The Paradoxes of Comedy

By Gabrie Blanchard

The frivolity of Terence's plays conceals a great depth of human feeling.

There are many playwrights on the CLT Author Bank; after Shakespeare, the “big three” of Athens (Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) are probably the most famous. But these playwrights’ work overwhelmingly consists in tragedies. No doubt the ancients liked to laugh as much as anybody; where are the comedians?

Enter Publius Terentius Afer, known in English as Terence. The cognomen* “Afer” is thought to indicate that he came originally from the Roman province of Africa, roughly equivalent to modern Tunisia and coastal Libya; the Afri from whom the territory took its name were a tribe of the Berber people, who gave Rome quite a number of great authors (Tertullian and St. Augustine are both thought to be of at least partly Berber descent). In any case, Terence was brought to Rome in childhood by a senator who purchased him as a slave. He educated the boy—which may bewilder the modern reader, since slaves in the American South were forbidden by law in most states even to learn to read. However, this is one of a number of pronounced differences between slavery in the classical world and in the modern: besides slavery having nothing to do with ethnicity, slaves were often tutors and child-minders. Educating them was therefore commonplace.

What was not so commonplace was how well the young Terence evidently took to his studies. The senator was so impressed by his talents that he freed him, and Terence began a career as a fairly successful comic playwright. Sadly, it proved to be a fairly short career; while there is some uncertainty about the details, the general belief is that he died in a shipwreck at just 25 years of age, during a trip to Greece to gather more material for his writing. Nevertheless, his legacy proved a hardy one, and is not far now from its twenty-one hundredth birthday.

Like any city, Rome had its clubs and cliques, some of which had a literary bent; the patronage of the statesman Mæcenas, about a century later, gave us such luminaries as Horace and Virgil. Terence belonged to the earlier circle of Scipio, an unusually long-lived and wide-ranging dynasty of friends and allies. This circle was more philosophic and political than literary: besides the Scipio in question—this being Scipio Æmilianus, the adoptive son of the famous Scipio Africanus who defeated Hannibal—it included the historian Polybius, a large number of consuls and soldiers, and Panætius of Rhodes, the last of the Stoic scholarchs. As the Greek origin of Polybius and Panætius hints at, the Scipionic circle were what were called philhellenes: lovers of Greek culture and values, particularly its learning, in contrast to anti-Hellenes like Cato the Elder. The perception of Greek culture in Rome would be a little like that of French culture in Britain in the Victorian era: to those who disliked it, it was foreign, snobbish, effete, and decadent, while those who loved it found it elevated, tonic, subtle, and beautiful.

Obsequium amicos, veritas odium parit.
Complaisance begets friends; truthfulness, hatred.

The philhellene disposition certainly suited Terence. Like his predecessor Plautus, his plays often reworked Greek comedies for a Latin-speaking audience. Many favorite devices of Greek theater appear in his work: mistaken identity, slapstick, the discovery of long-lost children through heirlooms, young men falling in love with variously unsuitable women, wily slaves angling for the upper hand in the household, and a generally bawdy tone. Unusually for an ancient author,** Terence’s full corpus of plays survive—six in total. Not only were they influenced by Greek models, all have Greek titles: Andria (The Woman From Andros), Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), Heauton Timoroumenos (The Self-Tormentor), Eunuchos (The Eunuch), Phormio (the name of a principal character), and Adelphoe (The Brothers). Their plots often put the modern reader in mind of soap operas, revolving around improbable misunderstandings and unlikely coincidences. They also feature a certain, shall we say, nonchalance about sexual mores, typical of ancient Mediterranean culture. Four of the six feature one or more prostitutes as leading characters, and several include elements that the modern reader could only regard as jokes in quite a dark and tasteless vein of humor.

It may therefore come as a surprise that part of the reason Terence survives complete is that his plays were used to teach Latin to the novices in Medieval monasteries and convents! His Latin is straightforward and lively, and Latin was a necessity not just to understand the Catholic liturgy, but for all educated communication right down to the eighteenth century. Terence was accordingly an extremely practical author to have on hand. Not everyone was happy about this; the wonderfully-named Hroswitha of Gandersheim, a tenth-century scholar (and the first German woman whose writing survives), composed her own book of six plays to serve as a substitute for Terence in educating young men and women, showcasing women of virtue and praising martyrdom and penitence.

But Terence’s best legacy, perhaps, is a very simple quotation that comes almost in passing in his third play, The Self-Tormentor. A man named Chremes explains to the audience that his neighbor Menedemus has been behaving in a very peculiar fashion, doing all sorts of things that any sensible person leaves to his household staff, and Chremes is determined to find out what’s going on. Menedemus comes out and begins raking up mess from his field, visibly upset; Chremes interrogates him, and eventually manages to wrestle the rake out of his hands—a scene doubtless featuring extensive slapstick, and doubly funny thanks to the grave speeches delivered by the two men while doing something as petty as fighting over yard work! Though Menedemus does eventually spill the beans, he at first tries to brush his neighbor off by saying that his self-punishing behavior is his own business. Chremes replies Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto: “I am a man; I consider nothing human alien to me.” Such a statement of human solidarity is hardly outstripped anywhere. It can sit quite comfortably beside any great slogan of shared humanity; returning to Terence’s origins, the American reader may easily call to mind the abolitionist motto, Am I not a man and a brother?

*A cognomen was the third name in Roman naming customs, e.g. Scipio in Publius Cornelius Scipio. It was not really like a “last name” in English; that is closer to the nomen or second name, which was a family name. Thus, Publius Cornelius Scipio had the prænomen or “forename” Publius, while his nomen showed he came from the Cornelii. Both prænomina and nomina came from limited lists and cognomina were given as something like nicknames, to distinguish individuals (often for physical characteristics, and rarely for flattering ones: the famous cognomen Cicero means “wart”!). They began to be hereditary later, especially if they indicated a specific branch of a large family; hence, another name called the agnomen might be given, often in honor of an achievement. After destroying Carthage, Publius Cornelius Scipio received the agnomen “Africanus,” since his victory was achieved in Africa.
**For comparison, despite their fame, a majority of plays composed by the “big three” of ancient Athens have been lost. Eighteen of Euripides’ plays are extant, as are seven each from Æschylus and Sophocles; this makes for rough survival rates of 20%, 10%, and just over 5%!


Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance writer and the editor-at-large for CLT. He has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like some of our other author profiles, covering figures like Josephus, St. Bede, Geoffrey Chaucer, the Brothers Grimm, and Zora Neale Hurston. You might also take a shine to our seminar series, Journey Through the Author Bank, led by academics from across the country. Thank you for reading the Journal!

Published on 13th March, 2023.

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