AKA Publius Terentius Afer
Born: c. 195 BC
Died: c. 159 BC
Location of death: Greece
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: Middle Eastern
Nationality: Ancient Rome
Executive summary: Comic playwright of Ancient Rome
Our knowledge of the life of the celebrated Latin playwright, Publius Terentius Afer, is derived chiefly from a fragment of the lost work of Suetonius, De viris illustribus, preserved in the commentary of Donatus, who adds a few words of his own. The prologues to the comedies were among the original sources of Suetonius; but he quotes or refers to the works of various grammarians and antiquaries -- Porcius Licinus, Volcacius Sedigitus, Q. Cosconius, Nepos, Santra, Fenestella. There is uncertainty as to both the date of the poet's birth and the manner of his death. His last play was exhibited in 160 BC, and shortly after its production he went abroad, "when he had not yet completed his twenty-fifth year." Cornelius Nepos is quoted for the statement that he was about the same age as Scipio Africanus the younger (born in 185 or 184 BC) and Laelius; while Fenestella, an antiquary of the later Augustan period, represented him as older than either. If Terence was born in 185, he published his six plays between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Even in an imitative artist such precocity of talent is remarkable, and the date is therefore open to legitimate doubt.
He is said to have been born in Carthage, and brought to Rome as a slave. At Rome he was educated like a free man in the house of Terentius Lucanus, a senator, by whom he was soon emancipated; whereupon he took his masters nomen Terentius, and thenceforward his name was Publius Terentius Afer, of which the last member seems to imply that he was not a Phoenician (Poenus) by blood. He was admitted into the intimacy of young men of the best families, such as Scipio, Laelius and Furius Philus; and he enjoyed the favor of older men of literary distinction and official position. In the circle of Scipio he doubtless met the historian Polybius, who was brought to Italy in 167. He is said to have owed the favor of the great as much to his personal gifts and graces as to his literary eminence; and in one of his prologues he declares it to be his ambition, while not offending the many, to please the "boni."
Terence's earliest play was the Andria, exhibited in 166 BC. A pretty, but perhaps apocryphal, story is told of his having read the play, before its exhibition, to Caecilius (who, after the death of Plautus, ranked as the foremost comic poet), and of the generous admiration of it manifested by Caecilius. A similar instance of the recognition of rising genius by a poet whose own day was past is found in the account given of the visit of Accius to the veteran Pacuvius. The next play was the Hecyra, first produced in 165, but withdrawn in consequence of its bad reception, and reproduced in 160. The Heauton Timorumenos appeared in 163, the Eunuchus in 161, the Phormio in 161, and the Adelphoe in 160 at the funeral games of L. Aemibus Paullus. Of these six plays the Phormio and probably the Hecyra were drawn from Apollodorus, the rest from Menander. After bringing out these plays Terence sailed from Greek parts, either to escape from the suspicion of publishing the works of others as his own, or from the desire to obtain a more intimate knowledge of that Greek life which had hitherto been known to him only in literature and which it was his professed aim to reproduce in his comedies. The latter is the more probable motive, and we recognize in this the first instance of that impulse to visit the scenes familiar to them through literature which afterwards acted on many of the great writers of Rome. From this voyage Terence never returned. According to one account he was lost at sea, according to another he died at Stymphalus in Arcadia, and according to a third at Leucas, from grief at the loss by shipwreck of his baggage, containing a number of new plays which he had translated from Menander. An old poet quoted by Suetonius states that he was ruined in fortune through his intimacy with his noble friends. Another account speaks of him as having left behind him gardens, to the extent of about twelve acres, close to the Appian Way. It is further stated that his daughter married a Roman knight.
No writer in any literature, who has contented himself with so limited a function, has gained so great a reputation as Terence. He lays no claim to the position of an original artist painting from life or commenting on the results of his own observation. His art has no relation to his own time or to the country in which he lived. The chief source of interest in the fragmentary remains of Naevius, Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius and Lucilius is their relation to the national and moral spirit of the age in which they were written. Plautus, though, like Terence, he takes the first sketch of his plots, scenes and characters, from the Attic stage, is yet a true representative of his time, a genuine Italian, writing before the genius of Italy had learned the restraints of Greek art. The whole aim of Terence was to present a faithful copy of the life, manners, modes of thought and expression which had been drawn from reality a century before his time by the writers of the New Comedy of Athens. The nearest parallel to his literary position may he found in the aim which Virgil puts before himself in his Bucolics. He does not seek in that poem to draw Italian peasants from the life, but to bring back the shepherds of Theocritus on Italian scenes. Yet the result obtained by Virgil is different. The charm of his pastorals is the Italian sentiment which pervades them. His shepherds are not the shepherds of Theocritus, nor are they in any sense true to life. The extraordinary result obtained by Terence is that, while he has left no trace in any of his comedies of one sketching from the life by which he was surrounded, there is perhaps no more truthful, natural and delicate delineator of human nature, in its ordinary and more level moods, within the whole range of classical literature. His permanent position in literature is due, no doubt, to the art and genius of Menander, whose creations he has perpetuated, as a fine engraver may perpetuate the spirit of a great painter whose works have perished. But no mere copyist or verbal translator could have attained that result. Though without claims to creative originality, Terence must have had not only critical genius, to enable him fully to appreciate and identify himself with his originals, but artistic genius of a high and pure type. The importance of his position in Roman literature consists in this, that he was the first writer who set before himself a high ideal of artistic perfection, and was the first to realize that perfection in style, form, and consistency of conception and execution. Living in the interval between Ennius and Lucilius, whose original force and genius survive only in rude and inartistic fragments, he produced six plays, which have not only reached our time in the form in which they were given to the world, but have been read in the most critical and exacting literary epochs, and still may be read without any feeling of the need of making allowance for the rudeness of a new and undeveloped art.
While his great gift to Roman literature is that he first made it artistic, that he imparted to "rude Latium" the sense of elegance, consistency and moderation, his gift to the world is that through him it possesses a living image of the Greek society in the 3rd century BC, presented in the purest Latin idiom. Yet Terence had no affinity by birth either with the Greek race or with the people of Latium. He was more distinctly a foreigner than any of the great classical writers of Rome. He lived at the meeting-point of three distinct civilizations -- the mature, or rather decaying, civilization of Greece, of which Athens was still the center; that of Carthage, which was so soon to pass away and leave scarcely any vestige of itself; and the nascent civilization of Italy, in which all other modes were soon to be absorbed. Terence was by birth an African, and was thus perhaps a fitter medium of connection between the genius of Greece and that of Italy than if he had been a pure Greek or a pure Italian; just as in modern times the Jewish type of genius is sometimes found more detached from national peculiarities, and thus more capable of reproducing a cosmopolitan type of character than the genius of men belonging to other races.
The prologues to Terence's plays are of high interest. Their tone is for the most part apologetic, and indicates a great sensitiveness to criticism. He constantly speaks of the malevolence and detraction of an older poet, whose name is said to have been Luscius Lavinius or Lanuvinus. The chief charge which his detractor brings against him is that of contaminatio, the combining in one play of scenes out of different Greek plays. Terence justifies this practice by that of the older poets, Naevius, Plautus, Ennius, whose careless freedom he follows in preference to the "obscura diligentia" of his detractor. He recriminates upon his adversary as one who, by his close adherence to his original, had turned good Greek plays into bad Latin ones. He clears himself of the charge of plagiarizing from Plautus and Naevius. In another prologue he contrasts his own treatment of his subjects with the sensational extravagance of others. He meets the charge of receiving assistance in the composition of his plays by claiming as a great honor the favor 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 honor to be accepted by Montaigne and rejected by Diderot.
We learn from these prologues that the best Roman literature was ceasing to be popular, and had come to rely on the patronage of the great. A consequence of this change of circumstances was that comedy was no longer national in character and sentiment, but had become imitative and artistic. The life which Terence represents is that of the well-to-do citizen class whose interests are commonplace, but whose modes of thought and speech are refined, humane and intelligent. His characters are finely delineated and discriminated rather than, like those of Plautus, boldly conceived. Delicate irony and pointed epigram take the place of broad humor. Love, in the form of pathetic sentiment rather than of irregular passion, is the chief motive of his pieces. His great characteristics are humanity and urbanity, and to this may be attributed the attraction which he had for the two chief representatives of these qualities in Roman literature -- Cicero and Horace.
Terence's pre-eminence in art was recognized in the Augustan age; and Horace expresses this opinion, though not as his own, in these words: "Vincere Caecilius gravitate, Terentius arte." The art of his comedies consists in the clearness and simplicity with which the situation is presented and developed, and in the consistency and moderation with which his various characters play their parts. But his greatest attraction to both ancient and modern writers has been the purity and charm of his style. He makes no claim to the creative exuberance of Plautus, but he is entirely free from his extravagance and mannerisms. The superiority of his style over that of Lucilius, who wrote his satires a generation later, is immeasurable. The best judges and the greatest masters of style in the best period of Roman literature were his chief admirers in ancient times. Cicero frequently reproduces his expressions, applies passages in his plays to his own circumstances, and refers to his personages as typical representations of character. Julius Caesar's lines on Terence, the "dimidiatus Menander", while they complain of lack of comic power, characterize him as "puri sermonis amator." Horace, so depreciatory in general of the older literature, shows his appreciation of Terence by the frequent reproduction in his Satires and Odes of his language and his philosophy of life. Quintilian applies to his writings the word elegantissima. His works were studied and learned by heart by the great Latin writers of the Renaissance, such as Erasmus and Philipp Melanchthon; and Isaac Casaubon, in his anxiety that his son should write a pure Latin style, inculcates on him the constant study of Terence. Montaigne applies to him the phrase of Horace: "Liquidus puroque simillimus amni." He speaks of "his fine expression, elegancy and quaintness", and adds, "he does so possess the soul with his graces that we forget those of his fable." Sainte-Beuve devotes to him two papers of delicate and admiring criticism. He quotes Fénelon and Joseph Addison, "deux esprits polis et doux, de la même famille littéraire", as expressing their admiration for the inimitable beauty and naturalness of one of his scenes. Fenelon is said to have preferred him even to Molière. Sainte-Beuve calls Terence the bond of union between Roman urbanity and the Atticism of the Greeks, and adds that it was in the 17th century, when French literature was most truly Attic, that he was most appreciated. Joubert applies to him the words, "Le miel attique est sur ses levres; on croirait aisément qu'il naquit sur le mont Hymette."
The chief manuscript of Terence is the famous Codex Bembinus, of the 4th or 5th century, in the Vatican. Another Vatican manuscript of the 10th century contains illustrations based on an old tradition. Each play has an argument in metre by Sulpicius Apollinaris (2nd century of our era). We have also a valuable commentary (newly edited by P. Wessner) on five of the plays, derived chiefly from Euanthius and Donatus (both of the 4th century), and another of less importance by one Eugraphius. The editio princeps was published at Strasbourg in 1470. The most famous edition is that of Richard Bentley, published at Cambridge in 1726.
Is the subject of books:
Terence, 1985, BY: Walter E. Forehand
Understanding Terence, 1986, BY: Sander M. Goldberg
Andria (166 BC, "The Girl from Andros")
Hecyra (165 BC, "The Mother-in-Law")
Heautontimorumenos (163 BC, "The Self-Tormentor")
Eunuchus (161 BC, "The Eunuch")
Phormio (161 BC)
Adelphoe (160 BC, "The Brothers")
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