The Evil-Communication Phrase in Menander

face of a prisoner

The evil-communication phrase of 1 Corithinians 15:33 is attributed to Menander’s Thais in credible ancient sources. Its specific context in Menander has not survived. However, Menander’s relatively narrow concerns, stock characters, and formulaic plots provide considerable insight into the likely meaning of the evil-communication phrase. It most likely concerned a courtesan’s seduction of a young man and the effects of the young man’s passion for her on his behavior towards his stern father.

Menander’s plays are largely apolitical. Dating from 325 to 292 BCE, the plays focus on the family life of middle-class Athenians. They usually conclude with one or more marriages. Menander’s plays do not include a class of morally suspect characters who threaten to contaminate a family with communication from outside of it. None of his characters are extremely virtuous or wholly evil. Among Menander’s characters are flatterers, courtesans, and stern fathers. Flatterers, usually servants or slaves, typically verbally manipulate their masters in a way that demonstrates the true superiority of the servant or slave. Courtesans, unmarried women who exchange sex for gifts and control over men, typically had ongoing relationships with particular men.

In Menander’s Thais, the evil-communication phrase might best be translated into English as “seductive words corrupt customary family relationships.” Two surviving fragments from Menander’s Thais indicate the behavior and influence of the courtesan Thais:

Sing to me, goddess, sing of such a one as she: audacious, beautiful, and plausible withal; she does you wrongs; she locks her door; keeps asking you for gifts; she loveth none, but ever makes pretense. …

“Loose-bridled?” Pest! Methinks, though I have suffered this, that none the less I’d now be glad to have her.^

Menander typically uses descriptive names for characters such as Chrysis (“gold plate”) for a courtesan.^ Thais, which has no meaning other than as a personal name, was a courtesan who traveled with Alexander the Great to Persia. According to one historical source, Alexander burned the magnificent Persian city Persepolis at Thais’ urging. Menander probably chose the name Thais with an awareness of stories about her seductive power and her celebrity value. In Menander’s play, Thais could have been suggestively translated from Alexander’s court to middle-class family life in Athens.

Terence’s adaptations of Menander show a courtesan’s seductive power. Terence, an African writing in Latin in Rome about 160 BCE, based his play Eunuchus on Menander’s lost play Eunouchos. Eunuchus begins with text much like that of the above fragments from Menander’s Thias. Here also a young man agonizes over his love for a courtesan and her treatment of him:

So what am I to do? Should I not go, not even now, when she invites me of her own accord? Should I rather take myself in hand and refuse to endure the insults of courtesans? She shuts me out, she calls me back: shall I go?…

I’m fed up with her, but I’m on fire with love. I’m going to my ruin awake and aware, alive and with my eyes open. And I’ve no idea what to do.^

The courtesan is named Thais, and she is well-off enough to have her own house in the young man’s well-off Athenian neighborhood. When Thais subsequently meets the young man, named Phaedria, she tries to comfort him regarding her treatment of him:

Don’t torment yourself, I implore you, my darling, my Phaedria. Heaven knows I didn’t do it because I love or care for anyone more than you; but the situation was such, I had to do it.^

To explain why she has been having sex with a soldier rather than with Phaedria, Thais provides a complicated story about a slave girl living with her. Thais then asks Phaedria to give the soldier “first place with me for the next few days.” Phaedria sarcastically recapitulates her story about the slave girl and then provides his own interpretation of it:

“She was kidnapped from here as a small child; my mother brought her up as her own; she was called my sister; I want to get her away from him to restore her to her family.” The fact is, all these fine words in the end come down to this: I’m shut out, he’s let in. Why? Unless you love him more than me and you’re afraid now that this girl who has been brought here will snatch your splendid soldier from you.^

Phaedria then complains that he has brought the gifts that Thais requested – an Ethiopian slave girl and a eunuch, the latter a particularly exotic gift. Thais responds by proclaiming that she will acquiesce to Phaedria “rather than lose your friendship.” To this line, Phaedria responds:

“Rather than lose your friendship”? If only you spoke that sentence truthfully and from the bottom of your heart! If I believed you spoke it sincerely, I could endure anything.^

Thais easily convinces Phaedria of her sincerity. Phaedria then exits, declaring:

I’ve made up my mind: I must let Thais have her way.^

This comic scene contrasts a highly sophisticated rhetorician with an ingénue, a beautiful courtesan with a naive young man.

Thais’ power over Phaedria greatly affects Phaedria’s family. When informed that Phaedria has bought a eunuch for Thais, Phaedria’s father exclaims, “Bought one? God damn it! For how much?” Told that the cost was more than five times that of a skilled adult slave, Phaedria’s father responds, “I’m finished!”^ Phaedria’s gift of a eunuch to Thais allows Phaedria’s brother, disguised as that eunuch, to enter Thais’ household and rape her slave girl, with whom he had fallen in love. These developments exasperate Phaedria’s father: “It’s one thing after another. … Damnation! … Is there any other disgrace or damage that you’ve left unmentioned?”^ Family catastrophe is averted only when the slave girl is discovered to be a Roman citizen. Phaedria’s brother marries her. Thais moves to be under the care of Phaedria’s father. Phaedria’s brother explains:

Thais has entrusted herself to my father’s care and protection. She’s thrown in her lot with us. … There is nobody more worthy of love than your Thais, brother. She’s such a supporter of our whole family.^

One can almost hear the snickering of the Roman audience in that last line. There is one more twist. Agreeing that “Thais needs many gifts” and recognizing that the soldier is rich, generous, and otherwise a weak rival in love, Phaedria agrees to share Thais with him.^ The familial threat that Thais’ seductive power created is comically resolved in this happy scene of extended family.

Menander’s play Samia also includes a father’s response to a courtesan’s alleged seduction of his son. Concerning this son, whom he had adopted and raised, the father declares:

I know the young man through and through as one
Who’s always in the past been well-behaved,
As dutiful to me as he could be.^

The father overhears a conversation that he misinterprets to imply that his son had a child with the father’s courtesan, who lived with them. The father blames his courtesan for corrupting his son’s behavior:

…for she’s to blame
for what has happened; she got hold of him
When he’d been drinking, yes, that’s obvious,
And lost his self-control. Neat wine and youth
Result in many a foolish action, when
They have at hand to help them one who’s schemed
To bring him down. I simply cannot believe
That he, so well behaved and self-controlled
Towards all others, would treat me like this,
Not if he were ten times adopted, not
My natural son. No, it’s not his birth
I’m thinking of but his good character.^

Although the son did not father the courtesan’s supposed child, the son in fact had a child with the girl next door. That girl had come over with other women to celebrate a fertility festival. The fertility festival involved sowing seeds in pots, dancing, and carrying the pots up to the roof. The son explained:

The festival involved a lot of fun,
As I was there, I thought I’d stay and watch.
Their rowdiness made sleep impossible;
For they were carrying their gardens up
Onto the roof and dancing; scattered round,
They kept it up all night.

It doesn’t take much appreciation for normal male physiology to guess what happened next:

I hesitate
to say what followed; perhaps I am ashamed
When shame can do no good; but still, I am.
The girl got pregnant. When I tell you this,
I also tell you what went on before.
I did not then deny I was to blame.^

The son, confronted with unplanned parenthood, immediately promises to the girl’s mother that he will marry the girl. The plot balances the father’s response to his courtesan’s alleged scheming with the natural imperative of human sexuality.

Menander’s surviving plays, as well as Terence’s adaptations, provide key insight into the meaning of the evil-communication phrase in Menander’s Thais. Almost surely in Menander the evil-communication phrase concerned a highly cultured courtesan’s verbal and behavioral scheming and its disruption of family relations. Evil communication in Menander was not about communication with low-status, criminal persons.

Evil Communication in Other Classical Texts

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Scholars have cited philological and semantic connections between the evil communication phrase and earlier Greek texts. The evil-communication phrase in Menander probably had significantly different meaning from the evil communication references in these other texts. Theognis of Megara, in Elegies, ll. 31-36, has an older man advise a young male lover:

avoid ‘low’ company,
Mix only with the better sort of men.
Drink with these men, and eat, and sit with them,
And court them, for their power is great; from them
You will learn goodness. Men of little worth
Will spoil the natural virtue of your birth.^

Menander didn’t consider courtesans to be bad persons or “low company.” Courtesans had considerable cultural polish. Keeping a courtesan was high-status behavior. In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Eteocles responds to the scout’s presentation of Amphiaraus:

How wretched is the luck of men that links
the fate of the just with the impious!
In all man does, evil relationships
are the worst evil, with crops not to be reaped.^

Here fate associates the just or pious man with unjust or impious men (as passengers on the same ship or “trapped along with them” in a city; see Seven Against Thebes, ll. 601-3). Menander would not have contrasted good and bad persons. Moreover, the evil communication phrase in Menander undoubtedly concerned women and men acting with considerable personal agency.

Menander’s Evil-Communication Phrase in Diodorus of Sicily

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While the evil-communication phrase in Menander probably concerned the effect of a courtesan’s words on a young man’s relationship with his father, its field of application expanded over the next few centuries to encompass prominent leaders using artful verbal appeals to gain control of cities. The historian Diodorus of Sicily, writing about 50 BCE, described Philip II, King of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great, as a master at inducing treason. Diodorus described Philip’s tactics for conquering Greek cities:

Having…distributed a sum of money to men of influence in the cities, he gained many tools ready to betray their countries. Indeed he was wont to declare that it was far more by the use of gold than of arms that he had enlarged his kingdom.^

A leading Athenian orator of the time, Demosthenes, described the men who responded to such appeals as “the most abundant crop of traitorous, venal, and profligate politicians ever known within the memory of mankind.”^ Diodorus described the effects of Philip’s tactics with a clear allusion to Menander’s evil-communication phrase:

So, organizing bands of traitors in the several cities by means of bribes and calling those who accepted his gold “guests” and “friends,” by his evil communication he corrupted the morals {manners} of the people.^

Diodorus thus seems to have understood the evil-communication phrase to concern tactics of persuasion among political leaders. Tactics of persuasion that he considered morally bad corrupted the practice of friendship and led to the overthrow of cities.