A wily slave must unite a virgin courtesan and his young smitten master to earn his freedom.
Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) is the laziest slave in Rome, and has one wish, to purchase his freedom. When his master and mistress leave for the day, he finds out that the young master has fallen in love with a virgin in the house of Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers), a slave dealer specializing in beautiful women. Pseudolus concocts a deal in which he will be freed if he can procure the girl for young Hero (Michael Crawford). Of course, it can't be that simple as everything begins to go wrong.
- Set in Rome during the first century A.D. during the early years of the Roman Empire, the film opens with one of the musicals most famous songs, "Comedy Tonight," performed by Pseudolus. The lyrics tell the audience they will see some familiar things, others peculiar, some appealing, others appalling, some gaudy, and definitely others that are bawdy, in other words, something for everyone. Ultimately, Pseudolus promises a happy ending. The action, Pseudolus tells the audience, takes place in Rome around three adjacent houses: the house of Erronius (Latin for "wrong"), an old man who has been searching for his children who were stolen by pirates while they were infants; the house of Marcus Lycus, a buyer and seller of beautiful women, and the house of Senex (Latin for "old man" or "senile"), a Roman senator, his wife, Domina (Latin for "mistress"), who is loathed by her husband, their son, Hero, and his slave, Pseudolus, who is attempting to raise enough money to buy his freedom.
One day when Senex and Domina leave for a trip, Hero tells Pseudolus that he's in love with a girl in the house next door. Pseudolus seizes the opportunity to bargin for his freedom. Hero agrees if Pseudolus can get the girl for him, he will free him.
Pseudolus and Hero visit the house of Lycus to purchase Hero's beloved. Lycus presents several of his courtesans for their inspection: Tintinabula (Latin for "bell"), a bell-wearing beauty, dances to middle eastern music; Vibrata (Latin for "vibrant"), an energetic, lively dark-skinned lovely who is dressed in a leopard skin bikini, dances to jazz; Geminae (Latin for "twins") are a matched pair that Lycus will not separate; Panacea (Latin for "cure all") dances seductively; and Gymnasia (Latin for "nude," which she may have been in the original musical, but in the film she is portrayed as speechless) is a mute from the Island of Silent Women. Gymnasia and Pseudolus communicate in sign language and he immediately falls for her. When Hero's dream woman is not among the girls who are presented, Lycus tells them that she is a virgin who recently arrived from Crete and he has sold her to a famous Roman soldier. Being an excellent fabricator of lies, Pseudolus claims Crete has been ravaged by a plague, and since he has already had the plague, he would happily look after the girl in Senex's house until the soldier comes to claim her. Lycus gulibly agrees to Pseudolus offer.
Once they return to the house of Senex, Hero and the girl get to know each other. He learns that her name is Philia (which in Greek means "love"). Philia sings "Lovely" (as "I'm Lovely"), in which she explains that "lovely is the one thing I can do." Hero then sings his reply, "You're Lovely," and they both agree they are happy to have found each other. Even though Philia has fallen in love with Hero, she insists she must honor the contract Marcus Lycus made to sell her.
Pseudolus devises a plan to give Philia a sleeping potion. Once she is unconscious, he will tell Lycus that she died from the plague. When they move her body for burial, Hero can then take her away to Greece and Pseudolus will get his freedom. Pseudolus steals a potion book from Hysterium (Latin for "hysterial"), another slave in the house of Senex. The only sleeping potion ingredient he doesn't have is mare's sweat, so he and Hero head in different directions to obtain some.
While they are away, Senex unexpectedly returns home and knocks three times on his door. Pseudolus had told Philia that three knocks was the signal of her purchaser, Captain Miles Gloriosus (Latin for "braggart soldier"). Hearing the knocks, Philia assumes Senex is the captain, so she offers herself to him. She tells him that he may have her body but will never have her heart. The old Senator is more than happy to take her body, with or without her heart.
Pseudolus returns with the mare's sweat just in time to see Senex and Philia embracing. He tells Senex that the girl is a new maid he has hired. That leads into the hilarious song, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid." Senex is very much in favor of maids especially those who butter up the master with sexual favors. Hysterium joins Senex and Pseudolus for a chorus of the song, and then they are joined by Lycus, who is checking on the condition of the virgin. These lecherous fellows particularly like maids who wriggle, giggle and jiggle as they putter around the house.
After the song, Pseudolus convinces Senex that he needs a bath after his road trip (Senex is actually smelling the mare's sweat) and since his son could be home, he should bathe and receive the girl in Erronius' long-abandoned house next door.
Just after Senex heads for his bath, Erronius returns from his exhaustive twenty year search for his two long-lost offspring. The elderly and semi-senial Erronius, who is now almost blind, reveals that each of the children is wearing a ring with a gaggle of geese engraved upon it.
When Erronius heads for his house, he hears Senex singing as he bathes. Hysterium, desperate to keep Erronius out of his house, tells the old man his house is haunted. Erronius demands Hysterium find a soothsayer to banish the haunting spirit from his house. Overhearing, Psuedolus pretends to be a soothsayer and orders Erronius to run around the Seven Hills of Rome seven times to banish the spirit.
Meanwhile, two Roman Army emissaries of Captain Miles Gloriosus arrive at Lycus' house to make certain everything is in order for their commander to receive his purchased courtesan. They threaten to turn Lycus' women over to the soldiers and burn his house if anything is amiss.
Fearing the Captain's wrath, Lycus talks Pseudolus into substituting for him for an hour. Pseudolus is more than happy to oblige since he gets to see Gymnasia again. Pseudolus convinces Lycus that it would be best to move all the girls into Senex's house. Meanwhile, Senex has finished his bath, but orders Hysterium to bring him an energy (love) potion prior to his rendezvous with Philia.
When Captain Gloriosus and his troops march into the city, the captain sings "Bring Me My Bride." This conceited soldier claims to be a man among men but is also admired and desired by all women. He is impatient to receive his bride because he has towns to plunder, temples to burn and women to abuse.
Pseudolus, pretending to be Lycus, tires to delay delivering Philia. The Captain gives him half an hour to deliver the girl or else. While Gloriosus waits, he dictates his memoirs and his men enjoy Lycus' courtesans. Meanwhile, Lycus, who is drinking in a nearby bar, learns from a fellow patron there is no plague in Crete. When he tries to return to reveal the lie, he isn't admitted into his own house because everyone, as he had instructed, swears Pseudolus is Lycus.
Domina returns from her trip early because she had a premonition that Senex was up to something. She goes to the market to purchase a breeder slave and picks a robust, stocky female specimen. Once they return home, the breeder takes a liking to Pseudolus. He puts her in a room and tells her he will knock on the door three times when he returns. He sends one of the Captain's soldiers to the room and tells him to knock three times (the soldier thinks he's getting one of Lycus' women). Later, Pseudolus sends Senex to the breeder's room (Senex assumes Philia is there), but escapes the breeder slave through the window.
When Domina is introduced to the Captain, she is smitten. Then when Hysterium brings the energy potion to Senex, Domina stops him and thirstly consumes the liquid. Pseudolus tells Domina to wait in the Green Room and he will send the Captain to her. About the same time, Senex climbs in the window of the Green Room, where he expects to be joined by Philia. He and his wife are both unpleasantly surprised to end up in the same room. When Philia hears the voice of the Captain, she recognizes it as the brute who raped her country, "Thrace." She claims he did it three times. Pseudolus questions, "He raped Thrace thrice?"
Pseudolus decides to tell the Captain the virgin has died, but in order to make it convincing, he needs a body. After a lot of convincing, Hysterium agrees to dress in drag and pretend to be the dead Philia. Pseudolus sings a reprise of "Lovely" (as "You're Lovely"; a hilarious self-spoof of the musical number sung by Hero earlier in the film) to convince Hysterium he can pull off the ruse. Once convinced, Hysterium sings "I'm Lovely." To complete Hysterium's outfit, Pseudolus gives him the old man's ring - the one with the gaggle of geese.
As the funeral procession begins, Hero returns with a cup of mare's sweat. He is so distraught when he learns that Philia is dead that he plans to throw himself to the lions. Before he leaves, however, Senex mistakes the mare's sweat for the energy potion, drinks it and immediately passes out.
Pseudolus tells the Captain the virgin died because the sight of his glorious physique was too much of a shock. The conceited Gloriosus competely understands and is saddened that the girl would have died before she experienced him. Gloriosus insists on a proper funeral including cremation of the body. He also composes and sings a funeral dirge ("The Dirge"). When the Captain starts to give the dead virgin a farewell kiss, Pseudolus tells him she actually died of the plague she contracted in Crete. Unfortunately, the Captain had been stationed in Crete and knew there was no plague there. When the Captain says he is going to cut the girl's heart out and take it with him, Hysterium jumps up and runs away. Gymnasia communicates to Philia that Hero thinks she is dead, so he is going to throw himself to the lions. Distraught, Philia decides to sacrifice herself to the gods. Gymnasia then tells Pseudolus that Philia and Hero are both planning to kill themselves.
Hero sneaks into a nearby arena during a gladiator training session. Pseudolus finds him there just before the gladitor knocks Hero in the head. He manages to save Hero and tells him that Philia is alive and has gone to the Temple of the Virgins to sacrifice herself. The gladitor then fights Pseudolus and captures him, but Gymnasia saves Pseudolus and they get away in a chariot.
Hero climbs to the roof of the Temple and from a hole in the top saves Philia. They ride away in a chariot. A madcap, comic chase ensues with the Captain chasing Hero and Philia and Pseudolus and Gymnasia. Once the Captain captures them, they return to Rome for a quick wedding and a slow execution.
Back in the city, Erronius, who has made several circles around the hills of the city, recognizes the gaggle-of-geese ring worn by Philia. Miles also has a gaggle-of-geese ring, which means they are brother and sister - the long-lost siblings of Erronius. That means Philia is a free-born citizen of Rome and cannot be sold as a courtesan. It also means that the Captain cannot marry his sister, so Hero and Philia can marry.
A happy ending just as the lyrics of "Comedy Tonight" had promised (a reprise of the song is heard). Hero and Philia get each other, Senex and Domina get each other (whether they like it or not), Miles gets the twins, Erronius gets his family back, the soldiers get Lycus' women, Lycus must get a new supply of girls, and Pseudolus gets his freedom. And the moral? The cast sings, "Morals tomorrow! Comedy tonight!"