The miles gloriosus or “braggart soldier” is a stock character of Roman comedy. Our play, however, is the only Plautine comedy named after this role. The boastful but high-ranking soldier in it is Pyrgopolinices, whose Greek name means “capturer of towers and cities.” The name is ironic, for not only is the soldier unbelievably boastful and vain, he is also a coward. We get a first insight into his character in the brief first act (ll. 1–78), in which his hanger-on Artotrogus flatters him by listing his military and amatory exploits, exploits which he tells us the soldier has never had. Artotrogus also tells us that his only reason for staying with the soldier is that he gets good food from him. The hanger-on does not appear later in the play; his only function is to introduce the soldier. A similar pair is found in Terence’s Eunuchus, where, however, the adulatory hanger-on Gnatho has more than an expository role and where the soldier Thraso is not the central character.
We lose sight of the soldier for the entire second act (ll. 79–595). Here we first meet Palaestrio, who tells us what went on before the start of the play. He says that he used to be the slave of a very pleasant young Athenian called Pleusicles, who had a satisfying relationship of mutual love with the prostitute Philocomasium. At some point Pleusicles had to go abroad on state business and the soldier
Pyrgopolinices arrived on the scene from Ephesus. He met Philocomasium, fell in love with her, and abducted her from her mother. Palaestrio tried to reach his master by ship in order to give him the news, but pirates captured the ship and took him to Ephesus, where he was given to our soldier as a present. In his house he met Philocomasium again, who told him how much she hated being with the soldier and how much she wanted to escape to Athens. Palaestrio contacted his former master Pleusicles by letter. Pleusicles is now in Ephesus and happens to lodge next door to the soldier, in the house of an old gentleman called Periplectomenus. Periplectomenus is very supportive and even came up with the plan to pierce a hole through the wall the two houses share; this can go undetected because Philocomasium has a room of her own adjacent to the house of Periplectomenus. The hole in the wall enables the lovers to meet regularly, but of course this cannot be a permanent solution.
The real action of the play begins in l. 156. Periplectomenus comes out of the house to tell us that while chasing a pet monkey on the roof, one of the soldier’s slaves spotted Philocomasium and Pleusicles kissing in the house of Periplectomenus, which was possible because his house has the roof opening so common in ancient buildings. Now there is a great risk that the soldier could learn about the secret affair. Palaestrio, the chief planner of intrigues against the soldier, finds out that this slave is Sceledrus, the guard watching over Philocomasium. The girl is instructed to play herself and her imaginary twin sister called Dicaea, depending on which house she is in or comes out of. Sceledrus, at first loath to believe in the existence of such a twin sister, is gradually forced to accept that there is such a person