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Portrait of Terence from Vaticana, Vat. lat.jpg
Terence, 9th-century illustration, possibly copied from 3rd-century original
Born Publius Terentius Afer
c. 195/185 BC
Died c. 159? BC
Occupation Playwright
Nationality Roman African
Period Roman Republic

Publius Terentius Afer (/təˈrɛnʃiəs, -ʃəs/; c. 195/185c. 159? BC), better known in English as Terence (/ˈtɛrəns/), was a Roman African playwright during the Roman Republic. His comedies were performed for the first time around 166–160 BC. Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, brought Terence to Rome as a slave, educated him and later on, impressed by his abilities, freed him. It is thought that Terence abruptly died, around the age of 25, likely in Greece or on his way back to Rome, due to shipwreck or disease.[1] He was supposedly on his way to explore and find inspiration for his comedies. His plays were heavily used to learn to speak and write in Latin during the Middle Ages and Renaissance Period, and in some instances were imitated by William Shakespeare.

One famous quotation by Terence reads: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto", or "I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me."[2] This appeared in his play Heauton Timorumenos.[3]


Terence's date of birth is disputed; Aelius Donatus, in his incomplete Commentum Terenti, considers the year 185 BC to be the year Terentius was born;[4] Fenestella, on the other hand, states that he was born ten years earlier, in 195 BC.[5] Other scholars have also stated his birth to be in the year 190 BC.[6] While no one knows for certain, it is likely that it occurred somewhere between the years of 195 BC and 185 BC.

Terence may have been born in or near Carthage or in Greek Italy to a woman taken to Carthage as a slave. Terence's cognomen Afer suggests he lived in the territory of the Libyan tribe called by the Romans Afri near Carthage prior to being brought to Rome as a slave.[7]

1726 Portrait of Terence, created by Dutch artist Pieter van Cuyck

However, it is possible that ancient biographers' reports that Terence was born in Africa are an inference from his name and not independent biographical information.[8][9] This inference is based on the fact that the term was used in two different ways during the republican era. During Terence's lifetime, it was used to refer to non-Carthaginian Berbers, with the term Punicus reserved for the Carthaginians.[10] Subsequently, after the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, it was used to refer to anyone from the land of the Afri (that is, the ancient Roman province of Africa, mostly corresponding to today's Tunisia and its surroundings). The cognomen Afer "[North] African" may indicate that Terence hailed from ancient Libya,[11] and was therefore of Berber descent.[12] However, such names did not necessarily denote origin, and there were Romans who had this cognomen who were not Africans, such as Domitius Afer. Consequently, it is not known with certainty whether Terence was given the cognomen Afer as denoting his origin, or if it was solely based on later bibliographers' reports based on the terminology of their day.

According to his traditional biography, he was sold to P. Terentius Lucanus,[13] a Roman senator, who educated him and later on, impressed by Terence's abilities, freed him. Terence then took the nomen "Terentius," which is the origin of the present form.

Based on the writings of the Roman historian Suetonius, Terence was described to be of "moderate height, slender, and of dark complexion," additionally leaving a daughter who subsequently went on to marry a Roman knight.[14] Additionally, Terence was a member of the so-called Scipionic Circle.

When he was about the age of 25, Terence travelled to Greece to gather materials for his plays and never returned. It is mostly believed that Terence died during the journey, but this cannot be confirmed. Before his disappearance, he exhibited six comedies which are still in existence. According to some ancient writers, he died at sea due to shipwreck or disease. It is possible, however, that the fateful voyage to Greece was a speculative explanation of why he wrote so few plays inferred from Terence's complaint in Eunuchus 41–3 about the limited materials at his disposal.[9]


1496 edition of Terence's Works

Like Plautus, Terence adapted Greek plays from the late phases of Attic comedy. Unlike Plautus though, Terence's way of writing his comedies was more in a simple conversational Latin, pleasant and direct, while less visually humorous to watch.[15] It has also been said that Terence made better utilization of his plots than Plautus, and his purer language and characterizations in his comedies can be attributed to the lack of popularity during his day.[1] Aelius Donatus, Jerome's teacher, is the earliest surviving commentator on Terence's work.

Terence's popularity throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is attested to by the numerous manuscripts containing part or all of his plays; the scholar Claudia Villa has estimated that no fewer than 650 manuscripts containing Terence's work exist, dating from after AD 800. The mediaeval playwright Hroswitha of Gandersheim claims to have written her plays so that learned men had a Christian alternative to reading the pagan plays of Terence, while the reformer Martin Luther not only quoted Terence frequently to tap into his insights into all things human but also recommended his comedies for the instruction of children in school.[16]

Terence's six plays are:

A young man Pamphilus is in love with Glycerium, a foreign girl of low class, and has made her pregnant. But his father Simo wants him to marry the daughter of his friend Chremes. The wily slave Davus advises Pamphilus to agree to the marriage, believing that Chremes will object to it because of his affair with Glycerium, but the plan goes wrong when Chremes agrees to the marriage after all. Pamphilus is furious with Davus, and so is his friend Charinus, who is in love with the daughter. Simo is also furious since he believes that birth of Glycerium's baby and the sudden arrival of a stranger from Andros claiming that the girl is an Athenian citizen are all an elaborate ruse by Davus to prevent the wedding. The situation is saved when Chremes realises that Glycerium is his own long-lost daughter kidnapped as a child. The two young men get to marry the girls of their choice and Davus is rescued from punishment.
Laches' son, Pamphilus, has reluctantly married Philumena, daughter of the neighbour Phidippus; but while he is away she leaves his home and moves back to her father's house. Everyone blames the mother-in-law, Sostrata. But when Pamphilus returns he discovers that the real reason for her departure is that she is in labour with a child, the product of a rape before the wedding. Since he believes the child is not his Pamphilus decides to divorce Philumena even though he has grown to love her. The situation is resolved when Philumena's mother Myrrina discovers through a ring which Pamphilus had given to his former girlfriend Bacchis that Pamphilus himself was the person who raped her. The gossipy slave Parmeno and the two fathers are kept in the dark about the true facts.
An Athenian farmer, Chremes, asks his neighbour Menedemus why he works all day on his farm. Menedemus says he is punishing himself for allowing his son Clinia to go abroad on military service. Clinia returns, but instead of going home, visits Chremes' son Clitipho. Clinia is in love with a poor girl, Antiphila, while Clitipho is in love with a wealthy courtesan, Bacchis. The wily slave Syrus brings both women to Chremes' house. To conceal Clitipho's affair, he pretends to Chremes that Bacchis is Clinia's girlfriend, and that Antiphila is one of Bacchis's servants. On seeing Antiphila's ring, Clitipho's mother recognises Antiphila as her own daughter, whom Chremes had ordered to be exposed as a baby. Syrus persuades Bacchis and Antiphila to go to Menedemus's house with Clinia, and then tricks Chremes into sending Clitipho with 20 minae to pay Bacchis for Antiphila's release. When he realises he has been duped, Chremes is furious and at first threatens to disinherit Clitipho. Eventually, however, he forgives him on condition that he agrees to marry a suitable girl at once. Clinia, meanwhile, is allowed to marry Antiphila. Syrus is also forgiven.
A young man, Phaedria, is in love with a courtesan, Thais. He reluctantly agrees to leave town for a couple of days so that Thais can spend time with a rival lover, Thraso, who has promised to give her a certain slave girl who had previously been in her family. Before leaving town, Phaedria gives Thais a eunuch. But while he is absent his 16-year-old brother Chaerea, with the help of the slave Parmeno, disguises himself as the eunuch, gains access to Thais's house, and rapes the young girl, who is actually an Athenian citizen kidnapped in childhood. The situation is resolved when Chaerea begs Thais for forgiveness and offers to marry the girl himself. Phaedria gets to continue his affair with Thais, but is forced to share her with Thraso, who is richer than himself. Parmeno, though he is badly frightened by Thais's maid Pythias, in the end escapes punishment.
While their fathers are away Antipho has fallen in love with a poor orphaned citizen, and his cousin Phaedria has fallen for a slave girl. Phormio, a parasite, has helped Antipho to marry the poor girl by making a false claim in court. When Antipho's father Demipho returns he is furious because he had wanted Antipho to marry his brother Chremes's daughter. Chremes agrees to pay Phormio 30 minae on condition that he removes the girl and marries her himself. Too late Chremes realises that the poor girl is his own daughter. He tries to undo the arrangement with Phormio, but Phormio has already paid the money to Phaedria to buy his slave girl. Phormio escapes punishment since Chremes' wealthy wife Nausistrata is furious not only about Chremes' secret second marriage but that he had been embezzling her money to pay for it. Antipho is allowed to keep his wife, Phaedria to keep his girlfriend, and Phormio is invited to dinner.
Micio, an unmarried Athenian, has brought up Aeschinus, the adopted elder son of his brother Demea, in an easy-going way. Meanwhile Demea has brought up his younger son Ctesipho in a strict fashion. When Ctesipho falls in love with a slave-girl, Aeschinus on his behalf abducts the girl from the slave-dealer who owns her. The neighbour, Sostrata, whose daughter Aeschinus has got pregnant, thinking that Aeschinus has abandoned them, complains to Micio. The situation is resolved when Demea takes control and insists that Aeschinus marries his girlfriend, and Micio must marry her mother. Ctesipho gets to keep the slave girl.

The first printed edition of Terence appeared in Strasbourg in 1470, while the first certain post-antique performance of one of Terence's plays, Andria, took place in Florence in 1476. There is evidence, however, that Terence was performed much earlier. The short dialogue Terentius et delusor was probably written to be performed as an introduction to a Terentian performance in the 9th century (possibly earlier).

Manuscripts of Terence

The manuscripts of Terence can be divided into two main groups. One group has just one representative, the codex Bembinus (known as A), dating to the 4th or early 5th century AD, and kept in the Vatican library.[17] This book, written in capital letters, is one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of any Latin writer. It has the plays in the order An., Eu., Hau., Ph., Hec., Ad.

The second group, known as the "Calliopian" (since they seem to have been edited at some time by a certain Calliopus) all date from the 9th century onwards and are written in minuscule letters. This group can be subdivided into three classes. The first class, known as γ (gamma), dates to the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries and includes manuscripts P (Parisinus), C (Vaticanus), and possibly F (Ambrosianus), and E (Riccardianus) among others. They have the plays in the order An., Eu., Hau., Ad., Hec., Ph.. Manuscript C is the famous Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, which has illustrations which seem to be copied from originals dating in style to the mid-third century.

Another group, known as δ (delta), has the plays in alphabetical order: An., Ad., Eu., Ph.(=F), Hau., Hec. This consists of 3 or 4 10th-century manuscripts: D (Victorianus), G (Decurtatus), p (Parisinus), and perhaps also L (Lipsiensis).

All the remaining manuscripts belong to the "mixed" group and contain readings copied from both γ and δ, and so are of little value in establishing the text.

It is thought that the γ group and the δ group go back to two archetypes, both now lost, called Γ (Gamma) and Δ (Delta), and that both of these were copied from a single archetype, also now lost, known as Σ (sigma). According to A. J. Brothers, manuscript A, although it contains some errors, generally has a better text than Σ, which has a number of changes designed perhaps to make Terence easier to read in schools. Both A and the now lost Σ are believed to be derived from an even earlier archetype known as Φ (phi), the date of which is unknown.[18]

In addition to these manuscripts there are also certain commentaries, glossaries, and quotations in ancient writers and grammarians which sometimes assist editors in establishing the original reading. The best known of these is the Commentum Terenti, a commentary by the 4th-century grammarian Aelius Donatus, which is often helpful, although the part dealing with the Heauton Timorumenos is missing.

Cultural legacy

Mid-12th century illustrated Latin manuscript of Terence's Comedies from St Albans Abbey, now held at the Bodleian Library

Due to his clear and entertaining language, Terence's works were heavily used by monasteries and convents during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Scribes often learned Latin through the meticulous copying of Terence's texts. Priests and nuns often learned to speak Latin through reenactment of Terence's plays, thereby learning both Latin and Gregorian chants. Although Terence's plays often dealt with pagan material, the quality of his language promoted the copying and preserving of his text by the church. The preservation of Terence through the church enabled his work to influence much of later Western drama.[19]

Pietro Alighieri's Commentary to the Commedia states that his father took the title from Terence's plays and Giovanni Boccaccio copied out in his own hand all of Terence's Comedies and Apuleius' writings in manuscripts that are now in the Laurentian Library. Two of the earliest English comedies, Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton's Needle, are thought to parody Terence's plays. Montaigne, Shakespeare and Molière cite and imitate him.

Terence's plays were a standard part of the Latin curriculum of the neoclassical period. President of the United States John Adams once wrote to his son, "Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin...His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model."[20] American playwright Thornton Wilder based his novel The Woman of Andros on Terence's Andria.

Due to his cognomen Afer, Terence has long been identified with Africa and heralded as the first poet of the African diaspora by generations of writers, including Juan Latino, Phyllis Wheatley, Alexandre Dumas, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. Two of his plays were produced in Denver with black actors.

Questions as to whether Terence received assistance in writing or was not the actual author have been debated over the ages, as described in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica:

[In a prologue to one of his plays, Terence] meets the charge of receiving assistance in the composition of his plays by claiming as a great honour the favour which he enjoyed with those who were the favorites of the Roman people. But the gossip, not discouraged by Terence, lived and throve; it crops up in Cicero and Quintilian, and the ascription of the plays to Scipio had the honour to be accepted by Montaigne and rejected by Diderot.[21]

See also

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  2. More literally, "I am a human being; of that which is human, I think nothing estranged from me."
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  4. Aeli Donati Commentum Terenti, accedunt Eugraphi Commentum et Scholia Bembina, ed. Paul Wessner, 3 Volumes, Leipzig, 1902, 1905, 1908.
  5. G. D' Anna, Sulla vita suetoniana di Terenzio, RIL, 1956, pp. 31-46, 89-90.
  6. Martin, T.R. (2012). Ancient Rome: From Romulus to Justinian. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  7. Tenney Frank, "On Suetonius' Life of Terence." The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (1933), pp. 269-273.
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  10. H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Latin Literature, 1954.
  11. Michael von Albrecht, Geschichte der römischen Literatur, Volume 1, Bern, 1992.
  12. "...the playwright Terence, who reached Rome as the slave of a senator in the second century BC, was a Berber", Suzan Raven, Rome in Africa, Routledge, 1993, p.122; ISBN 0-415-08150-5.
  13. Smith, William (editor); Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, "Lucanus, Terentius" Archived 2011-04-20 at the Wayback Machine, Boston, 1870.
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  15. Knox, P.E., and J.C. McKeown (2013). The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  16. See, e.g., in Luther's Works: American Edition, vol. 40:317; 47:228.
  17. A. J. Brothers (1988), Terence: The Self-Tormentor, Aris and Phillips; pp. 22–25.
  18. A. J. Brothers (1988), Terence: The Self-Tormentor, Aris and Phillips; p. 23.
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  20. John Adams by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2001. Pg 259. ISBN 978-0-684-81363-9
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Further reading

  • Augoustakis, A. and Ariana Traill eds. (2013). A Companion to Terence. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden/Oxford/Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Boyle, A. J., ed. (2004). Special Issue: Rethinking Terence. Ramus 33:1–2.
  • Büchner, K. (1974). Das Theater des Terenz. Heidelberg: C. Winter.
  • Davis, J. E. (2014). Terence Interrupted: Literary Biography and the Reception of the Terentian Canon. American Journal of Philology 135(3), 387–409.
  • Forehand, W. E. (1985). Terence. Boston: Twayne.
  • Goldberg, S. M. (1986). Understanding Terence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Karakasis, E. (2005). Terence and the Language of Roman Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Papaioannou, S., ed. (2014). Terence and Interpretation. Pierides, 4. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Pezzini, G. (2015). Terence and the Verb ‘To Be’ in Latin. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sharrock, A. (2009). Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence. W.B. Stanford Memorial Lectures. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.

External links

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