Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-n9wrp Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-23T13:12:02.188Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 August 2022

T.H.M. Gellar-Goad*
Wake Forest University
Rights & Permissions [Opens in a new window]


This note argues that repeated uses of onus ‘burden’ in Plaut. Asin. 591–745 pun on Greek ὄνος ‘ass’ and, in so doing, activate a network of other puns and hints at the play's title, asses (the animal), and both homoerotic and anal sex.

Research Article
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association

Leonida and Libanus, the double serui callidi of Plautus’ Asinaria, have obtained the twenty minae that Argyrippus, the young man they are enslaved to, needs in order to purchase a yearlong contract with the sex-labourer he is obsessed with, Philaenium.Footnote 1 Before they hand the cash over to Argyrippus, though, they decide to use it as leverage over him. First, they coerce Philaenium into some sexual favours for each of them, a sexual violation foreshadowing the other sexual violation she will endure later in the play (828–49/50) at the hands of Argyrippus’ father Demaenetus. Then, Leonida and Libanus make Argyrippus carry Libanus around on his back, with plenty of homoerotic jokes and innuendo, a sexual humiliation foreshadowing the other sexual humiliation he will endure later in the play at the hands of his father Demaenetus (828–49/50).

This scene (591–745) is the play's longest, its climax, and near to the play's structural centre. Naturally, given the title of the play, it becomes a site for much ass-related funny business. In this note, I draw attention to previously unnoticed ass puns that further enrich the play's titularity and play up the scene's sexual suggestiveness.

Several elements contribute to the assiness of this scene. In the lead-in to the scene, Leonida refers to the twenty minae as asses (asini, 588–90).Footnote 2 He refers metonymically to the source of the minae, Demaenetus’ sale of Arcadian asini to a certain merchant Pelleus (333–7), who himself, as an assmonger (businassman?), is candidate for the play's title non-character.Footnote 3 During the scene in question, Argyrippus is ridden like an ass (705–10).

Readers picking up on a homoerotic subtext to the riding—that it is not just assplay but arseplay Argyrippus will have to endure—have their suspicions confirmed repeatedly. Most prominent is Libanus’ snipe when he's mounting Argyrippus: sic isti solent superbi subdomari. | asta igitur, ut consuetus es puer olim. scin ut dicam? | em sic (‘this is how uppity ones are brought to heel. Bend over now, just like you used to as a kid, know what I mean? Yeah, that's it’, 702–4). Libanus plays on the dual association of puer (‘boy’ and ‘enslaved man’) with someone who takes the receptive role in homoerotic anal intercourse.Footnote 4 The direct homoerotic joke here casts sexual light on the meaning of Argyrippus’ inscende (‘mount me’, 702, 705).Footnote 5 Viewers are primed for anal innuendo by Leonida's insult against Libanus early in the scene (cinaede calamistrate ‘you pervert with a perm!’, 627),Footnote 6 and for homoerotic humour by a subsequent exchange in which Argyrippus tells Leonida and Libanus to get in a clinch as long as they are whispering together (suauius complexos fabulari, 640), but Libanus responds that neither of them finds the other attractive (641–4). Given this context, it is possible also that Argyrippus’ repeated references to Argyrippus’ being ‘played’ (forms of deludere: 646, 677, 679, 711, 731) draw on a connotation of the verb ludo as being sexually deceived.Footnote 7

Lurking behind the jocularity of this scene is the very real peril that enslaved persons such as Leonida and Libanus could face: physical and sexual abuse by enslavers such as Argyrippus, for whom both of the enslaved men were (regardless of their actual age) pueri and thus potential sexual objects, with no more rights or security than his father's Arcadian asses. Indeed, while riding Argyrippus, Libanus threatens: ‘I'll give you to the mill-workers, so you can be tortured to death there by running’ (ad pistores dabo, ut ibi cruciere currens, 708–9). Such could be the ultimate doom for an ass—but, at the same time, the mill and its horrible working conditions were the severest punishment for a person enslaved to an elite Roman landholder, a fate to which Libanus euphemistically alludes earlier in the play (30–40).Footnote 8

Plautus’ most pun-focussed pundits have, to date, found plenty of puns involving the play's title and topic, as well as doubles entendres about man-on-man buttsex. Traina finds the latter right at the beginning of the play, in the Prologus’ reside (5), which he argues is a homoerotic jab at the praeco of line 4.Footnote 9 Henderson, meanwhile, notices an assy reference in the very same line's auritus, in context meaning ‘attentive’ but implying ‘long-eared’.Footnote 10 Henderson builds out from that reference to asses as proverbially burden-bearing (onus is collocated with a certain Vinnius Asina in Hor. Epist. 1.13) and braying (citing ὀγκήσαιτο at Callim. Aet. fr. 1.31 and ὀγκωδέστατoς said of Horace by Augustus in Suet. Vita Hor.). He also sees Asinaria wordplay latent in Plautus’ deployment of the term argentarius at lines 116 and 126Footnote 11 and uel patinarium uel assum at line 180;Footnote 12 and he notes that, in this play, the verb fero almost always denotes bearing the burden of cash.Footnote 13 Henderson and Fontaine both handle the homoerotic sex jokes in our scene, including Libanus’ ‘mounting’ of Argyrippus.Footnote 14

What has not yet been identified in the scholarly record on Asinaria is a brace of ass-related puns, one bilingual and one anal. First off, Argyrippus must twice beg the serui to hand over the cash, first Leonida and then Libanus. And he twice describes the cash as a burden, an onus:

nolo ego te, qui erus sis mihi onus istuc sustinere. (658)
o Libane, mi patrone, mi trade istuc: magis decorumst
libertum potius quam patronum onus in uia portare. (689–90)

I don't want you, my master, to bear this burden.… Libanus, my patron, give this to me—it's more appropriate for a freedman than a patron to carry the burden in the street.

I argue that onus in these lines puns on Greek ὄνος ‘ass’. The two words are not etymologically related, but their pronunciation would be, to a Roman ear, functionally identical.Footnote 15 Spectators might have the Greek word in the back of their minds thanks to the play's prologue, which states that ‘the name of this play in Greek is “Ass-Driver”’ (huic nomen graece Onagost fabulae, 10).Footnote 16 Both onus and ὄνος are metonyms for the money, the latter additionally being the mechanism by which the money has been obtained, the former additionally being a standard task for which you would own the latter. In effect, the repeated bilingual pun calls back to the scene's setup, when Leonida tells us that the moneybag contains some fine pieces of ass (588–90). The scene as<s> a {w}hole, particularly the ass-riding sequence, is freighted with weighty words—sustinere (658), labor (659), imponere (659), baiulare (660),Footnote 17 inanis (660), pressatum umerum (661), af/ferre (672, 699, 700, 732, 733), uehere (699, 700, 701), patior (739)—so the audience would be able to take a load on their mind when thinking about the onus of the cash and Argyrippus as ass. Perhaps onus at lines 658 and 690 would best be translated ‘assload’.Footnote 18

Second, I argue that onus and patronus at lines 652 and 658 (plus patronus earlier in the scene, at line 621), and especially at lines 689–90, work together to activate a nexus of status- and sex-related wordplay.Footnote 19 The onus, the cash, will buy Argyrippus a year's access to Philaenium, and so its delivery by Leonida and Libanus may make Argyrippus inclined to free them, and thus become their patronus rather than their dominus.Footnote 20 At the same time, their possession of the cash and his need for it puts him in the position of cliens to their patroni. The scene displays, as Konstan notes, Saturnalian inversion to an extreme.Footnote 21 onus jingles on honos, as well, given the questions of status hovering over the exchange.Footnote 22

And when punning on onus and patronus in a scene rife with anal innuendo, there is another sexual jeu de mots in play: patro ‘to orgasm’. A sexual usage of the verb (‘reach a sexual climax’, per OLD 2 s.v. patrō b) in Asinaria would have Plautus anticipating the much later satirist Persius, who offers the only other extant such usage (patrantiocello, 1.18).Footnote 23 Here in Asinaria, the equation of patro + onus = patronus is a rich one. Argyrippus must bear the onus of Libanus in order to get the onus of the cash; Argyrippus beseeches Leonida and Libanus as onus-bearing patroni; Libanus’ Argyrippus-ride hints at sex in which Libanus the patronus will get to do the verb patro; the ultimate aim of the onus of the cash is for Argyrippus to get his rocks off—that is, patro—with Philaenium; and by helping Argyrippus get the onus he needs to access the girl with whom he wants to patro, Leonida and Libanus put themselves in a position where they might be freed to call him patronus. When the two Ls have finished tormenting Argyrippus, and Leonida tells him ‘you've got what you want’ (impetrasti, 721), there, too, lies the possibility of orgasmic innuendo.Footnote 24

From there, the potential homoerotic puns multiply. onus could rhymingly invoke anus.Footnote 25 Leonida's insistence that Argyrippus ‘rub his knees’ (genua confricantur, 670; also 671, 678), literally in supplication, foreshadows Argyrippus’ stint on his knees with Libanus astride him, mounted for some assplay. When the onus is the burden, the bearing can be expressed by patior, which can have a sexual sense; at line 739, Argyrippus shows (with patior) he will endure anything to get Philaenium, even (in that line) giving the ius primae noctis to his lecherous father, or (in the scene now coming to a close) letting a man enslaved to him mount him.Footnote 26 While we are talking asses, burdens and assholes, we cannot overlook the Aristoph-anal routine on πιέζομαι.Footnote 27 And Philaenium's plea to Leonida, ‘don't unyoke us lovers’ (ne nos deiunge amantis, 665),Footnote 28 both draws on ass-related terminology and could connote sexual intercourse (as it does at, for example, Curc. 50).

Coming back to the core wordplay on onus and ὄνος—a punderous juncture—asses and onus are collocated also with metaphorical force elsewhere in Plautus. In Aulularia, we have another use of onus with financial connotations, as miserly Euclio frets that marrying his daughter to wealthy Megadorus will have inequitable outcomes: in mentem uenit | te bouem esse et me esse asellum; ubi tecum coniunctus siem, | ubi onus nequeam ferre pariter, iaceam ego asinus in luto (‘it comes to mind that you're an ox and I'm a li'l ass; when I'm yoked to you, when I can't bear my share of the burden, I'll end up an ass in the mud’, 229–30). In Amphitruo, it is again about physical violation, when Mercury says that Sosia is bringing with him a mule (iumentum, 327, 328) that ‘must be burdened with fists’, that is, beaten up (onerandus est pugnis, 328); Sosia responds that he is so tired from his travels (329–30) that he cannot bear such a burden (ne ire posse cum onere existimes, 330).Footnote 29

The Plautine association of asinus with onus weighs heavily on the subsequent tradition, with joint appearances of the words in both Horace and Cicero.Footnote 30 And the bilingual pun—which could be excellent fodder for a folk etymology of the Latin word (for example onus, quod ὄνος fert, akin to the Varronian classic lucus a non lucendo)—is simple and straightforward enough that it does not require high-level Greek expertise to appreciate, but rather could land for a broad band of the diverse Plautine audience.Footnote 31


I owe thanks to Will Lewis, Amy Kevin Lather and the anonymous reader for CQ. The following work is cited below by author's surname and year alone: J. Henderson (transl.), Asinaria: The One about the Asses (Madison, 2006).


1 For the text of Asinaria, I use R.M. Danese (ed.), Titus Maccius Plautus Asinaria (Urbino, 2004). All translations are my own. For the term ‘sex-labourer’ as the most accurate translation of Latin meretrix, see Witzke, S.S., ‘Harlots, tarts, and hussies? A problem of terminology for sex labor in Roman comedy’, Helios 42 (2015), 721CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 On the equation of asses with cashbag, see Henderson (2006), 176–7, 192–4.

3 A. Schwarz, ‘Das Rätsel der Komödientitel „Asinaria“ und „Rudens“’, Philologische Wochenschrift 56 (1936), 876–80, at 877 suggests that Libanus, as Argyrippus-rider, is the play's eponymous onagos; Henderson (2006), 210–11 hypothesizes that, by the play's end, it is Demaenetus’ wife Artemona who should be seen as the ass person of the title.

4 Argyrippus finds himself in a veritable pedicament.

5 Cf. OLD 2 s.v. inscendō 3, although said entry classifies this line of Asinaria under 2, equitational mounting; compare inscendo used unambiguously of sexual mounting (the ‘donkey show’) at Apul. Met. 7.21, 10.22.

6 OLD 2 euphemistically defines cinaedus as ‘catamite’ (s.v. cinaedus 1); the word, from Greek κίναιδος (‘guy who twerks’), for Romans properly denotes a man so given over to lust and luxury that he has become effeminate, often with the expectation that he will be an eager bottom in anal sex. Compare the gloss of Sapsford, T., ‘The wages of effeminacy? Kinaidoi in Greek documents from Egypt’, EuGeStA 5 (2015), 103–23, at 103Google Scholar: ‘a term used both in Greek and in Latin sources for a figure most commonly noted for his effeminate gender display and sexual degeneracy whether expressed through a willingness to be anally penetrated or as a more general insatiability’; and see further Gazzarri, T., ‘Cinaedus galbinatus: cultural perception of the color “green” and its gender association with pathici in Rome’, EuGeStA 9 (2019), 79107Google Scholar. The term does not designate ‘homosexual’ (as it is frequently and incorrectly rendered by, for example, K. Mitchell, ‘Catullus 25.5: a gaping target’, Hermes 141 [2013], 105–7, at 105), a total category error for ancient Rome, in which sexuality was not oriented around the match or mismatch of one's gender identity to the gender identity to which one was attracted. For discussions of the cinaedus as a subjectivity that decentres and destabilizes Graeco-Roman hegemonic masculinity, see A. Deagon, ‘The “effeminate dancer” in Greco-Roman Egypt: the intimate performance of ambiguity’, Congress on Research in Dance Proceedings 40 Suppl. 51 (2008), 69–77; E.M. Young, ‘The touch of the cinaedus: unmanly sensations in the Carmina Priapea’, CA 34 (2015), 183–208.

7 See especially Ter. Eun. 385 with S.L. James, ‘Fallite fallentes: rape and intertextuality in Terence's Eunuchus and Ovid's Ars amatoria’, EuGeStA 6 (2016), 86–111; cf. Ov. Her. 17.17, 25, 142, 153, 193–4, 21.116, with Gellar-Goad, T.H.M., ‘The lexicon of profit and commerce in Ovid's Ars amatoria and other works’, AJPh 142 (2021), 287318Google Scholar, at 308 n. 44. Cf. also Hor. Carm. 3.4.5–6; the verb can also simply denote sexual play, as per OLD 2 s.v. lūdō 4.

8 On Asin. 30–40, see Stewart, R., Plautus and Roman Slavery (Malden, MA, 2012), 105–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the mill, see further Henderson (2006), 132, 200, 237; Richlin, A., Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy (Cambridge, 2017), 6CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 120 and, on this scene, 217–18.

9 Traina, A., ‘L'ambiguo invito (As. 5, Poen. 15)’, Poeti latini (e neolatini) 3 (1989), 71–4Google Scholar; cf. Fontaine, M., Funny Words in Plautine Comedy (Oxford, 2010), 206Google Scholar.

10 Henderson (2006), xiv, 220 n. 7.

11 Henderson (2006), 136–7.

12 Henderson (2006), 172.

13 Henderson (2006), 236–7 n. 19.

14 Henderson (2006), 202, 237 n. 21; Fontaine (n. 9), 221.

15 Romans habitually transliterate Greek nouns and adjectives in –ος with –us (e.g. our play's Argyrippus from *Ἀργύριππος), and in Plautus’ day second-declension masculine nouns vacillated between endings in –us and –os (e.g. seruos and seruus used interchangeably throughout Plautine comedy).

16 Plautus’ Onagost (for ὄναγος) is evidently a hapax, appearing only here in Latin (so OLD 2 s.v. onagos; TLL 9.2.628) and never in actual Greek (so TLL 9.2.628; LSJ s.v. ὄναγος). But, so as not to make assumptions out of our asses, we should note that the apparatus criticus of Danese (n. 1), ad loc. indicates that the Plautine codices B and D (both tenth-century manuscripts held in the Vatican) read Onagrost rather than Onagost. In that case, the line would refer to a word for ‘wild ass’ common in both Latin (onager, especially in reference to the Roman siege weapon) and Greek (ὄναγρος, a contraction of ὄνος ἄγριος). For an overview of the debate over the two alternatives, see Fogazza, D., ‘Plauto 1935–1975’, Lustrum 19 (1976), 79295Google Scholar, at 226–7.

17 The only other instance of this verb in Plautus (TLL 2.1685)—spoken at Merc. 508 by Pasicompsa the enslaved sex-labourer, about a task that she never learned to do that might be asked of her by her new enslaver—may also bear sexual undertones.

18 With ass on the mind thanks to the onus/ὄνος pun at line 658, we may hear hee-hawing also when Leonida hits on Philaenium, first listing other livestock he wants her to call him as terms of endearment (666–7) and then telling her to grab him by the ears (prehende auriculis, 668)—asses are, as we have seen, famous for their ears.

19 Compare the summary of the scene in question by Henderson (2006), 202: ‘Sir Slave Knight's crossing of sexual with status subjugation knots together Plautus’ nadir and zenith of carnival subversion through extraordinary comedic hyperventilation.’

20 Henderson (2006), 197, notes a series of puns on Libanus’ name and libertus.

21 Konstan, D., Roman Comedy (Ithaca, 1983), 55Google Scholar.

22 See Maltby, R., A Lexicon of Ancient Latin Etymologies (Melksham, 1991), 282Google Scholar, s.v. honestus, who adduces Varro, Ling. 5.73: honos ab onere: itaque honestum dicitur quod oneratum, et dictum: ‘onus est honos qui sustinet rempublicam’. I owe this citation to the anonymous reader for CQ.

23 Satire scholars have settled on ‘orgasmic eye’ to render Persius’ patrantiocello: so Miller, P.A., ‘The bodily grotesque in Roman satire: images of sterility’, Arethusa 31 (1998), 257–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 267; Braund, S.M., Juvenal and Persius (Cambridge, MA, 2004), 51Google Scholar; E.J. Kenney, ‘Satiric textures: style, meter, and rhetoric’, in S. Braund and J. Osgood (edd.), A Companion to Persius and Juvenal (Malden, MA, 2012), 113–36, at 117; D. Hooley, ‘Imperial satire reiterated: Late Antiquity through the twentieth century’, in S. Braund and J. Osgood (edd.), A Companion to Persius and Juvenal (Malden, MA, 2012), 337–62, at 361; S. Bartsch, Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural (Chicago, 2015), 165.

24 OLD 2 s.v. patrō cites Asin. 114 for the basic meaning of the verb, ‘accomplish’.

25 This would not be out of place in this play, since—as Fontaine (n. 9), 34, 230 n. 53 notes—anulus at line 778 puns on anus.

26 Henderson (2006), 147 discusses patior earlier in the play, at line 324, but there is no sexual sense there nor, accordingly, in his discussion.

27 Xanthias at Ar. Ran. 3, 30: see, for example, M. Telò, ‘Laughter, or Aristophanes’ joy in the face of death’, in P. Swallow and E. Hall (edd.), Aristophanic Humour: Theory and Practice (London, 2020), 53–68, at 56.

28 On this line, see Henderson (2006), 203.

29 Furthermore, muli and onus are similarly collocated at Plaut. Mostell. 780–2.

30 Hor. Sat. 1.9.20–1: asellus, | cum grauius dorso subiit onus (‘when the little ass picks up a rather heavy burden on its back’); Cic. Att. 1.16.12: asellus onustus auro (‘an asslet weighed down with gold’); both with Pascual-Berea, J., ‘Asinus y asellus: los dos tipos de asno doméstico en latín clásico’, Pallas 101 (2016), 279–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Pace Fontaine (n. 9), who argues that sophisticated Greek/Latin puns in Plautus necessitate a target audience composed of a bilingual senatorial elite.