Mulier es, audacter iuras: Plautus, Amphitruo 831-36
and the Adulteress’ Deceptive Oath

John Porter

      At the climax of Amphitruo’s disastrous initial homecoming, Alcumena asserts her innocence of the infidelity with which her husband has begun to charge her. In so doing, she employs an impressively solemn oath (831-34):

per supremi regis regnum iuro et matrem familias
Iunonem, quam me vereri et metuere est par maxume,
ut mi extra unum te mortalis nemo corpus corpore
contigit, quo me impudicam faceret.

Amphitruo, however, has already had his patience tried by Sosia’s confusing report of the second “Sosia” and has begun to suspect that some deception is afoot; as a consequence, he is far from receptive to his wife’s protestations and notes that, since she is a woman, it is only to be expected that she forswear herself: “You are a woman,” he declares, “you swear boldly.”

      This paper explores a possible context for Amphitruo’s remark that has yet to be examined by locating it within the tradition of the comic adultery tale. The faithless wives of the comic tradition are, of course, notoriously brazen in their treachery and, more particularly, in their speech. After a brief survey of such material, the paper considers the more particular tradition of the chastity ordeal, a tradition attested for various societies —ranging from ancient Mesopotamia, the Israel of Moses’ time, and Ptolemaic Egypt to medieval Europe — in which a woman suspected of adultery is compelled to undergo a test of her fidelity, often via an oath. The paper focuses, in particular, on stories in which the woman manages to circumvent such an ordeal by means of an ambiguous or deceptively-worded expression.

      As with much of Amphitruo, the scene has good tragic (in this case, Sophoclean) precedent: Amphitruo’s mistrust of Alcumena’s veracity, and the verbal sparring to which this mistrust leads, recalls that of Oedipus before Teiresias and Philoctetes in his second meeting with Neoptolemus. The distinctly misogynistic caste of Amphitruo’s skepticism has tragic roots as well. But the scene also invokes stock elements of the traditional adultery tale, particularly the shameless audacity of the comic adulteress.

      My discussion will set out the background for such oaths and argue that these inform Amphitruo’s response to Alcumena. Alcumena offers an elaborate protestation of her innocence — one that is meant to be solemn and imposing, but that Amphitruo regards as merely devious. Alcumena’s moving invocation of Jupiter and Hera — the latter explicitly in her rôle as the goddess of marriage and the family — is intended to signal the strength of her conviction, but, regarded in light of the comic tradition, is all too readily misinterpreted as indicating the depths of her shamelessness, while the lofty tone of her statement, which should indicate solemnity and, on an extra-dramatic level, the high seriousness of tragedy, merely sounds underhanded — a cunning method of introducing some legalistic quibble that might permit her to conceal her guilt without actually forswearing herself. The expression nemo mi corpus corpore contigit has a particularly suspicious ring to it: modern scholars recognize an instance of what Wills refers to as “amorous polyptoton,” but from Amphitruo’s perspective it is the sort of tortured expression that is all too likely to conceal some duplicitous ambiguity.

      In a manner typical of Amphitruo, the passage presents what is to a great degree a clash of genres, with an Alcumena who aims at the lofty seriousness of tragedy but is misunderstood by her husband, whose ears are too finely attuned to what is essentially a comic tradition of adulterous wives and their deceptive ways.

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