BMCR 2015.05.10

A Companion to Terence. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World

, , A Companion to Terence. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. xiii, 541. ISBN 9781405198752. $195.00.


It is an exciting time for Roman Comedy. In addition to a number of recent monographs and commentaries,1 the publication of the Blackwell Companion was followed by the The Oxford Handbook to Roman Comedy, edited by Michael Fontaine and Adele Scafuro, and another companion is on the way as well ( The Cambridge Companion to Roman Comedy, edited by Martin Dinter). What distinguishes the Blackwell Companion from these others is its focus on Terence alone, the playwright who, even in this flurry of recent activity, is often still passed over in favor of Plautus. This collection offers detailed interpretations of each of the plays, the conditions that produced them, and their afterlife in the schools and later drama, all by a distinguished team of contributors. The result is a volume of high quality and an emphasis on bringing out what is new and innovative in Terence, even if there are also traces of a lingering tendency to attribute “successful” elements of his plays to the influence of earlier comedy.

In the Introduction, the editors discuss the main outline of Terence’s life and output by using Suetonius’ Vita Terenti as their framework. This is in many ways a natural starting point, but it could perhaps have been made clearer how misleading some of its information is. The editors do acknowledge that the “ancient biography is marred by the invention of stories that verge on the romantic or sentimentalist side” (p. 2). Yet they do not offer any comment when, for example, they quote Suetonius’ remarks that Terence cultivated the attention of great men and received help for his plays from Scipio and Laelius. Even though this charge is overturned in later chapters (e.g., Ch. 6), its presence at the start of the volume reinforces a familiar and damaging view of Terence that his plays derive from the work of others, whether that means his noble friends, Menander, or Plautus. The rest of the Introduction offers a brief survey of recent scholarship on Terence and finally a summary of the papers contained in the volume.

The main body of the volume is divided into four parts: I. Terence and Ancient Comedy, II. Contexts and Themes, III. The Plays, and IV. Reception.

Part I focuses on the dramatic background and linguistic character of the comedies. First Peter Brown examines the relationship between Terence and Greek New Comedy, using Donatus’ commentaries to point to technical and other differences. This is a valuable chapter, though Brown admits the difficulties of relying on Donatus to assess what changes Terence may or may not have made from his Greek sources. Nor is he entirely consistent on this skeptical point: at the beginning he points to our ignorance of Terence’s Greek models (p. 20), but at the conclusion says that “most readers feel that he reproduces the spirit of his Greek originals far more faithfully than Plautus had done…He does not follow his originals slavishly, but he does not subvert them in ways that Plautus has been intepreted as doing (p. 31).” Next, George Fredric Franko offers a terrific study of the relationship of Terence and other Roman comedy, comparing Terence to Plautus but also Caecilius, using fragments of the latter to temper the often sharp line drawn between Plautus and Terence. Franko surveys dramatic and structural innovations like the use of suspense and double plot and well describes Terence’s blend of tradition and variation. The subsequent chapters then turn to various aspects of language. Alison Sharrock consider the plays’ relationship to a range of other genres, including tragedy, love poetry, and rhetorical and philosophical works, building on her earlier work in Reading Roman Comedy. In so doing, she make a substantial contribution to our view of Terence as someone firmly within the mainstream of Latin literature, a poet who should be studied not just as part of a comic tradition, but part of a much wider literary exchange. Jokes and humor are the subject of the next chapter by Heather Vincent, an important topic given the tendency to view Terence as rather serious for a comic writer. She is not concerned with gestures or physical comedy, but focuses instead on “sound and semantics”. Her examples make clear a number of ways that Terence was engaged in verbal play, though the analytic and technical approach makes it hard to read these as necessarily funny. Finally, Timothy Moore concludes the section with a characteristically lucid treatment of comic meter and its role in the Eunuchus. The metrical patterns he points to are illuminating for understanding character (for example Thais’ difference from other prostitutes, who are typically associated with music), the emotional tenor of a scene, and the play’s very structure. With Moore’s study as guide, both characters and play effectively come to life on the page.

Part II moves away from aspects of language and the comic tradition to the larger social and cultural context. Daniel Hanchey thoroughly reviews all the evidence for the existence of a Scipionic Circle, providing a useful service in collecting the testimonia in one place, though without altering the accepted view that it is more a Ciceronian ideal than a historical reality. In an exciting chapter, John Starks, Jr. argues that we find many topical themes and events in Terence’s plays: contemporary views of otium, sumptuary laws, the patron-client relationship, and recent military exploits (see especially his discussion of the Rhodian joke in the Eunuchus, p. 136-38). Nor do these appear at random: Starks suggest that such allusions serve an important dramatic function: “Roman cultural references appear at moments of heightened agitation, activity, and potential crisis in the scripts…”(135). The rest of Part II addresses Terence’s representation of the household. Ted Gellar-Goad focuses on religion and specifically the absence of sacrifice, arguing that this reflects Terence’s view of the family’s decline and dysfunction (note that Starks suggests that the sumptuary laws might account for the absence of food in Terence). Sharon James’ focus is on gender and sexuality, and she also takes a negative view, suggesting that Terence performs “a skeptical autopsy of the Roman citizen family, beginning with its power center, the paterfamilias ” (177). She acknowledges but perhaps does not give enough weight to the way that this paterfamilias often develops and changes in the course of the play. And neither Gellar-Goad nor James engages with the possibility that Terence is not playing it straight but uses the presentation of certain attitudes to provoke and challenge. Packman then provides a very general overview of the family as a whole, followed by a final piece by Evangelos Karakasis on the trickster slave. He focuses in particular on Syrus in the Adelphoe, one of Terence’s funniest slaves, arguing that he is a descendant of Plautus’ servus callidus and that Terence deliberately infused the play with more Plautine elements after the failure of the Hecyra. But we need not take such a negative view of either the Hecyra (see Knorr Ch. 16) or Terence’s own dramatic technique. The Adelphoe as a whole is full of characters who play tricks (Aeschinus, Micio, and Demea all do), and this suggests another way of thinking about Syrus and Terence’s use of traditional comic elements.

Part III is made up of interpretations of all six plays, many of which show a keen interest in metatheater, something once considered rare or non-existent in Terence. Building on Gowers’ important article ( Ramus 2004), Robert Germany takes the prologue as an emblem of the play and offers a sophisticated reading of the opening scene and several ethical problems in the play (e.g., the non-conformity of certain characters to their stereotype, the serious mood of the play). Writing about the Heauton Timormenos, Eckard Lefèvre argues against Menandrean influence and points to the palliata tradition and improvisational theater as a means of understanding the energy of the play, but his methodology is problematic, in particular the reliance on structure as evidence of either Greek or Roman influence. David Christenson’s chapter is a masterful treatment of the Eunuchus, in particular the rape (also discussed in James) and the treatment of Thais in the play, both of which he sees as disturbing elements. But he rightly wants to reconcile these elements with the play’s enormous success and views the play’s challenge to morality not as a problem but rather the key to its success. Stavros Frangoulidis, a scholar well known for his interest in Terentian metatheater, explores the metaphor of illness and cure in the Phormio. The connections he draws between Phormio and poet, remedy and development of the plot, are intriguing and novel ones for a play that has been studied more often for its references to money and law. Knorr’s treatment of the Hecyra is also thought-provoking, in that he takes a play sometimes viewed as the most serious of Terence’s plays and argues for its real ‘comic appeal’. One of the attractive things about his chapter is its emphasis on movement and space in the play, in other words on imagining the play as a performance rather than a script, something that may be key to appreciating the humor in all of Terence’s plays. Finally, in the only chapter in this section to look back at Menander, Ariana Traill offers a sensitive analysis of Demea’s surprising transformation at the end of the Adelphoe. She compares him to Demeas and Knemon in Menander’s Samia and Dyskolos, respectively, and argues that Demea comes from the same mold, someone who comes to recognize who he is but does not undergo true change.

Part IV turns in conclusion to Terence’s Nachleben from the second century BCE to the modern day. The number of studies included here reflects both the plays’ important status as school texts and the current interest in reception. It is astonishing to compare the fascination with Terence that we find in these pages with his eclipse in the twentieth century. There is unfortunately not space to comment on the many fascinating chapters here, which cover the textual tradition (Benjamin Victor), reception in Latin literature (Roman Müller), in late Antiquity (Andrew Cain) and in early modern England (Martine van Elk), translations of Terence (John Barsby), and adaptations of Terence’s plays by the medieval German nun Hrotsvit (Antony Augoustakis) and Thornton Wilder (Mathias Hanses). A challenge facing many later readers of Terence was the tension between Terence’s pure Latin style and what was perceived as the plays’ immoral content. The answer more often than not was to clean up the text. But as Mary-Kay Gamel’s concluding piece on her experience directing Hrotsvit’s The Conversion of Thais and Terence’s Eunuchus shows, the moral and ethical challenges in the play can still pose difficulties today.

This wide-ranging and stimulating volume does not shy away from these challenges and provides many new points of departure for examining the plays and their reception. Both graduate students and scholars will learn much from this book and anyone working on Roman comedy will want to own a copy, despite the steep price.

I noted very few errors (e.g., Goldberg’s ideas in Understanding Terence (Princeton 1986) cannot be “further developed in Konstan 1983”, as claimed on p. 8).


1. For recent commentaries, see S. Goldberg, Terence Hecyra (Cambridge 2013). For monographs, see M. Leigh, Comedy and the Rise of Rome (Oxford 2004), Dorota M. Dutsch, Feminine Discourse in Roman Comedy: On Echoes and Voices (Oxford 2008); A. Sharrock, Reading Roman Comedy (Cambridge 2009), Timothy J. Moore, Music in Roman Comedy (Cambridge 2012). The collection Terence and Interpretation edited by Sophia Papaioannou has also just appeared (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2014).