Terence - Ancient Roman Plays
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Terence

parchment with wriitng and a drawing of actors
A page from a manuscript of Terence, written about
825 AD (now in the Vatican)

October 2016 - Terence (his whole name was Publius Terentius Afer) was born about 185 BC, soon after the end of the Second Punic War. Because he has "Afer" (which means Africa) as part of his name, people think he may have come from North Africa. He may have been black. Maybe he was sold into slavery as part of the Roman occupation of North Africa after the Punic Wars.

Certainly by the time Terence was a young man, about 165 BC, he was the slave of a Roman senator. According to one story, the senator saw how smart Terence was, and not only freed him, but paid for Terence to get a good education. Terence became friends with Scipio Aemilianus, a powerful young politician in Rome, who helped Terence to get his plays produced.

Terence wrote his first play, Andria, when he was only 19 years old, and it was performed at Rome about 170 BC. He wrote other plays too - we don't know how many. All of Terence's plays were, like those of the earlier Roman playwright Plautus, translated versions of Greek comedies. Most of Terence's plays were translations of plays by Menander, but one at least (Phormio) was a translation of a play by another Greek playwright, Apollodorus. But while Plautus had moved the setting of his plays to Rome, Terence kept the original Greek setting. Most people think Terence's Latin is more elegant and beautiful than the Latin of Plautus.

Terence died young, when he was only about thirty years old, in 159 BC. He was travelling to Greece when his ship was lost at sea. People kept on reading and performing his plays throughout the period of the Roman Empire. Jerome's teacher, Aelius Donatus, wrote a book about Terence's plays about 300 AD.

Many people still read Terence's plays in the Middle Ages, too- although only six plays of his survive, there are lots of copies of them. The abbess Hroswitha of Gandersheim, from Germany, who wrote plays in the Middle Ages, said that she wrote them because the nuns were spending too much time reading Terence's plays.

When people in Europe learned from the Egyptians and Central Asians how to make paper and print books in the late Middle Ages, Terence's plays were among the first books they printed, in Germany in 1470 AD. People chose Terence's play Andria to perform in Florence soon after that.

Bibliography and further reading about Terence:

Plautus
Menander
Aristophanes
Roman literature
Ancient Theaters
Ancient Rome
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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