The Charm of Chatter: The Speech of Courtesans in Plautus

Rebecca M. Muich

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Arguments pertaining to the transmission of the hetaira type from Greek drama to Roman comedy have sought to label the Roman meretrices as "good" or "bad" based upon their intent, experience as a courtesan, and social standing at birth (Duckworth, Gilula, and Anderson).  I will argue in this paper that the speech of these meretrices is a telling marker of how the Roman courtesan can be labeled as "good" or "bad".  Though the ability to turn a pleasant phrase was desirable in a courtesan and attested to by the Greek hetairai (McClure), this paper will place specific emphasis on the charming discursive styles of the courtesans as described by the other characters of the plays. 

An analysis of the discursive style of the courtesans in Truculentus, Miles Gloriosus, and Poenulus will serve as the foundation of this paper.  They are most often described by four adjectives: callida, docta, lepida, and faceta.  Each adjective carries a connotation of social standing or intent which are characteristic of the meretrix type.  Plautus also uses several hapax legomena to describe either the speech of courtesans or their clever nature such as phronesis, monetrix, planiloqua, fraudulentia, and falsiiurium.  When applied to the description of the speech of courtesans, they serve to highlight the craftier aspect of their nature.  

The final section of this paper will examine how the intent of each courtesan is served by her gift of flattering speech, and therefore how each courtesan can be labeled as "good" or "bad".  Phronesium will use her flattery to reveal her true heartless nature, employing her skill to keep three suitors dangling on a line.  Acroteleutium will use her lies and blandishments to pull the wool over the eyes of Pyrgopolynices.  Adelphasium's beautiful speech, not directed to any male, but instead largely overheard, will indicate her birthright – she is a free-born Carthaginian, not yet initiated into the ways of the meretrix


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page