Poenulus, a comedy by the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 BC) tells the story of two sisters who were abducted as children from Carthage and then sold into prostitution. A young man falls in love with one of the sisters and, through a series of comedic mishaps, he helps overthrow their pimp and returns the girls to their father. The jocular prowess of the play hinges upon the hilarity of slavery and the gendered, racial stereotypes that Romans held against Carthaginians. Poenulus has dark undertones of intensely prejudiced Orientalism and demands a sociological analysis of comedy as a reflection of cultural norms and values.
The characterization of the two female leads in Poenulus is most alarming. Their submissive acceptance of their roles as forced sex workers finds a contemporary parallel: Western ambivalence towards illicit sex-trafficking. This practice involves the abduction or forced prostitution of women and young girls from periphery countries. They are sold in either their homelands or to Western regions in an underground trade, resulting in billion dollar profits for pimps and slave traders. This presentation analyzes Poenulus and the girls’ position in the story as the “other,” and as female prostitutes. By examining the textually evident, geopolitical parallel between modern globalism and Rome’s vast network of conquered city-states, I will argue that Plautus’ Orientalism is still seen today and has led to the exact prejudice which encourages and allows for sex slavery.
Erin Daly, ’12
Majors: Art and Art History, Classical Studies
Sponsor: John Gruber-Miller