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TERENCE (c. 190-158 B.C.)

THE second important writer of Latin comedies presents a remarkable contrast to the first. Terence (Publius Terentius Afer), probably a native of Carthage, was a slave in the family of a Roman patrician. On account of his witty conversation and graceful manners, he became a favorite in the fashionable society of Rome and received his freedom. His work, so far as we know it, consists of two sorts: fairly close translations of Menander, and contaminations. There are six extant plays, three of which, The Brothers, The Girl of Andros, and The Eunuch, are contaminations. Each is made from two Greek plays. Of the remaining three, the Phormio is based on a play by the Greek Apollodorus, and the others are from Menander. The Brothers (Adelphi) was first performed in 160 B.C., at the funeral games of Æmilius Paulus.

The weakness of Terence lies in his lack of the bolder elements of action. His characters are somewhat deficient in variety, and his situations are inferior to those of Plautus. He is superior to Plautus in refinement and taste, but never equal to him in exuberance of spirits and in comic force. Comparatively speaking, Plautus was the untutored genius, Terence the conscious artist; Plautus the practical playwright, Terence the elegant literary craftsman. Plautus wrote for the crowd, Terence for the aristocracy. Even with the equivocal subjects of the new comedy, Terence did not make vice attractive. As with Plautus, when once the irregular situation is granted, the plays are found to be full of moral sentiments and advice of a prudent and wise nature.


From the time of Plautus and Terence it is possible to trace in European drama the same characters, the same plots, the same old themes of a stupid husband outwitted by a young wife, the stingy father fleeced by his rascally sons, or the aged sensualist defrauded of the pleasures he has handsomely paid for. In Terence, however, the young people are somewhat superior to the prototypes in Plautus. The courtesans are more refined in speech and manner. The young men are not wholly libertines, but approach more nearly to the type of lover which the modern world enjoys in its fiction. The slaves are of a higher quality, and their masters more decent, often treating them as trusted domestics. The braggart soldiers are not quite such fools, but more like witty roysterers, or half-philosophers.


Terence supplied the standard of classical Latin for many centuries. He was studied and acted even during those dark periods when all semblance of art seems to have died out in Europe. In the tenth century the learned Hrosvitha, a nun of Gandersheim, Germany, wrote, in imitation of Terence, several plays which are still in existence. The prologues of Terentian plays contain valuable criticism and statements of dramatic principles. His sententious sayings have become the general property of mankind: "Many men, many minds!" "I consider nothing human alien to me," and "While there's life there's hope." It is through Terence, more than any one else, that the traditions of comedy can be traced back to the New Comedy of the Greeks.

This article was originally published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. pp. 84-6.


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