THAIS THROUGH TIME
ALECIA CAROLE DANTICO
iterary works, ancient or modern, may be evaluated for what may make them timeless, as a tale which will be read, understood and relished not only today, but for centuries to come. Such qualities can be as easily recognized by a man as by a woman, by a white man as by a yellow, by a nobleman as by a pauper, regardless of the identity of the author who first created them. A major quality that attests to the timelessness of a literary work is its humanity. Remaining essentially constant from one century to the next, the human elements of any particular work will continue to be a powerful tool of enticement, drawing in each successive generation of readers eagerly seeking him or herself in that which is read.
The original proponent of this concept of humanity appears to have been a man whom, for lack of true understanding, the canon has ignored. But, upon careful examination and consideration, it becomes clear that he, either through direct contact with his work, or through another's translation or reinterpretation of his ideas, influenced the expression of authors such as Hrotswitha, Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne and Molière. This man is Publius Terentius Afer, better known to the modern world, if he is known at all, as Terence.
Born in approximately 185 B.C., perhaps in Carthage, the dark-skinned Terence lived in North Africa until being brought to Rome as a household slave in the service of a nobleman by the name of Publius Terentius Lucanus. As his owner was part of a literary circle devoted to the study and appreciation of Greek works, Terence was educated in a contemporary and liberal manner. Upon concluding his education, Terence was freed by his master. At that time, according to Latin custom, Terence took his first two names, Publius and Terentius; his third name, Afer, refers to his place of birth.
Terence as dramatist modeled at least four, if not five, of his works upon the comedies of the Greek playwright Menander, who had written in Athens in the previous century. Of the six comedies Terence wrote, the Phormio is the only play which seems not to have been drawn from the works of Menander; rather, this play appears to be a translation of the work of another Greek playwright, Apollodorus of Euboea.
In his day, Terence was considerably criticized for having "copied" his plays directly from the works of Menander. In the Prologue to the Eunuchus, Terence responds directly to his critics:
quod si personis isdem huic uti non licet: qui magis licet currentem servom scribere, bonas matronas facere, meretrices malas, parasitum edacem, gloriosum militem, pueram supponi, falli per servom senem, amare, odisse, suspicare? denique nullumst iam dictum quod non sit dictum prius qua re aequomst vos cognoscere atque ignoscere, quae veteres factiarunt si faciunt novi.The subject matter which Terence discusses, the strengths and weaknesses of human beings, cannot ever be completely fresh.
[If he is not allowed to make use of the same characters as other writers, how can he still bring on a running slave, virtuous wives and dishonest courtesans, greedy spongers and braggart soldiers? How can he show substitution of a child, deception of an old man by his slave, love, hatred and suspicion? Nothing, in fact, is ever said which has not been said before.]1
One of the themes running through Terence's six plays concerns his commentary on the rigid structure of society. Terence is a staunch advocate of free movement between the various social classes, a position not difficult to understand from the mouth, or stylus, of a freed black slave, living in Roman society. He believes that class boundaries are artificial structures which are made to be broken. The true value of an individual lies not in the class into which he was born, nor how she conducts her body, but in the true spirit of the person which lies beneath the flesh. Terence values the quality of the inner person above the considerations and limitations which society has imposed upon the physical body.
A component to this facet of Terence's philosophy is the true compassion which he shows towards those who, despite the goodness of their inner person, have somehow erred. Not only is a Terentian slave allowed to banter and game with his master, almost as if he were an equal, but when this slave does bungle a clever scheme that he, himself, has designed, punishment is neither fatal nor even seriously harmful. Not only is the lecherous flatterer allowed to keep company with nobles, but, despite his despicable lifestyle, he is invited to join the family circle once all other options have been denied him. Not only is the whore a vital part of Greco-Roman life, but, despite having been born a commoner, she is able to marry a noble.
Of particular interest is the Terentian concept of wholesome whores, harlots to whom he shows a great deal of compassion in his works, due to the goodness and purity which he detects in their souls or inner personae. Prostitutes, courtesans and music girls, harlots all, play a pivotal role in four of Terence's six plays. The meretrix Bacchis is found in various favorable roles in three plays: Self-Tormentor, Mother-in-Law, Brothers. Philotis, again a meretrix, is found in Mother-in-Law, along with Bacchis. However, Thais, again defined as meretrix, is found only in the Eunuchus. (Her name, of course, is taken by Terence from that of Thais, the beautiful harlot who became Alexander the Great's mistress, then married the King of Egypt.) As the legend has it, a legend which may in fact have originated with Terence's play, the whore who displays the most deplorable behavior in public can hold the most sainted heart within her breast. The most notorious of these golden-hearted whores, purveyors of the world's oldest professions, has, from one century to the next, been Thais. She will advance, by means of the dissemination of the plays of Terence, into the pages of the Desert Fathers in Egypt and Syria; then to the pages of a German nun of the tenth century, Hrotswitha; finally being written about by fin-de-siècle Anatole France. These legendary whores, despite the abuses which they allow their bodies to endure, remain of firm purpose and of pure inner spirit to the extent that they remain examples to society.
Out of all Terence's plays, Thais is the whore whose character is most fully developed and the one who, compared to the two Bacchis's, plays the most pivotal role in the development and resolution of the action. The Eunuchus, as I mentioned, is the only play in which Thais is found. This fact, coupled with the more specific role which is given to her, unlike the more generic, more anonymous roles given to the Bacchis prostitutes, has rendered a unique literary figure whom other authors across the centuries have emulated, if not admired.
In order to understand the special role better which Thais plays, it is necessary to briefly summarize the plot of the Eunuchus. The scene is set on a street in Athens, at the house of Demea, an older Athenian gentleman and household-head. On the other side of the street lies the house of ill-repute where Thais and her associates "neque . . . uno era[nt] contenta[e]," shall never be content with one man and one man alone (I.126). Demea has two sons to his name, Phaedria being the elder and Chaerea being the younger. Phaedria, against the good counsel of his servos, Parmeno, is deeply in love with Thais and has recently purchased an Ethiopian slave-girl and a eunuch for her, both in the attempt to keep her satisfied, and also to guarantee that "vero haec mihi patent semper fores" [her door shall always remain open to him] (89-90). Meanwhile, Thraso, another suitor of Thais, and his man, Gnatho, have brought to Thais a young girl by the name of Pamphila, the same girl who is thought to have been Thais' younger sister. According to the story Thais tells, Pamphila was a "parvolam . . . puellam dono quidam mercator dedit ex Attica hinc abreptam" (I.107-8), a small girl whom, having been snatched from Athens, a merchant had given to her mother as a gift. Having helped her mother raise the young Pamphila for the past sixteen years, Thais now feels responsible for her, and as a result, "sororem plerique esse credebant meam" [many considered her to be my sister] (I.118). Several years prior to the action of the play, Thais had left Rhodes to come to Athens in the company of a gentleman suitor, leaving Pamphila behind with their mother.
However, when their mother dies, Thais' brother, greedy for silver, sells Pamphila as a slave. Thraso then buys her at the auction and, at the request of Thais, returns her to Athens, that Thais might "suis restitutuam ac reddam" [restore her to her natural family and to her original birthright] (I.156-157). Yet, once Thraso arrives in Athens and realizes that Thais not only commands many suitors, but actually heads a brothel, he begins to have second thoughts about handing Pamphila over to Thais so freely. He thus forces Thais to close her doors to all others, including Phaedria, her own true love, that she might prove herself worthy of the gift which he has brought to her. Thais is not only the most beautiful woman in the land, she is also intelligent, and even crafty. She may not be of noble parentage, but she is bright enough to know how to raise her status in society artificially. By selling the beauty of her body to the noble men of Athens, she is able to provide food and shelter for herself, amenities which are of a quality that rivals the abode of Demea himself. And in so doing she attains for herself a true sense of power which other people, especially the men in her circle, not only respect but obey as well.
In order for Pamphila to be returned by Thraso, Thais realizes that she will have to give him exclusive admittance for a period of two days. For Thraso is a jealous man who is acutely aware of Thais' cunning; using the charms of her feminine wiles, she thus explains the situation to Phaedria:
is venit: postquam sensit me tecum quoque rem habere, fingit causas ne det sedulo: ait, si fidem habeat se iri praepositum tibi apud me, ac non id metuat, ne, ubi acceperim, sese relinquam, velle se illam mihi dare; verum id vereri.Phaedria, slightly offended at Thais' gall in making such a request, puts up the front of a brief argumentative protest in response to her demand. However, he, too, is rendered completely powerless, if not emasculated, before the beauty of Thais, a beauty which she knows how to use to the best of her own advantage. Thais, in order to gain her own personal objectives, namely the restoration of Pamphila to her birthright, uses her beauty and the promise of sexual favors to weaken and then to dissolve Phaedria's resolve, despite it having been bolstered by Parmeno's own cunning.
[Now he's back in Athens, but since he found out about my relations with you, he's too busy finding excuses not to give me her. He says he'd be willing to do so if he could be sure he came first with me and wasn't afraid I should leave him once I had her, only that is what he is afraid of.] (I.137-42)
As Phaedria departs for his two-day sojourn in the country, he affirms the power of Thais, saying, "scilicet/ faciundumst quod vis," that undoubtedly, he must do as she wishes (I.185-6). The word of Thais is law to those who wish to remain loved by her. He also cautions her that she must separate her mind from her body in loving Thraso, lest she surrender her true feelings of love to him while he enjoys her body. Phaedria urges her to remain true to him in spirit, although her body must give itself to Thraso:
cum milite isto praesens absens ut sies; dies noctisque me ames me desideres, me somnies, me expectes, de me cogites, mi speres, me te oblectes, mecum tota sis; meus fac sis postremo animus quando ego sum tuos.From this point, the rest of the play proceeds rather smoothly, in typical Terentian fashion. Chaerea, seeing Pamphila being led to the house of Thais once Phaedria has left town, falls deeply and passionately in love with this girl, a "flos ipsus," a blossom herself (I.319). At the urging of Parmeno, he disguises himself as a eunuch and enters the house of Thais as Dorus, the eunuch that Phaedria has purchased as a gift for her. Being so disguised, Thais entrusts him with the protection and guidance of Pamphila, believing that a eunuch neither could nor would bring harm to a young girl. Then, when Thais leaves to dine with Thraso and Gnatho, Chaerea rapes Pamphila, as if such a deed were a rite of passage into manhood.
[When you are with your soldier in person don't be with him at heart. Night and day love me, yearn for me, dream of me, think of my return, have me in all your thoughts and hopes, find your pleasure in me, be with me heart and soul; yes, give me all your heart, for my heart is all yours.] (I.192-6)
At Thais' request, Chremes calls at her home, and finding her not to be available, pursues her while she dines with Thraso and Gnatho. Chremes is Pamphila's older brother, her only surviving family member. Thraso, believing Chremes to be yet another suitor of Thais, takes offense when he arrives at his doorstep. A brief scuffle ensues, after which Thais does, albeit through force, receive from Thraso a guarantee that Pamphila may remain in her care. After Pythias, a maidservant in the house of Thais, sets a trap to snare Parmeno in his trickery, both he and Chaerea are chided for having concocted such a scheme as would bring harm and dishonor to Pamphila. Sophrona, Pamphila's former nurse, is brought on the scene, and together with Chremes, they restore Pamphila to her natural birthright. Chaerea is forgiven for his indiscretions, and, as Pamphila is no less than an Athenian, Demea permits the two to be wed. In addition, for having labored so diligently to restore Pamphila to citizenship, Thais, too, is given a handsome reward; she is given to Phaedria in matrimony, as honorably as if she, too, were born into the nobility.
Perhaps as a reflection of his own background, Terence is a great champion for the lower or the less-privileged classes. Although Parmeno could face the punishment of castration for having encouraged, if not enabled, Chaerea to rape Pamphila, a true Athenian, Terence shows great compassion towards him. Rather than forcing Parmeno to undergo such physical torture, Terence "punishes" him by ensnaring him with the same type of trickery which he used to goad Chaerea. And to add insult to injury, Pythias, Parmeno's female counterpart, is the instigator of the campaign against him, further adding to his humiliation.
In a similar fashion, Terence shows great compassion towards Thais, primarily because he can read in her a dual nature which others are not able to comprehend. As mentioned earlier, Thais is an intelligent woman who uses the beauty of her physical assets in order to provide for herself. Yet not only is her body to be admired, but her spirit or inner person is as well. Using her body to win the affection of Thraso, Thais is thus able to manipulate him and gain tremendous power over him. She does this in order that Pamphila might be returned to her and eventually be restored to her birthright. Thais, as practical as she is, also has a good heart, a heart which often directs her to do things which, perhaps, she would prefer not to do. In giving exclusive admittance to Thraso, she puts herself in a position where she might lose her true love, Phaedria. Nevertheless, she proceeds with her plan in order to rescue Pamphila because "sed ego quantum suspicor, ad virginem animum adiecit" [personally, I have my suspicions that he's taken a fancy to the girl] (I.142-3). Although Thais realizes that she, too, stands to gain better social acceptance if she succeeds, she is primarily motivated by the welfare and status of Pamphila.
As a result of the compassion which Thais shows to another, Terence, in turn, treats her with a great deal of compassion as well. Not only does her plan succeed, but Thais gains social acceptance to the extent that Demea will now give his son permission to marry her, despite her profession as the city's favorite harlot. Through the goodness of her heart, Terence saves Thais from herself, and he marries her into a reputable family so that she will no longer have to sell her body for shelter. She is worthy of this gesture.
Although Terence may not himself be well known, the ideas which he originally proposed in his works have been carried across the ages by other authors who, admittedly or not, have been in some way touched by him. The story of Thais, the harlot with a good heart, is one particular example of a Terentian concept which has been handed down from one century to the next, from one author to another, sometimes without the author knowing of Terence and his works. From Terence's original creation in the second century before Christ, the story of Thais is not found again until the middle of the fourth century after Christ, in the tales of the religious hermits who inhabited the desert in order to appreciate the glory of God. According to Oswald R. Kuehne, in his dissertation tracing the development of the Thais legend, her story was born again in the Christian writings of these Desert Fathers. Whether the storytellers knew Terence's Eunuchus or the original created by Menander is not actually known. However, in these tales one does meet a harlot by the name of Thais who, due to the goodness forever coloring her heart, is converted to a saint.
The tale of a "courtesan, whose name is not known for certain, but who was undoubtedly called . . . Thais," was first written down in Greek, in the late fourth century.2 According to the tale, the harlot, Thais, was converted to Christianity in the Egyptian desert by an anchorite named Sarapion. This version was, within the following century, also translated into Latin and Syriac. At some time during the fifth or sixth century, the narrative version of the tale was dramatized, and the character of Anthony was added. Anthony, a friend of Sarapion and a fellow hermit, sees visions about the status of Thais which he relays to his friend. In one of the first Latin condensed translations, the version most commonly given in the Vitae Patrum, the name of the holy monk Sarapion was either changed or transcribed in error to the name of Paphnutius, the name that we find in later surviving versions of the story.3 The famous Rosweyd collection of the Vitae Patrum is the first instance where this name change is recorded.4 Regardless of which version is read, the tale of the conversion of Thais the harlot remains relatively consistent across the centuries, being embellished or amended at various junctures by successive translators or authors. Here, I reproduce one of Kuehne's translation of a Greek original, "Also the Anniversary of Thais, the Courtesan," an entry in an early Greek saints' calendar: From childhood she was placed by her own mother in a brothel of the devil. Sought out by Paphnutius, the Sindonite, and receiving the assurance that there was a penitence, she burned all her property weighing four hundred pounds in the fire and shut herself in a cell. Shedding tears and often sighing from the bottom of her heart, she said, 'Thou who has created me, have mercy on me.' In this way she spent three years; then, having come out at the order of the father, she died fifteen years later.5
In the collection, the Vitae Patrum, both The Life of St. Pelagia the Harlot and The Life of St. Thais the Harlot adumbrate the Thais character which Terence created in the Eunuchus. However, the story of Thais better reflects the tradition of the Thais story that has been passed down through the eremitic Desert Fathers from one century to the next. At the same time, the Pelagia story also mirrors some of the Terentian elements which are essential to his portrayal of the harlot with the good heart. Both tales tell essentially the same story: a harlot who defiles her body for money is converted to Christianity by a holy hermit who is able to see the true goodness of her heart within the outward and defiled body.
Nevertheless, by the time the story of Terence's Thais is worked into the sayings and the lives of the Desert Fathers, Christianity had come into the world. The Terentian notion that man is a complex being, often of a dubious nature, was codified within the tenets of the new religion. Accordingly, Thais could be saved, once society recognized that her spirit, despite the errors or "sins" of her body, was wholesome and good. Thus Christians would judge each according to the potential for good demonstrated within the innermost regions of the heart. James, the scribe who pens the story of St. Pelagia in the Vitae Patrum, reinforces the forgiveness and open heart of God, himself, in the preface to this tale:
Misericors enim Deus, qui nullum hominem vult perire, statuit in hoc saeculo ut per satisfactionem delicta donentur, quia in futuro justum judicium erit, in quo recipiet unusquisque secundum opera sua.Nonnus, the good bishop who aids Pelagia in her conversion from harlot to saint echoes the teaching of the Church when he encourages his brothers that they, too, should strive to obtain the salvation of Pelagia, whom he describes in the following fashion:
[For God the merciful, who will have no man perish, has decreed that sins may be atoned for in this world, since in that which is to come there shall be a just Judgement, where every man shall receive according to his works.]6
. . . nos prima mimarum Antiochae; ipsaque est prima choreutriarum pantomimarum, sedens super asellum; et processit cum summa phantasia, adornata ita ut, nihil videretur super ea nisi aurum et margaritae et lapides pretiosi; nuditas vero pedem eius ex auro et margaritas erat cooperata . . . .Nonnus admits his own weakness before such a beauty, although in so doing, he shames himself in front of his brethren. And his weakness is not unlike that of Phaedria who, despite his noble status, finds himself enraptured by the charms of Thais. In a unique twist, however, while Phaedria finds himself emasculated and powerless before Thais, Nonnus rediscovers his dormant sexuality in front of Pelagia. Yet, despite Nonnus' attraction to her, he still realizes that she is worthy of being admitted into the community of God, due to the true goodness lying in her heart. For she, herself, comes to Nonnus of her own accord in order that he might help her enter the Church. In a similar fashion, Terence's Thais voluntarily orchestrates her plan to rescue Pamphila, moved by a truly wholesome spirit.
[. . . she that was the first actress of Antioch: first of the dancers was she, and riding on an ass; and with all the fantastic graces did she ride, so decked that nought could be seen upon her but gold and pearls and precious stones: the very nakedness of her feet was hidden under gold and pearls . . . .]7
Nonnus, although somewhat sceptical concerning her intentions, does offer aid to her, having been reassured by his vision in which a black dove is turned into a white one upon baptism in holy water. However, he strictly prescribes that no harlot may be baptized unless she can offer direct proof that she will not revert to her former lustful ways. Nonnus affirms that "canones sacerdotales continent non baptizari meretricem, nisi fidejussores praestiterit, ut non se iterum in ipsis malis revolvat" [the canons of the Church . . . provide that no harlot shall be baptized, unless she produce certain individuals to go surety for her that she will not fall back into her old sins].8 Nor can Terence's Thais be fully accepted into the house and family of Demea until, having obtained Pamphila, she voluntarily turns Thraso away.
One of the most direct links between the story of Pelagia the harlot and the story of Thais found in Terence's Eunuchus is the bizarre change of sexuality that a character in each story must undergo. In order to pass his initiation into manhood, Chaerea must rape Pamphila, and in order to gain access to her, he must first strip himself of his sexuality, disguising himself as a eunuch. In a similar fashion, Pelagia, in an attempt to bring herself closer to the spirituality of God, completely abandons her own sexuality. Disguising herself as a holy, male hermit, she absconds into the desert that she may become a veritable bride of Christ. In this Christian context, it is necessary that the abandonment of sexuality be used exclusively for honorable, godly purposes. Terence, being part of the pre-Christian world, was permitted somewhat more freedom in using his eunuch's "abandonment" of sexuality. The story of Thais the harlot, as told in the Vitae Patrum, while being less Terentian than the Pelagia story, nevertheless serves a twofold purpose. On the one hand, the tale of Thais will further advance the Terentian legend of the golden-hearted harlot who eventually, through her goodness, gains admittance into a socially acceptable community. On the other hand, this story of Thais will, along with the corpus of Terence's plays, serve as a source for Hrotswitha, the tenth-century dramatist.
The Latin version of the story of Saint Thais begins in a fashion not unlike the manner in which the story of Saint Pelagia was begun, heavily emphasizing the physical beauty of this infamous meretrix:
Fuit quaedam meretrix, Thaisis nomine, tantae pulchritudinis, ut multipropter eam vendentes substantiam suam ad ultimam pervenirent paupertatem; sed et lites inter se conserentibus amatoribus suis, frequenter sanguine juvenum puellae limen replebatur.Again, our harlot is of such unsurpassed beauty that men will not only sacrifice all their possessions and self-respect to be with her, but they will also battle each other in the name of gaining exclusive entry to her chamber. And in Terentian fashion, Thais is not ashamed of her profession; for she has been able to support herself as an independent woman, despite having been born into a disadvantaged state. The Abbot Paphnutius comes to her rescue, ". . . sumpto habitu saeculari et uno solido, profectus est ad eam in quadam Aegypti civitate deditque ei solidum pro mercede peccati" [putting on a worldly habit, and taking a coin, went to her in a certain city of Egypt, and he gave her a coin as a reward for her transgression].10 As Chaerea changed his identity in the Eunuchus and Pelagia, herself, abandoned her sexuality, Paphnutius, too, changes his identity to gain access to Thais. He abandons his eremitic habit in favor of a more contemporary dress lest Thais should suspect his true purpose. As the abbot, who is very much her senior, begins to seduce Thais, he asks that she take him to a secret, inner chamber which is completely unknown to any mortal man. She, showing the love of God which already exists in her heart, the Terentian equivalent of a good spirit, directs him to an inner sanctum which is known to none but the Divinity. Paphnutius, surprised that a harlot would make mention of the Divine, asks her is she has knowledge of God, whereupon she replies, "et deum scio et regnum futuri saeculi, necnon et tormenta futura peccatorum" [I know that there is a God and that there is a Future Kingdom, and in fact, too, that tortures for sins are to follow].11
[There was a certain courtesan, Thais by name, of such beauty, that many selling their substance for her sake, arrived at extreme poverty: but even brawls, with the girl's lovers engaged in hand-to-hand fighting among themselves, frequently stained her threshold with blood.]9
Upon hearing her words, spoken freely and of her own volition, Paphnutius decides that Thais might be possibly brought into the world of God. Again, as Terence first demonstrated, the fact that Thais voluntarily expresses the goodness or the godliness of her inner persona, remains the key element by which she will gain access to a higher community.
The abbot then demands that she abandon all her worldly possessions, and he remands her into the custody of a monastery for virgins. Here he sets her up in a single, austere cell where she will not only have to live in solitude and in contemplation, but where she will also have to tend to all her bodily functions. There, Thais passes three years in penance, uttering only the following words: "qui plasmati me, miserere mei" [have mercy on me, he who created me].12 With the coming of Christianity, the earthly compassion which Terence had originally shown to those who erred has been replaced by a preference for earthly punishment and torture in exchange for higher heavenly glory.
After her three years have passed, Paphnutius seeks Abbot Anthony that he might be able to provide some insight as to whether the sins of Thais have yet been forgiven. Abbot Paul, one of Anthony's disciples, is blessed with a vision of a white marriage bed, adorned with three beautiful virgins. Realizing that this vision pertains not to Father Anthony, but rather to Thais, Paul rejoices and informs Paphnutius. Having interpreted this vision as a sign that Thais had, indeed, been forgiven by God, Paphnutius then journeys to the monastery of virgins where Thais had been enclosed. He then releases her from her cell, informing her that God has heard her penitence and had completely forgiven her for having so abused her body against the wholesome nature of her heart. Thais dies fifteen days after being released.13
The story of Saint Thais the Harlot was, in the tenth century, recreated in dramatic form by Hrotswitha. Born between the years of 912 and 940, Hrotswitha was a Benedictine nun at the abbey of Gandersheim in Germany. At that time, this abbey was under the direction of Abbess Gerberga, the niece of Emperor Otho I. Given the range of Hrotswitha's literary background, coupled with the finesse with which she crafts her writing, she, herself, was most likely of nobility as well.
Writing exclusively in Latin,
created three distinct bodies of work: eight poems or metrical legends
of the saints, six plays, and a long, unfinished poem, entitled
of the Othos," written to document Emperor Otho's history. As she was
to the Benedictine vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, the
theme in her work is the glorification of fidelity to these same vows.
Her intentions are completely pure, although she must frequently
some of the more sleazy elements of life, if only to demonstrate the
of her usually innocent, and in most cases, virginal heroines.14
Of her six plays, Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus and Sapientia are devoted, more or less, to the glorification of martyrdom. Two other dramas, Abraham and Paphnutius glorify the true holiness of the Desert Fathers who consecrated their entire lives to the worship of God. Hrotswitha writes with Terence's own dramatic endeavors as the specific models upon which she constructs her own plays. In fact, in the preface to her plays, she specifically states that she has used Terence's comedic devices in the construction of her own.
Despite the fact that Terence was a pagan, simply by virtue of having lived in the pre-Christian world, Hrotswitha finds the merits of his dramatic art to be too significant to be ignored. And she justifies her use of his material by indicating that she will put into the format of a pagan, the "new" ideas of the Christian world. Her preface states the following:
Sunt etiam alii sacris inhaerentes paginis, qui licet alia gentilium spernant, Terentii tamen figmenta frequentis lectitant, et, dum dulcedine sermonis delectantur, nefandarum notitiarerum maculantur. Unde ego, Clamor validus Gandershermensis, non recusavi illum imitari dictando, quem alii colunt legendo; quo, eodem dictationis genere, quo turpia lascivarum incesta feminarum recitabantur, laudabilis sacrarum castimonia virginum . . . [There are others who, although they are deeply attached to the sacred writings and have no liking for most pagan productions, make an exception in favor of the works of Terence, and, fascinated by the charm of the manner, risk being corrupted by the wickedness of the matter. Wherefore, I, the strong voice of Gandersheim, have not hesitated to imitate in my writings a poet whose works are so widely read, my object being to glorify, within the limits of my poor talent, the laudable chastity of Christian virgins in the self-same form of composition which has been used to describe the shameless acts of licentious women.]15In her play Paphnutius, Hrotswitha beautifully combines the Christian elements of the stories of the desert harlots-turned-saints, with the dramatic elements which she learned from reading Terence's six plays. The story is essentially identical to the story of Saint Thais, as found in the Vitae Patrum. Thais is again described as being "illam mulierem pulcherrimam, omnium esse delicatissimam," that woman who is considered to be the most beautiful and the most exquisite of all women. She is employed as a harlot, "mulierem secus vos commorari omnibus amabilem, omnibus affabilem,"16 a woman who "loves all who love her; . . . kind to all men, she'll not deny them anything."17
Thais, similar to the Terentian character of the same name, is pure at heart, despite the foulness of her body. When Paphnutius comes, disguised as a young lover, to see her in the brothel, and asks to gain admittance to an inner chamber not ever seen by any other man Thais affirms that she, in spite of her sins, is a Christian. She knows that she must repent for the sins of her body if she wishes to remain in the good graces of God. When Paphnutius questions her about punishment and the wrath of God, she responds:
Aestimo ipsius aequitatis lance singulorum merita pensari, et unicuique, prout gessit, sive supplicum, sive praemium servari.In Terentian fashion, the dual nature of her character allows for a pure, chaste heart, despite a body which is always engaged in unclean, deadly sin. And so, Hrotswitha's play unfolds in much the same way as the story told in the Vitae Patrum, even to the extent that she includes the vision of Paul. However, in her version, the imagery in this vision is much more spectacular, revealing Thais, after having suffered for three years, being joined to Christ as his bride for life. In this Christian context, Thais can find true happiness only when she abandons her body and fully gives the goodness of her heart over to God.
[I suppose the merits of each man are weighted in the balance, and that we shall be punished or rewarded according to our deeds.]18
Although the concepts of martyrdom and eremitic life may not be so well understood by the modern mind, she, having also mastered Terence's skillful command of the dramatic scene, creates characters whom we are able to understand and to visualize. We feel the pain and the difficulty of their situation as if today it were still as much a sin to be a prostitute or as if saints were still common figures. Hrotswitha adds freshness to classic characters and situations which may have otherwise been lost had she not, calling upon Terence as her mentor, recreated the tale of Saint Thais, the harlot with the heart of gold, in a lively format.
Dante in Inferno XVIII, lines 127-136, the Circle in which flatterers are punished by being immersed in filth, borrows from Cicero's De amicitia's reference to Terence's Eunuchus and has Virgil point out to him Thais, who is struggling to cleanse herself of the excrement that Hrotswitha's play awards her and before Hrotswitha, likewise, as had the Desert Fathers' accounts. But here she is not baptized. Dante is using their physical setting as spiritual punishment and his Thais is both historically Alexander the Great's and then the King of Egypt's paramour, shadowing Cleopatra, mistress of both Anthony and Caesar, and the fictional and dramatic Thais of Terence's Eunuchus, filtered through Cicero's text, Dante thereby presents her multi-faceted character with the greatest ambivalence. He has her speak lines from Roman drama while immersed in medieval allegorization. She is asked by her lover whether he has earned fulsome praise. She flatters him, in the play text, through a messenger, by stating "Yes, marvelously." Homosexual Virgil's response is that we have seen enough of this filthiness.
The story of Thais, the
harlot who became a saint after fully discovering God, does not again
such fame until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
France revives her tale in a novel called Thais, a novel which,
emphasizing the perspective of Paphnutius, turns Hrotswitha's play into
a narrative story. Thus we witness the figure of Thais alternately in
pages of legend and upon the boards of stages in pagan and Christian
The Comedies, trans. J. Sargeaunt (Cambridge,
Harvard University Press, 1986), I.238; trans. Betty Radice
Penguin, 1976), p. 166.
2Oswald Robert Kuehne, A Study of the Thais Legend, Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1922, p. 44.
3Dosteivsky's Idiot in using Prince Myshkin's calligraphy concerning the legend of Paphnutius is alluding to this legend.
4Kuehne, pp. 44-45.
5Kuehne, pp. 38-39.
6Vitae Sanctae Pelagiae, in Patrologia Latina, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Garnier, 1879), 73, col. 663; Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957), p. 177.
7Vitae Sanctae Pelagiae, col. 663: Waddell, p. 182.
8Vitae Sanctae Pelagiae, col. 667; Waddell, p. 182.
9Vitae Sanctae Thaisis, Patrologia Latina, 73, col. 661; Kuehne, p. 29.
10Vitae Sanctae Thaisis, p. 662; Kuehne, pp. 29-31.
11Vitae Sanctae Thaisis, p. 661; Kuehne, pp. 29-31.
12Vitae Sanctae Thaisis, p. 662; Kuehne, pp. 29-31.
13Kuehne, pp. 29-31.
14The Plays of Roswitha, trans. Christopher St. John (Salem, NH: Ayer Company, 1966), pp. vii-xxiv.
15Hroswitha, Paphnutius, Patrologia Latina, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Garnier, 1897), 137. cols. 971-972; The Plays of Roswitha, p. xxvi.
16Hroswitha, Paphnutius, col. 1034.
17The Plays of Roswitha, p. 105.
18Hroswitha, Paphnutius, col. 1035; The Plays of Roswitha, p. 108.
This is a chapter from the E-Book: Latin with Laughter: Terence through Time
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