Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.17

Alessio Umbrico, Terenzio e i suoi 'nobiles'. Invenzione e realtà di un controverso legame. Testi e studi di cultura classica, 44.   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2010.  Pp. 127.  ISBN 9788846725806.  €12.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (

Table of Contents (PDF)

Questions about the details of Terence’s life have evaded solution and have prompted untold amounts of interpretation and reinterpretation. We might first think of the matter of whether Hecyra faced repeated crowd-control troubles in performance (and, if so, what actually caused the troubles). Yet literary critics and historians alike have moreover found themselves perplexed by rumors and by the mystifying bits of Terence’s own prologues about his association with the “Scipionic circle”—association in the sense not only of having his plays written by its members but also of having sexual relations with them. Alessio Umbrico’s monograph Terenzio e i suoi nobiles admirably tackles both parts of this association with a potent combination of literary and historical approaches. His conclusions will interest, perhaps even surprise, scholars not only of Roman theater but also of republican political history, and should prompt readers to reconceptualize the relationships to which Terence alludes in his prologues.1

Umbrico divides his work into two essays: one a new reading of a fragment about Terence by Porcius Licinus, the other a discussion of the amici mentioned in the prologues to Heauton Timoroumenos and Adelphoe. In a two-page Premessa (full text available here in PDF format), Carlo Santorini introduces the basic problem of the work: the connection between Terence and the mysterious nobiles of the Terentian prologues.

The first essay, “I nobiles seduttori di Terenzio,” focuses on Porcius Licinus fr. 3 (in Morel’s numbering; Porcius Licinus dates to roughly 1st-century BCE), a short passage preserved in the Suetonian Vita Terenti. The passage describes the career of a young Terence as literary mouthpiece for and protégé of a certain Scipio, Laelius, and Furius—and also as their sexual toy, discarded into abject poverty the moment the flower of his age withered.2 Umbrico begins with a close stylistic analysis of the fragment, then expands his scope to a historically grounded consideration of its two charges against Terence: playing “ghost-publisher” and boytoy to Scipio and pals.

Umbrico starts off by showing how Porcius Licinus’ text alludes to Heauton 22–26 and Adelphoe 15–21, but with the sexual element added in (pp. 12–13). Next he interprets the fragment as a diptych divided at line 5, with plenty of paired oppositions such as luxus vs. summa inopia, sex with the boy Terence vs. subsequent rejection of him, Hellenizing vs. simple styles of naming Scipio et al., and Terence’s comedic success vs. his later failure. The passage’s language constitutes clear homoerotic satire (“chiara satira omoerotica,” p. 23), as for instance sublatis rebus at line 5 may invoke notions of a break-up or even divorce (discidium and diuortium, pp. 19–20).

Moreover, the first part of the diptych plays out in toto as a parody of Zeus/Jupiter’s rape of Ganymede (pp. 23–29). Scipio boasts in line 2 the epithet Africanus and a divine voice (diuinam uocem), while the real Scipio Aemilianus himself—whom Umbrico identifies as the Scipio of Porcius Licinus’ fragment—fostered in the public eye his connections both to the Scipio Africanus and to Jupiter Capitolinus. Thus we have in Aemilianus a Jupiter, in Terence a Ganymede, in the phrase in Albanum (line 4a: in other words, the mons Albanus) an Olympus, in line 3’s cenitare a banquet of the gods (but also a sexy symposium, p. 31), and in Umbrico’s emendation of line 4(a–b) we perhaps have an eagle.

Where Umbrico’s literary analysis reveals mythic parody, his historical contextualization shows how such parody packs a powerful political punch. The fragment implies that, even after his marriage to Sempronia, Aemilianus continued his sexual exploitation of Terence—thus she stands in for Juno and the marriage’s childlessness gains an explanation (pp. 35–39). Terence’s client or slave-like poverty in the fragment (line 5, with p. 21 and n. 7) picks up on the Gracchan allegory for the plebs (p. 52). Porcius Licinus, at one time enslaved to Gaius Gracchus— who himself faced imputations of post-marital sex with boys (p. 49)—launches this attack on the reputation of Aemilianus amid the heated political climate in the aftermath of Tiberius Gracchus’ assassination (p. 42). The date of the fragment? Likely, says Umbrico, to be 133–129 BCE, before Aemilianus’ death and during the political crisis over agrarian reform (pp. 53–54).

The second essay of the monograph, “I «nobiles amici» di Terenzio,” revisits the two Terentian prologues (Heauton and Adelphoe, which Umbrico argues emphatically for treating separately) that the Porcius Licinus fragment fuses and exploits. Again, Umbrico calls for political interpretation and historicizing reading—to good effect. Repente at Heauton 23 implies that Terence leapfrogged past the normal career trajectory for playwrights, thanks to the influence of his friends (amici, line 24: i.e., patrons, pp. 64–67). So also for Adelphoe: since Romans viewed a citizen’s acting or writing for the theater as “altamente squalificante,” Umbrico calls the accusation of literary collaboration “infamante” for the nobiles (p. 74). Adiutare (line 16) means help in getting Terence’s plays produced—just what a good patron does for a client (p. 76). Political placere (lines 18–19) also appears in the prologue to Eunuchus, where it shows Terence already advertising his link with the nobiles (pp. 80–82).

In general, says Umbrico, Terence focuses not so much on the singular maleuolus uetus poeta commonly identified with Luscius Lanuvinus so much as on a whole group of poet-detractors (who have obscura diligentia at Andria 21). Lanuvinus acted, Umbrico notes, as magister of the collegium scribarum histrionumque (the “corporazione dei poeti teatrali”) set up by senatus consultum in honor of Livius Andronicus in 207 or 206 BCE. Hence in previewing Eunuchus Lanuvinus exercises his magisterial potestas inspiciundi, what we might think of as quality control. Terence, an outsider to the collegium, and acting on his patrons’ behalf, espouses a controversial new philhellenic poetics similar to what we find in the works of Ennius (pp. 85–90).

Which patron(s), though? Umbrico finds the notion of the “Scipionic circle” anachronistic (or rather “fuorviante,” p. 93), and advocates understanding Aemilianus—quite young at the time of the prologues in question—as secondary to the more influential nobiles. (Particularly Lucius Aemilius Paullus, whose funeral receives extended and worthwhile attention from Umbrico, pp. 94–104). The most important conclusion: Adelphoe would have taken place in the Forum, the same place as the laudatio funebris for Paullus merely nine days earlier, and so Terence’s prologue in a sense continues the laudatio. In his closing thoughts, Umbrico posits that Terence, as someone formerly enslaved by Gaius Terentius Lucanus, may have had access to the royal library of Perseus that Paullus brought to Rome—a library likely filled with none other than Menander, the only poet of his own time popular with the Macedonian court (pp. 109–110).

Umbrico writes with lucid prose and ample footnotes. His reminders of the details of characters and plots in the Terentian plays he mentions offer useful aid to his readership, since even experts on Roman comedy can have problems keeping the names and storylines straight. More importantly, Umbrico undertakes learned, nuanced analyses of the texts he addresses, with a strong basis of philological evidence, with the eye of a perceptive reader, and with the grounding of a competent historian. There does arise the occasional tortuous argument (namely the assertion at pp. 69–70 that fretum at Heauton 24 both connotes fides and invokes the patron-client relationship) or dubious suggestion (p. 106: we should take Terence’s not staging any plays at the Ludi Plebei as a sign of his link with and allegiance to the nobilitas; pp. 109–110: Terence changed his praenomen from Gaius to Publius in honor of P. Cornelius Scipio). Terence’s comedy itself beyond the prologues recedes deep into the background, a fact that may bother some readers.

Yet overall the picture emerges of Porcius Licinus the satiric (even Lucilian: p. 51) partisan of the Gracchi and of Terence the de facto client of the Scipiones, who uses his prologues to celebrate their support of his theater and, through them, the philhellenic nobilitas of the Roman state. And in his meticulous construction of these portraits, Umbrico provokes thought and persuades. He includes a thorough and easily navigable bibliography and index locorum, which evince his virtually complete mastery over the relevant scholarship on Terence’s prologues, on Roman sexuality, and especially on the Roman historical/political context, with only a few gaps worth noting in his otherwise definitive bibliography on his topic.3 Umbrico generally leaves Latin and Greek untranslated, but explains key terms well, summarizes important passages, and provides translations for the longest quotations. The clarity, thoroughness, and intelligence of this study (not to mention its pricing) merit it a place in the collection of every scholar of Roman comedy or Republican-era politics.


1.   Volumes from Edizioni ETS’ wide-ranging series Testi e studi di cultura classica have appeared on BMCR several times previously, with generally favorable reviews: see 2005.07.19, 2005.09.44, 2010.03.62, 2010.08.32, and 2011.08.20.
2.   The Packard Humanities Institute version of the text, closely matches Umbrico’s. The only difference: lines 4–5 (4a–b in Umbrico’s numbering), where our author reads dum se ab his amari credit crebro in Albanum [rapax | ales illa Iouis istunc] rapitur ob florem aetatis suae. For the conjectural supplement rapax | ales illa Iouis istunc, see p. 30 n. 83. “Morel’s numbering” refers to the Teubner Fragmenta poetarum latinorum epicorum et lyricorum praeter Ennium et Lucilium, cited by Umbrico in its 3rd edition (1995) and now in its 4th (noted as received at BMCR 2011.03.01).
3.   Missing: W. G. Arnott, “Terence’s Prologues,” PLLS 5 (1985): 1–7; L. Cicu, “L’originalità del teatro di Terenzio alla luce della nuova estetica e della politica del circolo scipionico,” Sandalion 1 (1978): 73–121; R. K. Ehrman, “Terentian Prologues and the Parabases of Old Comedy,” Latomus 44 (1985): 370–376; H. Gelhaus, Die Prologe des Terenz. Eine Erklärung nach dem Lehren von der inventio und dispositio (Heidelberg 1972); E. Gowers, “The Plot Thickens: Hidden Outlines in Terence’s Prologues,” Ramus 33 (2004): 150–166; and M. Pohlenz, “Der Prolog des Terenz,” SIFC 27/28 (1956): 434–453. Umbrico’s work took place concurrent to and independent of P. J. Dombrowski, “Judicial Rhetoric and Theatrical Program in the Prologues of Terence” (2010 M. A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

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