Human Trafficking

So about human trafficking . . . I had mentioned in the brainstorming post that this was one of the social issues we have looked at in reading Plautus’ Menaechmi this semester.

My thoughts returned again to this issue the past weekend, when I read this NPR story We tend to think of girls and young women when we hear of human trafficking and the sex industry and forget that boys, young men, and trans individuals are also victims.

Not so in Plautus’ Menaechmi. Although this is not one of the adult themes that emerges in our movie adaptation, Plautus’ original text references kidnapping several times. The prologue describes how the father of the two twin boys went to Tarentum with one of his sons. There was a festival going on, and in the hubbub, he wandered away from his father and got lost in the crowd. A merchant from Epidamnus sees the boy and takes him home, where he raises him as his own son.

Students asked at this point, “Did he kidnap the boy?” And we tried to imagine how the problem of finding the parent of a lost child in the midst of a festival celebration would be handled in Tarentum in the 3rd century BCE. Today we’d likely take a lost boy to Child & Family Services or some such local social services agency and let the local police know that a lost child had been found. The father might ask the police to issue an Amber Alert with identifying information about the child.

Whatever the social services available in ancient Tarentum, we don’t know, but it appears that the visiting merchant did not attempt to reunite the lost boy with his father. He took him home with him to Epidamnus instead. Perhaps the man was just acting charitably in taking this poor child off the streets? Maybe he thought he was an orphan in need of rescuing?

So far, we’ve suspended judgement.

But just a little later, Plautus weighs in, leaving no doubt as to what he thinks about the matter:

Epidamniensis ille, quem dudum dixeram,
geminum illum puerum qui surrupuit alterum–
ei liberorum, nisi diuitiae, nihil erat.
adoptat illum puerum surrupticium
sibi filium eique uxorem dotatam dedit,
eumque heredem fecit, quom ipse obiit diem.
nam rus ut ibat forte, ut multum pluerat,
ingressus fluuium rapidum ab urbe longule–
rapidus raptori pueri subduxit pedes
abstraxitque hominem in maxumam malam crucem. (lines 57-66)

Plautus makes it quite clear that the man is a kidnapper, who deserved the fate he received.

And that’s not all. Later, that same boy, now an adult, speaks of pilfering his wife’s scarf in mock epic terms: “Dic mihi enumquam tu uidisti tabulam pictam in pariete,
ubi aquila Catameitum raperet aut ubi Venus Adoneum?” (lines 143-144)

The eagle snatching Ganymede is an unmistakable reference to the myth of Zeus kidnapping the young boy to serve as his cupbearer on Mount Olympus.

It suffices to say that while we may have blindspots when it comes to human trafficking, Plautus did not.

Published by magistrammchugh

I am a Professor of ancient Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, and this blog is an account of the brainstorming and planning that went into the 2021 Plautus students' creation of the film, "Megan & Meghan" that will premiere at 7:00 PM CST, April 21, 2021, via Zoom.

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