1902 Encyclopedia > Quintus Ennius

Quintus Ennius
Roman epic poet, dramatist, and satirist
(c. 239 – c. 169 BC)

ENNIUS, Q. Although Enniusis known to us only from fragments of his writings and from ancient testimony, yet there is sufficient evidence from both sources to justify us in assigning to him a position of great eminence and influence in Roman literature. Although not the creator of that literature, for he is later in date, not only than Livius Andronicus and Naavius, but than Plautus, yet he did more than any of the early writers to impart to it a character of serious elevation, and thereby to make it truly representative of Rome. The influence of Nrevius was little felt by subsequent writers; and, although the works of Plautushave enjoyed a happier fortune than those of Ennius, yet Latin comedy was essentially an exotic product, and stood in no direct relation to Roman life, nor to the deepest and most permanent moods of the national mind. On the other hand, both Lucretius and Virgil may be regarded as inheriting the spirit of Ennius; and in many fragments of his various works we recognize his affinity with the genius of Roman history, oratory, and satire.

The circumstances of his life naturally fitted him to become the chief medium of contact between the art and intelligence of Greece and the practical energy and com-manding character of Rome. He was born among the Calabrian mountains (" Calabris in montibus ortus") in the small town of Rudise, in the year 239 B.C., one year after the date of the first dramatic representation of Livius Andronicus, and two years after the end of the first Punic war, Oscan was the language of the district in which Rudise was situated; but, as it is called by Strabo "EWrjVLs 7roXts, and as Ennius is spoken of as " semi-Graecus," Greek was probably the language in common use among the cultivated classes. Bince the subjugation of Italy, and the settlement of Roman and Latin colonies in the conquered districts, the knowledge of Latin must have been spread among the allies who sent their contingents to the Roman armies. Ennius testified to his appreciation of the intellec-tual gain derived from the possession of various languages by using, in reference to his knowledge of Oscan, Greek, and Latin, the expression that " he had three hearts" (Gell. xvii. 17), the word "cor " being used by him, as by many other Latin authors, as the seat of intelligence. Through the access which these languages gave to the ideas and sentiments of which they were the organs, Ennius was able to combine the culture of Greece, the fresh feeling and inspiration of Italy, the elevated mood and "imperial patriotism of Rome," in laying the strong foundation of the national literature.

He is said (Serv. on Aen- vii. 691) to have claimed descent from one of the legendary kings of his native district, the " Messapus equum domitor" who is introduced by Virgil (in recognition of the poetical fame of his reputed descendant) as coming to the gathering of the Italian clans accompanied by his followers, chanting their native songs,— "Ibant sequati nnmero regemque canebant."

This consciousness of ancient lineage is in accordance with the high self-confident tone of his mind, with his sympathy with the dominant genius of the Roman republic, and with his personal relations to the members of her great families. The exemption from war which his native district enjoyed during the first twenty years of his life afforded him leisure to acquire the culture which he turned to use in later life; and the vicinity of Tarentum afforded him favourable opportunities for familiarizing himself with the dramatic art of Greece. But of his early years nothing is directly known, and we first hear of him in middle life as serving, with the rank of centurion, in Sardinia, in the year 204 B.C., where he attracted the attention of the Quaestor Cato, and was taken by him to Rome in that year. This personal service in the second Punic war, the most momentous struggle in which Rome was ever engaged, must have deepened his interest in the national fortunes, and contributed to that knowledge of men, and especially of the soldierly character, which was afterwards largely displayed in his epic and dramatic poetry. As Cato made it a reproach to M. Fulvius Nobilior that he had taken Ennius, after he became known as a poet, along with him in his ^Etoliau campaign (Cicero, Tunc. Disp., i. 2), we may perhaps infer that it was the personal qualities of the man rather than the genius or culture of the poet which recommended the Messapian soldier to his regard.

From the time of his arrival in Rome till his death in 169 B.C., he devoted himself actively to various kinds of literary production, and probably to giving instruction in Greek, for which a great demand existed among the families of more liberal ideas among the Roman aristocracy. He lived on the Aventine, " in a plain and simple way, attended only by a single maid-servant" (to quote the words of Jerome in his continuation of the Eusebian Chronicle), and enjoying the friendship of the foremost men in the state, such as the great Scipio and M. Fulvius Nobilior, the conqueror of iEtolia. So strong was the bond of friend-ship which united him to the former of these men, that a bust of the poet was placed after death in the tomb of the Scipios, between those of the conqueror of Hannibal and the conqueror of Antiochus. He accompanied M. Fulvius Nobilior in his iEtolian campaign, in the year 189 B.C., and was present at the capture of Ambracia, which formed the subject of one of his dramas. The representa-tion of this drama probably took place at the celebration of the general's triumph two years later. Through the influence of his son, the poet obtained the privilege of Roman citizenship, a fact commemorated by him in a line of the Annals—
"Nos sumu' Romani qui fuvimus ante Rudini."

He died at the age of 70, immediately after producing the tragedy of Thyesies. In the last book of his epic poem, in which he seems to have given various details of his personal history, he mentions that he was in his 67th year at the date of its composition. He compared himself, in contemplation of the close of the great work of his life, to a gallant horse which, after having often won the prize at the Olympic games, obtained his rest when weary with age. A similar feeling of pride at the completion of a great career is expressed in the memorial lines which he composed to be placed under his bust after death,—" Let no one weep for me, or celebrate my funeral with mourning; for I still live, as I pass to and fro through the mouths of men."

From the impression stamped on his remains, and from the testimony of his countrymen, we think of him as a mau of a robust, sagacious, and cheerful nature (Hor. Ep. ii. 1,50; Cic. De Sen. 5); of great industry and versatility ; combining imaginative enthusiasm and a vein of religious mysticism with a sceptical indifference to popular beliefs and a scorn of religious imposture; and tempering the grave seriousness of a Roman with a genial capacity for enjoyment (Hor. Ep. i. xix. 7). We may realize the nature of his relation to such men as Fulvius Nobilior, and his personal bearing towards them, by a passage quoted from his Annals (Oell. xii. 4), in which he is said, on the authority of the grammarian iElius Stilo (a contemporary of Lucilius, and one of Cicero's teachers), to have drawn his own portrait under the figure of a confidential friend of the Roman general Servilius. This friend is introduced as being sent for by Servilius during a battle, and is described as one " whom he (Servilius) gladly made the sharer of his table, his talk, and his cares, when tired out with speaking on great affairs of state in the broad forum and august senate,—one with whom he could frankly speak about serious matters or jest about trifles,—to whom he could safely confide all that he cared to utter, with whom he had much hearty entertainment alone and in society,—one whose nature could never be prompted to any baseness through levity or malice,—a learned, loyal, pleasant man, contented and cheerful, of much tact and courtesy, choice in his language, and of few words, with much old buried lore, with much knowledge of men, and much skill in divine and human law,—who knew well when to speak and when to be silent."

His career as a writer began at a great epoch of the national life, the end of the second Punic war. The self-confident and triumphant spirit produced by the successful result of that struggle may be discerned in the exuberant vitality and animal spirits of the comedies of Plautus, whose period of most vigorous production falls in the years between the end of the war and his death in 184 B.C. Morenearly contemporary with Ennius was Caacilius Statius, the Insubrian Gaul, whom Roman critics ranked as a greater comic dramatist than Plautus or Terence. If weight may be attached to the phrase in which Horace repeats the criticism of the Augustan age,—

"Vincere Cajcilius gravitate,"

he must have resembled him in temper also more than the older dramatists. Till the appearance of Ennius, Roman literature, although it had produced the epic poem of Naavius and some adaptations of Greek tragedy, had been most successful in comedy. Naevius and Plautus were men of thoroughly popular fibre. Naevius suffered for his attacks on members of the aristocracy, and, although Plautus carefully avoids any direct notice of public matters, yet the bias of his sympathies is indicated in several pass-ages of his extant plays. Ennius, on the other hand, was by temperament in thorough sympathy with the domi-nant aristocratic element in Roman life and institutions. Und3r his influence literature became less suited to the popular taste, more specially addressed to a limited and cultivated class, but at the same time more truly expressive of what was greatest and most worthy to endure in the national sentiment and traditions. W'ith the many-sided activity which characterized him, he attempted comedy, but with so little success that, in the canon of Volcatius Sedi-gitus he is mentioned, solely as a mark of respect " for his antiquity," tenth and last in the list of comic poets. The names of only one or two of his comedies are known. He may be regarded also as the inventor of Roman satire, in its original sense of a "medley "or "miscellany,"although it was by Lucilius that the character of aggressive and cen-sorious criticism of men and manners was first imparted to that form of literature. The word " satura " was originally applied to a rude scenic and musical performance, exhibited at Rome before the introduction of the regular drama. The saturas of Ennius were collections of writings on vari-ous subjects, and written in various metres, and contained in four or, perhaps, six books. Among these were included metrical versions of the physical speculations of Epichar-mus, of the gastronomic researches of Archestratus of Gela (" Heduphagetica"), and, probably, of the rationalistic doctrines of Euhemerus. It may be noticed that all these writers whose works were thus introduced to the Romans were Sicilian Greeks. Original compositions were also con-tained in these saturse, and among them the panegyric on Scipio, to which Horace refers in the phrase " Calabrae Piérides" (Ocl. iv. 8, 22). The satire of Ennius seems to have resembled the more artistic satire of Horace in its record of personal experiences, in the occasional introduc-tion of dialogue, in the use made of fables with a moral application, and in the didactic office which it assumed.
But the chief distinction of Ennius was gained in tragic and narrative poetry. He was the first to impart to the Roman adaptations of Greek tragedy the masculine dignity, pathos, and oratorical fervour which continued to animate them in the hands of Pacuvius and Accius, and which, when set off by the acting of iEsopus, called forth vehement applause in the age of Cicero. The titles oí about twenty-five of his tragedies are known to us, and a considerable number of fragments, varying in length from a few words to about fifteen lines, have been preserved, These tragedies were for the most part adaptations and, in some cases, translations from Euripides. One or two were original dramas, of the class called " praetextatae," i.e., dramas founded on Roman history or legend. The heroes and heroines of the Trojan cycle, such as Achilles, Ajax, Telamón, Cassandra, Andromache, were prominent figures in some of those adapted from the Greek. Several of the more important fragments are found in Cicero, who expresses a great admiration of the manly fortitude or dignified pathos (" O poema tenerum et moratum atque molle ") of the passages which he quotes. Although it is more difficult to judge, from unconnected fragments, of the genius of a dramatic than of any other kind of poet, yet in these remains of the tragedies of Ennius we can trace indica-tions of strong sympathy with the nobler and bolder elements of character, of vivid realization of impassioned situations, and of sagacious observation of life. The frank bearing, fortitude, and self-sacrificing heroism of the best type of the soldierly character find expression in the persons of Achilles, Telamón, and Eurypylus; and a dignified and pas-sionate tenderness of feeling makes itself heard in the lyrical utterances of Cassandra and Andromache. The language is generally nervous and vigorous, occasionally vivified with imaginative energy. But it flows less smoothly and easily than that of the dialogue of Latin comedy. It shows the same tendency to aim at effect by alliterations, assonances, and plays on words. The rudeness of early art is most apparent in the inequality of the metres in which both the dialogue and the " recitative" are composed.

But the work which gained him his reputation as the Homer of Rome, and which called forth the tribute of affectionate admiration from Cicero and Lucretius, and that of frequent imitation from Virgil, was the Annates, a long narrative poem in eighteen books, containing the record of the national story from mythical times to the years during which the poem was written. Although the whole conception of the work implies that confusion of the provinces of poetry and history which was perpetuated by later writers, and especially by Lucan and Silius, yet it was a true instinct of genius to discern in the idea of the national destiny the only possible motive of a Boman epic. The execution of the poem (to judge of it by the fragments, amounting to about six hundred lines, which have been preserved) although rough, unequal, and often prosaic, seems to have combined the realistic fidelity and freshness of feeling of a contemporary chronicle with the vivifying and idealizing power of genius. He prided himself especially on being the first to form the strong speech of Latium into the mould of the Homeric hexameter. And although it took several generations of poets to beat their music out to the perfection of the Virgilian cadences, yet in the rude adaptation of Ennius the secret of what ultimately became one of the grandest organs of literary expression was first discovered and revealed. The inspiring idea of the poem was accepted, purified of all alien material, and realized in artistic shape by Virgil in his national epic. He deliberately imparted to that poem the charm of antique associations by incorporating with it much of the phraseology and sentiment of Ennius. The occasional references to Roman history in Lucretius are evidently reminiscences of the Annals. He as well as Cicero speaks of him with pride and affection as "Ennius noster." Of the great Boman writers Horace had least sympathy with him ; yet he testifies to the high esteem in which he was held during the Augustan age. Ovid expresses the grounds of that esteem when he characterizes him as "Ingenio maximus, arte rudis." A sentence of Quintilian expresses the feeling of rever-ence for his genius and character, mixed with distaste for his rude workmanship, with which the Romans of the early empire regarded him:—" Let us revere Ennius as we revere the sacred groves, hallowed by antiquity, whose massive and venerable oak trees are not so remarkable for beauty as for the religious awe which they inspire" (Inst. Or. x. i. 88). From his own application of the epithet "sanctus" to poets, which may be compared to the application by Lucretius of the same word to the great discoverers in philosophy, and to the " pii vates " of Virgil, wo may learn something of the earnest spirit in which he wrote for his countrymen the great story of their fathers' deeds.

" Aspicite, o cives, senis Enni imagini' formam ; Hic vestrum panxit maxima facta patrum."

The best edition of his fragments is that of Vahlen, published in 1854. The remains of his tragedies are edited also in Kibbeck's Tragicorum Latinoruin Seliquice, published in 1852. These remains are critically discussed in the llbmisclie Tragödie of the same author, published in 1875. (W. Y. S.)

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