Whatever a man sets his mind upon, Charinus, the firmness of his intentions will shape other people's opinion of him.
A Brief Sketch of What We Know About Terence:
There is much lore when it comes to fabricating the life of Terence. His life is shrouded in mystery. Even the little we do know is all somewhat spurious and many have wondered if he even really existed. Suetonius begins his short biographical sketch saying that Publius Terentius Afer was born in Carthage and was the slave of the Roman senator Terentius Lucanus. (Lucanus has no other existence outside of this obscure reference so that is not super helpful.) Allegedly Lucanus was so blown away by the natural charm and good looks of his slave that he not only gave him a liberal education but also his freedom.
This seems pretty straightforward, but then Suetonius goes on to say:
“Some people believe he was a prisoner of war, but Fenstella shows this was quite impossible, since the dates of his birth and death both fall between the end of the Second Punic War and the beginning of the Third. Again, had he been captured by the Numidians or Gaetulians, he could not have come into the possession of a Roman master, as there was no trade between Italy and Africa until after the destruction of Carthage. He lived on intimate terms with many of the nobility, in particular with Scipio Africanus (minor) and Gais Laelius, who it is thought, were even attracted by his personal beauty; but Fenstella disproves this too, arguing that Terence was older than either of them.”
I would think that the biggest impediment to this bromance wouldn’t have been disparate ages but that fact that Scipio’s family had produced some of the most brilliant men of war that had made it their personal project to destroy Carthage. Scipio Africanus Major (Scipio’s adopted grandfather/uncle) was the legendary commander who had won the decisive battle of the Second Punic War against Hannibal. In 146 BC, almost 20 years after the death/disappearance of Terence, Scipio’s father, Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus would lead the Romans to victory in the last battle of the Third Macedonian War.
Recap: a Carthaginian slave becomes besties with Scipio after earning his freedom by his good looks and legendary brilliance.
What we do know is that Scipio was a “cultivated patron and admirer of liberal studies and of every form of learning.”1 According to Gellius, Scipio had the purest diction of any man of his time. 2 We know that Scipio was a writer and philhellene and had a literary band called the Scipionic Circle that included Lucius Furius Philus, and Gaius Lucilius (the muse/man crush/nemesis of Horace)
Terence is credited with writing 6 plays, one of which, The Eunuch was so successful that according to Suetonius it was performed twice in one day and won 8,000 sesterces, which was the highest fee ever won by a comedy. Four of Terence's plays are rough translations of a combination of plays by the Greek playwright Menander, two are based on the works of Apollodorus of Carystus. But rather than word for word translation into Latin, Terence is accused of contaminating the translations by mixing and blending pieces from a sampling of different works. He was also accused of plagiarizing his Latin contemporaries, which in the prologue to The Eunuch he emphatically denies.
Terence offers us a glimpse of who he was in each prologue of his six plays. We learn in the prologue of his first play The Girl from Andros that he was already being attacked and slandered by an “old playwright” and defends himself by saying that while yes he has used elements from both Menander’s The Girl from Andros and The Girl from Perinthos, he has taken the best and most suitable pieces and transformed them into a better and more cohesive whole.
Recap: So a Carthaginian learns Latin and then proceeds to translate Greek into “the most lucid and elegantly simple Latin which had yet been written.” 3
After his sixth play was written, and at the height of a burgeoning career, Terence allegedly goes in search of more Greek plays to translate/plagiarize and is never seen or heard from again.
It’s hard not to join the conspiracy theorist on this one and just assume Scipio and his band of merry men were writing plays and submitting them under the nom de plume of Terence. At the end of the day, who Terence was is a debate of little value; what’s a more interesting and profitable discussion is how Terence has influenced European drama.
The Girls from Andros:
As the first line is spoken in Terence’s first play, The Girl from Andros, it would have been evident that the Romans were witnessing something new. Terence had scrapped the formal prologue, a staple up until this point, and instead offers a dialogue between Simo, a wealthy Athenian and his freedman Sosia to get the viewing audience up to speed.
Simo has discovered something very distressing about his son Pamphilus: he is in love with the neighborhood courtesan’s sister Glycerium. At first Simo thought Pamphilus was simply sewing his wild oats with the courtesan Chrysis, nothing harmless, kids will be kids. But then Chrysis unexpectedly died and at her funeral Pamphilus openly wept, clasped in the arms of Glycerium. There was something suspicious about that “clasp”…a little too intimate…and then a prickling sensation of an idea began to plant itself into the soil of Simo’s brain: his son is in love.
The day before, the next door neighbor Chremes, having noticed the previous good character of Pamphilus, had offered his daughter (with a substantial dowry) for marriage. But now, after the emotional outburst of the funeral some rumors have been spreading that Pamphilus not only loves this woman but regards this impoverished foreigner as his wife! While it was no longer illegal for patricians and plebeians to marry, (lex Canuleia had put an end to that discriminatory practice in 445 BC) marriage was still the exclusive right of the paterfamilias. So for Pamphilus to disregard his father’s authority in such a blatant manner and with a foreigner no less, was an insult to Simo in the most cutting and distressing way.
Simo comes up with a plan that will hopefully force Pamphilus to lay all his cards on the table and admit that he has fallen in love and considers himself married. So he decides to pretend that the wedding to Chreme’s daughter is happening as planned and today is the lucky day, Pamphilus will then admit to his father all his wrong doings and beg his forgiveness.
Simo calls Davos, the slave of Pamphilus and tells him he needs to prepare his son for a marriage that will take place that evening and warns that if he catches Davos up to any of his old tricks he will be beaten senseless.
Davos assures his master that’s he’s no Oedipus, he’s no good at riddles and will not act the part of the standard trope of the trickster slave.
Terence again has deviated from the expected. He has exchanged the controlling clever slave of Plautus, or the bumbling dimwitted one dimensional stock character for a multidimensional human with personhood, devoted to realism and method acting. Not only this, but in Plautine drama the action would have hinged on the slave, either cleverly saving his incompetent master or maliciously making a mess of his plans. Davos, rather than the generator of all the complexity, is merely caught up in the maelstrom of miscommunication; trying to survive as best he can alongside everyone else.
This is significant. In his Politics Aristotle describes slaves as being subhuman. At birth they are destined to either rule or be ruled and “if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul?” [Book 1: 1254 a5] By giving Davos the same voice, the same latin as his superiors instead of a more urban vernacular, Terence challenges this Aristotelian conception of personhood. Slave and master become almost arbitrary constructs with everyone trying to find their place and a way to survive.
After his brief dialogue with Simo, Davos turns to the audience with a monologue that brings everyone further up to speed:
“This girl from Andros, whether she’s wife or mistress, is having a baby and Pamphilus is the father. You ought to hear their crazy plans - they act more like lunatics than lovers. They’re determined to acknowledge the child, boy or girl, and now they’re concocting a silly story that the mother is Athenian born. There was a man once, they say, a merchant, who was shipwrecked off Andros and lost his life. His child was washed ashore and Chrysis’ father took the poor little orphan in…”
While Davos thinks the narrative lacks credibility and realism, he advises Pamphilus to calmly agree to everything right away, hoping this will force his father to admit there is no wedding and that the whole thing was a farce, or at least be so put off guard that it buys them time to come up with a better scenario.
Pamphilus goes along with the plan and when his father approaches him and says “Today, as I told you before, is the day on which I wish you to take a wife” Pamphilus sweetly responds: “Neither in this nor in anything else will you meet with an opposition from me, father.”
Pamphilus lays it on a bit thick, but momentarily his plan seems to work. His father is shocked by the quiet acquiescence of his son…and then Davos over sells the ruse by saying:
“It was an affair of the youth, sir, which he only carried on as long as he could, and what’s more, he kept it dark and took care his reputation shouldn’t suffer, as a decent man should. Now it’s time he took a wife, and it’s a wife he’s got in mind.”
Before Simo can come up with the appropriate reaction, midwives start running back and forth grabbing supplies for Glycerium who is about to give birth next-door and Simo, pathologically egocentric, assumes this is for his benefit. The women have obviously come up with a plan to deceive him and frighten off Chremes. As Glycerium screams out in the throes of labor, Simo stands in front of her house looking unimpressed.
Simo [whistling in surprise]: As quick as that? It’s absurd. She must have decided to speed up when she heard I was outside the door. There’s something wrong with your timing Davos.
Davos decides to admit this has all been a part of the plan. (Again, the action is being generated outside of his control and without his consent.) Davos agrees that the birth was just a device concocted by the women to scare off Chremes, but he’s seen right through it as usual, now there is nothing standing in the way of the marriage. Davos, as usual, oversells the ruse and instead of halting things in their place convinces Simo he’s seen through the ruse and there is nothing stopping him from marrying off his son. Simo convinced, pleads with Chremes, arguing that his son is still an upright young man that has been entrapped by an evil vixen, really they are both obligated to marry their children as a form of public service.
Chremes agrees! The wedding is back on, now almost entirely due to the poorly calculated enterprises of Davos.
Davos: And that’s the end of me. Nothing now to stop me from going straight from here to the mill - no chance of begging for mercy. I’ve messed up everything, deceived my master, pushed his son into marriage, fixed up a wedding for today - which the old man never expected nor Pamphilus wanted. Clever aren’t I? If I’d kept quiet there’d have been none of this trouble. Now here he is. I’m done for. I wish I’d something to fall on [with a gesture of stabbing himself as Pamphilus bursts out of Simo’s house].
Davos, for all his attempts to craft the least damaging plan, has instead done the opposite and his master is apoplectic. When Pamphilus asks Davos what he should do to him as punishment for destroying his hopes and dreams Davos says he should probably be crucified, but give him a second to figure one last little detail out.
Out of Menander’s 108 plays, only one of them has survived in it’s entirety. Terence says in his prologue that he is using Menander’s Andria and Perinthos as a jumping off place but we have almost nothing left of the Andria except what Donatus can tell us and only a few lines from the Perinthos.
Menander’s version is much more intense. When the slave Daos has been unable to make everything go according to plan his master, Laches, calls for burning faggots:
Laches: Now, Daos give us a demonstration
Of your knavish tricks; think up a scheme
To wiggle out of this.
Daos ends up offering no scheme and only fouling himself as the torches of fire are presumably heaped around him. This is where the fragment ends so we don’t know what happens next, but the interaction is far darker than Terence writes.
Fortunately for Davos he is only tied hands to feet for a short time as scheme after scheme seems to fail.
A further level of complexity, is that Pamphilus isn’t the only patrician expecting Davos to help out his matrimonial affairs. Every time there is a lull, Charinus, a friend of Pamphilus skulks onto the set and tries to get his foot into the door of the fake wedding. Charinus actually wants to marry Chreme’s daughter, and has been in love with her secretly this whole time. So each time the plot gets closer and closer to a marriage between the daughter and Pamphilus, Charinus rushes onto the set and provides a histrionic counterpart to Pamphilus’ measured resolve.
And here we come to the last contribution that Terence brings to Roman comedy that will influence European drama in a profound way: the double plot. The double plot structure allowed a mirroring plot line to comment or reinterpret events and characters. According to Betty Radice (1976), the double plot enabled Terence to “enlarge on his major interest, the effect of plot on character, and the same contrasted reactions of different types of character to the same situation. He could then draw carefully diversified portraits of closely connected persons.” (Shakespeare would glean many lessons from Terence and would include double plots in both Hamlet and King Lear.)
While Pamphilus is in love and has pursued Glycerium, considering himself married without approval from his father, Charinus represents the appropriate way of wooing a girl in the Roman Republic. He says nothing to the girl and hopes to persuade her father at some point that he is a suitable match. Mostly this involves him swooning a lot and being one second away from a nervous breakdown, as he watches his friend get betrothed unwillingly to the girl he secretly desires to marry.
At the end, a visitor from Andros shows up looking for Glycerium. He is the cousin of Chrysis (the courtesan) and tells everyone that Glycerium is actually not the sister of Chrysis, but a child refugee that was rescued after a shipwreck…and as luck would have it, she’s the long lost daughter of Chremes! Chremes immediately settles on her a dowry of sixty thousand drachmas, the inheritance of a firstborn daughter, and allows her to marry Pamphilus. Charinus asks Pamphilus if he will remember him also in his moment of happiness and Pamphilus pats his friend on the back and they walk into the house with an over the shoulder farewell to the audience:
“You needn’t wait for them to come out again; the other betrothal and any other business will take place in there. Now give us your applause.”
The alternative ending has Charinus racing around the stage in one last histrionic eruption. All is lost! All is over! His life, his love! Davos tells him to hush, and to wait a second and then brings Chremes over for the marriage discussion appropriate to the paterfamilias.
Chremes tells Charinus essentially that since marriage is about citizenship and ties to the most important family, he wanted his daughter to be married into Simo’s family. But now, since he has found himself another daughter, there’s no reason why this one can’t be married to a less advantageous match, so he gives his blessing and offers his daughter for a dowry of thirty-six thousand drachmas.
Everyone wins, both the schemers and the law abiders. And what matters in the end isn’t the actions you take or don’t take but the character of one’s soul. To Terence, we are all humans deserving of dignity, thrown together into the chaos of fate, all exhibiting moments of sanity and common sense mixed in with the propensity for cruelty and unkindness. Terence breathes dimension into his characters, moving away from the tropes and pantomimes to a world of depth and complexity, that values human contribution no matter how small or insignificant.
2. Delphi Complete Works of Aulus Gullies, ‘The Attic Nights’
3. Terence, The Comedies, trans. Betty Radice, Penguin Classics, 1976.
3. Terence, The Comedies, trans. Betty Radice, Penguin Classics, 1976.