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Thais: A Believable Meretrix

One of the papers from the Eta Sigma Phi panel at the 2011 APA

Lauren Gribble
Hillsdale College

Although the prostitute has long been
listed among stock comedic characters
as the mala meretrix, Donatus maintains
that Terence’s courtesan represents a
departure from the stereotype, termed
the bona meretrix, a line of argument also
adopted by later scholarship. In this paper,
I contend that neither of these extremes
accurately describes the character of Thais,
a courtesan in Terence’s Eunuchus. An
examination of Thais’ status under Roman
law reveals the complexity of her character,
which Terence creates by realistically
blending both mala and bona qualities. For
instance, laws distinguishing gifts given
to courtesans (inhonestae donationes) from
those given to friends and relatives (honestae)
underscore the dishonorable nature
of Thais’ occupation, a contrast which is
further emphasized by laws prohibiting
gifts between spouses. Although these laws
serve to highlight Thais’ mala qualities
of flattery and greed, laws regarding the
delivery of gifts point out her honesty,
genuine affection, and honorable motivation,
evidence of her bona characteristics.
Terence’s resolution of the conflict between
Thais’ rival lovers, a contract agreeing
to share her attentions, demonstrates a
similar awareness of the reality of Thais’
position as a meretrix, recognizing that,
although permanent commitment is futile,
true affection is possible. Thus, Thais is
neither wholly mala, nor wholly bona, but
an appealing combination of the two.

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