Publius Terentius Afer (Terence in English) was born at Carthage around 195 BC. As a child, we was taken to Rome and sold into slavery, where he was educated and subsequently freed by Marcus Terentius Lucanus. Upon becoming a freedman, he adopted the name Publius Terentius as well as the cognomen Afer for his Carthaginian origin.
He was said to have joined the literary circle around Scipio Aemilianus and Laelius, who became his patrons, though recent scholarship disputes the very existence of any literary circle.
He died in 159 after returning from Greece, which he had visited to further his study of Greek comedies.
His six plays, all of which survive, are Adelphoi (The Brothers), Andria (The Girl from Andros), Eunuchus (The Eunuch), Heauton Timorumenos (The Masochist), Hecrya (The Mother-in-Law), and Phormio.
Terence was fond of contaminatio, “the process of combining two or more Greek comedies to form a single Latin play”, for which he was criticized by his contemporaries, notably a certain Lucius from Lanuvium. Terence confronted the charge in the beginning of his Andria, stating that there were good precedents for the practice.
He was also accused of plagiarism for accepting help from others in the Scipionic circle, though some scholars believe that the accusation arose out of disbelief that a Carthaginian could compose such good poetry.
Terence’s plays were more appreciated after his death then during his lifetime. He became especially popular in the late Republican era, when it became fashionable to study him, and his work became standard for school instruction. Cicero was very fond of the playwright, often quoting him in his speeches. He was beloved for his “pure style” or, in the words of Horace, his “art” (ars), and remained popular all the way through the Middle Ages; he was even taught in primary schools as late as the 19th century.
Terence’s textual history is one of the richest and most vibrant. Rouse and Reeve note in their article in Texts and Transmission that it contains a fourth century commentary (by Donatus), a late fourth/early fifth century manuscript, some fragments, “numerous quotations in [early] grammarians”, and “650 manuscripts written after AD 800”.
From the Eunuchus
- Nullumst iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius. (“There’s nothing said now that hasn’t been said before.”)
From the Heautontimoroumenos
- Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. (“I am a person, so nothing human is strange to me.”)
- This phrase was for a long time thought to represent a humanistic thought in Terence, though in context that interpretation appears a stretch.
- Nam tam difficile est quin quaerendo investigari possiet. (“Nothing is so difficult that it cannot be figured out by investigation.”)
- Ius summum saepe summa est malitia. (“The best law is often the greatest evil.”)
- Cf. Callimachus’ μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν (“A big book is a big evil.”)
From the Phormio
- Fortis fortuna adiuvat. (“Fortune favors the brave.”)
- This proverb likely antedates Terence by years and is repeated quite frequently throughout antiquity.
- Quot homines tot sententiae. (“For however many men, there are that many opinions.”)
Latin: PHI Latin Texts
English and Latin: Perseus
- Gesine Manuwald 2011. Roman Republican Theatre. Cambridge.
- Daniel P. Hanchey 2013, “Terence and the Scipionic Grex,” in Augoustakis & Traill eds. A Companion to Terence: Wiley-Blackwell.