Ancient Roman History: Publius Terentius Afer, Better Known as Terence

Famous Roman Playwright

Portrait of Terence from Vaticana
Smerdis of Tlön/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Publius Terentius Afer, or Terence, was a famous playwright of North African descent in the Roman Republic. He was born around 195 B.C. in Carthage, and was initially brought to Rome as a slave. However, Terence’s abilities got him eventually freed, and he went on to write six separate plays.

Terence’s works were performed for the first time around 170 BC. Terence based his comedy on the New Comedy of Menander.

New comedy was the forerunner of the comedy of manners (written by Molière, Congreve, Sheridan, Goldsmith, and Wilde).

Arrival in Rome

Terence was initially brought to Rome as a slave by a Roman senator named Terentius Lucanus. Lucanus educated Terence as he served as a slave, and he eventually freed Terence due to his abilities as a playwright.

Death

Terence is thought to have died at a young age, either at sea on his way back to Rome, or in Greece. His death is thought to have occurred around 159 BC.

Plays

Despite his early demise, Terence wrote six separate plays that have each survived to this day. The titles of Terence’s six separate plays are: Andria, Hecyra, Heauton timoroumenos, Eunuchus, Phormio, and Adelphi. The first, Andria, is thought to have been produced in 166 BC, while the last, Adelphi, is thought to have been produced in 160 BC.

Production notices for his plays provide approximate dates:

· Andria - 166 BC

· Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) - 165 BC

· Heauton timoroumenos (The Self-Tormentor) - 163 BC

· Eunuchus (The Eunuch) - 161 BC

· Phormio - 161 BC

· Adelphi (The Brothers) - 160 BC.

Terence's plays were more refined than Plautus’, which led him to be slightly less popular at the time. There was also a fair share of controversy during Terence’s lifetime, as he was accused of contaminating the borrowed Greek material that he utilized in his plays.

He was also accused of having had assistance in the creation of his plays. From The Encyclopedia 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.

The main sources of information regarding Terence are the prologues to his plays, the production notices, biographical material written centuries later by Suetonius, and commentary written by Aelius Donatus, a fourth century grammarian.

Also Known As: Publius Terentius Afer

Examples: Terence wrote "According as the man is, so must you humour him." Adelphoe. Act iii. Sc. 3, 77. (431.)