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Reading Against the Grain: Vulnerability Dynamics in Terence's Phormio

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April 1, 2024

Speaker & Affiliation

Susan Lape, University of Southern California


4:30 pm - 6:00 pm
010 East Pyne


This study brings Terence’s comedy into conversation with recent work on vulnerability and precarity, an approach that illuminates the critical and satirical dimensions of the comedies, while also helping to account for their apparent support for competing ideologies, e.g., elitism and ‘humanism.’ Because Terence was translating between cultures as well as languages, his comedies articulate a comparison of ‘Athenian’ and ‘Roman’ culture along the axes of vulnerability and precarity. Although this often produces a subtle elevation of Rome’s more incorporative culture over the exclusivity featured in much of Greek new comedy, the comedies often critique a key facet of Rome’s hierarchical culture by undermining characters who refuse vulnerability. While the Phormio preserves this general framework, it brings unusual attention to the vulnerabilities experienced by elite (and slave) characters, so much so that many critics have described the play’s atmosphere as more tragic than comic, particularly in the first half. This extra emphasis on elite vulnerability is counterbalanced by the depiction of a character who boasts of his invulnerability and who wields a level of mastery or control over the plot that is elsewhere unattainable by characters in Terence’s comic universe. This is especially remarkable since this character—Phormio—is identified as a ‘parasite’ in the prologue, normally a creature of need and dependency. This paper discusses the play’s unusual vulnerability dynamics in light of Terence’s comedy more generally and considers the specific historical and cultural factors that may animate them.