Authors: Terence

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Roman playwright

Author Works


Andria, 166 B.C.E. (English translation, 1598)

Hecyra, 165 B.C.E. (The Mother-in-Law, 1598)

Heautontimorumenos, 163 b.c.e. (The Self-Tormentor, 1598)

Eunuchus, 161 B.C.E. (The Eunuch, 1598)

Phormio, 161 B.C.E. (English translation, 1598)

Adelphoe, 160 B.C.E. (The Brothers, 1598)


Publius Terentius Afer, known as Terence (TEHR-uhnts), was probably born in the North African city of Carthage in 190 or 185 b.c.e. The sole source of knowledge about his life is the fourth century grammarian and commentator Donatus, who, in his commentary on Terence’s plays, preserves a biographical extract from Suetonius’s lost De viris illustribus. Terence was brought to Rome in childhood as a slave but was given the education of a gentleman by his master, the senator M. Terentius Lucanus. After having been given his freedom, the young man took the name of his former master and added the cognomen Afer (African).{$I[AN]9810000308}{$I[A]Terence}{$S[A]Afer, Publius Terentius;Terence}{$S[A]Publius Terentius Afer;Terence}{$I[geo]ROMAN EMPIRE;Terence}{$I[tim]0190 b.c.e.;Terence}


(Library of Congress)

His intellectual brilliance and personal charm won Terence a place among the aristocratic literary coterie in Rome, a group of young men intent on Hellenizing Roman society and bringing Greek literature and its refinements to the Romans. His personal attractiveness, which secured him the patronage of Caecilius, the poet, and the backing of the literary and aristocratic party, stood Terence in good stead when he was accused of plagiarism and of receiving “help” from his noble friends. Although the elegance and purity of his style and language–surprising in one so young, and a foreigner–indicate that the accusation may have had some basis in truth, he was successful in repelling the charges and continued to be lionized by Roman society.

Around 160 b.c.e. Terence spent some time in Greece, probably studying Greek life and institutions for future use in his writing. Tradition has it that he was lost at sea in 159 b.c.e., as he was returning to Rome bearing a translation of the plays of Menander.

Six plays of Terence have survived: Andria, The Mother-in-Law, The Self-Tormentor, The Eunuch, Phormio, and The Brothers, all produced between 166 and 160 b.c.e. Like the works of Plautus, they are modeled on Greek comedies, primarily those of Menander, but they also show the influence of Diphilus and Apollodorus. Terence seems to have taken greater liberties with the plots and characterizations of the Greek originals than did Plautus, and he often combined scenes from several different plays. Nevertheless, he remained truer to the spirit and style of his sources. Unlike Plautus, his language is consistently temperate and refined, and he avoids the incongruity of introducing Roman allusions or traditions into his plays. Terence seems to have been less concerned with the applause of the masses than with achieving a fusion of the purity of cultivated Latin with the smoothness of Attic Greek, and he strove to introduce Greek culture and sophistication to a Rome that must have appeared to him vulgar, if not barbaric.

Terence’s plays are characterized by complex but careful plot construction and by a sense of the probability of the incidents he portrays. Consistency and moderation in speech and characterization, quite different from the extravagance of Plautus’s writing, mark his work. All six comedies deal with the love entanglements of young men, usually involving two love relationships, one with a wellborn young woman and one with a courtesan, and complicated by the presence of a parent (or parents). Although the characterization in the early plays follows closely the stock types of Greek comedy, Terence’s later plays show considerable development toward a subtle and sympathetic understanding of human psychology.

Further Reading:Beare, W. The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965. An authoritative study of the Roman stage, particularly useful regarding the stage practices, customs, and techniques of the time. Includes a detailed examination of the charge of contamination leveled against Terence. With extensive notes, bibliography, and appendices.Copley, Frank O. The Comedies of Terence. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967. Translations of each play with a useful introductory note on each drama. A fourteen-page essay surveys the problems encountered in attempting to reconstruct Terence’s life and in trying to analyze his art.Duckworth, George E. The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. A vital source on the ancient stage and its conventions as well as on the contributions of Terence. This work is a detailed study of themes, treatments, methods, and influences of Terence, including the critical problems in studying his texts and the biographical problems in studying his life. With an extensive index and bibliography.Duckworth, George E., ed. The Complete Roman Drama. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1942. This work includes Terence’s production notes, which date the performances, describe some of the staging techniques, identify some of the actors, and help both in setting the Terentian ambience and in establishing the plays’ chronologies. A general introduction provides a sound overview of the era and gives important information on ancient stage discipline.Forehand, Walter E. Terence. Boston: Twayne, 1985. A sound, basic work that outlines the major controversies surrounding Terence’s life and productions. Contains a full account of Terence’s literary career, surveying the plays and illuminating the theater background of the times. Includes bibliography.Goldberg, Sander M. The Making of Menander’s Comedy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. This study of Menander’s art sheds light on Terence, whose adaptations came mainly from this Greek model. Terence’s work in relation to Menander is discussed in detailed, analytical fashion throughout.Goldberg, Sander M. Understanding Terence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. A perceptive, analytical study focusing on Terence and the Latin tradition of New Comedy rather than on Terence as an adapter of Menander; this work analyzes the prologues and the plays for their language and themes. The critical problems in dealing with Terence are studied. Contains a bibliography for the individual plays as well as for further study of ancient Greece.Harsh, Philip Whaley. A Handbook of Classical Drama. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Contains an informative survey of Terence’s life and work set within the context of the total range of classical drama. Extensive notes as well as bibliographies for Terence and his peers are included.Karakasis, Evangelos. Terence and the Language of Roman Comedy. Cambridge, 2006. An important work , with particular attention to the comic poet’s refined use of Latin.Konstan, David. Roman Comedy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983. An examination of the New Comedy genre within contexts of the ideology and the institutions of the Roman state. With a reading of Roman plays–including those of Terence–from the social and philosophical perspective to determine how the plays reveal the ethical standards and moral imperatives of the age. Includes bibliography.Sutton, Dana Ferrin. Ancient Comedy: The War of the Generations. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993. This study of ancient comedy looks at Terence, Menander, and Plautus. Includes bibliography and index.
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