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This article is about Terence, the ancient Roman playwright. For other persons named Terence, see Terence (given name). For other members of the Roman gens, see Terentius (gens).
Alleged portrait of Terence, from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868. Possibly copied from 3rd-century original.

Publius Terentius Afer (/təˈrɛnʃiəs, -ʃəs/; 195/185–159 BC), better known in English as Terence (/ˈtɛrəns/), 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;[1] Fenestella, on the other hand, states that he was born ten years earlier, in 195 BC.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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[5] descent, considered ancestors to the modern-day Berber peoples.[6]

In any case, he was sold to P. Terentius Lucanus,[7] 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.

Terence's plays[edit]

1496 edition of Terence's Works

Like Plautus, Terence adapted Greek plays from the late phases of Attic comedy. 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.[8]

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.[9]

Terence's six plays are:

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).

A phrase by his musical collaborator Flaccus for Terence's comedy Hecyra is all that remains of the entire body of ancient Roman music. This has recently been shown to be inauthentic.[10]

Cultural legacy[edit]

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."[11]

Two of the earliest English comedies, Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton's Needle, are thought to parody Terence's plays.

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.

American playwright Thornton Wilder based his novel The Woman of Andros on Terence's Andria.

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.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Aeli Donati Commentum Terenti, accedunt Eugraphi Commentum et Scholia Bembina, ed. Paul Wessner, 3 Volumes, Leipzig, 1902, 1905, 1908.
  2. ^ G. D' Anna, Sulla vita suetoniana di Terenzio, RIL, 1956, pp. 31-46, 89-90.
  3. ^ Tenney Frank, "On Suetonius' Life of Terence." The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (1933), pp. 269-273.
  4. ^ H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Latin Literature, 1954.
  5. ^ Michael von Albrecht, Geschichte der römischen Literatur, Volume 1, Bern, 1992.
  6. ^ "...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.
  7. ^ Smith, William (editor); Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, "Lucanus, Terentius", Boston, 1870.
  8. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume XXVI. Cambridge: University Press, 1911. pp. 639-41.
  9. ^ See, e.g., in Luther's Works: American Edition, vol. 40:317; 47:228.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ John Adams by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2001. Pg 259. ISBN 978-0-684-81363-9
  12. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911. pp. 639-41.

External links[edit]

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