Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) by Terence (163 BC)

‘I can’t understand it all’
(Menedemus at the climax of the plot, page 148, and he isn’t the only one)

The Self-Tormentor is based on an unnamed original by the Greek playwright Menander.

As usual the stage is a bare minimum, showing the front doors of two houses. In this play, however, they are not in the town but farmhouses in the countryside in Attica, the Greek region which contained Athens.

This is the least dramatic of Terence’s plays and relies on the dialogue to convey the complicated plots and counterplots of the characters.

Now listen with open minds, don’t interrupt, and allow me to present a play which doesn’t depend on action. (Prologue, page 102)

The self-tormentor of the title is the old father, Menedemus. Three months before the actions starts, he sent his son off to the wars and has been racked with guilt ever since.

The plot

Chremes and Menedemus

Chremes comes out of his front door as Menedemus walks by. The latter is in rough working clothes, looking exhausted, carrying a heavy hoe. Menedemus stops him, says this is the first time they’ve had a chance to talk since Menedemus bought the farm next to Chremes’s. Why does he work so hard? No matter how early Chremes is up or late he goes to bed he sees Menedemus labouring in the fields on his own. It’s feels not so much like he’s working hard, more that he’s tormenting himself. Why?

With tears in his eyes, Menedemus tells his story: he has a grownup son, Clinia. An old lady moved to the neighbourhood with a beautiful young daughter. Clinia fell madly in love with her but instead of being happy and supporting his son, Menedemus was on his case all the time, telling him to stop mooning about and being useless. Menedemus tells him that at his age he, Menedemus, was a poor man trying to find his way in the world, and so went off to serve a foreign king in Asia Minor. In the end he wore his son down with his nagging so much that Clinia did the same, upped and left and went to fight abroad.

At which point Menedemus was overcome with guilt. He looked round at his servants waiting on his every need in his big house and thought of his son in some squalid camp abroad and couldn’t bear it. So he auctioned off his slaves and all his property, sold his house and bought the land and farmhouse next to Chremes. And here he works his fingers to the bone and torments himself every day, imagining that making himself miserable will correct the wrong he’s done.

I’ve made up my mind that I can lessen the wrong done to my boy by making myself miserable. (p.106)

Chremes listens with tears in his eyes, tries to cheer Menedemus up, but the latter picks up his hoe and stumps off into his own house.

It was the tears in his eyes which made me realise in a flash that Terence is sentimental. In a play by Plautus no character has tears in their eyes unless it’s tears of rage or tears of hilarious laughter. By contrast, in Terence characters feel deeply for each other, are considerate of each other’s feelings, apologise to each other, see each other’s point of view. To revisit the Wikipedia quote about sentimental novels of the 18th century:

Sentimental novels relied on emotional response, both from their readers and characters. They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance both emotions and actions. The result displays the characters as a model for refined, sensitive emotional effect and flatters the reader who is assumed to be refined and sensitive enough to appreciate the characters’ refinement and sensibility.

It is in this dialogue that the famous Terence quote about nothing human being alien from me occurs – Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. It is on page one of the play, and during this little dialogue, that Menedemus asks:

MENEDEMUS: Chremes, can you spare a moment from your own affairs to listen to someone else’s – even if they don’t really concern you?
CHREMES: I’m human, so any human interest is my concern. (p.104)

So. Far from being a bold statement of a sweeping philosophical principle, this much quoted phrase turns out to be the kindly comment of one old boy to another one, encouraging him to open up and share his worries about his son. Completely different from how it reads out of context. And a bit disappointing.

Clitipho and Clinia

Anyway, Chremes is about to go into his house when he is surprised to see his son, Clitipho, coming out of it and speaking to someone inside. And even more surprised when his son reveals that he’s talking to Clinia, the Menedemus’s son, the boy whose unknown whereabouts prompted Menedemus’s commitment to a life of self-mortification. Turns out Clitipho met him disembarking from a ship and brought him here, as the two have been friends since they were boys.

When Chremes says they must tell the boy’s father at once, Clitipho cuts him off and tells him that poor Clinia is confused about what to do: he is still madly in love with the girl but respects and doesn’t want to upset his father. He’s sent his slave, Dromo, to the house of his beloved, Antiphila, and Clitipho sent their family slave, Syrus, to accompany him.

Chremes goes into his own house to meet Clinia and also to finalise preparations for a dinner party he’s hosting this evening.

Clitipho soliloquises

Leaving Clitipho alone onstage to soliloquise and tell us his friend is lucky compared to him because his beloved is honest and true. Whereas he, Clitipho is in love with a haughty mistress who demands gifts and presents which he can barely afford. Also wise words about how fathers judge their sons by the fathers’ feelings now, at their mature age, rather than remembering what it was like to be a young man and being more forgiving.

Enter Clinia

Clinia comes out of Chremes’ house, a bundle of nerves about seeing his beloved.

Enter Dromo and Syrus

Clinia and Clitiph see their slaves, Dromo and Syrus, approaching from the port, and further behind them a train of slaves carrying baggage. They overhear Dromo and Syrus complaining about the big baggage train they’re bringing and miserable Clinia jumps to completely the wrong conclusion – he concludes that the plain and simple girl he left behind, Antiphila, has found a rich lover who has lavished her with gifts, hence the huge baggage train.

No no no, said Dromo. The reverse. When they got to the house Antiphila shares with her old servant they found them living in puritan poverty and plainness. It’s an insight into the Roman ideal of the chaste, virginal woman: sitting quietly weaving; no guests; plainly dressed; no elaborate hairdo; no jewels. And as soon as the slaves told her that Clinia was back she burst into tears of joy (tears again) and hastened to return with them so Clinia is reassured that she’s still the simple girl he fell in love with.

Syrus surprises Clitipho by telling him they’ve also fetched his lady love, the haughty Bacchis. Clitipho isn’t pleased but Syrus explains that he has a plan: they’ll pretend that Bacchis is Clinia’s beloved. The boys are confused and Syrus tells them both to trust him.

Clitipho desperately wants to embrace Bacchis but Syrus insists he hides his love and bundles him onto Chremes’ house.

Enter Bacchis and Antiphila

Bacchis makes a speech praising Antiphila’s honesty and virtue. It’s a good example of the way Terence’s characters speechify at each other, delivering fine and noble sentiments in clear and lucid prose. It was this clear style which was so admired and copied in centuries to come, but makes for rather dull reading.

Anyway, Bacchis in effect praises Antiphila as the noblest and truest of women, while her suitor hides and overhears. Then he comes out of hiding and runs over to Antiphila who is overcome with emotion and swoons into his arms. Syrus observes all this but then hustles them all into Chremes’ house, presumably for the big dinner party which Chremes mentioned right at the start.

Next morning: enter Chremes

Chremes delivers a little soliloquy saying he’s resolved to tell miserable old Menedemus that his son has returned, and is even now in his (Chremes’) house.

Enter Menedemus

From his house, next door, and Chremes goes straight up to him and tells him his son has returned and is in his (Chremes’) house. Menedemus is overjoyed and wants to see him but Chremes counsels caution, saying his son is hiding and still scared of him. Menedemus wants to be all forgiveness but Chremes says he should be manly and resolute. He goes on to describe the woman his son (Clinia) has fallen in with under the misapprehension that Bacchis is Clinia’s beloved, for she is fussy and haughty and insisted on the best food and wine. If it wasn’t obvious before, you realise Bacchis exists to provide a foil and contrast with simple, honest, homely Antiphila.

Chremes then goes on to outline to Menedemus how he must behave, which was quite complicated and required exactly the concentration that editor Betty Radice warns about. Chremes warns Menedemus that if he’s too kind and forgiving, Clinia, Bacchis and the naughty slave Syrus will take advantage of him and milk him dry. Therefore he must playact being stern.

Menedemus sententiously remarks on how other people so often see our troubles and the solution far more clearly than we do. Chremes tells him to go home and lie low. Exit Menedemus.

Enter Syrus

A complicated dialogue with Chremes. When Syrus praises young Clinia and blames his father Menedemus for being tight with his money as the reason Clinia ran away from home, Chremes surprises him by blaming the family slave for not coming up with a clever ruse to satisfy both of them. To Syrus’s surprise, Chremes admits that, on occasion, he approves of slaves deceiving their masters (p.124). Chremes eggs Syrus on to devise a scheme to help Clinia and Menedemus be reconciled. Syrus warms to his task. Chremes goes into his house.

Enter Chremes dragging Clitipho

Now Chremes has been told that Bacchis is Clinia’s expensive, haughty beloved. So he’s just gone back into his house and discovered his own son, Clitipho, with his hand down Bacchis’s front and is outraged at his son’s terrible disrespect for his best friend. Syrus is furious that Clitipho has lost the self control he drummed into him a few scenes earlier and thus jeopardised the entire plan.

Syrus realises he’s got to pack Clitipho out of the way while he finalises his plan for inveigling Clinia with his father so, with Chremes’ approval, he pushes him offstage and tells him to go for a walk.

Now the plot gets so complicated I didn’t completely understand it. Syrus tells Chremes that Bacchis lent Antiphila’s mother 1,000 drachmas and with Antiphila as security. Antiphila’s mother died and Antiphila now owes Bacchis the money. Syrus lies that Bacchis is demanding the money from Clinia in exchange for which he can have the girl, Antiphila.

Syrus tells Chremes that he will now go to see Menedemus and explain the situation but add the new information that the girl, Antiphila, is in fact a well born woman who was kidnapped from Caria, so that if Menedemus buys her he will do very well out of the deal.

I don’t understand how Menedemus can buy a free woman. Or is Antiphila a slave? I hadn’t realised. But how she can be a slave if she’s well born and rich?

Chremes warns Syrus that he knows what Menedemus will say, he’ll refuse. That, replies Syrus, is exactly the response he wants. Is it, replies Chremes, mystified and I, also, had no idea what was going on. Comedy should probably be comprehensible.

Enter Sosastra

Sosastra is Chremes’ wife. She enters with the family nurse. She says this is the very ring they gave to their baby daughter when they exposed her [exposed her? abandoned her to die??] and sends the nurse back inside.

Now she comes up to Chremes and delivers some vital back story. Remember that time she was pregnant and Chremes told her to get rid of the child if it was a girl [!]. Well, she didn’t, after bearing it, she gave it to an old lady from Corinth to expose. Now she’s learned that the woman from Corinth disobeyed, and raised the girl as her own.

Chremes is furious for some very revealing reasons (p.131):

  1. his wife disobeyed him
  2. the old woman ‘might have made a living out of the child’ – does that mean pimped her out for sex?
  3. or she might have sold the child into slavery – is that worse than exposing her to die?

Anyway, Sosastra now tells Chremes that she gave the old lady a ring for the child and the girl who accompanied Bacchis to their house was wearing this ring. Syrus lets out a cry! Antiphila must be Chremes daughter, thought dead.

Chremes orders Sosastra to accompany him indoors where they’ll investigate further.

Syrus soliloquises

Syrus is alone onstage and soliloquises that if Antiphila is a free-born woman that dashes his plans for extracting money from Menedemus by getting the latter to buy her [I still don’t follow the details of this, or why, indeed, Syrus is trying to extract money from him; I thought all that was needed was a nice reconciliation between father and son who are both desperate to be reconciled; Syrus’s schemes just seem to be introducing needless complexity into a fairly simply situation.]

Enter Clinia

Clinia is over the moon that his beloved has turned out to be a) free born, and so a worthy bride b) Chremes’ long-lost daughter and so eminently acceptable to his father, Menedemus.

Yes, yes, says Syrus, but what about his friend, Clitiphon? They’ve got to keep up the pretence that Bacchis is Clinia’s beloved for Chremes’ benefit [I really don’t understand why and if they do, it’s only because Syrus cooked up this hare-brained scheme in the first place.]

Clinia objects that if he goes on pretending Bacchis is his beloved, it will wreck his plans getting Chremes to let him marry Antiphila. It will look very odd switching from one woman to Chremes’s daughter so suddenly.

Enter Bacchis

Bacchis soliloquises that she is very angry with Syrus for persuading her to take part in this charade with the promise of 1,000 drachmas. Oh. Is this why Syrus needs to extract 1,000 drachmas from Menedemus? Because he needs it to pay Bacchis? Why did he promise her this money in the first place?

Very loudly she tells her maid to hurry to a neighbouring farmhouse where her ‘captain’ is staying and tell him she’s being held here against her will. [This refers to the fact which Syrus told us earlier that he and Dromo discovered Bacchis being wooed by a captain who she was winding up and offering her favours for in return for money.

Going back and rereading the earlier scenes I see that Clitiphon was struggling to please his mistress, Bacchis, because she demands money from him and he’s penniless. Now I think I understand. Syrus is not only trying to reconcile Clinia and his father and pair Clinia off with Antiphila – he is at the same time attempting to win for Clitiphon his hoity-toity beloved, Bacchus, by giving her money as if from (penniless) Clitiphon. And he had planned to extract this money from Menedemus by getting him to buy Antiphila on the understanding she was a rich free-born woman who…? What? Would reimburse him for setting her free?

I still don’t fully understand. This ‘comedy’ is harder than a work of philosophy.

Now Syrus bangs on the door of Menedemus’s house and gets his slave, Dromo, to come out. Syrus tells Dromo to go into Chremes’ house and gather up all Bacchis’s maids and baggage and transfer it all into Menedemus’s house. In Plautus’s comedies, part of the fun came from fully understanding the scams the clever slave is pulling, and so being able to judge the risks, and spot instantly when something is going (comically) wrong.

Here, I haven’t a clue why Syrus is transferring Bacchis and her maids to Menedemus’s house and am waiting impatiently form someone to explain what the hell is going on.

Enter Chremes

Syrus greets Chremes and assures him the little plan he encouraged him to put in place earlier is coming to fruition. So Syrus proceeds to explain that Clinia has told his father, Menedemus, that Bacchis is not his mistress but Clitipho’s. Clinia is also telling his father that he has seen the newly discovered daughter, Antiphila and fallen in love with her and wants her hand in marriage.

Syrus asks Chremes to go along with this apparent pretence and agree to give Antiphila’s hand in marriage to Clinia because then Menedemus will give his son Clinia money to pay for the wedding – so this motivation of extracting money from Menedemus is becoming more obviously the central plank of Syrus’s schemes.

Chremes hesitates but Syrus hastens to add it will only be for a day, just pretend. Anyway, if he won’t do it there’s still the matter of the 1,000 drachmas which is owed to Bacchis, the loan made to the old woman with Antiphila as security. Syrus is sure someone as noble as Chremes will want to pay it off, and Chremes agrees to give Bacchis the money asap. Syrus slyly comes up with excuses why it will be better for his son Clitipho to give Bacchis the money, so Chremes goes into his house to fetch it.

Enter Clitipho

Exhausted from his walk and angry with Syrus for his stupid schemes until Syrus explains that his father is about to give hi the money he can give to Bacchis. Clitipho hugs him with delight as Chremes comes out of his house. He hands over the money to Clitipho who is thunderstruck and Syrus tells him to hurry into Menedemus’s house to present it to Bacchis. They both go into M’s house.

Enter Menedemus

As in all these plays, the convention is that someone coming out of a house is still talking to someone inside. In this case Menedemus is shouting to his son that he is delighted to learn that his son is not in love with the expensive courtesan Bacchis; it’s a great relief.

Menedemus announces to Chremes that his son, Clinia, is in love with Chremes’ rediscovered daughter and wants to marry her. Chremes explains that this is all a deception and a scam to extract money from him, Menedemus. Chremes tells Menedemus to go back into his house and tell Clinia Chremes agrees to the wedding. They both go into their respective houses

Menedemus returns a few minutes later and has a little soliloquy in which he admits that he himself is a bit slow and could be described as a blockhead or nitwit, but not as thick as Chremes.

What interest me about this little speech is that it isn’t about love or money, it’s about intelligence and keeping up with complex scams. It seems to me to be a comment on the play it is set in, a comment on the demands required of an audience to keep up. I failed. At various points I’ve had no idea what is going on and have had to go back and reread passages and refer to notes to understand.

Chremes comes out of his house and the two old men reconvene. Menedemus is now convinced his son is telling the truth when he says he wants to marry Antiphila, whereas Chremes shakes his head and thinks Menedemus is being conned. Except we, the audience, know he’s not, so the laugh is on Chremes. If you can call it a laugh.

Menedemus goes on to explain that Clitipho is definitely in love with Bacchis. He had a room assigned to them with a bed and they both nipped straight in, locked the door and started making love. Chremes is appalled, because he has seen how ruinously expensive Bacchis is. Chremes is determined to block their love and all of a sudden we realise their positions have been cleverly reversed. At the start of the play it was Menedemus lamenting his pig-headed obstinacy which had driven his son away and Chremes advising him to be forgiving and kind. Now it is Chremes who in his anger and anxiety wants to block his son’s love affair and says he doesn’t care if his son goes off ‘to the ends of the earth’ i.e. is making exactly the same mistake as Menedemus did.

MENEDEMUS: It’s scandalous: you give advice to others and are sensible abroad but you can’t help yourself at home. (p.146)

Changing the subject Menedemus asks what dowry Chremes will give with his daughter. After a pause Chremes says he’ll offer for a dowry everything he owns as that will shut his son up and realise he can’t be milked. Menedemus is surprised and puzzled but goes into his house to fetch the young people.

Enter Clitipho and Syrus

Fetched by Menedemus, who goes back into his house. Chremes confronts his son and tells him that he is giving everything he owns as dowry to Clinia, because he doesn’t trust his son who he’s seen lavishing money on a demanding mistress. He can always apply to Clinia if he needs money.

He effectively disowns Clitipho and casts Syrus off and walks back into his house.

At this point Syrus cooks up another scam. I have come to heartily loathe Syrus and his scams and find them the opposite of funny. They are contrived and sometimes incomprehensible. Now Syrus tells Clitipho to go into his parents house and ask them whether he is really their won at all, they have been so quick to cast him off. Surely his mother will spring to his defence. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly clever or likely plan, and Clitipho isn’t very keen, but he reluctantly goes into his parents’ house. Syrus disappears back into Menedemus’s house.

Enter Chremes and Sosastra

They have a dialogue I don’t really understand which ends with Chremes saying there’s no doubt Clitipho is Sosastra’s son, they share all the same faults. This is just hurtful and the opposite of comedy.

Clitipho comes out and begs them, in genuine anguish, to acknowledge that he is their son. Sosastra insists he is and Chremes too. But then Chremes proceeds to deliver a page-long dressing down of Clitipho for his lazy, loose-living, and for bringing into their house a greedy courtesan. Clitipho is reduced to miserable shame. He hates himself. Not that funny, is it? He begs his father to forgive him.

Enter Menedemus

Menedemus enters the scene, determined to intercede between Chremes and his son and make the former relent. Menedemus, Sosastra and Clitipho all beg him to forgive the boy. Reluctantly he says he will, on one condition. Anything, says Clitipho. That he marries respectably. Clitipho reluctantly agrees. Sosastra suggests a neighbour’s daughter but Clitipho rejects her as ugly and spotty.

Clitipho has a counter-suggestion, a girl he likes quite a lot, the daughter of our neighbour Archonides. Chremes agrees. Clitipho asks one favour: that his father forgives Syrus. Chremes cheerfully agrees and the play ends just like that. No regret at losing Bacchis who he’s made such a fuss about, no big reconciliation scene between Menedemus and his son, no marriage, no welcoming the audience to the marriage feast. It just ends as abruptly as someone turning off the radio. Very odd.

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto

Terence’s most famous quote occurs on page 2 of this play. It means literally:

I am a human being; of that which is human, I think nothing estranged from me.

More smoothly as:

I am human, and think nothing human is alien to me.

I prefer the implications of the latter because it reinforces one of my core principles, which is a frank acceptance of human nature in all its gruesomeness. We are, after all, only animals which, through a quirk of evolution, happen to be able to ‘think’, sort of, sometimes.

Most history is horrific, most humans are disappointing, many are terrifying. We must make the best of life based on a realistic assessment of human history and behaviour. Denying these realities distorts our understanding of human nature, human history and human society, and undermines assessments of what realistic change and reform we can hope to effect.

Therefore I accept it, accept it all, all human behaviour, the killers and rapists, the paedophiles and génocidaires, the greedy billionaires and the drug addict muggers, alongside the sugar and spice and all things nice which the sentimental, naive and wilfully blind want human nature to consist of, and the huge territory between the extremes, where people are confused, uncertain, generally nice but sometimes stressed, angry or inexplicable. And that is what this quote means to me – signifying a complete, Nietzschean acceptance of the gritty reality of human nature.

Radice, on the other hand, translates it in the play as:

I am human, so any human affair is my concern.

Which may be a true translation but whose last few words seems to me to drastically expand the thought, making it far more pro-active and empathetic than my preferred version. Radice’s translation implies that all human affairs are my concern i.e. that I ought to be actively involved in them. It turns it from the detached and rather analytical acceptance of my version into a motto for Amnesty International.


1. It is a surprise and a letdown to encounter the phrase in its actual context and realise it comes from a very homely, domestic context, that of one old father lending an ear to his friend who wants to share his worries and guilt about his grown-up son.

2. Unintended by Terence, the phrase acquires a whole new resonance when you read it in the context of a play where the idea of exposing unwanted female babies to die was not only accepted as a common, socially acceptable activity, but was the basis for a popular comedy. One of the peculiar pleasures of the plays of Plutarch and Terence is you think you’ve got a handle on them, you think you are relating to the characters and their situations, when the bubble is burst by reference to one of the completely alien customs and assumptions which underlie their society such as the universal acceptance of slavery, of violent punishments, the silence and invisibility of so many of the women, or the universally accepted habit of abandoning babies on rubbish dumps.

In a way he hadn’t imagined at all, Terence’s phrase can be taken to refer to the way we, as 21st century readers, accept these alien conventions and practices – while utterly deprecating them with our conscious or moral minds, we nonetheless put our objections to one side and imaginatively accept them – in order to be able to relate to the characters and the plots of these plays and make it worthwhile bothering to read them at all.


Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies, edited and translated by Betty Radice.

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