Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The elegant, intricate, sour comedies of Terence

The great Roman playwright Terence wrote six plays between 166 and 160 BCE, twenty years after the death of Plautus.  The story is that he wrote the first one at age nineteen, while enslaved, thus winning his freedom and entry into a world of aristocratic patrons.  Plautus was vulgar and popular, stuffing his plays with gags, while Terence was sophisticated and elegant, although both writers openly based their plays on those of Menander and other writers of Greek New Comedy.  Together, the vulgar and the elegant, they supplied the models for Renaissance comedy.

The other story about Terence is that, after six whole plays, he ran out of Menander and sailed off to Greece to search the archives.  He never returned.  There is an opportunity here for a picaresque novel in which Terence keeps moving east in search of the world’s funniest comedy.  I suppose the real story is that he died very young.

Terence ran out of Menander plays so quickly because 1) he was writing toward the end of the Roman comedy tradition which was based on adaptations of Greek comedy and 2) he would combine two Menander plays into one Terence play, apparently an innovation.  He invented the double plot.  Even when not using a double plot, as in the Mother-in-Law, he preferred an intricate, complex plot where much of the comic effect is simply watching it tangle and untangle.  I find them engaging but rarely funny.

An example, The Brothers, perhaps Terence’s last play, and a distant source for Molière’s The School for Husbdands.  One brother, Aeschinus, is in love with and has impregnated a poor woman.  This is hidden from both his father and adoptive father.  The other brother is in love with a lute-player, a slave.  Aeschinus abducts her for his brother, so that everyone thinks he is in love with the lute-player.  Two intertwined plots.  After many steps and much running around, Aeschinus marries the mother of his new baby and his brother gets the lute-player., and most importantly the fathers are all reconciled to the matches.

One might get a hint here that The Brothers treats women less as people than as commodities.  The relevant Menander plays have been lost, so there is no way to really know, but it seems to me that the more powerless place of women is genuinely Roman, an adaptation of the plays to Roman culture. 

Key female characters, like the title character of The Girl from Andros, do not even appear on stage.  Sexual assault is a regular means of bringing men and women together.  The happy endings generally leave a sour aftertaste.  Everything works out for the young men, and I suppose the women end up better than several horrible alternatives.

“The play depends on the natural purity of its spoken words” Terence writes in the prologue to The Self-Tormentor, and that is how antiquity took him, preserving multiple manuscripts of Terence in large part because of his pure, elegant Latin, and effect lost on me.  I do not find him very quotable, nor do I think any of his plays are as good as Plautus’s Amphitryon.

Now I will switch to Seneca, the great Roman tragedian, and his insane, bloody adaptations of Euripides.  The Elizabethan revenge tragedy tradition comes directly from Seneca, and he is worth reading just as a source.  If you want to try one, I suggest Medea or Thyestes.  It is well worth looking at the Elizabethan translations of Seneca, collected in Seneca His Ten Tragedies (1581), a book read by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and everyone else.  But modern translations are good, too.  I plan to read some of each.


  1. Don't really have anything important to say, though I am glad you prompted me to reread the plays. I did laugh out loud, most at the Girl from Andros (also the least sour) but at times at the others as well.

    Roman women are generally considered as having higher status than Greek, though it varies significantly depending where in Greece & when. Roman women could own property in their own right & initiate divorce at times. Athenian women had it the worst. Asia Minor was better, and Sparta is just weird.

    What we need is the collected prologues of Luscius Lanuvinus.

  2. Yes, it would be interesting to learn more about the controversies over the plays. They sound like they were intense.

    It is curious how the women of Athens are objectively worse off but are treated more seriously, more as people, in the Greek plays.