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Aulularia, a Latin play by the early Roman playwright Plautus showcases his dramaturgy at its best; it is a delightful comedy of character with an abundance of dramatic action. Some of the social themes prevalent in this piece have been discussed below.
Eunomia and Megadorus are introduced with an elaborate duet in which it is brought out that a brother is being forced to do his duty to society by an old sister who has already done hers.
Megadorus may be recognized as a type at once: the inveterate bachelor, rich and contented with his lot, and who loathes undertaking either the responsibilities or the expense of a wife and family, like Micio in Terence`s Adelphoe. Thus Megadorus stands aloof, in his own way, from one of the bounds of community, and neglects the obligation to continue his line.
He does confess, however, to a special passion for Phaedria, despite her poverty, and declares his intention to ask Euclio for her hand.
The most aptly named character in this play can be considered as that of the young man who had violated Euclio`s daughter Phaedria, Lyconides meaning “wolfing”. Phaedria, because she has been raped, is according to the conventional taboo in ancient comedy ineligible to marry anyone but the man who assaulted her, and so she is removed beyond the circle of potential kin which defines the boundary of society.
As we know when Megadorus learns of the rape he will repudiate her. Although he is in the dark about the rape and the pot of gold, the fact that his
motive is erotic rather than connubial, that the relationship he is ready to establish is not between members of a common group but a personal tie beyond communal sanctions, finds expression in the circumstance that Euclio and Phaedria are of an inferior social order, and that Megadorus, whose name literally means “great gift” is willing to remit the dowry.
Euclio, who has all along been leery toward with untoward regard of a rich man for a poor, at first accuses Megadorus of mocking him. Assured then of his neighbours earnestness, he laboriously expounds his concern that for a poor man to join himself to a rich is like an ass consorting with bulls: his own order would reject him, and Megadorus would never accept him, the asses will tear him with their teeth while the bulls will attack him with their horns . Euclio`s analogy between the different orders and different biological species points to the extreme separation of social classes in Plautus Rome, whether or not the language goes back to the Greek original of the Aulularia. The wealthy and the poor constitute distinct communities within the society, not to be crossed by ties of marriage.
If we look to the theme of the Aulularia, it should be clear that Megadorus proposal cannot possibly resolve the tensions of the play. If the miser is to be reintegrated into society, it is essential that his treasure be revealed and put to use in an exchange that confirms the communal bonds among families. At the heart of the miser`s nature is the priority he assigns to money over the actual human relationships with other members of his community.
Slavery was accepted as the norm by Greek and Romans alike, and however repugnant the idea may be to the modern reader, it will do no good to our argument to judge Roman Comedy by present-day standards as some critics have done. Of course, not all slaves were treated badly by their masters. Presumably many enjoyed humane and affectionate treatment, while others no
doubt led very wretched lives. Lyconides slave would be a fine example of the prior. As it can be seen when Megadorus suggests him to punish his slave, to strap him and torture him until he confesses the truth, and if he did steal the pot of gold, to force him to give it up; Megadorus replies to this saying that he`s never been a hard master, that young slave of his was a decent lad and it would distress him terribly to use extreme measures against him in order to reveal the truth; But while slaves were often treated quite fairly, the picture of licence and leisurely freedom given in Roman Comedy cannot be accurate. True, a slave lacks in liberty but in Plautus he does not lack much else. He can, and with the right master does, live well, if he behaves himself. It is perhaps true to say that Plautus often allows his slaves too much. He often sacrifices reality to comedy.
Another important theme in the play is that of dowry. Megadorus delivers a soliloquy, overheard and heartily endorsed by Euclio, on the faults of the dowry system and the manners of contemporary women. Megadorus hits the following points: dowries are the cause of discord between and among the social orders ; they also contribute to the rampant prodigality of women, who regard the money they brought into a marriage as their own to spend on luxuries as they choose , and finally, as a corollary of the preceding, women are becoming thanks to the dowry freer of the authority of their husbands. Scholars have in fact arrived at an approximate date for Plautus “Aulularia by interpreting this speech of Megadorus” as a protest against the repeal of the Lex Oppia in 195 B.C, which regulated the sumptuary expenses of women. The point to be noted here, from this monologue, is the utter disregard for the position of women in the household. As it can be seen Megadorus wants wives to be obedient, he says that a wife without a dowry is under her husband`s thumb, while with one, she can condemn him to misery and bankruptcy, severely restricting a woman`s right over her wealth.