ca. 185 B.C.-ca. 159 B.C.
Publius Terentius Afer, known as Terence, wrote six comic plays in Latin between 166 B.C. and 160 B.C. Ranked among the masterpieces of Roman drama, these comedies remained popular for centuries. Audiences and readers admired Terence’s skillful use of Latin as well as the entertaining situations he portrayed.
Some people in Terence’s time and afterward suggested that he did not really write the plays that were presented under his name. Terence was known to have well-educated friends among the wealthy young men of Rome. It is possible that they wrote the plays but claimed that Terence had done so because playwriting was not considered a suitable pastime for aristocrats*. However, no evidence supports this suggestion, and it is more likely that Terence wrote the plays for which he is remembered.
One reason for the questions about the authorship of Terence’s plays is that historians know almost nothing about his life. The Roman biographer Suetonius, who lived several centuries after Terence, thought that Terence was a slave from the North African city of Carthage whose Roman master educated him and gave him the name Terentius. This story may be little more than a guess based on the name Afer, a Roman name that also means African. Scholars have been unable to find more definitive information about the playwright’s origins. His last days are also a mystery. He is supposed to have traveled to Greece around 160 B.C. or 159 B.C. Sources give varying accounts of his death, and the only certainty is that no new plays by Terence appeared after 160 B.C.
Like Plautus, an earlier Roman author of comic plays, Terence adapted his plots and characters from Greek plays. Four of Terence’s comedies are based on plays by Menander, the best-known Greek comic playwright. The other two are based on works by Apollodorus of Carystus. Such borrowing was customary among Roman authors, who greatly admired Greek drama and literature. Roman audiences often preferred translations of Greek plays to Roman originals. Some Romans criticized Terence, not for borrowing from the Greek plays but for spoiling them by making changes. Terence added characters and episodes from other plays, and he also wrote new lines for most of the plays that he borrowed.
Although Terence translated Greek plays into Latin, he did not “Romanize” them. Unlike some other Roman playwrights who borrowed Greek works, Terence retained the original Greek settings. Not only are his plays set in places such as Athens, but many of their plots involve Greek laws and customs.
Terence developed a new style for his plays. Lively and natural, this style was much more like ordinary conversation than earlier plays had been, although parts of each play were more formal and poetic. He also introduced a new kind of prologue to drama. The prologue is the first part of a play, generally in the form of a speech delivered by one of the actors before the action begins. Greek playwrights used the prologue to give the audience some background to the story they were about to see, perhaps sharing a piece of important information, such as the true identity of one of the characters. Terence used prologues to do something new, that is, to speak to the audience as himself through one of the actors. In his prologues, Terence defended himself against critics of his plays, feuded with rival authors, and appealed to the public for support. Terence’s prologues are some of the earliest known examples of an artist writing about himself and his art. Many later playwrights followed Terence’s lead and began their plays with prologues about their own lives, careers, or competitors.
* aristocrat person of the highest social class
Roman playwrights competed with simpler, rowdier entertainments for the attention of their audiences. At the first performance of Terence's play Hecyra, the audience chatted and watched other attractions, including a tightrope walker and a boxing match. The play failed. At the second performance, a noisy crowd looking for a gladiatorial show interrupted the play. Before the third attempt, the actor-manager who was producing the performance asked the audience to encourage the playwright, saying, "You have the power to make theatrical entertainment glorious; do not allow dramatic art to become the preserve of a handful."
Terence’s first play was Andria (A Woman from Andros). It is the story of a father who wants his son to marry a neighbor’s daughter, despite the son’s love for another woman. The second play, Hecyra (also called A Mother-in-Law), deals with an obedient son who gives up the woman he loves to marry another woman to please his father. Heautontimorumenos (One Who Punished Himself) is about misunderstandings between fathers and sons and about the obstacles facing several pairs of young lovers. It features a clever slave who, by tricking his master, provides a happy ending for all the troubled relationships in the play. The Eunuch is the liveliest of Terence’s plays. The plot involves two tangled love affairs, jealousy, and mistaken identity. In The Eunuch, a young man is attracted to a slave girl who turns out to be a citizen of Athens and therefore an appropriate bride. The plot of Phormio is based on an Athenian law that stated that if a citizen died leaving an unmarried daughter, the citizen’s nearest male relative had to marry the girl or provide her with a husband. In the play, a young man who has fallen in love with an orphan pretends to be her relative so that he can marry her. Terence’s last known play, The Brothers, is about two brothers with different ideas on how to raise their sons. One is strict, the other easygoing. As in all of Terence’s plays, the comic plot is strengthened by insights into human nature and by carefully drawn and believable characters. (See also Drama, Greek; Drama, Roman.)