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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Bond Lindsay (1853–1909)

By Terence (c. 195/185–159 B.C.)

THE COMEDY OF MANNERS, to which the work of Terence belongs, represents in general the contemporary life of the people in its superficial aspect; the state of society which it depicts changes rapidly, and the comedy itself often loses interest except to the student of past forms of social development. The English comedies of this class that have retained popular favor, owe their continued existence rather to the power of the presentation than to their subject-matter. Where, however, the life of a particular community has evidently and forcibly affected the succeeding history of the world, the case is different: the life of such a people at such a time becomes of cosmopolitan importance. In estimating, then, the permanent value of the comedies of Terence, we must consider both the subject of his work and the quality of the workman. No amount of artistic subtlety can produce an enduring monument from perishable material; a marble statue is not formed from clay, nor are noble thoughts evolved from trivial platitudes. On the other hand, the barren-minded or unskillful fashioner may make the marble valueless as clay itself, and sink men’s highest aspirations to the level of the street-boy’s slang. The influence of Greek life and thought upon modern Europe is as remarkable as it is undisputed. The power of Terence to represent this life, as it was in the third century before Christ, will appear as we proceed. Suffice it for the present to suggest that his treatment of it was cosmopolitan, natural, and formally almost perfect. It was cosmopolitan, because as an African slave, writing at Rome and in the Roman speech, of the life of the Greeks, he had that perspective which in some form or other—local, chronological, or temperamental—is essential to clear vision and to the appreciation of relative values. It was natural, because he had the facts all before him in the works of the Greek writers whom he followed, because he was young, and because he was an artist. It was formally almost perfect, because he used with an artist’s power a speech form that had put off the crudities of his literary predecessors, and had become the most nearly perfect medium for the expression of thought that the world has ever known.

Roman comedy, as it has come down to us, is almost entirely founded on Greek models. Of the indigenous Latin comedy which preceded the translation made by Nævius (who died 204 B.C.) from the Greek, we know very little. The conflicts of rustic raillery at the vintage season, and at other festivals, gave rise to the Fescennine verses, which were probably modified by Etruscan influence and developed into the ‘Saturæ,’—dramatic medleys with some musical accompaniment, upon which the later literary ‘Saturæ’ of Lucilius, and his successors Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, were based.

Among the Oscans in southern Italy there arose a form of comedy called the ‘Fabula Atellana.’ This seems to have contained a large pantomimic element, and produced the stock characters of Macco the stupid, Bucco the glutton, Pappus the vain old man, and Dosennus the wily rascal. The Romans possessed—in common with all Italians, both ancient and modern—a keen sense of the ridiculous, a talent for repartee, a gift of improvisation, and an art of mimicry, that might well have formed a really national comedy from these rude beginnings, had they not come into competition with the finer forms of Greek dramatic art. As a matter of fact, however, the influence of this national drama upon the literature of Rome was insignificant; and so far as extant writings are concerned, Roman comedy means the works of Plautus and Terence. Both these men found their models in the new Attic comedy,—a form that differed essentially from the Attic comedy of Aristophanes: the latter was distinctly political in tone, and was marked externally by the presence of the chorus; while its successor, represented by Menander, dealt almost without exception with the relations of private life, corresponded very closely with the society comedy of modern times, and had eliminated the chorus altogether.

The picture of Greek life furnished by Menander and the other comedy-writers of his time assumed two quite different forms as it was represented on the Roman stage,—in the earlier period by Plautus, in the later period by Terence. The times themselves had changed. When Plautus wrote, the Roman people was practically homogeneous: filled with a national, almost provincial spirit, contemptuous of foreigners and foreign ways, uncritical, careless of literary form, ready to be easily amused, looking to the stage for strong points and palpable hits rather than for fine discriminating character studies and subtle suggestions of humorous situations. The audiences of Plautus were more ready to laugh than to smile, more affected by wit than by humor. The temporary theatre was the gathering-place of the whole community,—restless, impatient, eager to see something done rather than to hear something said; to be amused rather than to be instructed. The years that intervened before the production of the first of Terence’s plays brought many important changes. The earlier rude brutality of strength had been modified to a calmer consciousness of power; the stern stoicism of the elder Cato had been softened by the finer elements of the Epicurean system; and more than all, the influence of Greek art and Greek culture had begun to permeate the nation, and to form an educated literary class, distinct from the body of the people. In the former generation there had been men who recognized the value of the Greek spirit: such men as Scipio the Elder, and Fulvius Nobilior, both friends of the poet Ennius. But the men of the younger generation had made this Greek culture their own; had not only recognized its value but actually assimilated it.

Terence came into intimate contact with the leading men of this movement, the so-called Scipionic circle; Scipio Æmilianus, Lælius, and Furius Philo received him into such cordial intimacy that he was even suspected and accused of giving out, as his own, works that were in reality the product of their minds. This charge has never been refuted. In fact, Terence refers to it in the prologue to the ‘Adelphi,’ in such a way as to make it highly probable that he rather admitted than disclaimed the aid with which his enemies reproached him.

Thus, while the earlier writers, including the dramatists, had appealed to the general public, Terence and his successors looked to the literary class for approbation and encouragement. The earlier men had written, the later cultivated literature, until we find even Horace openly proclaiming his indifference to the judgment of the uncritical many.

In spite of the fact that the life of Terence—written by Suetonius during the early part of the second century A.D.—is extant, there is doubt as to many of the facts concerning his career. He was probably born in 185 B.C., and came to Rome from Carthage when very young. He was a slave in the family of Terentius Lucanus, from whom his name is derived. He was educated with great care, and came early into contact with the young men of the best Roman families, with whom he kept up an intimate friendship until his death. The fact that such a friendship could exist between an emancipated slave and men of the old Roman nobility causes less surprise when we remember that the slaves in Rome were frequently men of excellent education; and that the fortune of war might easily bring a man of noble birth and high rank into that position. There is indeed no parallel between the slavery of ancient times and that which existed, for instance, in America until so recently.

Terence’s first play—the ‘Andria’—was brought out in 166 B.C. There is a story that he carried the MS. to Cæcilius, who was the recognized successor of Plautus, and the arbiter of dramatic success at this time; and that the great man bade the youth in his shabby clothes sit down upon a stool at the foot of his couch, and read to him while he continued the dinner which the coming of Terence had interrupted. After listening to a few lines from the opening scene, which Cicero often referred to as a model of narrative style, Cæcilius indicated his admiration by placing the young poet beside him at the table. The other five comedies of Terence were put upon the stage during the next five years; and soon after the production of the ‘Adelphi’ in 160 B.C., Terence set sail for Greece, whence he never returned. He died in the following year, but the circumstances of his death are variously related. It was said that he was returning with a large number of MSS. when the ship that carried him was wrecked. It seems to have been more commonly believed, however, that grief at the loss of these MSS., which he had sent home before him, caused his death. Suetonius states that he was of medium stature, slender figure, and dark complexion.

The ‘Andria,’ which was the earliest of Terence’s works, is so called from the fact that the heroine, Glycerium, came to Athens from the island of Andros, where she had been shipwrecked with her uncle Phania, to whom she had been intrusted by her father Chremes, an Athenian, on the occasion of his journey into Asia. Upon the death of her uncle, she is adopted by an Andrian, and brought up with his own daughter Chrysis. When this man dies, the two girls come to Athens; and Pamphilus, whose father Simo has arranged his marriage with a younger daughter of this same Chremes, falls madly in love with Glycerium. Davus, the slave, is eager to help Pamphilus, but anxious to avoid the anger of Simo. Finally by a stratagem he brings it about that Chremes refuses to consent to the marriage of the younger daughter with Pamphilus. A cousin from Andros appears on the scene, and makes the astonishing but satisfactory revelation that the supposed Glycerium is really the long-lost elder daughter of Chremes himself. Thus all objections to the marriage are removed. As usual in the plays of Terence, there is an underplot. Here Charinus is as desperately in love with a younger daughter of Chremes as is Pamphilus with her sister. In the progress of the play, Pamphilus is obliged to seem to consent to carry out his father’s wishes, which interferes decidedly with the happiness of Charinus. The resolution of one plot is of course the disentangling of the other.

The ‘Andria’ is the most interesting and the least amusing of the comedies of Terence. It has more pathetic situations and less of the real comedy element than any of the others. It is indeed rather what the French call a “comédie larmoyante.” This play was translated into English during the reign of Edward VI., and has been imitated by Baron in his ‘Andrienne.’ It furnished too some of the scenes in Moore’s ‘Foundling.’ The best imitation however is Steele’s ‘Conscious Lovers.’ The plot of the latter play is an improvement on that of Terence, but the characters are less carefully drawn.

The ‘Hecyra’ (The Stepmother), was brought out in 165 B.C.; but as it came into competition with a rope-dancing entertainment, it was unsuccessful and was withdrawn, to be reproduced in 160. It has the fatal fault of dullness, and has never found an adapter. The prologue is interesting for the information it contains on the subject of the management of the Roman theatre.

The ‘Hautontimorumenos’ (The Self-Tormentor) contains a highly original character in the person of Menedemus the father, whose severity to his son causes him such deep distress that the anxiety and sympathy of his neighbor Chremes are aroused. He goes to Menedemus, and protests that he is killing himself by his self-imposed laborious penance. Menedemus’s repulse of his neighbor’s kind offices, and inquiry as to why he should concern himself so deeply about other men’s affairs, is the occasion for the famous line—

  • “I am a man: all that concerns my fellow-men is my concern,”—
  • a line at which the whole house rose and shouted its applause. It was indeed a summary, an epigrammatic statement, of the new doctrine of a broader interest: “To be a Roman citizen is much; to be a man is more.” It marked the transition from a narrow provincial view of the world to that which recognized the brotherhood of men. We may well imagine that at this time, when the new party in politics, as well as in literature, was struggling for development as opposed to repression,—was claiming that Rome could be truly great only as she absorbed and assimilated the best that all the world could offer her,—such an expression would catch the enthusiastic spirit of a Roman audience. The play, like the ‘Andria,’ has little comic force; but as the Spectator observes, while there is not in the whole drama one passage that could raise a laugh, it is from beginning to end the most perfect picture of human life that ever was exhibited. It has been imitated in Chapman’s comedy ‘All Fools.’

    The ‘Eunuchus’ was brought out in 161 B.C. On the Roman stage it was by far the most popular of all Terence’s plays. It has a vivacity, a continued interest, a grouping of lively characters, that almost redeems its author from Cæsar’s reproach of lack of “comic power.” The parasite Gnatho is a new type; less like the broadly flattering parasites of Plautus, more like the delicate and artful flatterers of Juvenal or of Shakespeare. The braggart captain too, Thraso, is free from the incredible extravagances of Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus, and yet ridiculous enough in his boastfulness to fill his rôle of laughing-stock. A new trait is his desire to pose as a wit, and his tendency to repeat old stories.

    The ‘Eunuchus’ has been imitated by Aretine in ‘La Talanta,’ by La Fontaine in ‘L’Eunuque,’ by Bruyès in ‘Le Muet,’ and by Sir Charles Sedley in ‘Bellamira.’

    The ‘Phormio’ appeared in the same year with the ‘Eunuchus,’ and takes its name from that of the parasite; who, however, is neither an imitation of the parasites of Plautus, nor a repetition of the new type shown in the Gnatho of the ‘Eunuchus.’ He is a well-meaning, sympathetic, but somewhat impecunious gentleman, who is anxious to arrange things to the general satisfaction as well as to his own. There is a quiet humor in the scene between Demipho, the anxious father, and the gentlemen whom he has called in to advise him, that is characteristic of Terence. Demipho turns to the first of the visitors, Hegio, and says, “You see how things stand: what am I to do? Tell me, Hegio;” and Hegio replies, “What! I? I think you will do well to consult Cratinus.” So Demipho turns to the second friend: “Tell me, Cratinus.”—“Who, I?”—“Yes, you.”—“Well, I think you should do that which is best for yourself. It seems to me like this: it is only fair and right that what this boy of yours did in your absence should be considered null and void, and I think the court will hold it so; that’s my opinion.” Demipho returns to Hegio: “Now then, Hegio.”—“I have no doubt that our friend here has spoken after due consideration: but many men, many minds; each has his own way of looking at things. It does not seem to me that what has been done in regular legal form can be undone, and it is a bad thing to undertake.” So Demipho looks to the third man, Crito, to settle the matter. “Well, Crito, what do you say?”—“I think the matter needs further deliberation. It is an important case.” Hegio inquires if they can serve him further, and as Demipho replies, “No, you have done remarkably well,” they solemnly file out, leaving Demipho to remark to himself, “I am decidedly more undecided than I was before.”

    The ‘Adelphi’ (The Brothers), the last of Terence’s comedies, was brought out in 160 B.C. The chief interest of the piece is due to the contrast between the two brothers. Demea, the elder, is a hard-handed, tight-fisted countryman,—a Pharisee of the strictest sect. Micio, the younger, is open-hearted and open-handed, and inclined to leniency towards the faults and follies of youth. He is a bachelor, and has adopted Æschinus, the elder son of his brother. Ctesipho, Demea’s younger son, has been brought up by his father on the most approved principles; and outwardly at least, justifies his father’s boasts of the success of his system. When Æschinus runs away with a music-girl, Demea’s regret at the disgrace of the family is tempered with satisfaction at the failure of his less strait-laced brother’s methods of education. The discovery, however, that Æschinus is not the principal in the affair, but is only acting for his moral brother, Ctesipho, opens Demea’s eyes, and causes him to reverse his judgment as to the wisdom of an extreme severity. The ‘Adelphi’ is as full of human nature as the ‘Hautontimorumenos,’ and affords even more marked examples of Terence’s inimitable success in character-drawing. The ‘Adelphi’ has been often imitated in whole or in part: the contrasting characters of the two brothers have been particularly attractive to modern playwrights.

    The closest imitation is that of Baron in ‘L’École des Pères.’ Molière used it in ‘L’École des Maris.’ Diderot seems to have had Micio and Demea in mind in writing his ‘Père de Famille.’ Shadwell based his ‘Squire of Alsatia’ on the ‘Adelphi.’ The principal characters in Cumberland’s ‘Choleric Man’ come from the same source. Kno’well in Ben Jonson’s ‘Every Man in his Humour’ has a strong resemblance to Micio. Fagan’s ‘La Pupille,’ Garrick’s ‘Guardian,’ and John Hare’s ‘A Pair of Spectacles,’ all owe more or less to Terence’s play.

    The most striking characteristic in these six plays of Terence is the broad grasp of human nature. His characters are alive, not because he seizes their salient features and forces them upon us, but because he shows us each individual fitting himself into his own place according to the fundamental laws that govern temperament and character, whatever their immediate environment may be. The characters of Plautus, in spite of the Greek setting of his plays, are Romans: the characters of Terence are neither Greeks nor Romans, but men and women. Dramatists and novelists often produce strong effects in character-drawing by placing some dominant quality in the foreground, and massing everything else behind it. We remember Mr. Micawber because he was always waiting for something to turn up; but we remember Major Pendennis because he was Major Pendennis. This very fact gives to the characters of Dickens, as to those of Plautus, an apparently greater individuality; but often at the expense of truth. Men and women are not built up around single qualities, unless indeed they be monomaniacs; and the greater artists like Thackeray and Terence show us, not the dominant quality with the man attached to it, but the man himself affected more or less by the dominant quality.

    Terence shares with Horace that urbanity, that spirit of moderation and mutual concession, which is the almost inevitable result of the association of men in large numbers. Angularities wear off by friction; and this quality of urbanity, developed by the friction of life in the great Roman city, became a marked feature of later Latin literature, and remains as the special heritage of French literature to-day.

    The expression of real tenderness, the feeling that lies in the region between sport and earnest, is rare among the Romans. Sentiment that is neither passion on the one hand nor sentimentality on the other does not readily lend itself to forms of words. In his power to present this finer feeling, Terence is excelled by only one among Roman writers, Catullus,—

  • “Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen hundred years ago.”
  • With Catullus, too, Terence shares that indefinable quality of charm which has no less distinct a place in literature than in society,—that gift of the gods which turns readers of Charles Lamb, of Heine, of Stevenson, into friends and almost lovers. Indefinable, indeed; but surely resting on those two qualities so eminent in all these authors,—spontaneity and grace. We require of the lyric poet that he express emotion; we expect the epic poet to deal with action: in the dramatist we look for development of emotion through the will into action. The first may ignore the result of the emotion; the second may merely imply the motive of the action: but the dramatist must trace the cause to its effect.

    In the skill with which this development of plot and character is carried on, Terence ranks with the greatest dramatists. The leading emotion—the motive—of all his plays is love; and as the plot moves on, we may trace the working out of this emotion in the whole action of the piece. In the delineation of character there are no mere superficial portraits, no over-intensified high lights; all is simple and consistent. We find none of the broad strokes of Plautus, no impressionist pictures, but always the fine suggestive detail of the etcher. Here, as elsewhere, Terence closely followed his Greek models. In his systematic use of double plots, however, he showed his ability to fit his material to his purpose. The Roman stage demanded more action than a single Greek comedy afforded. By a skillful combination of two Greek plays into one, Terence secured the added action without loss of continuity.

    In creative force, Terence is undoubtedly inferior to his great predecessor. His characters all belong to a few types. The warm-hearted, open-minded young man, careless of conventions, but generous and faithful to his own standard of honor; the easy-going, indulgent father, a man of the world, whose motto is, “Boys will be boys;” the stern old man, grumbling at the degeneracy of the times, forgetting that he himself was ever young; the weak, devoted mother, who can see no faults in her darling boy; the suave plausible parasite, ever on the lookout for his own advantage, serving others often, but always himself; the fine-spirited young girl, whom misfortune has placed in the false position of a slave, whose weakness is her strength,—loving, constant, and faithful; slaves of various sorts, some wily enough to scheme successfully for their masters’ success, some dull enough to involve their masters in unnecessary and unlooked-for complications, some honestly devoted, some cunningly subservient,—these and some few other characters appear in all the plays; but each one, drawn by a master hand, is simple, natural, and consistent.

    The diction of Terence was the model of his successors. He marks, indeed, no less an epoch in the development of the language of the Romans than in the progress of their views of life; and in both, the changes, the permanence of which his power assured, were similar. In language as in life, Terence stands for sweet reasonableness, for moderation, for sympathetic kindliness, for elegance, for art—for classicism. His work brought into Latin literature that element of perfect style which it retained in Cicero and in Horace; which it lost in the later empire in the hands of Seneca and Fronto; which reappeared in France. So too in his philosophy of life and manners, he finds a follower in Horace, a stern opponent in Juvenal—and an appreciative audience in modern Paris. It is indeed the philosophy of compromise, not that of strong enthusiastic conviction. Terence, like Horace, has always been a favorite author with men of wide experience; while Plautus, like Juvenal, appeals to the reader whose youth—of years or of heart—knows no fine distinctions.

    While the moderation of Terence’s diction precludes his use of the forceful energetic word-strokes that lend themselves so well to quotation, the very fineness of his art furnishes many phrases that became proverbial; such as—Lovers’ quarrels are love’s renewal; Silence is praise enough; You are singing the same old song; Hence these tears; I am a man—all that concerns my fellow-men is my concern; Many men, many minds; He is holding a wolf by the ears; Not too much of anything.

    As regards the effect of Roman comedy on Roman morals much might be said, and on both sides. There is undoubtedly a laxity of view concerning the relations of the sexes that does not commend itself to modern minds. On the other hand, it is to be remembered that the increase of wealth and luxury, tending to make of marriage a matter of mutual material advantage,—a legal relation, looking to the establishment of the family—forces the playwright to step outside the conventions of society if he would deal with love as an emotion and as the basis of romantic attachment. Terence meets this difficulty by supposing his heroine to be ineligible, owing to poverty, or to her position as a slave or a foreigner. Thus the romantic element in the attachment is justified. In every case, however, she is discovered to be the daughter of a wealthy Athenian citizen, the stigma of ineligibility is removed, and the curtain is rung down to the sound of wedding-bells. Thus the playwright finds his field, and yet conventional morality is satisfied.

    A comparison of the two great Roman comedy-writers will show that Terence has the broader view, Plautus the more definite focus; Terence is cosmopolitan, Plautus is national; Terence’s pathos is the deeper, that of Plautus the more evident; Terence has subtler humor, Plautus a bolder wit: in Terence there is less vivacity of action, less variety of incident; on the other hand, there is a smoother flow of action and a greater consistency of plot. The vituperative exuberance of Plautus is replaced in Terence by the more gentlemanly weapon of polished irony; while Plautus reveals his close acquaintance with the narrow lanes of the Subura, Terence introduces us to the language of the aristocratic quarter of the Palatine; Terence is careful of the dramatic unities of time and place, to which Plautus is indifferent; the versification of Terence is smoother and more elegant, that of Plautus is stronger and less monotonous; Terence wins his victories in the library, Plautus on the stage; Terence seeks to teach his audiences what good taste demands, Plautus tries to give them what they want. After reading one of Plautus’s plays we are eager to read another; after reading one of Terence’s, we are anxious to read it over again.

    If we may attribute a distinct purpose to Terence, it was this: to introduce a finer tone into both the life and language of his countrymen, by picturing for them in the purity of their own idiom the gentler and more human life of Greece. Not only the critics, but the subsequent history of Roman life and Roman literature, assure us that he did not fail.

    BIBLIOGRAPHY.—The best English editions of Terence are those of Bentley, Parry, Wagner, and Ashmore (Oxford, 1908); translations by Colman and by Sargeaunt (Loeb Classical Library). The best sketch of his life and work is that by Sellar, in his ‘Roman Poets of the Republic.’ Substantially the same article appears in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ revised by Ernest Harrison. There is a very full account in Dunlop’s ‘History of Roman Literature.’