Saturday, September 04, 2004
A Taste of Terence
Terence was once at the center of the Latin curriculum. In his Handbook of Latin Literature, H.J. Rose writes:
He was universally known, because used everywhere as school-book, on account of his purity of style and easy simplicity of construction, from the end of the classical era onwards, until modern teachers, presumably in fear for their pupils' morals, substituted for him the much more difficult Latinity of Caesar, one of the most unsuitable authors for a beginner that could be imagined.What is so unusual about Terence's elegant Latinity is that he was not a native speaker. He was a slave from Africa, as his name (Publius Terentius Afer) indicates. This phenomenon is not without parallel in more recent times. Native English writers realize to their chagrin that they will probably never write in their mother tongue as well as the foreigner Joseph Conrad, born of Polish parents in the Ukraine and christened Josef Teodore Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski, wrote in English.
Terence's Latin was so pure that even in his lifetime detractors argued that a slave and a foreigner couldn't possibly have written the plays attributed to him. The noblemen Scipio and Laelius must have written them, they said. Compare those who argue even today that a commoner like Shakespeare could never have written plays that display so intimate a knowledge of court life.
Many expressions from the plays of Terence are familiar, such as:
- I'm a human being; I consider nothing human foreign to me. (homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto.) Heauton Timorumenos 77
- There are as many opinions as men. (quot homines, tot sententiae.) Phormio 454
- A word to the wise is sufficient. (dictum sapienti sat est.) Phormio 541
- Now there is no statement that has not been uttered before. (nullumst iam dictum quod non sit dictum prius.) Eunuchus 41
In love all these problems are present: insults, suspicions, enmities, truces, breaking up, making up again. If you tried to deal with these uncertainties in a reasonable manner, you'd achieve no more than if you determined to go crazy in a logical way.Eunuchus 812-813:
in amore haec omnia insunt vitia: iniuriae,
suspiciones, inimicitiae, indutiae,
bellum, pax rursum: incerta haec si postules
ratione certa facere, nihilo plus agas
quam si des operam ut cum ratione insanias.
I understand the character of females: they're not in the mood when you are, they in turn are in the mood when you're not.Hecyra 198-200:
novi ingenium mulierum / nolunt ubi velis, ubi nolis cupiunt ultro.
Goodness gracious, what kind of conspiracy is this! How is it that all women have exactly the same desires and dislikes, and you can't find a single one who's the slightest bit different from the others?Hecyra 343-344:
pro deum fidem atque hominum, quod genus est quae haec coniuratiost! / utin omnes mulieres eadem aeque studeant nolintque omnia / neque declinatam quicquam ab aliarum ingenio ullam reperias!
For the man who loves someone who dislikes him, in my opinion acts foolishly on two counts. First, he undertakes a fruitless task. Secondly, he's a nuisance to her.Hecyra 662-663:
nam qui amat quoi odio ipsust, eum bis facere stulte duco: / laborem inanem ipsus capit et illi molestiam adfert.
Do you think you can find any woman who's blameless?Phormio 696-697:
censen te posse reperire ullam mulierem / quae careat culpa?
There's nothing, Antipho, that can't be put in a bad light by putting an adverse spin on it.If you read only one play by Terence, I recommend Adelphoe (Brothers), which deals with a surprisingly modern theme -- contrasting views about the proper way to raise a teenager. Is leniency more appropriate, or strictness?
nil est, Antipho, / quin male narrando possit depravarier.