Terence Biography

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

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0111205891-Terence.jpg Terence (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.


Born in Roman-occupied North Africa between 195 and 185 b.c.e. (and thus believed to be the first African writer of rank), Terence (TEHR-uhns) was brought to Rome as a boy slave and sold there to the senator Publius Terentius Lucanus, whose name he gratefully adopted. Lucanus provided for the young Terence’s education and later set him free. An engaging person, Terence became a frequent guest in the literary circle around Scipio Aemilianus, whose admiration of Hellenistic culture and passion for the Latin language he shared. His first play, Andria (166 b.c.e.; English translation, 1598), attracted the attention of the prolific playwright Caecilius, who encouraged Terence’s theatrical aspirations and ensured the plays’ production by the troupe of Ambivius Turpio. In quick succession, Terence composed five more plays: Hecyra (165 b.c.e.; The Mother-in-Law, 1598), Heautontimorumenos (163 b.c.e.; The Self-Tormentor, 1598), Eunouchus (161 b.c.e.; The Eunuch, 1598), Phormio (161 b.c.e.; English translation, 1598), and Adelphoe (160 b.c.e.; The Brothers, 1598). The plays are all fabulae palliatae, domestic comedies mostly based on the Greek “New Comedy” of Menander. In contrast to the exuberance of his predecessor Plautus, Terence’s plays are densely plotted (their characteristic feature is the intertwined “double plot”) and elegantly written, a fact that contributed to their occasional failure in the public arena. Legend has it that Terence died on a voyage to Greece to procure new manuscripts by Menander.


Celebrated in antiquity as the only comic playwright to rival Plautus, Terence became a byword for pure Latin style during the Middle Ages. The influence of his domestic plays on the theater of the Italian Renaissance, William Shakespeare, and Molière, and through them on the modern theater, has been profound.

Further Reading:

Beare, W. The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965. An authoritative study of the Roman stage, particularly useful regarding the stage practices, customs, and techniques of the time. Includes a detailed examination of the charge of contamination leveled against Terence. With extensive notes, bibliography, and appendices.

Copley, Frank O. The Comedies of Terence. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967. Translations of each play with a useful introductory note on each drama. A fourteen-page essay surveys the problems encountered in attempting to reconstruct Terence’s life and in trying to analyze his art.

Duckworth, George E. The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. A vital source on the ancient stage and its conventions as well as on the contributions of Terence. This work is a detailed study of themes, treatments, methods, and influences of Terence, including the critical problems in studying his texts and the biographical problems in studying his life. With an extensive index and bibliography.

Duckworth, George E., ed. The Complete Roman Drama. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1942. This work includes Terence’s production notes, which date the performances, describe some of the staging techniques, identify some of the actors, and help both in setting the Terentian ambience and in establishing the plays’ chronologies. A general introduction provides a sound overview of the era and gives important information on ancient stage discipline.

Forehand, Walter E. Terence . Boston: Twayne, 1985. A sound, basic work that outlines the major controversies surrounding...

(The entire section is 826 words.)