I must say that I found this play to be quite confusing, namely because of the names. There are five characters whose names each begin with the letter P, and since three of them are quite long, it ended up leaving me quite baffled. I have finally, after reading through the Wikipedia entry, have managed to actually work out what is going on. No doubt it would have come out much better if I had seen it performed (which is unlikely), but that does not make reading the play any less difficult.
To prove my point, here are the names:
Pyrgopolynices – a soldier
Palaestrio – the soldier's slave
Periplectomenus – an old man of Ephesus
Pleusicles – a young man from Athens
Philocomasium – an Athenian girl.
Anyway, I will try to outline the play without using the names so as not to send myself nuts (as if life doesn't do that anyway). So, Pyrgopolynices is a soldier, who is also the title character of the play (Miles Gloriosus means 'the braggart warrior'), and he lives up to that name. As a soldier he is pretty mediocre, but he doesn't let that get him down because he incessantly big notes himself. The scene where he enters demonstrates that as he has one slave that follows him around singing his praises, and another group of slaves carrying a huge shield (which he has probably never held). The story is not so much about him, but about the Athenian woman that he abducted. Her boyfriend, Palaestro, after learning of her abduction, goes to tell his master, but is also captured and sold to the soldier. Upon hearing of this, Pleusicles, Palaestro's master, comes to Ephesus to try to free the two slaves.
The rest of the play has the main characters trying to concoct ways of getting the soldier to release the slaves, and it ends with him being ambushed in his kitchen and beaten up, but the reason behind that is because he was tricked into falling in love with a married woman. As such, as can be expected with many of these comedies, they all end up having happy endings.
Now that I have basically worked out what is going on, I am sure this play would have many of us in stitches if we were to see it performed live. The characters, especially that of the soldier, seem to go overboard in that farcical sense. However, as I have also suggested, once you manage to actually work out the names (because they themselves seem to be pretty ridiculous) the rest of the play seems to fall into place.
I guess Plautus is poking fun at the attitude of many of the soldiers in his day, especially those who never seem to rise beyond the rank of private (or the Ancient Roman equivalent). Glory in battle was a big thing in the ancient world (and even in the modern world, which is why so many people ran off to get slaughtered in World War I), however just because you performed well in battle did not necessarily mean that you could move up the ranks. It is not uncommon for the generals to receive the praise for the accomplishments of the soldiers, and that is still true today, with the corporate bosses receiving praise for the accomplishments of the corporation, when these bosses would have no idea how to actually do the job of many of the employees (and in fact, in many companies, skill at your job does not necessarily mean that you get the rewards, however the managers who simply sit down and direct people, are the ones that receive the kudos).
There also seems to be Plautus' dislike of slavery, which is interesting considering that slavery was an accepted part of life in Platus' days. However, we note that in the plays that I have read, the slaves became slaves due to no fault of their own (they were captured in war). However, the problem facing Platus' society was that a bulk of the slave force came from wars, and the entire economy was based upon slavery, which meant that if the slaves were released (or enemies weren't enslaved after a battle) then the economy would collapse. Much like the CEOs mentioned above, many of the wealthy in Roman society simply did not know how to do that tasks that the slaves would perform.