Terence the African playwright

Share this

His works were entertaining and clear. The plots in his plays were absorbing. Monasteries and convents used his works to learn Latin during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. By copying his works, scribes in later generations were taught to write in Latin. 650 manuscripts created after 800 AD contained parts or all of his plays according to Claudia Villa[1]. To speak Latin and gain proficiency, priests and nuns re-enacted his plays[2]. Martin Luther used his comedies to teach about the natural impulses of people and considered his works essential reading for instructing children in learning Latin. Although his plays included pagan contexts, due to his masterly level of articulation the Christian church preserved his writing and used it for fundamental instruction in speaking, writing and reading Latin. He died aged 25 in 159 BC, either on his way back to Rome or in Greece, due to disease or shipwreck[3]. Who was he? Terence the African playwright.

To appreciate how influential Terence was to Western culture, consider the fact that William Shakespeare, Montaigne and Molière are names that cited and imitated Terence in their works. Another writer Machiavelli adapted Andria, a play written by Terence in 1476 Florence. Two of the earliest comedies in English – Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle – are believed to be parodies of plays by Terence.

Ralph Roister Doister was a play about a con man (Matthew Merrygreeke) who wants to woo a rich widow (Christian Custance) already engaged to a merchant (Gawyn Goodluck). The play is divided into five acts and features thirteen characters. Ralph Roister Doister first premiered in the 1550s, over 1,600 years after Terence died.

Terence was such a fundamental part of the Latin curriculum taught at fee paying elite schools for so long that as late as the 18th and 19th century AD – 2,000 years after the death of Terence – John Adams, former President of the United States once wrote the following to his son, “Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin…His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model.”[4]


More specifically his name was Publius Terentius Afer. Terence was an African playwright during the era of the Roman Republic. He was brought to Rome as a slave by a Roman senator Terentius Lucanus. Terentius educated Terence and afterwards freed him.[5]

Illustration of Terence, from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, possibly copied from 3rd-century original

Illustration of Terence, from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, possibly copied from 3rd-century original

Either Terence was born in Italy to woman brought to Italy from Carthage as a slave or he came to Italy as a slave from Carthage. We don’t know although there is implied evidence[6] that Terence was an African brought to Italy, whose hard work and intelligence earned him the adoration of his master. His cognomen (Roman nickname) of Afer implies he came from the Afri area of Carthage or its surrounding regions. It is also possible that either he came from ancient Libya[7] or was another type of North African[8].

What did he look like? Roman historian Suetonius who lived between 69 AD and 122 AD wrote that Terence was “moderate height, slender, and of dark complexion,”. Terence was a member of a group of philosopherspoets, and politicians patronized by their namesake, Scipio Aemilianus. This group was called The Scipionic Circle, or the Circle of Scipio. A modern equivalent would be either a local Ted Talks or Toastmasters International.

Terence was survived by one daughter, who married a Roman knight.

A generalized representation of Suetonius from the 15th-century Nuremberg Chronicle[1]

A generalized representation of Suetonius from the 15th-century Nuremberg Chronicle


The plays written by Terence are:

Andria is a play featuring 13 characters. It was first presented to the public in 166 BC. It was the first play written by Terence. It was adapted from two Greek plays – Samia and Perinthia – both by Menander. Andria is a story about Pamphilus the son of a nobleman (Simo) who promises to look after and marry the sister of his friend, Chrysis. Simo, the father of Pamphilus, arranges a marriage with Philumena, the daughter of his friend Chremes. Unknown to Simo, Pamphilus has impregnated the sister of Chrysis, a woman of low birth, called Glycerium. This causes a scandal and Chremes withdrawals his approval of the marriage to his daughter. To teach his son a lesson, Simo lies that the wedding is still on. To avoid embarrassment Pamphilus pretends to be willing to marry Philumena. Simo manages to convince Chremes to re-instate the wedding making it impossible for Pamphilus to go back to a pregnant Glycerium. Meanwhile Philumena is in love with someone else Charinus. Evidence comes to light that Glycerium was left with Chrysis as a family friend and that Glycerium is not a biological sibling of Chrysis. Chrysis merely looked after Glycerium as a baby sister but both of them fell into poverty due to hard times. The biological father of Glycerium, Phania, died in a shipwreck while searching for his lost brother Chremes, the biological uncle of Glycerium. Everyone discovers that Chremes is the natural guardian of Glycerium and Glycerium is of noble birth. Chremes instead gives Glycerium to Pamphilus, achieving the goal of marrying off a daughter to his friend’s son and making Glycerium happy. Chremes also achieves the goal of allowing Philumena to marry Charinus.

Illustration of Terence's Andria, Act 1, Scene 1, from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, ca. 825 AD

Illustration of Terence’s Andria, Act 1, Scene 1, from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, ca. 825 AD

Influences on Terence

Terence got inspiration for his plays from Greek playwrights. It is also possible that he was exposed to plays in Africa. We know from The Tales of Prince Setna, an example of Egyptian literature, that playwriting also existed in North Africa.

Quotes from Terence

Two famous quotes attributed to Terence include:

“Fortune favours the brave.”


Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto“, or “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”

Publius Terentius Afer is one of many Africans that had a profound impact on world history and world literature. Along with individuals such as Hadrian the African (also referred to as St. Adrian of Cantebury, a North African scholar in Anglo-Saxon England and the abbot of Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s in Canterbury), Terence demonstrates that advancements in knowledge and the arts always builds on inspiration from various sources, people from various parts of the world. There is no pure Western civilisation. Europe didn’t develop in a bubble. Each continent influences other continents and together we all discover and enjoy new things.

Ironically many generations of elite literate Europeans and the elite in slave owning America, as evidenced by a former president and his son, were educated in Latin using the works of an African Roman playwright.

  1. Luther’s Works: American Edition, vol. 40:317; 47:228.
  2. Holloway, Julia Bolton (1993). Sweet New Style: Brunetto Latino, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Essays, 1981-2005. Retrieved 2021-04-14.
  3. Kamm, Antony; Graham, Abigail (2014). “THE ROMANS”. routledgetextbooks.com. Retrieved 2020-11-10.
  4. John Adams by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2001. Pg 259. ISBN 978-0-684-81363-9
  5. Kamm, Antony et al (2014).
  6. Brown, Peter G. M. (2012). “Terence”. Oxford Classical Dictionary (4 ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 1440–1.
  7. Michael von Albrecht, Geschichte der römischen Literatur, Volume 1, Bern, 1992.
  8. “…the playwright Terence, who reached Rome as the slave of a senator in the second century BC, was a Berber”, Suzan Raven, Rome in Africa, Routledge, 1993, p.122; ISBN 0-415-08150-5.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Terence the African playwright

by Editorial Team time to read: 5 min