'I was to play Euclio,' Statilius said rather sharply, drawing the conversation back to himself, 'when suddenly, this morning, Roscius explodes into a rage and says that I have the role all wrong, and that he can't suffer the humiliation of seeing me bungle it in front of all Rome. Instead I'll be Megadorus, the next-door neighbor.'

'Another fine role,' I said, trying to remember it.

'Fah! And who gets the plum role of Euclio? That parasite Panurgus-a mere slave, with no more comic timing than a slug!' He abruptly stiffened. 'Oh no, what's this?'

I followed his gaze to the outer aisle, where the usher was leading a burly, bearded man toward the front of the theater. A blond giant with a scar across his nose followed close behind- the bearded man's bodyguard; I know a hired ruffian from the Subura when I see one. The usher led them to the far end of our bench; they stepped into the gap and headed toward us to take the empty spot beside Eco.

Statilius bent low to hide himself and groaned into my ear. 'As if I hadn't enough worries-it's that awful moneylender Flavius and one of his hired bullies. The only man in Rome who's more of a monster than Roscius.'

'And just how much do you owe this Flavius?' I began to say, when suddenly, from backstage, a roaring voice rose above the discordant pipes.

'Fool! Incompetent! Don't come to me now saying you can't remember the lines!'

'Roscius,' Statilius whispered, 'screaming at Panurgus, I hope. The man's temper is terrible.'

The central door on the stage flew open, revealing a short, stocky man already dressed for the stage, wearing a splendid cloak of rich white fabric. His lumpy, scowling face was the sort to send terror into an underling's soul, yet this was, by universal acclaim, the funniest man in Rome. His legendary squint made his eyes almost invisible, but when he looked in our direction, I felt as if a dagger had been thrown past my ear and into the heart of Statilius.

'And you!' he bellowed. 'Where have you been? Backstage, immediately! No, don't bother to go the long way round- backstage, now!' He gave commands as if he were speaking to a dog.

Statilius hurried up the aisle, leaped onto the stage and disappeared backstage, closing the door behind him-but not, I noticed, before casting a furtive glance at the newcomer who had just seated himself beside Eco. I turned and looked at Flavius the moneylender, who returned my curious gaze with a scowl. He did not look like a man in the proper mood for a comedy.

I cleared my throat. 'Today you'll see The Pot of Gold,' I said pleasantly, leaning past Eco toward the newcomers. Flavius gave a start and wrinkled his bushy brows. 'One of Plautus's very best plays, don't you think?'

Flavius parted his lips and peered at me suspiciously. The blond bodyguard looked at me with an expression of supreme stupidity.

I shrugged and turned my attention elsewhere.

From the open square behind us, the crier made his last announcement. The benches filled rapidly. Latecomers and slaves stood wherever they could, crowding together on tiptoe. Two musicians stepped onto the stage and descended to the orchestra, where they began to blow upon their long pipes.

A murmur of recognition passed through the crowd at the familiar strains of the miser Euclio's theme, the first indication of the play we were about to see. Meanwhile the usher and the crier moved up and down the aisles, playfully hushing the noisier members of the audience.

At length the overture was finished. The central door on the stage rattled open. Out stepped Roscius, wearing his sumptuous white cloak, his head obscured by a mask of grotesque, happy countenance. Through the holes I glimpsed his squinting eyes; his mellow voice resonated throughout the theater.

'In case you don't know who I am, let me briefly introduce myself,' he said. 'I am the Guardian Spirit of this house- Euclio's house. I have been in charge of this place now for a great many years…' He proceeded to deliver the prologue, giving the audience a starting point for the familiar story-how the grandfather of Euclio had hidden a pot of gold beneath the floorboards of the house, how Euclio had a daughter who was in love with the next-door neighbor's nephew and needed only a dowry to be happily married, and how he, the Guardian Spirit, intended to guide the greedy Euclio to the pot of gold and so set events in motion.

I glanced at Eco, who stared up at the masked figure enraptured, hanging on every word. Beside him, the moneylender Flavius wore the same unhappy scowl as before. The blond bodyguard sat with his mouth open, and occasionally reached up to pick at the scar across his nose.

A muffled commotion was heard from backstage. 'Ah,' said Roscius in a theatrical whisper, 'there's old Euclio now, pitching a fit as usual. The greedy miser must have located the pot of gold by now, and he wants to count his fortune in secret, so he's turning the old housekeeper out of the house.' He quietly withdrew through the door in the right wing.

Through the central door emerged a figure wearing an old man's mask and dressed in bright yellow, the traditional color for greed. This was Panurgus, the slave-actor, taking the plum leading role of the miser Euclio. Behind him he dragged another actor, dressed as a lowly female slave, and flung him to the middle of the stage. 'Get out!' he shouted. 'Out! By Hades, out with you, you old snooping bag of bones!'

Statilius had been wrong to disparage Panurgus's comic gifts; already I heard guffaws and laughter around me.

'What have I done? What? What?' cried the other actor.

His grimacing feminine mask was surmounted by a hideous tangled wig. His gown was in tatters about his knobby knees. 'Why are you beating a long-suffering old hag?'

'To give you something to be long-suffering about, that's why! And to make you suffer as much as I do, just looking at you!' Panurgus and his fellow actor scurried about the stage, to the uproarious amusement of the audience. Eco bounced up and down on the bench and clapped his hands. The moneylender and his bodyguard sat with their arms crossed, unimpressed.

But why must you drive me out of the house?

EUCLIO: Why? Since when do I have to give you a reason?

You're asking for a fresh crop of bruises!

HOUSEKEEPER: Let the gods send me jumping off a cliff if I'll put up with this sort of slavery any longer!

EUCLIO: What's she muttering to herself? I've a good mind to poke your eyes out, you damned witch!

At length the slave woman disappeared and the miser went back into his house to count his money, the neighbor Megadorus and his sister Eunomia occupied the stage. From the voice, it seemed to me that the sister was played by the same actor who had performed the cringing slave woman; no doubt he specialized in female characters. My friend Statilius, as Megadorus, performed adequately, I thought, but he was not in the same class with Roscius, or even with his rival Panurgus. His comic turns inspired polite guffaws, not raucous laughter.

EUNOMIA: Dear brother, I've asked you out of the house to have a little talk about your private affairs.

MEGADORUS: How sweet! You are as thoughtful as you are beautiful. I kiss your hand.

EUNOMIA: What? Are you talking to someone behind me?

MEGADORUS: Of course not. You're the prettiest woman I know!

EUNOMIA: Don't be absurd. Every woman is uglier than every other,in one way or another.

MEGADORUS: Mmm, but of course; whatever you say…

EUNOMIA: Now give me your attention. Brother dear, I should like to see you married-

MEGADORUS: Help! Murder! Ruin!

EUNOMIA: Oh, quiet down!

Even this exchange, usually so pleasing to the crowd, evoked only lukewarm titters. My attention strayed to Statilius's costume, made of sumptuous blue wool embroidered with yellow, and to his mask, with its absurdly quizzical eyebrows. Alas, I thought, it is a bad sign when a comedian's costume is of greater interest than his delivery. Poor Statilius had found a place with the most respected acting troupe in Rome, but he did not shine there. No wonder the demanding Roscius was so intolerant of him!

Even Eco grew restless. Next to him, the moneylender Flavius leaned over to whisper something in the ear of his blond bodyguard-disparaging the talents of the actor who owed him money, I thought.

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