2nd century B.C. Rome’s enemies are falling one by one. The great Hannibal is dead and there is no-one left to prevent Rome from stretching its greedy fingers out towards Asia Minor and the kingdom of Bithynia. King Prusias is weak-willed and aging, all the more unwilling to enter into conflict with Rome as his younger son was educated at the Republic’s expense. Rome’s crafty ambassador, Flaminius, enjoys an influential position at court, where he manages to have a say in all affairs of state.
The only fly in the ointment is the king’s elder son and heir to the throne, Prince Nicomedes. Fierce and proud, a seasoned warrior who has conquered three kingdoms in his royal father’s name, and a disciple of Hannibal’s to boot, Nicomedes resents Rome’s interference and does not hesitate to make his opinions known. Though he is beloved of the people, he has made many enemies at court, chief amongst whom is his stepmother, Queen Arsinoë, who would like nothing better than to clear the way to the throne for her own son, Prince Attalus.
Arsinoë is too clever to dispatch assassins who might later betray her. Instead, she sends two spies to infiltrate Nicomedes’ army and make him believe there is a plot to have him assassinated. Incensed, the prince returns hotfoot to the palace to confront his stepmother. But the king (who dotes on his wife and is secretly afraid of his son) is not disposed to listen to him. A few well-timed tears on Arsinoë’s part together with a plaintive speech on how all her efforts to conciliate Nicomedes are met with nothing but rebuffs and unkind accusations, and the prince is discredited. A cleverly orchestrated interview with Flaminius, during which Nicomedes loses his temper (a suggestion that Attalus marry Nicomedes’ fiancée in his stead certainly does nothing to placate the irate prince) and tells the Roman ambassador exactly where to get off, does the rest. Nicomedes is disinherited in favour of his half-brother, and to soothe Rome’s ruffled feelings, Prusias offers Nicomedes up as a prisoner, to be dealt with as the Republic sees fit.
Enter Nicomedes’ fiancée, Laodice. Laodice is a queen in her own right, which makes her another political pawn in the power struggle between Rome and Asia Minor. As a ward to King Prusias, she has been residing at his court, where she and Nicomedes have formed a strong and mutual attachment. Some critics have suggested that Laodice is merely a female version of Nicomedes, that she lacks complexity, and that, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, she does no more than echo his words and political ideas. Some would have liked to have seen more tension between them, especially when Attalus redoubles his efforts to woo her. On the contrary, with everything else Nicomedes has to contend with, the last thing he needs is to have to win back the wayward heart of his lady fair. Why add jealousy to the mess he is already in? Amid the treacherous sands of political intrigue, Laodice’s unwavering loyalty is the rock upon which Nicomedes can regain his footing. We see Laodice counselling him and supporting him. We see her continuing to defend him in his absence and resisting all Prusias and Flaminius’ efforts to bully her. And when the news comes of Nicomedes’ arrest, we see her taking immediate and forceful action: before Prusias knows what has hit him, the palace is besieged by an angry mob, clamouring for Nicomedes to be released and proclaimed king in his father’s place.
Nicomedes is a fascinating play. I would never have read it had it not been expressly recommended to me, but I am very glad I did. First of all, the language is wonderful. Secondly, the plot keeps you in suspense from beginning to end: when Prusias threatens to have Nicomedes beheaded and his severed head thrown to the mob to show them just who is king, you can’t help wondering how on earth Nicomedes is going to get out of that one. In the end, all’s well that ends well: Attalus decides to stop being an ass and does his big brother a good turn, Arsinoë admits defeat (for the time being only, in my opinion, but still), and Prusias invites everyone to a jolly feast. There’s an element of farce in this last detail that shows just how cretinous Prusias is. You can just imagine the dinner table conversation: “Pass the wine, son. Oh, and by the way, no hard feelings about this afternoon, I hope! I wasn’t really going to have your head chopped off, you know!”
This happy ending notwithstanding, Nicomedes is classed as a tragedy. Partly because of the action-packed political drama that unfolds, but even more so because of the historical context, because of what we know happens after the curtain comes down on the final scene. Despite all Prince Nicomedes’ proud speeches and valiant efforts to preserve the greatness and independence of his kingdom, ultimately he is doomed to failure and Bithynia is fated to become just another Roman province. All Nicomedes has succeeded in doing is buying a little time. I’ve been re-reading Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, and it’s particularly interesting to draw a parallel between Nicomedes’ struggle for political independence and the better-known case of Egypt’s ill-fated war with Rome.
Perhaps what struck me most about this play, however, was how modern it felt. All you have to do is alter the setting and the names of the characters, and two thousand years on, you’re faced with a situation that feels surprisingly familiar. Scheming, back-stabbing, diplomatic gaffes, demonstrations that turn ugly… nothing much has changed. And Laodice would make a fantastic politician’s wife!
© Florence Berlioz 2013