Publius Terentius Afer (195/185–159 BC), better known in English as Terence, was a playwright of the Roman Republic, of North African descent. His comedies were performed for the first time around 170–160 BC. Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, brought Terence to Rome as a slave, educated him and later on, impressed by his abilities, freed him. Terence apparently died young, probably in Greece or on his way back to Rome. All of the six plays Terence wrote have survived.
One famous quotation by Terence reads: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto", or "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me." This appeared in his play Heauton Timorumenos.
Terence's date of birth is disputed; Aelius Donatus, in his incomplete Commentum Terenti, considers the year 185 BC to be the year Terentius was born; Fenestella, on the other hand, states that he was born ten years earlier, in 195 BC.
He may have been born in or near Carthage or in Greek Italy to a woman taken to Carthage as a slave. Terence's cognomen Afer suggests he lived in the territory of the Libyan tribe called by the Romans Afri near Carthage prior to being brought to Rome as a slave. This inference is based on the fact that the term was used in two different ways during the republican era: during Terence's lifetime, it was used to refer to non-Carthaginian Libyco-Berbers, with the term Punicus reserved for the Carthaginians. Later, after the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, it was used to refer to anyone from the land of the Afri (Tunisia and its surroundings). It is therefore most likely that Terence was of Libyan descent, considered ancestors to the modern-day Berber peoples.
In any case, he was sold to P. Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, who educated him and later on, impressed by Terence's abilities, freed him. Terence then took the nomen "Terentius," which is the origin of the present form.
When he was 25, Terence left Rome and he never returned, after having exhibited the six comedies which are still in existence. According to some ancient writers, he died at sea.
Like Plautus, Terence adapted Greek plays from the late phases of Attic comedy. He was more than a translator, as modern discoveries of ancient Greek plays have confirmed. By borrowing from earlier Greek works, Terence provided in his plays what is considered to be an authentic view of Greek society in the 3rd century BC.
Terence wrote in a simple conversational Latin, and most students who persevere long enough to be able to read him in the vernacular find his style particularly pleasant and direct. Aelius Donatus, Jerome's teacher, is the earliest surviving commentator on Terence's work. Terence's popularity throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is attested to by the numerous manuscripts containing part or all of his plays; the scholar Claudia Villa has estimated that 650 manuscripts containing Terence's work date from after AD 800. The mediaeval playwright Hroswitha of Gandersheim claims to have written her plays so that learned men had a Christian alternative to reading the pagan plays of Terence, while the reformer Martin Luther not only quoted Terence frequently to tap into his insights into all things human but also recommended his comedies for the instruction of children in school.
Terence's six plays are:
- Andria (The Girl from Andros) (166 BC)
- Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) (165 BC)
- Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) (163 BC)
- Phormio (161 BC)
- Eunuchus (161 BC)
- Adelphoe (The Brothers) (160 BC)
The first printed edition of Terence appeared in Strasbourg in 1470, while the first certain post-antique performance of one of Terence's plays, Andria, took place in Florence in 1476. There is evidence, however, that Terence was performed much earlier. The short dialogue Terentius et delusor was probably written to be performed as an introduction to a Terentian performance in the 9th century (possibly earlier).
Terence's plays were a standard part of the Latin curriculum of the neo-classical period. US President John Adams once wrote to his son, "Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin...His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model."
Due to his cognomen Afer, Terence has long been identified with Africa and heralded as the first poet of the African diaspora by generations of writers, including Juan Latino, Phyllis Wheatley, Alexandre Dumas, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.
Questions as to whether Terence received assistance in writing or was not the actual author have been debated over the ages, as described in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica:
[In a prologue to one of his plays, Terence] meets the charge of receiving assistance in the composition of his plays by claiming as a great honour the favour 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 honour to be accepted by Montaigne and rejected by Diderot.
- Aeli Donati Commentum Terenti, accedunt Eugraphi Commentum et Scholia Bembina, ed. Paul Wessner, 3 Volumes, Leipzig, 1902, 1905, 1908.
- G. D' Anna, Sulla vita suetoniana di Terenzio, RIL, 1956, pp. 31-46, 89-90.
- Tenney Frank, "On Suetonius' Life of Terence." The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (1933), pp. 269-273.
- H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Latin Literature, 1954.
- Michael von Albrecht, Geschichte der römischen Literatur, Volume 1, Bern, 1992.
- "...the playwright Terence, who reached rome as the slave of a senator in the second century BC, was a Berber", Suzan Raven, Rome in Africa, Routledge, 1993, p.122; ISBN 0-415-08150-5.
- Smith, William (editor); Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, "Lucanus, Terentius", Boston, 1870.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume XXVI. Cambridge: University Press, 1911. pp. 639-41.
- See, e.g., in Luther's Works: American Edition, vol. 40:317; 47:228.
- Warren Anderson and Thomas J. Mathiesen. "Terence", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell (London: Macmillan, 2001), xxv, 296.
- John Adams by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2001. Pg 259. ISBN 13:978-0-684-81363-9
- Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911. pp. 639-41.
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- The six plays of Terence at The Latin Library (Latin)
- Andria at The Perseus Digital Library (English)
- Hecyra at The Perseus Digital Library (English)
- Heautontimorumenos at The Perseus Digital Library(English)
- The Eunuch at The Perseus Digital Library(English)
- Phormio at The Perseus Digital Library (English)
- The Brothers at The Perseus Digital Library (English)
- 15th-century scripts from Hecyra and Eunuchus, Center for Digital Initiatives, University of Vermont Libraries
- Terence's works: text, concordances and frequency list
- The Life of Terence, part of Suetonius's De Viris Illustribus, Translated by J. C. Rolfe.
- Commentum Terenti by Aelius Donatus, at the Internet Archive; 1902 Teubner edition. (Latin)
- SORGLL: Terence, Eunuch 232-264, read by Matthew Dillon
- Latin with Laughter: Terence through Time