Acting like a morigera: Submissive characters in Plautus' comedies

Polyxeni Strolonga

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Morigera in Plautus refers to a woman's regulation of her own individual behaviour in the interest of a male authority figure. According to G. Williams it alludes to the ideally dutiful marriage (or a relationship analogous to marriage) and defines the proper conduct of a Roman matrona[1].  G. Williams' association of the term not only with the institution of marriage but also with the actual wedding ritual, narrows our perception of morigera and occludes other undertones of the term and its variants (i.e. morigerus, morem gero).

In this paper I expand the discussion of the concept of morigera beyond the realm of marriage. It is within this broader context that the function of the term can be better understood as a para prosdokian joke. In Plautus morigera, which denotes the appropriate gender role for wives (e.g., Cist. 175, Amph. 842, Cas. 896, Men. 787-8), is also applied to prostitutes (e.g., Men. 203), male servants (e.g., Cas. 463), and sons (e.g., Amph. 1004)[2].  It is thus employed for characters of both genders and different status'. In addition, the term may convey sexual connotations and therefore it not only describes morally appropriate behavior but can also allude to obscene physical subservience in reference to prostitutes or to homosexuality and unmanliness when applied to men. Finally, Plautus in Menaechmi (786-789) defines morigera from a comic standpoint in terms of a wife's acceptance of her husband's unbounded freedom. In this play Plautus does not just praise the trait of submission as a marital virtue. Instead his description of a morigera meretrix in contrast to the disobedient matrona undercuts the ideal portrait of a wife's compliance to her husband by implying that such a submission is unrealistic.

Through the discussion of the examples above I show that Plautus by applying the term morigera to other characters besides the matrona inverts everyday social norms and conflates the role of the dutiful wife with the role of others who in a stern pater familias culture also need to be submissive but whose status or gender would not allow them to undertake the conduct befitting a matrona. Thus Plautus surprises the audience by the untraditional exploitation of the concept of morigera. At the same time by rejecting moral conventions, Plautus mocks the stereotypical view of the submissive wife, whose obedience was highly valued in funerary inscriptions, and he cynically suggests that such an ideal wife cannot be real. Such a role is perhaps best suited to a servant, a son or a prostitute. Their compliance contrasts with the unruliness of the matronae who instead of being morigerae act as blocking characters.


[1] G.Williams, “Some Aspects of Roman Marriage Ceremonies and Ideals, JHS, 1958, 48, 16-29. See

further S.Treggiari, 1991, 229-230, 238.

[2] The term is used in its masculine form for the last two categories.


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