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."