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30.10.19 Terence The African


An image of a portrait of Terence preserved in the Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, a ninth-century illuminated manuscript of the plays.

The playwright Terence wrote six plays in the 160s BCE and appears to have died in his mid-twenties. His Latin is more mannered, less exuberant, than that of Plautus, but it remains based in dialogue and conversation; so highly acclaimed was it by generations of readers and teachers that the plays became a staple of the European humanist curriculum, and survive to this day.

Terence writes about families: how they interact and coexist both within themselves and out in the world, and about the troubles and tensions that can break them apart. His plays often read less like comedies and more like razor-sharp dramas (his Mother-in-Law reminds me of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler). His plots, while nowhere explicit, are sometimes shocking, particularly in the three plays where a rape is central to the story.

Because of this, scholars are often of the opinion that the plays are unperformable. Not for the first time, however, my extramural class showed themselves to be particularly sharp here. Doing a presentation on Terence in the months following a high-profile rape trial in Belfast, I put this question to them rather anxiously. How can you teach or talk about such a sensitive subject in the context of ancient literature? The answer that came back was that rape is a part of life, however terrible, and that drama should reflect real-life concerns. Suddenly the scholarly consensus seemed conservative and inadequate, and the plays very modern, although I don’t want to make broad pronouncements here on the performability or teachability of what are plays with difficult themes. It will depend on each individual context.

It’s another scholarly debate about Terence that I want to focus on in this post, one which illustrates what you might call the politics of biography. An ancient biography of Publius Terentius Afer (to give Terence his full name) says that he was born in Carthage and came to Rome as the slave of a Roman senator where, because of his talent and good looks, he was educated and then set free. In this biography, written by Suetonius some two hundred years after Terence’s death, the playwright is described as ‘dark in colour’, colore fusco. Now, the scholarly consensus about this biography is utterly sceptical about almost all of its details, details which (it is argued) have merely been extrapolated from the plays themselves by over-zealous biographers writing at a much later date. Even Afer, the part of Terence’s name which means ‘African’ in Latin, is questioned, because of the fact that we know of others in the Roman world who had that name but were not from Africa. Terence’s African identity becomes another spurious extrapolation.

Now, there is good reason to be sceptical, and the problem goes right to the heart of everything we know about the ancient Roman world. There is so little evidence that certainty, let alone definitive proof, on this and most other issues, is just not possible. And this lack of certainly leads to a situation where, in a very real sense, the past is what you make it: readers, as they always have done, fill in the limited evidence with their own interests, biases, and preoccupations. But it also means, I think, that the confidence with which some scholars seem to reject outright the story of Terence’s life should itself be treated sceptically. We can’t prove it’s true, but we can’t prove it’s false either.

For some readers of Terence, his identity as a freed African slave has been of much more than academic interest. Christopher Paul Moore, writing for New York Public Library’s Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, reminds us that ‘Black writers, from the United States and around the globe, have long revered Terence as the first writer of the African diaspora. His standing as a writer and forefather of the global human rights movement is carried and guarded by generation after generation of black poets, from Juan Latino and Phyllis Wheatley, to Alexander Dumas, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and Maya Angelou.’ I haven’t yet been able to track down most of these writers’ receptions of Terence (and would love to hear from anyone who could give me any pointers), but I do know that Phyllis Wheatley, a survivor of the Middle Passage whose Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in Boston in 1773, claimed Terence as a model and inspiration in and for her verse.

For some whose lives have been directly shaped by slavery and racism, the idea that the author of what became one of the most famous humanist statements of all – ‘I am a human being: I consider nothing human alien to me’ – was a freed slave from Africa, was and remains an idea most definitely worth holding on to.

Note: You can read more about Phyllis (sometimes spelt Phillis) Wheatley and her work here. The quotation from Terence at the end is my translation of line 77 from his play The Self-Tormentor.