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The Reception of Phormio in the Carolingian Terence Miniatures

Justin S Dwyer

University of British Columbia

Character drawing is how Terence made his mark on Roman comedy and in this respect the title character of Phormio is his crowning achievement. No other Terentian comedy places so much narrative responsibility on a single role or offers such a richly drawn complex character. Phormio’s importance to the comedy and genre as a whole has not gone unnoticed in the scholarship. On the contrary, any focused study of this palliata seems compelled to address Phormio’s remarkable depth and the critical role he plays in the comedy’s success. These modern studies, however, also demonstrate a clear anxiety about Terence’s experimentation with Phormio; this has manifested in a broad spectrum of interpretations (cf. Lofberg 1920, Forehand 1985: 89-90, Dupont 1986, Damon 1997: 89-98). The cumulative result is a convoluted picture of Phormio’s characterization that complicates more than it clarifies our understanding of a narrative element that is so critical in the case of this comedy.

New approaches to traditionally overlooked evidence may be of great value. This paper refocuses modern interpretations of Phormio’s characterization by applying a reception-studies approach to character analysis using the Carolingian Terence miniatures as the guiding reception event. Applying the framework of reception analysis to these miniatures (Martindale 1993, Hardwick 2003), my approach reconstructs the visual characterization cues associated with the manuscript’s pictorial renderings of Phormio by a combination of the connotations suggested by comparanda (both internal and external) and the theatrical iconography represented in the manuscript. This offers a basic impression of how the artist understood Phormio and/or how they wanted Phormio to be perceived by viewers. It provides an independent and authoritative interpretation of Phormio’s character against which we can set previous readings.

My primary evidence is Vaticanus latinus 3868 (C), since it is considered the most faithful to its Late Antique model (Wright 2006: 1, 209). I also work from several assumptions. First, these miniatures represent inventions by the artist based on their reading of each scene’s cast list and accompanying text (Demetriou 2014: 791-2).  Second, the artist had a keen understanding of theatrical production and iconography (Dutsch 2016: 463). Finally, I assume that these images were not meant to reflect realistic stage performance, but rather served as a sort of abstract summary of each scene’s action, communicated through the language of theatrical iconography (Csapo and Slater 1995: 77-8).

This paper provides several new insights about Phormio’s characterization. The miniatures verify Phormio’s complexity by virtue of his inconsistent depiction throughout the manuscript. There are in fact three distinct versions of Phormio that occur in the seven miniatures in which he appears. Among these three versions, Phormio’s characterization is suggested by his alignment with several different stock types. Of those that have already been identified in previous scholarship, parasitus and servus callidus are confirmed by the miniatures, but none more so than the reading of Phormio as a traditional comic sycophant. This study also reveals a new side to Phormio’s character that has not previously been considered: the comic leno.

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Roman Comedy

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