marriage isn’t enough to compensate for her being a domineering, barking wife from her husband’s perspective. Why should acknowledging that specific literary representation not be acceptable to the female and male egos of today’s literary scholars?

[image] Video recording of “What Can You Do With A Man?” Song from the 1938 Broadway play The Boys from Syracuse (music by Richard Rogers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and book by George Abbott). This recording is from the 1963 Off-Broadway re-staging. The Boys from Syracuse is based in William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, which is based on Plautus’s The Two Menaechmuses {Menaechmi}. Via YouTube.

References:

Braund, Susanna Morton. 2005. “Marriage, Adultery, and Divorce in Roman Comic Drama.” Ch. 3 (pp. 39-70) in Smith, Warren S., ed. Satiric Advice on Women and Marriage. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

De Melo, Wolfgang, ed. and trans. 2011. Plautus. Amphitryon, The Comedy of Asses, The Pot of Gold, The Two Bacchises, The Captives, in Loeb Classical Library 60; Casina, The Casket Comedy, Curculio, Epidicus, The Two Menaechmuses, in Loeb Classical Library 61; The Merchant, The Braggart Soldier, The Ghost, The Persian, in Loeb Classical Library 163. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1895. Plauti Comoediae. Berolini: Weidmann.

Riley, Henry T. 1912. The Comedies of Plautus. London: G. Bell & Sons.

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