Terence (195-159 B.C.), or Publius Terentius Afer, was a Roman comic playwright. As a translator and adapter of the Greek New Comedy, produced about 336-250 B.C., he gave near-perfect form and expression in Latin to the comedy of manners.
Information about the life of Terence is based mainly on two sources: the prologues of Terence's plays, in which he defends himself against hostile criticism, and a life of Terence written by Suetonius (ca. A.D. 70-ca. 135) and preserved in Donatus's commentary on the plays of Terence.
The prologues provide few facts, and the brief biography is filled with contradictions. Suetonius, like other ancient biographers, gathered his information from earlier sources and undoubtedly filled out the account with inferences from Terence's plays, conventional themes, and anecdotes.
Basically accepted by most scholars is that Terence was born in Carthage and brought to Rome as a slave while quite young. Since Carthage and Rome were at peace during this period, Terence's master, Senator Terentius Lucanus, acquired him by purchase rather than as a captive in war. The youth was then educated and manumitted. Terence is described as medium in stature, graceful in person, and dark (fuscus) in complexion. Fuscus may mean that Terence was merely darker enough than the ordinary Roman to attract notice or that his complexion was that of a Moor. The second possibility would add an interesting racial dimension to the history of Latin literature.
Terence gained access to the Scipionic Circle, the foremost literary group of his day, composed of young aristocrats devoted to Greek letters and culture, but such lofty connections sparked malicious accusations that Terence either had not written his own plays or was greatly assisted in their composition.
Terence read his first play, the Andria, to the aged playwright Caecilius, who pronounced it a success and encouraged further works. After composing a total of six plays during the years 166-160 B.C., Terence journeyed to Greece to gather more plays to adapt into Latin and died on his way home. Terence had married but was survived by only a daughter who inherited his small estate on the Appian way and married a Roman knight.
The chronology of Terence's plays remains a matter of dispute, but the following enjoys the widest acceptance: Andria (166 B.C.), Hecyra (first staging, 165), Heauton Timorumenos (163), Eunuchus (161), Phormio (161), Adelphoe (160), and Hecyra (second staging and third staging, 160).
All six plays of Terence are adaptations (to what extent is unknown) of Greek originals no longer extant. The Hecyra and the Phormio are each based on a play by Apollodorus of Carystus (3d century B.C.). The Heauton Timorumenosis drawn from one play of Menander, and the Andria and Eunuchus each draw upon two plays of Menander. The Adelphoe borrows from a play of Menander and a play of Diphilus (ca. 340-289 B.C.).
The Andria, Terence's first play, is typical. Two young men, who are friends, are in love with two girls but are prevented from marriage until the end of the play by two fathers. The plot is double and relies on devices of mistaken identity, deception, and recognition. Yet several features are atypical: attempted trickery by a father against a son and a slave; self-deception by a father when he refuses to accept the truth; and the intrigues of a slave, which, far from assisting the young man in love, only create greater difficulty for him.
The Heauton Timorumenos employs Terence's conventional deception and double plot of two young lovers whose affairs are closely interwoven. The treatment of the recognition of the free birth of a young girl marks an advance in technique, for it occurs in the middle of the play and complicates rather than solves a problem. The Eunuchus is notable for the vigor and daring of its hero, Chaerea, perhaps the most attractive of Terence's young men. After rape and impersonation, Chaerea assumes responsibility for his actions and marries the girl he both loved and offended.
The Phormio furnishes an amusing and clever portrait of a unique character type, a blending of sycophant, parasite, and friend, whose legal and psychological expertise secures the love affairs of his young comrades by outwitting their fathers. The Hecyra, Terence's least humorous play and perhaps the apex of classical high comedy, studies the dilemma of a young husband who finds that his wife is pregnant by another man. Poorly received in antiquity, the Hecyra now enjoys high praise and is noteworthy for a serious portrayal of married life; two exceptional female characters, a generous courtesan and a misunderstood mother-in-law; the absence of the usual double plot of two young lovers; the employment of suspense until the very end; and the diminished role of the slave.
The Adelphoe presents in ancient garb the problem of how to raise a son. Two methods are studied, the strict and the compliant, and both are found wanting. Demea, the play's hero and perhaps the only Terentian character to experience true growth and development, at last achieves the harmonious balance of discipline and leniency which the poet recommends.
The function of a Terentian prologue was neither to supply the necessary antecedents for the audience's understanding of the action of the drama nor to explain in advance the outcome of the plot, as Plautus sometimes does. An older and established playwright of whom we know little, Luscius Lanuvinus, maliciously attempted to check Terence's incipient career with three major criticisms. Terence employed the polemic prologue to defend himself. To the charge that his plays are slight compositions, Terence replies with cutting remarks about Lanuvinus's recent play. To the charge that his plays were in reality written by or greatly altered by noble friends, Terence is evasive, probably because an outright denial might have offended the distinguished men who aided his career. To the charge that he contaminated or drew from two Greek originals to create one Latin play, Terence replies that the older comic poets Naevius and Plautus set precedents for this procedure.
All Terentian plays concern youthful love, and all but one (Hecyra) employ the double plot. Two love affairs involve two young men, two girls, and two fathers, who are often contrasted. With the elimination of the expository prologue, Terence relies less on irony than on suspense and surprise. Impersonation, trickery, mistaken identity, and recognition (anagnorasis) are usual devices.
Terence himself makes us aware that his characters are human types by using telltale names rather than sharply delineated individuals. The usual cast of stock characters includes male members of the household: a young man (adulescens) hopelessly in love; an aged parent (senex), sometimes lenient and sometimes severe; and a cunning slave (servus). In female roles there are a young girl (virgo), a courtesan (meretrix), a wife or mother (matrona), and a maidservant (ancilla). A parasite (parasitus), slave dealer (leno), and soldier (miles) make up comic roles. Still, Terence varies each character within his type and occasionally invests a character with individuality that transcends typology.
The language of Terence achieves a perfection of correct expression, lightness, clarity, and elegance; and although the speech of everyday life can be detected, it is not the colloquial language of the common people but of refined society. Cicero praised the polish and refinement of Terence's style; Caesar lauded the purity. Avoiding variety or novelty which jars, Terence gave final form to many maxims: "Fortis fortuna adjuvat (Fortune favors the brave)" and "Dictum sapienti sat est (A word to the wise is sufficient)."
Terence's plays enjoyed success during his lifetime and were both read and staged with admiration by the Romans after his death. The Middle Ages valued Terence more highly than Plautus for his Latinity and moral excellence. Renaissance Italy composed comedies in Latin modeled upon Terence, staged his plays, and wrote Italian comedies in the Terentian manner.
Molière's comedy of manners owes a special debt to Terence for tone, plot, and characterization. Finally, English comedy began under the influence of Plautus and Terence from the classical revival and the composition of Neo-Latin dramas. Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister, the first real English comedy, draws upon the Eunuchus, and Terentian influence is discernible in both William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Terence's work in translation is available in a number of editions. One with commentary is that of Sidney G. Ashmore, The Comedies of Terence (1908). John Sargeaunt's edition, Terence (2 vols., 1912), also includes the Latin text. Two more recent collections are George E. Duckworth, The Complete Roman Drama (2 vols., 1942), and Frank O. Copley, The Comedies of Terence (1967). Gilbert Norwood, The Art of Terence (1923), offers sensitive but occasionally overly enthusiastic criticism. For traditional and original interpretation see William Beare, The Roman Stage (1951), and for excellent consideration of almost every aspect of Terence see George E. Duckworth, The Nature of Roman Comedy (1952).