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Mercator (play)

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Written byPlautus
SettingAthens, before the houses of Demipho and Lysimachus

Mercator, or The Merchant, is a Latin comedic play for the early Roman theatre by Titus Maccius Plautus. It is based on the Greek play Emporos (the Merchant) by the Greek comedy playwright Philemon. It is believed to be among Plautus's first plays, possibly written around 206 BC.[1] The central conflict involves a father who falls in love with a slave girl who is, unbeknownst to the father, his son's lover.


  • Charinus—a young merchant
  • Acanthio—Charinus's slave
  • Demipho—father of Charinus, also a merchant
  • Lysimachus—friend of Demipho
  • Eutychus—friend of Charinus, son of Lysimachus
  • Pasicompsa—lover and slave of Charinus
  • Dorippa—wife of Lysimachus
  • Syra—slave of Lysimachus's family
  • A cook
  • Other slaves


The division of the play into acts does not exist in Plautus’s manuscript but was rather introduced by Renaissance scholars to match the likely division of the Greek original, though these divisions are the source of some controversy.[2]: v–xi 


Charinus explains that he had taken after his father's example and decided to become a merchant. He had much success in Rhodes and there fell in love with a slave woman named Pasicompsa. He purchased Pasicompsa and brought her with him to his home in Athens where he now ponders how to prevent his father from discovering his love.

Act I

Acanthio runs to Charinus from the harbor to deliver news that Demipho has been to the ship and seen Pasicompsa. To cover for Charinus, Acanthio had convinced Demipho that Charinus had purchased Pasicompsa to serve as a maid for Charinus's mother. He further tells Charinus that Demipho was flirting with Pasicompsa. Charinus decides he must go to the harbor at once.

Act II

Returning from the harbor, Demipho enters and claims that he has had a dream in which he entrusted a prize goat to his monkey friend, but the monkey lost the goat to a younger goat. He admits to his neighbor Lysimachus that he has fallen in love and feels youthful. Lysimachus leaves and Charinus enters, lamenting his predicament. Demipho then tells Charinus that Pasicompsa is too fine to be a maid and instead insists Pasicompsa be sold. The two begin a bidding war, each claiming to represent imaginary clients. Demipho rejects his son's offers and turns Charinus away from the harbor. When Charinus exits, Demipho reveals his plan to have Lysimachus purchase Pasicompsa on Demipho's behalf. Separately, Charinus sends Eutychus to purchase Pasicompsa himself.


Lysimachus buys Pasicompsa and is bringing her to Lysimachus's home. He tells her he bought her on behalf of her own master, and Pasicompsa is pleased, believing Lysimachus to mean Charinus. After they exit into Lysimachus's house, Demipho enters and attempts to justify what he believes he has earned with age. Lysimachus returns to Demipho and tells him he must find Pasicompsa elsewhere to stay before Dorippa returns from the countryside. For the time being, the two exit to find a cook for a feast to be held that night. Shortly after, Eutychus tells Charinus that he was too late and Pasicompsa was sold to an unknown buyer. Heartbroken, Charinus decides he will leave Athens, but Eutychus becomes determined to find Pasicompsa.

Act IV

Dorippa returns home from the countryside earlier than expected, and she and Syra (whose name is meant to imply her Syrian ethnicity[3]) discover Pasicompsa in the house, believing her to be Lysimachus's mistress. Lysimachus returns home and tries to explain to his wife that he is only looking after Pasicompsa temporarily, but when the cook hired for that night's feast arrives, Dorippa becomes only more sure of her suspicions and exits into her house crying. Lysimachus dismisses the cook and follows after his wife. Eutychus returns home to find Syra outside, who urges him inside to see his father's mistress. Syra laments the inequalities between the unfaithfulness of men and women.

Act V

Eutychus finds Charinus just as Charinus is about to leave Athens and tells him that he has found Pasicompsa in Eutychus's own home. Charinus exits into the home, and Eutychus remains outside to confront Lysimachus and Demipho. He tells them Pasicompsa was really Charinus's lover and that Demipho should be ashamed for trying to take her for himself. He proposes a law that old men should not interfere in the passionate love of young men, and the three exit into Lysimachus's house.

Analysis and Criticism

The play makes use of many stock characters, with which theatergoers would have been familiar. Charinus plays the role of the adulescens amator, Demipho is the senex, and Pasicompsa is the meretrix.[2]: 2  The plot is relatively straightforward and is most easily compared to that of the Casina, which also revolves around a conflict between the adulescens and senex.[4]

The title of the play may refer to either Charinus or Demipho, as both turn out to be successful merchants. It is possible that this ambiguity was intentional.[5] Their mercantile backgrounds seem to carry over into the rest of their lives; in many lines, Charinus and Demipho speak about Pasicompsa in language characterizing her as a commodity to be traded, rather than as a person.[6]

Pasicompsa, whose name translates to "pretty in every respect,"[7] is the central point of contention in the play, though she is only onstage for fewer than 5% of the play's lines. She has little control over her own fate, which is dictated by men. Even though Charinus appears to be in love with her, Pasicompsa's non-citizen status means she and Charinus would never be allowed to marry, thus destining Pasicompsa to a life of being passed between owners.[8]



  1. ^ Buck, Charles Henry, Jr. (1938). A chronology of the plays of Plautus (Ph.D.). p. 146.
  2. ^ a b Dunsch, Boris (2000). Plautus' Mercator A Commentary (Ph.D.). hdl:10023/7089.
  3. ^ Starks, John H., Jr. (February 2010). "servitus, sudor, sitis: Syra in Mercator and Syrian Slave Stereotyping in Plautus". New England Classical Journal. 37 (1): 51–64. ISSN 0739-1188.
  4. ^ Wieand, Helen E. (1920). Deception in Plautus. Boston, MA: The Gorham Press. pp. 49, 98.
  5. ^ Slater, Niall W. (February 2010). "Opening Negotiations: The Work of the Prologue to Plautus's Mercator". New England Classical Journal. 37 (1): 5–14. ISSN 0739-1188.
  6. ^ Seo, J. Mira (February 2010). "What the Cook Knew: The Cocus in Plautus' Mercator". New England Classical Journal. 37 (1): 27–38. ISSN 0739-1188.
  7. ^ Plautus, Titus Maccius (2011). Mercator. Vol. 3. Translated by de Melo, Wolfgang. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-674-99682-3.
  8. ^ James, Sharon L. (February 2010). "Trafficking Pasicompsa: A Courtesan's Travels and Travails in Plautus' Mercator". New England Classical Journal. 37 (1): 5–14. ISSN 0739-1188.
  9. ^ Plautus; Translated by Wolfgang de Melo (2011). Plautus, Vol III: The Merchant; The Braggart Soldier; The Ghost; The Persian. Loeb Classical Library. ISBN 978-0674996823.
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Mercator (play)
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