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A Year with the Romans: Ten Tips on Terence

By (March 1, 2009) No Comment

From kingdom to republic to empire, the ancient Romans have transfixed the imagination of the ages, inspiring bestselling novels, plays, poems, movies, and TV productions (not to mention several nations and more than a few dictatorships). Throughout 2009, Steve Donoghue will trace their pomp and circumstance in “A Year with the Romans.”

10. We know almost nothing about him.

He’s a mystery to us, this Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer, and this despite the fact that unlike millions of people who lived during the extended lifespan of ancient Rome, he was the subject of a biography by none other than the celebrated Suetonius, biographer to the Caesars. Suetonius included Terence in his lives of famous artists, and large chunks of that life survive in summaries of the later scholar Donatus (who adds comments of his own). You’d think Terence rating a life by Suetonius would make him a well-known figure, but this would be reckoning without how badly Suetonius stinks as a biographer. He’s one of those gasping, credulous crazy-quilters of quasi-gossip and hemi-demi-semi–truths who call themselves biographers but actually manage, through their writing, to decrease the sum total of what we know about their subject (in recent decades, we could call this “The Kitty Kelly Effect”). We’re told a lot of nonsense about Terence.

According to Suetonius, he was born possibly in 185 B.C. in Carthage of Libyan stock and brought to Rome as the slave of senator Terentius Lucanus, who, charmed by the young man’s wit and physical beauty, gave him both a first-rate education and his freedom. According to Suetonius (who makes a little show of listing his sources, none of which survive in sufficient length on the subject to contradict him), smart, beautiful Terence quickly won his way into the artistic circle surrounding the very pick of Rome’s nobility at the time – young men like Lucius Furius Philus, Gaius Lucilius the satirist, the gorgeous Gaius Laelius, the philosopher Panaetius, the transplanted Greek historian Polybius, and most famous of all, Scipio Africanus the Younger, the biological son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, who was adopted by the legendary Lucius Cornelius Scipio.  

Suetonius relays the doubts of his sources as to some of this, and later critics have followed his example – with sometimes awkward results. For instance, potted and re-potted biographies of Terence always primly repeat the ancient skepticism over the whole slavery story … because in that decade of the late second century B.C., – indeed, during the entire period in which Terence lived – Rome was neither at war with Carthage nor enjoying regular economic relations with her – so how could Senator Lucanus have brought Terence or anybody else to Rome as a slave?

I might point out that I myself enjoy neither wartime footing nor regular economic relations with the country of China, and yet with sufficient money in my pocket and the leisure of an afternoon in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I could almost certainly purchase a fine-looking male slave tomorrow. I’m at a loss why so many critics – ancient and modern – think randy old Terentius Lucanus would have had a hard time of it; you’d think these critics never bought a souvenir in their lives.

No, that part’s not a problem – but there are two problems associated with Suetonius’ slave story: first, if the story is true, its very incompleteness leaves us in baffled irritation – it renders every single thing we know about Terence suspect (even his name, Publius Terentius Afer, which in the parlance of manumitted slaves is merely shorthand for “I’m the freed public slave Terentius bought in Africa” … in other words, for two thousand years we’ve been calling this guy by his sales receipt; we have no idea whatsoever what his actual name was) suspect. And second, there’s almost no likelihood that any of it is true. It’s too good a story to be true – young, pretty slave-boy turns out to be a massive literary genius and is prized, educated, and freed on that account, by his enlightened master? That a native Libyan (or as has been theorized, a Berber, for the love of Mike) could be carted to Rome like a piece of furniture and in virtually no time (even the widest estimates of Terence’s life have him dying in his early 30s) achieve a mastery of the Roman tongue that prompts one critic to say he “divides with Cicero and Caesar the palm of pure Latinity”?

Or take the story of our pretty young playwright’s big break – he submits his first play, The Girl from Andros, to the City’s censors, and they instruct him to go and show it to Caecilius, the greatest stage-writer of the day. Poor young Terence is shabbily dressed, so at first he’s made to recite his play (he usually wrote in a basic six-foot iambic that’s very easy on the ears) while sitting on a stool off to one side. But almost instantly old Caecilius, moved by the beauty of what he’s hearing (and perhaps who he’s hearing it from), invites the playwright to finish the reading on a couch of honor – and a career is launched. Not only are there nagging practical problems with such a story (the main one being that Caecilius died two full years before The Girl from Andros was first produced), but there are problems with impracticality too: it sounds like theater, and as a trope, the whole genius-recognized-by-authority scenario has a pedigree that was old when Suetonius was in swaddling clothes.

9. He himself tells us some interesting things about himself.

Fortunately, there’s more than Suetonius to consult. We also have the playwright himself, who wrote short prologues to each of his six plays – speeches bawled out to the spectators by the leader and producer of Terence’s acting troupe, but written in the voice of the writer himself. This was a common, indeed universal practice in ancient drama (it being a truism then as now that actors themselves are not, in fact, sentient creatures and so could not be left to their own devices in addressing an audience), but hardly any such prologues other than those of Terence survive.

And his are almost fascinating enough to stand as a seventh drama. From them, we learn that the young playwright was the persistent object of professional slurs and slander offered by an older rival writer (Donatus supplies the name Luscius Lanuvinius), one who never passes up an opportunity to belittle Terence, and whose belittlements survive because Terence makes free mention of them while attempting to rebut them – and to threaten dark vengeance if the attacks don’t stop.

These passages make fascinating reading quite apart from the plays they introduce, and they are our best evidence that Terence was not only famous in his day (he won instant fame with The Eunuch – and instant wealth as well, it having been awarded the highest purchase price on record at the time) but controversial.

(The prologues also give us a brief, indirect glance at what theater-going was like in those early days of Rome – the audience for Terence’s sophisticated fare routinely had to be enticed away from rope-walkers and gladiator shows).

8. But even those things may be lies.

If the original doubt that someone with the life of Publius Terentius Afer could write such polished, witty plays is maintained, then these prologues take on a deadly extra dimension of irony. Take the preface to the Brothers – Terence has his actor-mouthpiece recite this little bit of justification:

One other thing! Certain people – not our author’s biggest fans – have been claiming he’s had the “help” of some pretty well-known individuals in the writing of these plays. “Help” as in holding the pen and writing the lines! This has been put forward as a serious accusation, but our author begs to differ! He considers it a compliment of the highest order to be linked by friendship – even in such a way – with men of distinction and esteem. Who among us hasn’t had their help with something or other, be it business or pleasure?

That sounds coy but perhaps not unconvincing – no doubt the audience would have known that Scipio the Younger, Laelius, and the rest were the allusion – the playwright-from-nowhere dropping heavy hints about how well-connected he is. But if you read it a different way, if you import even one syllable of nudge-and-wink irony into those words (which can, after all, easily support such a reading), then Terence the author vanishes into fiction as quickly as any in-joke once light is thrown on the gag. It’s exactly the same kind of irony devotees of Bacon and the Earl of Oxford manage to find everywhere in the plays of the Man from Stratford, and it’s just as pernicious. It makes talking about this freed slave named Terence an act of sheer faith.

7. Famous writers have always liked him.

  Phantom or no, writers have always liked Terence, and it’s easiest to see exactly why when you read him in Latin – there’s a storehouse of clarity and pure pithy expression guaranteed to appeal to any hungry wordsmith (and the exquisitely-orchestrated nature of some of his climactic scenes has always made him a prime target for other dramatists to steal fr- er, that is, to utilize). Cicero and Horace echo him like a bell-chamber, line after line showing up in their writing (as often as not unattributed, but the echo itself is a mighty persuasive compliment, as any writer will tell you); Quintilian and Julius Caesar were more qualified in their praise (the latter referred to him as a “pint-sized Menander”) but still deeply appreciative. He was popular in the Middle Ages because his plays are so mild (he himself called them “quiet”) – the perfect pagan to bring home to your parents. The Renaissance re-discovered him with a vengeance, Shakespeare makes free use of him, and since his plays so neatly pre-figure the now-standard comedy of manners, it’s no surprise to find him attracting even so famous a disciple as Moliere.

6. Except for the ones who didn’t.

St. Augustine was irritated by how easy Terence – reading or acting him – can distract people from loftier studies. St. Jerome felt the same way. No great authorities on comedy, either one of them.

5. There isn’t a lot to like or dislike.

A mere six plays – and that’s not the usual sad story of the time’s indifferent ravages: six plays is all he wrote, over the short course of a career that could only be called meteoric. Suetonius relates the tale repeated most often in his own day: that young Terence, perhaps stung by accusations of plagiarism, took ship for Greece to mine the motherload of Menander comedies in their own homeland. This tale goes on to explain the playwright’s early death (some say at age 25, others at age 35) – when the ship carrying all his new adaptations back to Rome sunk, he pined away and died before he himself could return to the City. One 20th century novelist has him taking a slightly more active role in his own demise by leaping overboard in an attempt to save his manuscripts and sinking with them, and considering how much doubt there is about every aspect of Terence’s life, it’s as good as story as any.

A page from a manuscript of Terence, written about 825 AD (now in the Vatican)

4. But what there is, is exquisite.

Whoever he was (and whichever Terence! There was also a Terentius Libo of Fregellae – might he have been our author all along?) and however he died, the plays themselves are sweet, note-perfect afternoon entertainments. Terence varied from New Comedy only by improving it – his timing, the snap of his dialogue, and even the shading of his stock characters, all is done with a sensitivity not found in either his great preceptor Menander nor his Roman predecessor Plautus. Even Terence’s likely first play, The Girl from Andros, shows all these traits already in evidence. The plot revolves around the fact that Pamphilus, the smitten son of respectable Athenian citizen Simo, has fallen in love with a foreign floozy named Glycerium, even though he’s betrothed to the daughter of Simo’s friend Chremes. Many, many complications ensue (most of them orchestrated by Pamphilus’ resourceful and all-knowing slave Davus), culminating in the final scene in which Pamphilus produces an old man named Crito who claims Glycerium is in fact an Athenian citizen – and not just any citizen! It turns out that years ago an Athenian vessel was lost off the coast of Andros, and a man and his little girl were washed ashore. Crito knows all about it, and although both Pamphilus and Chremes are eager for Simo to hear it, Simo has seen deus ex machina tricks like this too many times in stage-plays to fall for one in real life:

Simo [once Crito has begun his story]: Here we go! Chapter One!

Chremes (to Simo): Will you be quiet?

Crito: Is he always this annoying?

Chremes (to Crito): No, no – please, continue.

Crito: Well, as I was saying, the man who rescued that Athenian gentleman was a relative of mine, and it was from that man, before he died, that I heard he was an Athenian.

Chremes (wanting to help): What was his name?

Crito: Eh? What’s that? His name? You mean right this instant?

Pamphilus (prompting Crito in a stage whisper): Phania!

Chremes: What?!

Crito (indignantly): Plenty of other people in Andros heard the same story, Chremes!

Chremes: I – I can’t even begin to hope this means what I think it means! Quick, quick – did he say anything about this girl with him then? Did he say she was his … daughter?

Crito: Nope.

Chremes: He-what? Did he – well then whose daughter was she?

Crito: His brother’s.

Chremes (exultant): My little girl!

Crito: What?

Simo: What?

Pamphilus: Hear that, Pamphilus my boy!

Simo (dripping sarcasm): Why in the world would you say that?

Chremes: Why, because Phania was my brother.

Simo: Ulp – that’s right. I remember him now.

Chremes: He was supposed to follow me to Asia after the war, but he was afraid to leave the little girl here back then. This is the first news I’ve heard of him in all this time.

Pamphilus (exultant): Oh, my lucky day! Hoo!

Simo (to Chremes): Well, of course I’m delighted – in more ways than one – that this girl we’ve been, eh, discussing, has turned out to be your daughter.

Pamphilus (so happy he’s unconsciously being smug): We know you are, father, we know you are.

Chremes: There’s just one tiny point that still bothers me …

Pamphilus (aside): Oh there would be, woudn’t there, you insufferable old fusspot … spot the flaw in the diamond, that’s you all over …

Crito: Eh? What’s that?

Chremes: The girl’s name isn’t right.

Crito (beginning to bluster): Oh, well! You know how these things are! Of course she was called something else when she was little …

Chremes (still wanting to believe): I don’t suppose you can recall what that was?

Crito: Er, well, that is … ah …

Pamphilus (at first to the audience): Oh for … am I going to let one old fart’s spotty memory stand between me and (pregnant pause) my happy ending? Chremes, the name you’re looking for is Pasibula!

Chremes: Pasibula! Yes indeed!

Crito: Pasibula! My thoughts exactly!

Pamphilus (to audience): She’s only told me that about a thousand times …

Simple enough stuff, but a troupe of comic actors in front of a festive but educated audience could make such quick-flowing material sing – and it would sing in a very different tune from the pratfalls and phallic innuendo that ruled so much of the rest of the Roman stage.

3. It’s a familiar kind of exquisite.

Terence wrote six sparkling examples of so-called New Comedy, full of scheming slaves and clueless but good-hearted parents, bumbling young love-struck young people and grasping mooches – witty, tightly-plotted little dramas (an hour’s solid stage time is enough to get virtually any Terence play done without hurrying) that always have pleasant revelations and happy endings. The ‘New’ was to differentiate it, naturally enough, from the “Old Comedy” most famously epitomized in Aristophanes – a comedy featuring a ritualized presentation, lots of music, and extreme, scathing topicality in its subject matter. Commentators in the early 20th century (perhaps not the best historical moment for comedy) were fond of pointing out that while Terence’s style of New Comedy gradually transformed into Moliere-style comedy of manners, true Old Comedy disappeared from the world. But times change, and such commentators need not be condemned simply because they couldn’t envision the scabrous genius of Saturday Night Live, which is as pure an example of Old Comedy as even Aristophanes could have devised. And although the stage plays of writers like Alan Bennett and Elaine May show us that something very like New Comedy can still draw an audience, Terence’s true creative offspring sprang up somewhere else entirely: he is the ultimate sitcom writer. Everything from The Phil Silvers Show (virtually all of Terence’s plays star a scheming underling who works fiendishly behind, under, and around the scenes to make things work out for his superiors while also lining his own pocket – Sgt. Bilko right down to the pun in the name) to Frasier (change a single line – especially after the action’s got going a bit – and you lessen the whole) owes its existence to a tradition Terence first brought to life.

2. We could do with more of it.

The 21st century has dawned in disaster and worsened into perpetual grinding crisis, and the plastic arts have been quick to match the tone with febrile crudities passing themselves off as thoughtful comedy. Even on TV, comedies over the last decade have coarsened into caricatures that make such Terentian gems as The Odd Couple and The Jack Benny Show seem like relics from prehistory. But rough times call for sweet comedies, as audiences in Terence’s own day knew well, hanging as they were between the convulsions of the first two Punic Wars just behind them and the Civil Wars looming in the near future. Like those audiences, we have never needed Terence more.

1. You should read him.

It won’t even take you a whole afternoon to read those six short plays by … whoever he was. The Betty Radice translations for Penguin Classics are serviceable in every way except actually being funny, the Palmer Bovie edition is a bit livelier but smells strongly of academia (where Terence wouldn’t have been caught dead). The best modern edition is that of the mighty Frank O. Copley if you can find it, but bear always in mind that what looks simple on the printed page could cause the audience to roar with laughter when human timing gave it voice. Call two or three friends, uncork a bottle of wine, assign roles, and let the playwright show you how they did things back when the world was young. If you do, you’ll have something in common with countless Roman audiences: you’ll owe a wonderful afternoon to Terence.

Steve Donoghue has kept an extensive and unshared diary for most of his life, and it now totals well over 100,000 pages of small Latin script. His slightly less extensive shared diary is just a few years old, is handily digitized, and is found at http://www.stevereads.blogspot.com.

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