Unlike much of Terence’s other work, Phormio is highly amusing. In addition to presenting one of the most engaging rascals in the history of the theater, the play is fast-paced, brilliantly constructed, suspenseful, and rich in irony. Terence’s ability in characterization is evident, but Phormio tends to be more farcical than his other comedies, though it is also more vigorous. This may be because the playwright did not adapt it from Menander, as was usually the case in Terence, but from Apollodorus of Carystus, a contemporary of Menander. Because the original source has not survived, it is difficult to judge how much of Phormio is derived from its source. Certain features are distinctly Terentian, such as the dual romance, the excellent use of plot, the smooth colloquial dialogue, and the polished maxims. Others are attributable to the Greek New Comedy, among them the stock character types, the concentration on domestic problems, and the prominence of a love story. The most likely scenario is that Terence took his material from Apollodorus in this play and reworked it according to his own formula, in the same way that Molière borrowed from Phormio in writing The Cheats of Scapin (1671).
When Phormio was first performed at the Roman games in 161 b.c.e., Terence was in his late twenties and had established a reputation as a successful dramatist. Of low birth and originally a slave, he had enjoyed a meteoric rise in his fortunes, becoming a member of the Scipionic coterie, a group of Roman aristocrats interested in the importation of Greek culture. His success as a dramatist can be indirectly gauged from his prologues, in which he self-confidently answers the attacks of the elderly playwright Luscius Lanuvinus. One year after Phormio was presented, however, Terence took a trip to Greece from which he never returned. It is thought that his ship sank as he was returning to Rome in 159 b.c.e.
In Phormio, Terence shows an unusual detachment from the plight of the two adolescent young men, Antipho and Phaedria, presenting them as rather...
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