Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.23

John Barsby (ed.), Terence. Eunuchus. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999.  Pp. viii, 336.  ISBN 0-521-45229-5.  $64.95.  

Reviewed by Sander Goldberg, UCLA (
Word count: 2217 words

One evening last fall, in a crowded pub in Holywell Street, I was ambushed by a Micio-lover and trapped into futile debate over the relative merits of Terence's two brothers. It was silly, of course, less because my assailant was so wrong in arguing for Micio's perfection (but let him raise children by those principles and see where it gets him!) than because the argument assumed that either of us could be right to the exclusion of the other. Ambiguity is central to Adelphoe's greatness. Its countervailing moral principles, its patterns of trust and mistrust, and its characters' habit of speaking less to each other than to an image each has of the other produce a moral complexity and emotional charge that make the play inevitably engaging, especially for students who are themselves renegotiating their own family relationships. The resulting allure has made it the play of the Terentian corpus. That, and the fact that Ronald Martin's edition in the Cambridge green-and-gold series remains lucid, sensible, and in print. Yet this canonization of Adelphoe has a downside.

We also like teaching this play because it mutes the cruelty inherent in the conventions of New Comedy. It is therefore morally safe. The obligatory rape is tucked discreetly into the preamble, committed by a well-meaning young fellow who wants to marry the girl anyway and causes distress only when he appears to renege on his promise. No real harm done there. The only violence is to a pimp who thoroughly deserves his beating. Mere slapstick. The mysteries of the play's ending -- does or does not Demea abandon his former ways? does or does not Micio resent his forced marriage? -- can be argued endlessly in a politely academic way without touching raw nerves or offending the squeamish. A nice play, pleasant to think with. No wonder Lessing liked it a lot, and Romans of the late Republic could almost believe that Scipio or Laelius wrote it, not an African libertus barely out of his teens.

Yet Terence was not always so safe. Eunuchus is one play (Hecyra is another) that not only lets the viciousness of New Comedy show through but glories in it. The rape takes place right in the play, committed by a silly, irresponsible young man aroused by the sight of a dirty picture. He attacks a drowsy girl in her own bedroom and emerges from the assault exultant, "bursting with joy" says John Barsby (185), to tell a fraternity brother about his exploit. Only the play's women note the violence, the tears, and the screams that attended his success. Roman audiences loved the play: the aediles spent a record sum on Eunuchus and authorized an immediate encore. Scholars acknowledge the resulting moral problems: Is Chaerea a detestable rogue or a lovable scamp? Does Terence's ending rescue the play from moral bankruptcy, or is his resolution cynical and morally obtuse? Was he sacrificing his own refined sensibilities in the name of popular success? Barsby notes the interpretive problem: "The whole idea of rape offends our modern sensibilities, but there is no sign in this scene that Terence means the spectators to react with revulsion. We have to make allowances for the differences between modern and ancient attitudes ..." (185-6). Very true, but "allowances" cannot mean "excuses." Eunuchus confronts us with tastes and social attitudes that not only differ from but offend our own, a reminder that the Romans' Otherness manifests itself not only on parade, in the circus (or arena), and in the rough-and-tumble of street life, but even in Literature. This is not news to you or me. The realities of the Roman world have grown omnipresent in our research and are increasingly acknowledged in our teaching, but less in the Latin classroom than in parallel endeavors. The philological austerity of traditional commentaries and the conservatism of the language curriculum too easily shelter language students from the hardness of Roman life. We may smile now at Fordyce's Catullus, which shrank from poems "which do not lend themselves to commentary in English," but not even Kenneth Quinn tells students what cacata means. This reticence is diminishing. Barsby's Eunuchus is one of a growing number of student-oriented commentaries willing and able to meet the challenges of a morally and culturally problematic text head-on, making it possible -- even necessary -- for Latin students to think as well as to parse. How well does the present edition help them to do so?

John Barsby (hereafter B.) has long been a wise and well-informed student of Roman comedy, and this edition consistently shows the fruits of his knowledge and experience. A thirty-page introduction covers the usual biographical, theatrical, and philological points succinctly and sensibly. The commentary includes informative notes on the didascalia and related material as well as on the play itself. B. makes full use of recent scholarship, including an appendix with texts and translations of Menander's Eunouchos and Kolax for those interested in pursuing the matter of Terence's original(s). This volume will leave readers of every kind well informed on a wide range of topics concerning Roman comedy and its Greek background. The academic calendar being one thing and BMCR's schedule being another, I have not been able to use this edition with a class, but the following observations will I hope encourage others to do so.

The text is the familiar OCT with a few variants noted in the commentary. B. retains the traditional scene-divisions (defined by the entrance of a new character) in the text but treats scenes in a more dramatically cogent way in the commentary. Thus, what editions call scenes III.iv and III.v are for B. a single unit from the entrance of Antipho at 539 through Chaerea's entrance at 549 to the ensuing dialogue. Each such scene or unit receives a headnote followed by linear commentary. At Eun. 539ff., for example, where the story of Chaerea's problematic escapade begins, the headnote discusses the dramaturgy of the scene: that Terence introduced Antipho to turn a monologue into a dialogue, that the overheard entrance monologue is conventional, that the metrical variety of their encounter is extraordinary. B. works hard and well to balance matters of performance, genre, and grammar. He also, as noted above, pulls no punches in acknowledging the ramifications of Chaerea's conduct. Only rarely is he coy or does he seem to miss the point, as when he observes of the Jupiter and Danae picture, "Mythological paintings of the type described here would have been familiar to upper-class Romans in the form of portable panel paintings [in contrast to wall paintings] bought as booty from conquered Greek cities ..." (195 ad 584). What is the relevance of such upper-class knowledge to Terence's audience, crowded into their seats on the Palatine? B.'s later remark on "the corrupting effect of amatory paintings" (198 ad 591) perhaps comes closer to their experience, but why not spell out the nature of Thais' establishment and the kind of decoration to be found in such a place?

The commentary is, however, generous with grammatical and syntactic notes: the unexpected presence (or absence) of subjunctives, the tangles of colloquial word order, the grammar of the seemingly anomalous oath "pro Iuppiter" (exclamatory interjection plus vocative). In this last example, B. also notes that the oath is rare and thus impressive, though he neglects to mention its irony coming from a young man soon to play Juppiter to Pamphila's Danae. (B. does note the potential irony of the normally feminine "pol" coming from the "eunuch" at 606.) He does not translate instead of explain. Translations are reserved to suggest appropriate levels of diction. B. does this very well (e.g. obtundat 'to batter my ears'; perstrepunt 'chatter away') and is hardly ever distractingly British (e.g. aliquot adulescentuli 'several of us lads'). I appreciate the effort. Getting students to accept "I fell in love" as the appropriate translation of amare coepi brings them closer to the immediacy of Terence's Latin and its echoes of a language that people actually spoke. B.'s one tactical mistake is in not translating his quotations from Donatus. Though these snippets are well chosen and illuminating, not many will profit from them. Donatus' Latin takes some getting used to, and students slogging through Terence are unlikely to shift gears and make a corresponding effort to construe a fourth-century mentor, however intelligent his comments. Translation would have made these quotations more accessible and perhaps encouraged consultation of the full commentary, which remains full of interesting things.

Talk of language raises a final point. Two rival strategies have emerged for handling the challenge that dramatic verse presents to students. One is to ignore the fact of meter as much as possible. The other revels not just in the basic patterns of iambs, trochees, and their kin but in the mysteries of synizesis, hiatus, enclisis, apocope, prodelision, brevis in longo, and iambic shortening that permit verses to scan and the laws of Ritschl, Hermann, and Luchs that tell students where and where not to catch their breath. Neither approach is satisfactory. It is grossly unfair to the nature of Roman comedy, not to mention the artistry of the Roman dramatists, to ignore its rhythms and its music. The alternative, however, is scarcely better, and not just because the pedant's dream so easily becomes the student's nightmare. Though traditional metrics describes everything, it explains nothing, merely bogging students down in detail and leading them to wonder how Terence ever wrote a line without a German philologist to tell him how. B. deliberately frustrates both strategies. He renders the first impossible by the simple expedient of providing running identification of Terence's meters in the left margin (ia6, tr7, etc.) rather than relegating a conspectus metrorum to the back. As for the second, opinions of his decision will vary.

Recent work in metrics, largely inspired by Sidney Allen's insistence that metrical phenomena are manifestations of linguistic phenomena, takes a generative approach to meter. It values commonalities over differences, showing what patterns share to understand the principles on which they are constructed. Adrian Gratwick is the best-known proponent of this approach to Latin dramatic meter, which he explains through an "excursus" in the Cambridge History of Latin Literature (pp. 86-93) and puts to work in his own commentaries on Adelphoe (Aris and Phillips, 1987) and Menaechmi (Cambridge, 1993). B. follows Gratwick's lead, which means two things. First, his appendix on "Metre and Scansion" includes, besides all the basic descriptive tools, an excellent, challenging section on "The limitations of podic analysis" that will awaken readers to the inadequacies of the traditional approach and the need for something better. Second, B. adopts Gratwick's practice of using sublinear dots to mark the onset of long positions, thus providing unremitting clues to syllable division, metrical ictus, and hiatus. (The technique is explained, though rather too briefly considering its importance, on p. 293. Teachers willing to use this system may want to seek help in one of Gratwick's editions.)

Is this, pedagogically, a good idea? Yes and no. Students' metrical difficulties often begin not with vowel quantities, however shaky their sense of them, but with syllable division because the rules of Latin syllabification are not ours, nor are students bent on translation inclined to think of a line as a continuous sequence of sounds rather than a set of discrete words. Gratwick's dots teach them not to fixate on word division, and the result, sooner or later, should be a readiness to recognize metrical units and feel rhythmic cadences. This is excellent, but it comes at a cost. First, like the old ictus marks, it disfigures the page (though, on the plus side, it also discourages interlinear cribs). Second, it privileges scansion over matters with equal claim to our attention. Forgetting meter entirely may be bad, but I am not sure that trumpeting it from the rooftop is the right solution. The method encourages metrical reading at the expense of dramatic reading, and this is not true to dramatic fact. Gloucester does not say, "Now IS the WINter OF our DISconTENT" any more than Phaedria says, "Quid igiTUR faciAM?" Good dramatic verse makes rhythm serve the needs of meaning: read aloud for sense, with good pronunciation and word accent, and the cadence emerges on its own. Why, then, make a fetish of every heavy syllable? If we knew what the tibicen did -- and Flaccus' contribution was sufficiently important to secure his mention in the production record -- I would be more confident, but without that knowledge, I cannot help feeling that Gratwick's system, intelligent as it is, presupposes an understanding of dramatic delivery at Rome that we do not in fact possess. But as noted before, opinions will vary on this, and I respect B.'s effort to bring the best possible tools to this longstanding problem.

The last English commentary on Eunuchus was Sidney Ashmore's of 1908, surely one measure of the discomfort the play has produced over the years. John Barsby's edition will not dispel that discomfort, but it does equip and even urge us to confront the complex passions Roman comedy arouses, and, perhaps even more important, it encourages us to expand our students' sense of what Terentian comedy can be. That too is a worthy end that not even the most devout of Micio-lovers will deny.

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