Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Terence

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2674787Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition — TerenceWilliam Young Sellar


TERENCE. P. Terentius Afer (185?–159 B.C.) holds a unique position among Roman writers. No writer in any literature has gained so great a reputation who has contented himself with so limited a function. He lays no claim to the position of an original artist painting from life or commenting on the results of his own observation. His art has no relation to his own time or to the country in which he lived. The chief source of interest in the fragmentary remains of Nævius, Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius, and Lucilius is their relation to the national and moral spirit of the age in which they were written. Plautus, though, like Terence, he takes the first sketch of his plots, scenes, and characters from the Attic stage, is yet a true representative of his time, a genuine Italian, writing before the genius of Italy had learned the restraints of Greek art. The whole aim of Terence was to present a faithful copy of the life, manners, modes of thought and expression which had been drawn from reality a century before his time by the writers of the New Comedy of Athens. The nearest parallel to his literary position may be found in the aim which Virgil puts before himself in his Bucolics. He does not seek in that poem to draw Italian peasants from the life, but to bring back the shepherds of Theocritus on Italian scenes. Yet the result obtained by Virgil is different. The charm of his pastorals is the Italian sentiment which pervades them. His shepherds are not the shepherds of Theocritus, nor are they in any sense true to life. The extraordinary result obtained by Terence is that, while he has left no trace in any of his comedies of one sketching from the life by which he was surrounded, there is perhaps no more truthful, natural, and delicate delineator of human nature, in its ordinary and more level moods, within the whole range of classical literature. His permanent position in literature is due, no doubt, to the art and genius of Menander, whose creations he has perpetuated, as a fine engraver may perpetuate the spirit of a great painter whose works have perished. But no mere copyist or verbal translator could have attained that result. Though without claims to creative originality, Terence must have had not only critical genius, to enable him fully to appreciate and identify himself with his originals, but artistic genius of a high and pure type. The importance of his position in Roman literature consists in this, that he was the first writer who set before himself a high ideal of artistic perfection, and was the first to realize that perfection in style, form, and consistency of conception and execution. Living in the interval between Ennius and Lucilius, whose original force and genius survive only in rude and inartistic fragments, he produced six plays, which have not only reached our time in the form in which they were given to the world, but have been read in the most critical and exacting literary epochs, and still may be read without any feeling of the need of making allowance for the rudeness of a new and undeveloped art.

While his great gift to Roman literature is that he first made it artistic, that he imparted to "rude Latium" the sense of elegance, consistency, and moderation, his gift to the world is that through him it possesses a living image of the Greek society in the 3d century B.C., presented in the purest Latin idiom. Yet Terence had no affinity by birth either with the Greek race or with the people of Latium. He was more distinctly a foreigner than any of the great classical writers of Rome. He lived at the meeting-point of three distinct civilizations, the mature, or rather decaying, civilization of Greece, of which Athens was still the centre; that of Carthage, which was so soon to pass away and leave scarcely any vestige of itself; and the nascent civilization of Italy, in which all other modes were soon to be absorbed. Terence was by birth a Phœnician, and was thus perhaps a fitter medium of connexion between the genius of Greece and that of Italy than if he had been a pure Greek or a pure Italian; just as in modern times the Jewish type of genius is sometimes found more detached from national peculiarities, and thus more capable of reproducing a cosmopolitan type of character than the genius of men belonging to the other races of Europe.

Our knowledge of the life of Terence is derived chiefly from a fragment of the lost work of Suetonius, De Viris Illustribus, preserved in the commentary of Donatus. Confirmation of some of the statements contained in the Life is obtained from later writers and speakers, and also from the prologues to the different plays, which at the same time throw light on the literary and personal relations of the poet. These prologues were among the original sources of Suetonius; but he quotes or refers to the works of various grammarians and antiquarians—Porcius Licinus, Volcatius Sedigitus, Santra, Nepos, Fenestella, Q. Cosconius—as his authorities. The first two lived within a generation or two of the death of Terence, and the first of them shows a distinct animus against him and his patrons. But, notwithstanding the abundance of authorities, there is uncertainty as to both the date of his birth and the place and manner of his death. The doubt as to the former arises from the discrepancy of the MSS. His last play, the Adelphi, was exhibited in 160 B.C. Shortly after its production he went to Greece, being then, according to the best MSS., in his twenty-fifth ("nondurn quintum atque vicesimum egressus[1] annum"), according to inferior MSS., in his thirty-fifth year. This uncertainty is increased by a discrepancy between the authorities quoted by Suetonius. Cornelius Nepos is quoted for the statement that he was about the same age as Scipio (born 185 B.C.) and Lælius, while Fenestella, an antiquarian of the later Augustan period, represented him as older. As the authority of the MSS. coincides with that of the older record, the year 185 B.C. may be taken as the most probable date of his birth. In the case of an author drawing originally from life, it might seem improbable that he should have written six comedies, so true in their apprehension and delineation of various phases of human nature, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five. But the case of an imitative artist, reproducing impressions derived from literature, is different; and the circumstances of Terence's origin and early life may well have developed in him a precocity of talent. His acknowledged intimacy with Scipio and Lælius and the general belief that they assisted him in the composition of his plays are more in accordance with the statement that he was about their own age than that he was ten years older. Terence, accordingly, more even than Catullus, Tibullus, or Lucan, is to be ranked among those poets who are the "inheritors of unfulfilled renown." He is said to have been born at Carthage, brought to Rome as a slave, and carefully educated in the house of M. Terentius Lucanus, by whom he was soon emancipated. A difficulty was felt in ancient times as to how he originally became a slave, as there was no war between Rome and Carthage between the Second and Third Punic Wars, and no commercial relations between Africa and Italy till after the destruction of Carthage. But there was no doubt as to his Phœnician origin. He was admitted into the intimacy of young men of the best families, such as Scipio, Lælius, and Furius Philus, and he enjoyed the favour of older men of literary distinction and official position, such as C. Sulpicius Gallus, Q. Fabius Labeo, and M. Popillius. He is said to have owed the favour of the great as much to his personal gifts and graces as to his literary distinction; and in one of his prologues he declares it to be his ambition, while not offending the many, to please the "boni."

Terence's earliest play was the Andria, exhibited in 166 B.C., when the poet could have been only about the age of nineteen. A pretty, but probably apocryphal, story is told of his having read the play, before its exhibition, to Cæcilius (who, after the death of Plautus, ranked as the foremost comic poet), and of the generous admiration of it manifested by Cæcilius. A similar instance of the recognition of rising genius by a poet whose own day was past is found in the account given of the visit of Accius, on his journey to Asia, to the veteran Pacuvius. The next play exhibited by Terence was the Hecyra, first produced in 165, but withdrawn in consequence of the bad reception which it met with, and afterwards reproduced in 160. The Heauton-timoroumenos appeared in 163, the Eunuchus and Phormio in 161, and the Adelphi in 160 at the funeral games of L. Æmilius Paulus.

After bringing out these plays Terence sailed for Greece, either to escape from the suspicion of publishing the works of others as his own, or from the desire to obtain a more intimate knowledge of that Greek life which had hitherto been known to him only in literature, and which it was his professed aim to reproduce in his comedies. The latter is the more probable motive, and we recognize in this the first instance of that impulse to visit the scenes familiar to them through literature which afterwards acted on many of the great writers of Rome. From this voyage to Greece Terence never returned. According to one account he was lost at sea, according to another he died at Stymphalus in Arcadia, and according to a third at Leucadia, from grief at the loss by shipwreck of his baggage, containing a number of new plays which he had translated from Menander. The old grammarian quoted by Suetonius states that he was ruined in fortune through his intimacy with his noble friends. Another account speaks of him as having left behind him property consisting of gardens, to the extent of twenty acres, close to the Appian Way. It is further stated that his daughter was so well provided for that she married a Roman knight.

The tone of the prologues to Terence's plays is for the most part apologetic, and indicates a great sensitiveness to criticism. He constantly speaks of the malevolence and detraction of an older poet, whose name is said to have been Luscius Lavinius or Lanuvinus. The chief charge which his detractor brings against him is that of contaminatio, the combining in one play of scenes out of different Greek plays. Terence justifies his practice by that of the older poets, Nævius, Plautus, Ennius, whose careless freedom he follows in preference to the "obscura diligentia" of his detractor. He recriminates upon his adversary as one who, by his literal adherence to his original, had turned good Greek plays into bad Latin ones. He justifies himself from the charge of plagiarizing from Plautus and Nævius. In another prologue he contrasts his own treatment of his subjects with the sensational extravagance of others. He 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 favourites of the Roman people.

We learn from these prologues that the best Roman literature was ceasing to be popular, and had come to rely on the patronage of the great. A consequence of this change of circumstances was that comedy was no longer national in character and sentiment, but had become imitative and artistic. The life which Terence represents is that of a well-to-do-citizen class whose interests are commonplace, but whose modes of thought and speech are refined, humane, and intelligent. His characters are finely delineated and discriminated rather than boldly conceived, as they are in Plautus. Delicate irony and pointed epigram take the place of broad humour. Love, in the form of pathetic sentiment rather than of irregular passion, is the chief motive of his pieces. His great characteristics are humanity and urbanity, and to this may be attributed the attraction which he had for the two chief representatives of these qualities in Roman literature,—Cicero and Horace. It was through the comedies of Terence that the finer influences of the Epicurean philosophy—the friendliness, the tolerance, the consideration for the feelings of others, inferiors as well as equals, inculcated by that philosophy—entered into Roman life and literature. The dissolving influence of that school on the severer personal morality of the older Roman republic also entered into Roman life through the same medium. But it was a great gain to the strong but rude Roman character to learn, as it could from every line of Terence, lessons not only of courtesy and social amenity but of genuine sympathy and consideration.

Terence's pre-eminence in art was recognized by the critics of the Augustan age:

"Vincere Cæcilius gravitate, Terentius arte."

The art of his comedies consists in the clearness and simplicity with which the situation is presented and developed, and in the consistency and moderation with which his various characters play their part. But his great attraction to both ancient and modern writers has been the purity and charm of his style, whether employed in narrative or dialogue. This charm he derived from his familiarity with the purest Latin idiom, as it was habitually used in the intimate intercourse of the best Roman families, and also with the purest Attic idiom, as it had been written and spoken a century before his own time. The fine Attic flavour is more perceptible iu his Latin than in the Greek of his contemporaries. He makes no claim to the creative exuberance of Plautus, but he is entirely free from his extravagance and mannerisms. The superiority of his style over that of Lucilius, who wrote his satires a generation later, is almost immeasurable. The best judges and the greatest masters of style in the best period of Roman literature were his chief admirers in ancient times. Cicero frequently reproduces his expressions, applies passages in his plays to his own circumstances, and refers to his personages as typical representations of character.[2] Julius Cæsar characterizes him as "puri sermonis amator." Horace, so depreciatory in general of the older literature, shows his appreciation of Terence by the frequent reproduction in his Satires and in his Odes of his language and his philosophy of life. Quintilian applies to his writings the epithet "elegantissima," and in that connexion refers to the belief that they were the work of Scipio Africanus. His works were studied and learned by heart by the great Latin writers of the Renaissance, such as Erasmus and Melanchthon; and Casaubon, in his anxiety that his son should write a pure Latin style, inculcates on him the constant study of Terence. Montaigne applies to him the phrase of Horace:

"Liquidus puroque simillimus amni."

He speaks of "his fine expression, elegancy, and quaintness," and adds, " he does so possess the soul with his graces that we forget those of his fable."[3] It is among the French, the great masters of the prose of refined conversation, that his merits have been most appreciated in modern times. Sainte-Beuve, in his Nouveaux Lundis, devotes to him two papers of delicate and admiring criticism. He quotes Fenélon and Addison, "deux esprits polis et doux, de la meme famille litteraire," as expressing their admiration for the inimitable beauty and naturalness of one of his scenes. Fenélon is said to have preferred him even to Molière. Sainte-Beuve calls Terence the bond of union between Roman urbanity and the Atticism of the Greeks, and adds that it was in the 17th century, when French literature was most truly Attic, that he was most appreciated. M. Joubert is quoted[4] as applying to him the words "Le miel attique est sur ses levies; on croirait aisement qu il naquit sur le mont Hymette."

The most famous edition of Terence is that of Bentley, published in 1726. More recent editions are those of Parry, in the Bibliotheca Classica, and of W. Wagner. The text has been edited by A. Flickeisen in the Teubner series of classics. A number of editions of the separate plays have been published recently both in England and in Germany.(W. Y. S.) (W. Y. S.)

  1. Ritschl reads ingressus, which would make him a year younger.
  2. See Ep. ad Fam., i. 9, 19, and Phil., ii. 15.
  3. Essays of Montaigne (trans, by Ch. Cotton), chap. lxvii.
  4. By E. Negrette, in his Histoire de la Littérature Latine.