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Pseudolus Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 41-page guide for “Pseudolus” by Plautus includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 20 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Inversion of Social Class and The Inversion of Morality.

Plot Summary

Pseudolus, by Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus, was written in 191 BCE. Like other Roman plays, Pseudolus would have been performed in temporary theaters during religious festivals. Though Plautus himself was not born in Rome—little is known about him, but it is thought he was born in the northern Italian town of Sarsina—his plays were remarkably popular. Writing during a time of Roman expansion, when Roman soldiers brought Greek culture back to Rome, Plautus often included in his plays both Greek and Roman elements. Plautus chose to set his plays in Greece; whether he did so to mock or laud Greek culture is controversial. His plays were raucous and rollicking, focusing on everyday life and domestic situations in the style of Greek New Comedy, as opposed to the political commentary and satire of Greek Old Comedy. His plays contain relatable situations—characters often interact with the audience—and stock characters, perhaps most notably the clever slave Pseudolus in the play that bears his name. Pseudolus inverts social and moral systems: slaves, for example, are smarter than their masters, and spectators cheer for the subversive thieves. Whether these inversions are simply in keeping with the festivals at which the plays were performed or meant to truly make spectators question these systems has been debated among scholars.

Calidorus, Simo’s son, and Pseudolus, Simo’s slave, discuss a letter Calidorus has received from his lover, a prostitute owned by Simo’s neighbor, Ballio. Calidorus ruefully explains that Phoenicium has been sold to a Macedonian soldier and that as soon as the soldier’s slave returns with the balance and a matching seal, she will be forced to go to him. Calidorus laments that he has no money to buy Phoenicium himself. Pseudolus, urging Calidorus to calm down, assures Calidorus that he will help him.

Ballio emerges from his house to go the market to buy food for his birthday party, whipping, threatening, and insulting his servants and prostitutes. Pseudolus and Calidorus implore him to have mercy on Phoenicium, but Ballio is relentless. He tells them that if the soldier’s slave doesn’t appear by the end of the day, he will sell Phoenicium to Calidorus, as long as Calidorus provides him with the money. After Ballio leaves, Pseudolus asks Calidorus to find an additional friend to help them. Pseudolus tells the audience that he actually doesn’t have a plan but that he is confident he’ll succeed. As Simo approaches, he vows to somehow obtain the money from him.

Pseudolus speaks with Simo and his neighbor, Callipho. Simo, commenting to Callipho on Pseudolus’s disrespectful attitude, asks Pseudolus about the rumors that his lovelorn son, Calidorus, is going to try to swindle him out of the twenty minae necessary to buy Phoenicium. Pseudolus admits to the plan and, despite Simo’s rejoicing that the plan has been thwarted, insists that Simo still will ultimately give him the money. Simo objects, and Pseudolus tells him to watch out. Pseudolus and Simo agree that if Pseudolus succeeds in stealing Phoenicium from Ballio, Simo will give him the money willingly. If he fails, Simo can send him to the mill, where he’ll perform hard labor. Alone on stage, Pseudolus boasts of his ability to carry about schemes.

Soon Pseudolus encounters Harpax, the Macedonian soldier’s slave, who is looking for Ballio. Pseudolus pretends to be Ballio’s slave, Surus, and tells Harpax he can leave the money for Phoenicium with him. Harpax refuses, but he does leave a sealed letter from his master. He says he’s going to take a nap at the inn and that Surus should fetch him when Ballio returns. After Harpax leaves, Pseudolus, elated by this lucky turn of events, explains to the audience that to be successful, people must make use of good fortune.

Calidorus returns with his friend, Charinus, who will provide his father’s slave, Simia, to impersonate Harpax. Pseudolus borrows five minae—the remaining balance to buy Phoenicium—from Charinus, which Simia will bring to Ballio, along with the sealed letter from the Macedonian soldier. When Simia arrives, Pseudolus is pleased with his clever, wicked nature and is sure their plan will succeed.

Pseudolus watches as Simia, dressed as Harpax, approaches Ballio to exchange the five minae and the sealed letter for Phoenicium. Ballio, at first wary, is satisfied that Simia is the Macedonian soldier’s slave, and tells Simia to follow him so they can make the exchange. While Simia is inside with Ballio, Pseudolus worries about how the plan can go wrong. However, Simia emerges with Phoenicium, and Pseudolus rejoices, suggesting they celebrate.

Ballio, who’d been alerted by Simo that Pseudolus intended to take Phoenicium, is pleased to be safe from Pseudolus now that Phoenicium has been delivered to Harpax. He gleefully announces the news to a skeptical Simo, telling him that if he’s wrong, he’ll give Simo twenty minae. Simo worries that Pseudolus has managed to trick them, but when Ballio tells him about the sealed letter, Simo prepares to send Pseudolus to the mill.

When the real Harpax approaches, Ballio and Simo tease him, assuming him to be working for Pseudolus. Eventually realizing that Harpax is truly the Macedonian soldier’s slave and that Pseudolus has swindled him after all, Ballio reluctantly returns the twenty minae to Harpax. Simo demands his twenty minae; Ballio says he’ll give it to him tomorrow.

Pseudolus has been celebrating and emerges from Simo’s house drunk. He describes the food he’s eaten, the love he’s received, and the lewd dances he’s participated in. He shamelessly flaunts his condition to Simo, who sadly pays him the twenty minae he owes him. Dejected, Simo chastises Pseudolus for his drunkenness and expresses disbelief that he’d take money from his master. His vow to avenge himself fails to frighten Pseudolus, who asks Simo if he’d like to join him for a drink. The two exit together, considering whether to ask the audience along for a drink, too.

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