Terence holds a unique position among Roman writers, acquiring a great reputation while contenting himself with a very limited function. He leaves no claim to be an original artist, painting from life or commenting on the results of his own observation, and his art has little relation to his own time or country. Plautus, though, like Terence, he takes his plots, scenes and characters from the Attic stage, is yet a genuine Italian, writing before the genius of Italy had learned the restraints of Greek literature. The whole aim of Terence was to present a faithful copy of the life, manners, modes of thought and expression, drawn from those which existed a century before his time, by the writers of the new comedy of Athens.
The result obtained by Terence is that, while be has left no trace in any of his comedies of one sketching from the life by which be was surrounded, there is perhaps no more delicate, truthful and natural delineator of human nature within the whole range of classical literature. His position is due no doubt to the genius of Menander, whose creations he has perpetuated as a fine engraver may perpetuate the spirit of a great painter whose works have perished. Yet, no mere copyist or verbal translator could have accomplished this result. Though without claims to creative power, Terence must have possessed not only critical genius to enable him fully to appreciate and identify himself with his originals, but artistic genius of the highest and purest type. His position in Roman literature is this: he was the first writer who set before himself a high ideal of artistic perfection ancl was the first to realize that perfection in style, form and consistency of conception and execution. His plays have not only reached our time in the form in which they were given to the world, but have been read in the most critical and exacting literary epochs, and may still be read without having to make allowance for the rudeness of a new and undeveloped art.
While his great gift to Roman literature is that he first made it artistic, that he imparted to "rude Latium" the sense of elegance, consistency and moderation, his gift to the world is that through him it possesses a living image of Greek society in the third century B. C., presented in the purest Latin idiom; yet Terence had no affinity by birth either with the Greek race or with the people of Latium. He was more distinctly a foreigner than any of the great classical writers of Rome. He lived at the meeting-point of three distinct civilizations: the decadent civilization of Greece, of which Athens was still the centre; that of Carthage, which was soon to pass away, and the nascent civilization of Italy, in which all others were soon to be absorbed. Terence was by birth a Phnician and was thus perhaps a fitter medium of connection between the genius of Greece and that of Italy than if he had been a pure Greek or a pure Italian; just as in modern times the Hebrew type of genius is sometimes found more detached from national peculiarities and thus more capable of reproducing a cosmopolitan type of character than the genius of men belonging to European races.
Terence's preeminence in art was freely recognized by the critics of the Augustan age. It consisted chiefly in the clearness and simplicity with which, in his comedies, the situation is presented and developed, and in the consistency and moderation with which his characters play their parts. But his great attraction is the charm and purity of his style, whether employed in narrative or dialogue. This charm he derived from his familiarity with the purest Latin idiom, as it was habitually used in the best Roman families, and also with the purest Attic idiom, as it had been written and spoken a century before his time. Indeed, the Attic flavor is more perceptible in his Latin than in the Greek of his contemporaries. If he makes no claim to the creative exuberance of Plautus, he is entirely free from his extravagance and mannerisms.
The best judges and the greatest masters of style in the best period of Roman literature were his chief admirers. Cicero frequently reproduces his expressions, applies passages in his plays to his own circumstances, and refers to his personages as typical representations of character. Julius Cæsar characterizes him as a lover of pure discourse. Horace shows his appreciation by frequent reproductions in his odes and satires of the language and philosophy of Terence. Quintilian applies to his writings the epithet "elegantissima," and in that connection refers to the belief that they were the works of Scipio Africanus. His plays were studied and learned by heart by the great Latin writers of the Renaissance, as Erasmus and Melanchthon. It is among the French, the great masters of fine conversation, that his merits have been most appreciated in modern times. Fénelon preferred him even to Molière, and Sainte-Beuve calls him the bond of union between Roman urbanity and the Atticism of the Greeks, adding that it was in the seventeenth century, when French literature was most truly Attic, that he was most appreciated.
Such humor as exists in Terence is always of a more chaste and delicate complexion than that of Plautus, Jenson Molière. While there are many grave and affecting passages in his plays, it cannot be said that he trespasses on the proper domain of tragedy, nor are there altogether absent touches of humor in every one of the pieces which he has left behind him; some humor of dialogue, more of character, and still more of comic situation, necessarily resulting from the artful contexture of his comedies. The Andrian, the Eunuch, the Brothers, and Phormio are pleasant comedies, and the Eunuch in particular was the favorite entertainment of the Roman theatre. The Self-Tormentor, and even the Stepmother, the dullest of his plays, have also passages that should raise a laugh. His humor always arises from the occasion, and flows from him in the natural course of the play, in which he not only does not admit his idle scenes, but scarce a speech that is not immediately conducive to the business of drama.
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