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.
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