BMCR 2007.07.47

Terence: The Comedies. Translated with introduction and explanatory notes

, , The comedies. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xxvii, 338 pages). ISBN 9781429470094 £60.00.

This new translation of Terence by Peter Brown [hereafter B.] is to be warmly welcomed, especially if it fulfils its stated aim of arresting the decline of interest in Terence and encouraging stage presentations of his plays (p. xi). The book contains a well-judged sixteen-page introduction to Terence, an accurate prose translation of the six plays (minus the traditional act and scene divisions but complete with stage directions provided by the translator), and thirty-four pages of line-by-line explanatory notes on a variety of aspects. There is also a separate introductory note of some four or five pages on each of the plays. The whole is marked by the kind of scholarship that one would expect from B., well informed, perceptive, alert to opposing views, and above all judicious.

The Introduction covers the obvious topics: Terence’s Life, Chronology, Rome in the 160s, Latin Comedy and Greek New Comedy, Terence’s Prologues, Performance Conditions. As a bonus there is a brief but interesting account of the reception of Terence down the ages, with particular reference to attacks on the morality of the plays. Even with this background, it is a distinct sign of the present times that there is a separate section of the Introduction entitled Ancient Attitudes to Rape. of which the purpose is to defend Terence against the disquiet increasingly expressed by modern commentators on the apparently easy tolerance of rape in the plays.1 After offering the usual observation that in the society of the plays rape was preferable to seduction in terms of the girl’s honour, B. adds, “It would have been wrong to translate ‘rape’ as ‘seduction’, but the reaction of the ancient audience to the former was not altogether unlike the reaction of many a modern Western audience to the latter” (p. xx), which seems to the reviewer just about to hit the nail on the head in terms of understanding the plays in their historical context. In general B. presents a fairly traditional view of Terence, resisting the modern tendency to see him as a critic of the contemporary social structure2 and pointing out that societal norms tend to be reinforced at the end of the plays: the furthest he will go is to admit that, though Terence is no revolutionary, the plays “may sometimes provoke uneasy thoughts about some aspects of society”. The plays certainly reflect perceived tensions between Roman and Greek values, “but we cannot easily detect more precise engagement with the issues of the day” (p. xv).

In the introductory notes to each play B. deals with characterisation, dramatic elements, comic ingredients, improbabilities and contradictions, relationship to the Greek original, and later adaptations. There are many nicely judged observations on Terence’s dramatic art, an aspect which tends to be neglected in modern discussions. In the case of both The Girl from Andros and The Mother-in-Law it is not the presentation of the characters that is the driving interest but the constant see-saw in the fortunes of the various antagonists in the former and the constant shifting balance of knowledge and ignorance in the latter. In The Self-Tormentor, on the other hand, it is the characterisation of Chremes which is the dominant interest, “one of the strongest comic characters ever presented on the stage” (p. 98). In The Eunuch the central action of the play is the rape of Pamphila by Chaerea; this is a crucial element of the plot-construction in that it leads indirectly to the intervention of Chaerea’s father and thus to the happy outcomes for Chaerea, Phaedria and Thais (and perhaps even, by ancient standards, for Pamphila). Phormio is one of the livelier plays: it has a similar theme to that of The Mother-in-Law, but offers more overt entertainment, a more complex plot and a wider range of traditional comic characters. The Brothers is “a great play” in which “Terence has achieved complete theatrical mastery” (p. 260): it not only engages our interest in matters of serious moral concern without dictating answers to the questions it raises but is also a great comedy, with knockabout violence, traditional routines, a whole series of surprises and an astonishing volte-face at the end.

The starting point for any evaluation of the translation, which of course takes up the bulk of the book, is the recognition of the difficulty of the task. One obvious desideratum is natural modern English, but there are real problems in finding suitable modern English equivalents for the oaths, exclamations, sentence modifiers, terms of abuse and endearment, and other idiomatic expressions of the Latin. The concept of natural modern colloquial English is in any case a slippery one, since what sounds natural in Oxford will not sound quite so natural in New York or Sydney; and the more aggressively modern the dialogue the more the characters are wrenched from their original social context.3 B. generally steers a middle course. He takes some trouble to find modern equivalents for Latin words and expressions, such as “in the import-export business” ( mercator), “bang on about” ( obtundere), “keep her sweet” ( placare), “my hot-lips” ( meum savium), and “feel up his girlfriend” ( amicam subigitare), together with the rather British-sounding “good chap” ( bonus vir) and “jolly well” ( hercle). On the other hand, he allows a number of old-fashioned expressions to find a place, for example “villain” ( carnufex), “scoundrel” ( nebulo), and “ye gods” ( di vostram fidem). B. makes no attempt to modernise those character roles which have no exact equivalent in modern society, using the traditional “parasite” for parasitus, and “pimp” for leno; for meretrix he uses either “prostitute” or “tart” in accordance with the context and speaker. An interesting question is raised by the obvious-seeming translation of pater in the mouths of sons as “dad” (and mater as “mum”). It is arguable that the Victorian-sounding “father” better represents the actual social relationship of the plays: it must be significant that classical Latin does not have a familiar form of pater.

The other obvious desideratum is to reproduce the elegant colloquialism (what B. calls the “clipped conversational style”) of Terence’s Latin, which calls for brevity, neatness and point. B. is notably modest about his achievement in this respect. Having, reasonably enough, chosen to use prose rather than verse for his translation, he admits that he has “erred towards making Terence sound too prosaic.” (p. xxiii). He has nonetheless hit upon some good turns of phrase: “loonies not lovers” neatly represents the amentium haud amantium of And. 218, and “no arousal without carousal” actually improves on Terence’s proverbial sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus at Eun. 732. Parts of B.’s translation are relatively plain, though the reviewer readily admits that in not a few cases he immediately preferred B.’s version to his own.4 Whether B.’s would serve as a script for a modern performance deserves to be tested by an actual production. B. himself concedes that that it might have to be adapted: “I am well aware that we all have different views on what sounds natural. . . I fully expect anyone who wishes to perform these versions to alter them to suit their own feeling for English idiom” (p. xxiii).

Attention may be called to two further points of interest. The plays are presented with The Mother-in-Law second in order rather than in its traditional place as fifth; this represents the order of composition and thus better reflects Terence’s development as a writer. B. has also taken some trouble with the stage directions, which look as if they are designed more to work out how the plays might have been staged in Roman times than to prescribe to modern directors. B. rejects any suggestion that the left and right side-entrances had any fixed significance on the Roman stage with reference to the forum, harbour or country.5 He bases his staging on two assumptions, both reasonable but neither explicitly attested in antiquity, that characters return to the stage from the same direction as they left it and that departing and arriving characters use opposite entrances so that they do not appear to have passed each other in the wings. B.’s will not be the last word on these matters; but scholars interested in them will want to look at his placing of the houses (esp. Charinus’ in The Girl from Andros, Phania’s in The Self-Tormentor and Micio’s and Sostrata’s in The Brothers), his interpretation of the staging of And. 732-46 (p. 306), his account of the off-stage movements of the ephebes in The Eunuch (pp. 324-5), and the apparent breaches of his two ‘rules’ at Eun. 287-9 and Ad. 154-5.

Nothing in B.’s Introduction suggests that the book is intended for students taking Classical Studies courses in translation; indeed its publication as an expensive hardback precludes this possibility. But the intrinsic quality of the introductions and notes is such that it would serve this purpose better than most translations on the market. It is to be hoped that we can look forward to a paperback edition.


1. Thus Matthew Leigh in The Comedies of Terence, tr. Frederick W. Clayton (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006), p. xxv: “It is hard to imagine a modern staging of Terence. We are talking, after all, of a writer three of whose six plays turn on sexual violence.”

2. See for example the collection of essays Rethinking Terence, Ramus 33: 1-2 (2004).

3. A recent extreme example is Rome and the Mysterious Orient: Three Plays by Plautus, tr. with introductions and notes by Amy Richlin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). Brown’s Terence is closer to the other end of the spectrum.

4. Terence, ed. and tr. by John Barsby. Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

5. So also now C. W. Marshall, The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 51-2.