Roman Playwright Terence Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The landscape of Roman drama changed forever following the death of Terence, whose plays influenced world literature throughout many centuries.

Summary of Event

The death of Terence had a profound effect on Roman drama, as it signified the end in Rome of a rich tradition of comedies that had its origin nearly three centuries earlier with the Greek New Comedy. Spectacles with gladiators, circuses, and mock sea battles soon replaced Terence’s refined adaptations of Greek comedies, introduced to Romans after Rome’s political and economic expansion to the rest of Italy and Sicily. The quality of Roman drama continued to deteriorate, as the main forms of entertainment during the years leading up to the fall of the Roman Empire were pantomimes, jugglers, and acrobats. Terence

The principal source of information on Terence’s life is the biography by the Roman Suetonius (70-after 122 c.e.). Two other useful sources are a collection of production notices called didascaliae and the prologues Terence wrote for his plays. The information contained in Suetonius’s biography and the prologues, however, must be studied with some skepticism. Ancient biographies are generally considered to be anecdotal and based on suspect information. Terence used the prologues to serve as a defense against those who attacked his literary style. For example, in the prologue to his first play, Andria (166 b.c.e.; English translation, 1598), Terence writes:

When the poet first turned his attention to writing he thought his sole concern was that the plays he had constructed please the people. But he learns that matters turn out much differently, for he wastes his efforts on writing prologues, not to relate the plot, but to answer the slanders of a malevolent old poet.

The “old poet” whom Terence refers to is the dramatist Luscius Lanuvinus. Defending his adaptation of Andria, Terence addresses his critics:

Do they show by their knowledge that they know nothing? When they accuse him (Terence), they accuse Naevius, Plautus, and Ennius, whom our poet has as authorities and whose carelessness he would much rather follow than the crabbed carefulness of these detractors. Furthermore, I warn them to hold their peace henceforth and stop their slanders, so they do not find out their own misfeasances.

It is widely accepted that Terence was from Africa, as his cognomen, Afer, adopted by Terence to indicate his origin, was used in Latin to mean North African. According to Suetonius’s biography, Terence traveled to Rome as a slave of the Roman senator Terentius Lucanus. The existence of a senator with this name and the custom of slaves adopting the family name of their masters support the hypothesis of Terence’s birthplace. Shortly after arriving in Rome, however, the Roman senator recognized Terence’s natural intellect and many talents and granted the young man his freedom. Terentius Lucanus also provided Terence with a classic Roman education. At an early age, Terence began to write Greek-cloak plays (palliatae). It did not take long before Roman noblemen with a love of Greek literature and culture appreciated the young playwright’s talent. Among the high-ranking Romans who admired Terence’s plays was Roman statesman and general Scipio Africanus Minor (185-129 b.c.e.), with whom Terence shared an intimate friendship.

Terence adapted into Latin Greek plays from the period of the New Comedy, the name given to comedies written in the period after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c.e. He based his adaptations on the New Comedy plays by Menander (c. 342-c. 291 b.c.e.), an Athenian who wrote nearly 108 plays. Terence’s adaptations, however, differed from those of Plautus, Terence’s immediate predecessor. While Plautus took many liberties with his adaptations, Terence modeled his plays more closely after the originals. Greek New Comedy plays consisted of five acts separated by song-and-dance routines performed by a chorus. Unlike comedies from the periods of Old and Middle Comedy, the role of the New Comedy chorus was minimal. The number of actors who spoke usually was three, although additional actors participated in smaller roles. A prologue delivered by a divine figure introduced the main characters and described the dramatic setting. The divine figure did not take part in the action of the play. Terence did not include a chorus in his adaptations and significantly changed the purpose of the prologue.


(Library of Congress)

Roman theaters during Terence’s lifetime were makeshift wooden structures, erected for the performance of a play. The first permanent stone theater in Rome dates to 55 b.c.e. The stage was wooden and its wide and shallow dimensions resembled the setting of a street. This design accommodated the stock character of the “running slave” and facilitated dramatic devices, such as eavesdropping and asides. The area behind the stage had a dual purpose. It served as the actors’ dressing room and the facade of this area contained illustrations of three doors, each one representing a house of the street in which the action of the play took place. Stage entrances located to the left and to the right of the spectators provided access to the harbor and the center of town. Another common feature of theaters during Terence’s lifetime was the presence somewhere on stage of an altar, which was a necessity for the performance of many plays. During Terence’s time, spectators, who did not pay to see the plays, sat on benches and consisted of people from the different classes of society.

Production notices provide the most conclusive evidence about Terence’s plays. According to these notices, the plays were produced in the following order: Andria (166 b.c.e.); Hecyra (165 b.c.e.; The Mother-in-Law, 1598), which was a failure; Heautontimorumenos (163 b.c.e.; The Self-Tormentor, 1598); Eunouchus (161 b.c.e.; The Eunuch, 1598); Phormio (161 b.c.e.; English translation, 1598), The Mother-in-Law (160 b.c.e.), again a failure; Adelphoe (160 b.c.e.; The Brothers, 1598); and The Mother-in-Law (160 b.c.e.), finally a successful production.

Terence adapted all of the plays except The Mother-in-Law and Phormio from works by the Greek playwright Menander. Apollodorus of Carystus (fl. third century b.c.e.) was the Greek author of The Mother-in-Law and Phormio. The performance of the first four plays took place at the Megalensian Games. The Roman Games were the occasion for the productions of Phormio and The Mother-in-Law (160 b.c.e.). Both The Mother-in-Law (160 b.c.e.) and The Brothers formed a part of the Funeral Games for Lucius Aemilius Paullus, who was Scipio Africanus Minor’s father. The production notice of The Self-Tormentor provides insight into the circumstances surrounding the performance of this play:

Here begins The Self-Tormentor of Terence. It was performed at the Games for the Great Mother [Ludi Megalenses] in the curule aedileship of Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and Lucius Valerius Flaccus. Lucius Ambivius Turpio and Lucius Atilius Praenestinus played the leading roles. Flaccus, slave of Claudius, made the music. In the first performance it was played with unequal pipes, later with two right-handed pipes. The Greek play was by Menander. It was the third, written in the consulship of Manius Iuventius and Tiberius Sempronius.

The production notice informs the audience of the author of the Greek original, the composer and performer of the music (including the instrument) that accompanied the play, the date of the play (determined by the years of the consuls mentioned), the names of the main actors, and finally, the names of the aediles responsible for the games. Terence was thirty-four when he completed his first play. Although it is not known why Terence’s career as a playwright did not begin earlier, his rivals’ opposition to his abilities might explain this mystery.


The circumstances surrounding Terence’s death are as much a mystery as the details of his life. The only aspect of Terence’s death that is not a source of debate is that he was traveling abroad, most likely to Greece. There is no debate, however, about the influence Terence had on world drama. The Saxon nun Hrosvitha modeled her tenth century Christian plays after Terence’s comedies. Later, Terence’s plays enjoyed success as effective moral statements during the Renaissance. Sixteenth century playwrights and teachers used Terence’s comedies to support their dramatic theories. Molière (1622-1673) based two of his plays, L’École des maris (1661; The School for Husbands, 1732) and Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671; The Cheats of Scapin, 1701), on Terence’s plays The Brothers and Phormio, respectively. The English playwright William Congreve (1670-1729) considered himself a student of Terence’s style. Finally, in the eighteenth century, the Frenchman Denis Diderot (1713-1784) preached that any aspiring comic playwright should imitate Terence.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forehand, Walter E. Terence. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Part of Twayne’s World Authors Series, this book provides a comprehensive study of Terence’s life and plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwood, Gilbert. The Art of Terence. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. Analysis of Terence’s plays and overview of the playwright’s life and literary style. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Terence. The Eunuch. Edited by A. J. Brothers. Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 2000. The Introduction to Brothers’s edition of The Eunuch contains useful information about the life of Terence and a general overview of his plays. Includes a translation from the Latin and commentary. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Terence. Works. Edited by John Barsby. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Study and translation of Terence’s plays. Information about Terence’s life. Bibliography and index.
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Categories: History