Terence (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)
Terence c. 195/185 B. C.-159 B. C.
(Full name Publius Terentius Afer) Roman playwright.
Terence is best known for the elegant language, symmetrical plots, and complex, sympathetic characterizations exhibited in his six comedies. Though he has for the most part been viewed as a respected and influential author, Terence has also been criticized by commentators from his own time onward for closely basing his plays on earlier Greek models—a practice some reviewers have interpreted as imitation or even plagiarism. Today most scholars agree that although Terence used the forms and themes of Greek New Comedy, he created a new type of play that transcended its antecedents. Gilbert Norwood, for example, has praised Terence for his "splendid principle of accepting the traditional framework and evolving from it in a thoroughly serious, permanently interesting, type of drama."
Most of what is known about Terence's life is very uncertain and comes from a second-century biographical sketch by the Roman imperial biographer Suetonius, preserved in a commentary by Donatus, a fourth-century grammarian. Terence's exact date of birth is not known, but he was probably born in Carthage, North Africa, and brought to Rome as a slave when he was very young. He was then purchased by Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, who allowed Terence to be educated and eventually emancipated him; according to custom, Terence took his former owner's name upon being freed. Since Terence reportedly possessed great personal charm and soon demonstrated exceptional dramatic talent, he was quickly accepted into the circle of Scipio Aemilianus—a group of wealthy, well-placed young Roman aristocrats enamored of Greek culture and literature. This circle and their friends comprised Terence's main audience; he never enjoyed the widespread popularity of some of his contemporaries. In fact, a powerful critic of Terence's time, Luscius Lanuvinus, charged that Terence's plays were actually written by Scipio and his friends, and publicly accused Terence of plagiarizing the Greek dramatist Menander, and of "contaminating" his sources by mixing scenes and characters from various plays. In 159 B.C. Terence sailed for Greece, either to escape criticism at home or to become more familiar with the country. Some biographers claim that he was lost at sea on the way back, but the circumstances of his death remain unknown.
Terence wrote six comedies, each of which has survived.
All of them are close adaptations or translations of Greek plays, two (Hecyra, or The Mother-in-Law, and Phormio) by Apollodorus, and the other four by Menander. The earliest, Andria (The Girl from Andros,) recounts the travails of two young men, both in love, and both thwarted by their respective fathers. The Mother-in-Law, first produced in 165 B. C., failed three times before it was successfully produced in 160 B.C. Heautontimorumenos (The Self-Tormentor,) like The Girl from Andros, treats the problems of two young lovers. Considered Terence's most technically accomplished play, Eunuchus (The Eunich) describes the situation of Chaerea, one of Terence's most-discussed characters, who marries a girl he had earlier raped. In Phormio, a young husband must contend with a wife whom he erroneously believes to be carrying someone else's child. Terence's last play, Adelphoe (The Brothers,) compares two fathers—one too strict and one too lenient—and their two sons, in an exploration of the merits of different methods of childrearing. Terence's comedies are characterized by his pure, nearly perfect use of the Latin language, and by a sense of realism tempered by urbanity and restraint. Unlike earlier Roman dramatists who relied on raucous humor and vulgar language for comic effect, Terence favored correct, sophisticated speech and more use of dialogue than monologue. In characterization Terence also departed from earlier convention: rather than merely relying on stock character types, he made more use of irony and created more subtle, less predictable characters. Numerous critics have commented on Terence's humane and objective approach to characters and situations, citing his adherence to his well-known credo, "homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto" ("I am human myself, so I think every human affair is my concern"). Although his models came from Greek New Comedy, Terence depicted a distinctly Roman society, with all its foibles and eccentricities intact. The world of his plays, unlike earlier Roman drama, is an amoral one, however; Terence is more interested in describing and dissecting moral dilemmas than in suggesting the proper ways to solve them. In terms of dramatic structure, Terence's main contribution was his development of the double plot device, which allowed for a more balanced and complex development of plot, character, and theme, and which he utilized in all his plays except The Mother-in-Law.
Terence's plays are preserved in one incomplete ancient manuscript, the Codex Bembius, now located in the Vatican library. The number of extant manuscripts of his plays attests to Terence's enduring popularity despite his early quarrels with his critics: there are more that one hundred manuscripts dating from before the fourteenth century, and it is known that there were at least 446 complete editions of his comedies in existence prior to the year 1600. The medieval manuscripts have been traced to one original, probably dating from the fifth century. The first complete edition of Terence's works was printed in 1470. Modern translations of Terence's plays abound, the most notable among them being those by John Sargeaunt, Frank O. Copley, and the joint edition by Palmer Bovie, Constance Carrier, and Douglass Parker.
While in his own time Terence's plays were not popular with audiences, many ancient critics, for example Cicero and Julius Caesar, praised his graceful and correct handling of the Latin language. Caesar tempered his complimentary remarks by calling Terence a "half-Menander" and accusing him of a lack of comic vision. That charge and the question of whether Terence was an original playwright have been the two main areas of critical discussion concerning Terence's comedies. The majority of scholars aver that Terence's sense of comedy was very much intact, but admit that his plays sometimes strike audiences as somewhat monotonous or over-refined. Terence himself answered the charges of imitation in the prologues to his plays, including himself in the long, honorable tradition of younger writers paying tribute by copying their predecessors. Most critics believe that, while he was not an inherently original author, Terence artfully transformed the situations and themes of Greek New Comedy into a genuinely Roman milieu. In the Middle Ages there was a resurgence of interest in Terence's plays, and their texts served as the basis for Latin language curricula in schools and monasteries. The influence of Terence's comedies has also been traced to works of the Renaissance and the eighteenth century. Today Terence commands admiration for his humanistic approach to his characters, for the new directions he made possible in drama through his introduction of double plots, and for the excellence of his Latin. As Betty Radice has written, "He created a Latin style which was an admirable counterpart to the natural rhythms of Hellenic Greek, less rhetorical and dense, simpler and purer than anything before."
Andria 166 B. C. [The Girl from Andros]
Hecyra 165 B. C. [The Mother-in-Law]
Heautontimorumenos 163 B. C. [The Self-Tormentor]
Eunuchus 161 B. C. [The Eunich]
Phormio 161 B. C.
Adelphoe 160 B. C. [The Brothers]
PRINCIPAL ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS
The Comedies of Terence (translated by Sidney G. Ashmore, sec. ed.) 1910
Terence. 2 vols. (translated by John Sargeaunt; Loeb Classical Library edition) 1912
The Complete Roman Drama, Vol. II (translated by George E. Duckworth) 1962
Terence: Comedies (edited by Robert Graves, based on the translation by Lawrence Echard) 1963
Terence: The Comedies (translated by Betty Radice) 1965
The Comedies of Terence (translated by Frank O. Copley) 1967
The Complete Comedies of Terence (translated by Palmer Bovie, Constance Carrier, and Douglass Parker) 1974
Joseph Webbe (essay date 1629)
SOURCE: An introduction to The First Comedy of Pub. Terentius, Called Andria by Terence, translated by Joseph Webbe, 1629. Reprint by The Scolar Press Limited, 1972, pp. iv-xviii.
[In the following excerpt, Webbe lavishly praises Terence's style and language, advising that, if his readers wish to improve their conversational skills, they need only read Terence as a guide.]
Two prime steps to perfection in any study, are choyce and vse of Authors. But how to chuse, and how to vse, are two great difficulties. Therefore to such as know nor, I will giue one Rule for both of them.
If any man...
(The entire section is 1095 words.)
Lawrence Echard (essay date 1694)
SOURCE: A preface to Prefaces to Terence's Comedies and Plautus's Comedies, 1694. Reprint by William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1968, pp. i-xxiii.
[Echard was one of the most respected translators of the works of Terence. Here, he presents an overview of Terence's style and works, noting that his only real fault was a lack of comic vision.]
As for our Author, wherever Learning, Wit or Judgment have flourish'd, this Poet has always had an extraordinary Reputation. To mention all his Excellencies and Perfections were a Task too difficult for us, and perhaps for the greatest Criticks alive; so very few there are...
(The entire section is 3497 words.)
SOURCE: "The Comedies of Terence," in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. CLV, No. CCCXVIII, April, 1882, pp. 364-81.
[In the following excerpt, the anonymous reviewer points out that, although Terence suffered from a lack of recognition because his plays did not satisfy popular audiences in his time, he remains "a well of Latin undefiled."]
Terence at the outset of his career had had a hard, uphill battle to fight and many great difficulties to overcome. The average class of spectator in a Roman theatre was very much the same as that of an ordinary modern crowd—such, for instance, as the collection of the great Unwashed which visits the Crystal Palace on a Bank Holiday....
(The entire section is 1360 words.)
J. W. Mackail (essay date 1895)
SOURCE: "Comedy: Plautus and Terence," in Latin Literature, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895, pp. 14-26.
[Mackail was an English critic, biographer, and educator whose books include The Springs of Helicon (1909) and Studies in Humanism (1938). Here, he comments on Terence's position in the history of Roman literature, noting that, while his style is not colorful, it exemplifies the best stylistic qualities of his era.]
The Terentian comedy is in a way the turning-point of Roman literature. Plautus and Ennius, however largely they drew from Greek originals, threw into all their work a manner and a spirit...
(The entire section is 1557 words.)
George Meredith (essay date 1897)
SOURCE: "On the Idea of Comedy and of the Uses of the Comic Spirit," in An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, edited by Lane Cooper, 1897. Reprint by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918, pp. 73-155.
[Meredith was a respected nineteenth-century British poet, novelist, and critic. His creative works, though they are considered to lack a philosophical framework, reflect the ideas of his age: they embody a profound belief in evolution and in the essential goodness of humanity. In the following excerpt, he briefly comments on Terence, focusing especially on his "beautiful translucency of language."]
Of the six...
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Theodor Mommsen (essay date 1908)
SOURCE: "Literature and Art" in The History of Rome, Vol. IV, translated by William Purdie Dickson, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908, pp. 219-60.
[A German historian, writer, and politician, Mommsen is known for his authoritative work in several areas of Roman studies, particularly Roman law. His Römische Geschichte (1856; The History of Rome), acclaimed as a masterful synthesis, reflects Mommsen's conviction that history should be made intelligible and relevant to the reader. Mommsen received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1902. In the following excerpt, he presents a brief overview of Terence's contribution to Roman...
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J. Wright Duff (essay date 1909)
SOURCE: "The Theatre and the Masters of Comedy" in A Literary History of Rome, revised edition, Ernest Benn Limited, 1960, pp. 148-62.
[Duff was an English classical scholar whose books include A Literary History of Rome: From the Origins to the Close of the Golden Age (1909) and Writers of Rome (1923). In the following excerpt from the revised edition of the former work, he provides an overview of Terence's plays and style.]
It was the achievement of the young African, P. Terentius Afer (c. 195?-159 B.C.), to put upon Roman comedy the highest Hellenic polish. For his career our fullest source of...
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Gilbert Norwood (essay date 1923)
SOURCE: "Conclusion" in The Art of Terence, Basil Blackwell, 1923, pp. 131-52.
[Norwood was an American classical scholar whose books include Greek Comedy (1932) and Pindar (1945). In the following excerpt from his well-regarded monograph on Terence, he summarizes Terence's career, praising especially the playwright's humanist impulse and declaring him "the most Christian writer of pagan antiquity."]
[Terence] is an attractive, a tantalizing, almost a mysterious figure. A native of Africa, not a Carthaginian but of Libyan birth, and possibly a mulatto or a quadroon (as Suetonius' description,...
(The entire section is 5636 words.)
Gilbert Norwood (essay date 1932)
SOURCE: "Plot-Structure in Terence" in Plautus and Terence, 1932. Reprint by Cooper Square Publishers, 1963, pp. 141-80.
[In the following excerpt from his reconsideration of Terence, Norwood presents a detailed examination of the plot structure of Terence's comedies.]
From first to last Terence devotes great attention to plot, but does not at first succeed: in fact we cannot regard him as a master of construction till Phormio. In the two latest plays he employs the perfected method with still greater ease, boldness and versatility.
The Andria shows grave faults amid undoubted...
(The entire section is 7534 words.)
Edith Hamilton (essay date 1932)
SOURCE: "The Comic Spirit in Plautus and Terence" in The Roman Way, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1932, pp. 47-63.
[A German-born classical scholar, essayist, and translator, Hamilton is best known as an explicator of ancient cultures for the modern reader. Her studies include The Roman Way (1932) and Spokesmen for God: The Great Teachers of the Old Testament (1949). Below, she compares the style of Terence with that of his predecessor, Plautus.]
[Plautus and Terence] are the founders of our theatre. Their influence has been incalculable. The two main divisions of comedy under which all comic plays...
(The entire section is 3562 words.)
Benedetto Croce (essay date 1936)
SOURCE: "Terence" in Philosophy, Poetry, History: An Anthology of Essays, translated by Cecil Sprigge, Oxford University Press, London, 1966, pp. 776-801.
[An Italian educator, philosopher, and author, Croce developed a highly influential theory of literary creation and a concomitant critical method. In defining the impetus and execution of poetry, Croce conceives of the mind as capable of two distinct modes of thought, which he terms cognition and volition. Cognition mental activity is theoretical and speculative, while volition is the mind's practical application of ideas originating in the cognitive realm. Croce's literary theories...
(The entire section is 7963 words.)
Henry Ten Eyck Perry (essay date 1939)
SOURCE: "Roman Imitators: Plautus and Terence" in Masters of Dramatic Comedy and Their Social Themes, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939, pp. 49-78.
[Perry was an American educator and author. In the following excerpt, he examines the themes of Terence's plays in the context of Roman comedy, concluding that he refined the plots and characters that he borrowed from other playwrights to make them more serious and more humane.]
Terence is much more like Menander than Plautus is, four of his six plays being based on works by Menander and all of his dramas giving the effect of imitation more than of...
(The entire section is 4064 words.)
George E. Duckworth (essay date 1952)
SOURCE: "Methods of Composition" in The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment, Princeton University Press, 1952, pp. 177-208.
[In the following excerpt from his highly-regarded study of Roman comedy, Duckworth explains the notion of contaminatio (imitation of earlier authors) as it applies to Terence.]
In Homeric scholarship the Higher Critics have used repetitions and contradictions as a means of distinguishing Homeric passages from those which they believed to be earlier traditional material or later additions; so also in the study of Roman comedy scholars have attempted to separate...
(The entire section is 2600 words.)
John Gassner (essay date 1954)
SOURCE: "Menander, Plautus, and Terence" in Masters of the Drama, third revised edition, Dover Publications, Inc., 1954, pp. 92-104.
[Gassner, a Hungarian-born American scholar, was a great promoter of American theater, particularly the work of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. He edited numerous collections of modern drama and wrote two important dramatic surveys, Masters of Modern Drama (1940) and Theater in Our Times (1954). In the following excerpt from the revised edition of the former work, Gassner discusses Terence's place in the development of Roman theater, pointing out that "he not only knew his limitations but...
(The entire section is 1891 words.)
Robert Graves (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: A foreword to The Comedies of Terence, edited by Robert Graves, Aldine Publishing Company, 1962, pp. ix-xiv.
[A highly versatile man of letters, Graves was an English poet, novelist, translator, and critic. He was first associated with the Georgian war poets during World War I, but afterward followed a more nontraditional yet highly ordered line, being influenced during the 1920s and 1930s by the American poet Laura Riding. Working outside the literary fashions of his day, Graves established a reputation which rests largely on his verbal precision and strong individuality as a poet. He is also considered a great prose stylist, and...
(The entire section is 1707 words.)
W. Beare (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Terence" in The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic, revised edition, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1964, pp. 91-112.
[Beare's The Roman Stage, first published in 1950 and later revised, is a critically-acclaimed survey of Roman drama and its theatrical milieu. Here, he offers detailed examinations of The Girl from Andros and The Eunich and their Menandrian sources, concluding that a "deepening of sentiment … [is] Terence's chief claim to originality. "]
We gather from Terence's own words that he was accused of weakness of style, of accepting literary help from...
(The entire section is 6228 words.)
Frank O. Copley (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Comedies of Terence, translated by Frank O. Copley, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967, pp. vii-xxi.
[Below, Copley discusses Terence's dramatic method and his treatment of several literary motifs in his comedies.]
Like the plays of his predecessor Plautus, all the comedies of Terence are adaptations from the Greek New Comedy, a relatively simple type of play concerned with the problems, personal and circumstantial, into which an affluent and leisured society is likely to fall. The treatment accorded these problems and predicaments ranged from the broadest, coarsest caricature to...
(The entire section is 3958 words.)
Douglass Parker (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Eunich by Terence, translated by Douglass Parker, in The Complete Comedies of Terence: Modern Verse Translations, edited by Palmer Bovie, Rutgers University Press, 1974, pp. 147-52.
[In the following essay, Parker discusses influences on The Eunich, concluding that Terence's individuality is evident in the play's "reasoned confusion of viewpoints [and] contradiction of attitudes, that mark the best comedy.']
Success dies hard. The Eunuch was Terence's most successful play during his lifetime, earning an immediate second production and a considerably...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)
R. H. Martin (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: An introduction to Adelphoe by Terence, edited by R. H. Martin, Cambridge University Press, 1976, pp. 1-41.
[Below, Martin supplies a summary of the development of Roman comedy to Terence's time, and then goes on to discuss the sources, themes, characters, and style of the The Brothers.]
Although there is evidence of dramatic entertainment in Rome and other Italian towns from an early date, formal literary drama came to Rome only in the third century B.C., when in September of the year 240 at the ludi Romani there was performed a Latin play, translated from the Greek by Livius Andronicus, a...
(The entire section is 9156 words.)
Betty Radice (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: An introduction to Terence: The Comedies, translated by Betty Radice, Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 11-29.
[Radice was an English educator who, as joint editor of the Penguin Classics series, translated such works as Pliny's Letters, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, and Desiderius Erasmus's Praise of Folly. In the following excerpt, she presents an overview of Terence's career.]
Comedy is a more intellectual and sophisticated art than tragedy, and on the stage it depends for its effects on verbal exchange. Its characters must be wholly articulate, and if it is to succeed it needs an equally...
(The entire section is 4726 words.)
F. H. Sandbach (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "Terence" in The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977, pp. 135-47.
[Sandbach is a well-known English classicist. In the following essay, he explores Terence's plays in the light of their Greek models, asserting that, while in some ways Terence did "enrich"Menander's comedies, his style has been "too equable, [lacking] the ebb and flow which gives life to the Greek poet's writing and enables him to mirror every kind of emotion."]
Publius Terentius Afer was believed by later Romans to have been born at Carthage, brought to Rome as a slave, and given a liberal education by...
(The entire section is 5092 words.)
Sander M. Goldberg (essay date 1982-83)
SOURCE: "Terence and the Death of Comedy," Comparative Drama, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter 1982-83, pp. 312-24.
[Goldberg is the author of several articles on Terence and a monograph, Understanding Terence (1986). In the following essay, he explores Terence's role in the demise of Roman comedy, arguing that "Terence had made it too alien to be taken seriously at Rome."]
The creative age of Roman comedy died with a man named Turpilius in 103 B.C. That was actually half a century after the death of Terence, the last great writer of stage comedy at Rome, and nearly a whole century before Latin literature...
(The entire section is 4780 words.)
David Konstan (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Phormio: Citizen Disorder" in Roman Comedy, Cornell, 1983, pp. 115-29.
[In the following essay, Konstan probes the tension between private emotion and public social codes in Phormio, observing that this dual subject constitutes one of the main themes of the play.]
Terence particularly favored such plots as the frame story in [Plautus's] Cistellaria, based on the elementary triangle of stubborn father, enamored son, and maiden apparently ineligible for marriage. Thus R. H. Martin remarks, in the introduction to his excellent school edition of the Phormio [Terence:...
(The entire section is 5077 words.)
Walter E. Forehand (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Terence and His Influence" in Terence, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 120-30.
[In the following excerpt, Forehand first summarizes his conclusions about the style and themes of Terence's plays, then discusses Terence's influence on later drama.]
Terence has left us six plays upon which to base our evaluation of him. If, as the tradition affirms, this is the total output of his short life, we are in a position to survey his work without the worrisome question of how we would modify our opinions if we had more complete evidence. His reputation as a comic dramatist has withstood the test of critical opinion...
(The entire section is 3828 words.)
A. J. Brothers (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: An introduction to Terence: The Self-Tormentor, edited and translated by A. J. Brothers, Aris & Phillips Ltd, 1988, pp. 1-26.
[Below, Brothers surveys characterization and plot devices in The Self-Tormentor, and also explores some of Terence's sources for the play.]
It has long been part of scholarly practice to attempt to understand the relationship of the Roman comedies to their lost Greek originals, and to try to pinpoint the additions, omissions and alternations of the Roman dramatists and recover the original Greek form - to play, in fact, 'hunt the New Comedy' with the text of a Terence (or...
(The entire section is 3842 words.)
Dwora Gilula (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Plots Are Not Stories: The So-Called 'Duality Method' of Terence," in Reading Plays: Interpretation and Reception, edited by Hanna Scolnicov and Peter Holland, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 81-93.
[In the essay below, Gilula examines Terence's use of dual plots and characters in the context of his The Girl from Andros.]
Terence was praised in antiquity for the excellence of his plot construction. Donatus deemed as praiseworthy the existence of two love affairs (bini amores) in all Terence's plays but the Hecyra, and Evanthius commended the richness of Terence's plots...
(The entire section is 4284 words.)
Dana F. Sutton (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: "Terence" in Ancient Comedy: The War of the Generations, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 109-22.
[In the essay below, Sutton discusses Terence's use of realism in The Brothers, concluding that his plays were unpopular because "at their very heart is a philosophy of life that is incompatible with the innate outlook of ancient comedy."]
Terence is a comic poet rather neglected in our times. The amount of criticism and scholarship devoted to him is not especially great or penetrating. Even more symptomatic is the fact much modern criticism regards Plautus and Roman Comedy as nearly synonymous, with Terence...
(The entire section is 5274 words.)
Arnott, Geoffrey. "Phormio Parasitvs: A Study in Dramatic Methods of Characterization." Greece & Rome XVII. No. I (April 1970): 32-57.
Study of Terence's characterization techniques, focusing on the eponymous character of Phormio.
Ashmore, Sidney G. Introduction to P. Terenti Afri Comoediae: The Comedies of Terence, by Terence, translated by Sidney G. Ashmore, pp. 1-68. New York: Oxford University Press, 1910.
Introduction to various aspects and attributes of the Roman theater of Terence's time.
Austin, James Curtiss. "The Significant Name in...
(The entire section is 1017 words.)