Saturday, September 04, 2004


A Taste of Terence

There is a marked distinction between written and spoken English, and the distinction is no less prominent in Latin. One of the few Latin authors who gives us a good idea what spoken Latin might have been like is the comic playwright Terence, six of whose comedies survive.

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:Here are a few passages that are less well known, but that give a taste of Terence's style and subject matter.

Eunuchus 59-63:
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.

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.
Eunuchus 812-813:
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.

novi ingenium mulierum / nolunt ubi velis, ubi nolis cupiunt ultro.
Hecyra 198-200:
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?

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!
Hecyra 343-344:
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.

nam qui amat quoi odio ipsust, eum bis facere stulte duco: / laborem inanem ipsus capit et illi molestiam adfert.
Hecyra 662-663:
Do you think you can find any woman who's blameless?

censen te posse reperire ullam mulierem / quae careat culpa?
Phormio 696-697:
There's nothing, Antipho, that can't be put in a bad light by putting an adverse spin on it.

nil est, Antipho, / quin male narrando possit depravarier.
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?

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