1902 Encyclopedia > Gnaeus Naevius

Gnaeus Naevius
Roman epic poet and dramatist
(ca. 264 - 201 BC)




GNAEUS NAEVIUS is the second in order of time among the creation of Latin literature. He had made his appearance as an author within five years after the first dramatic representation of Livius Andronicus; he was some ten or fifteen years older than Plautus, and preceded Ennius by a generation. As distinguished from Livius he was a native Italian, not a Greek; he was also a writer of original power, not a mere adapter or translator. If it was due to Livius that the forms of Latin literature were, from the first, moulded on those of Greek literature, it was due to Naevius that much of its spirit and substance was of native growth. Long before the formal recognition of literature in Rome, which dated from the year 240 B.C., there had existed various kinds of inartistic composition, written or spoken, in Saturnian verse. The most important of these were satiric and dramatic medleys, known by the name of saturae, and commemorative verses in praise of eminent men, which were first sung at funeral banquets, and seem afterwards to have been preserved among family records. The fact that Naevius wrote his most important poem in Saturnian verse, the disparaging reference made to him by Ennius as the writer of verses like those of the old native "Fauni and Vates," the claim which he makes in his epitaph to be the last purely Latin poet, the political satire which he introduced into his comedies, the national and commemorative character of his epic poem, all point to him as a medium of connection between the nameless authors of these satiric and commemorative verses and the recognized authors of Roman comedy, satire, and even epic poetry.

Though the fragments preserved from his numerous writings are few and inconsiderable, yet they corroborate the impression derived from ancient testimony that he was a man of originality and force of mind, and of a bold and vigorous character. The impulse which he sought to give to Latin literature was somewhat antagonistic to that actually given by Ennius; and either the greater genius and richer culture of the latter or his greater adaptation to his times determined that his influence should be predominant. Probably the genius of Ennius was the higher creative force; it was more in harmony with the serious Roman spirit, and with the grandeur of Roman institutions; it more naturally allied itself with the aristocratic influence which was predominant in the state for two generations after the death of Naevius; it was also more capable of assimilating the Greek culture, which was the formative element in the literary art of the Romans. Yet the racy popular spirit of Naevius gained for him admirers even in the Augustan age, and Cicero represents the great master of Latin oratory, Crassus, as the highest compliment he could pay to the pure idiomatic speech of his mother-in-law, Laelia, comparing it t the style of Naevius and Plautus. Though a richer vein of imaginative feeling was introduced into the Latin language and literature by Ennius, yet much was lost in their subsequent development by the partial suppression of the aggressive boldness and freedom of Naevius, as well as of the exuberant mirth and humor of Plautus.

There is great uncertainty in regard to the facts and dates of the life of Naevius. From the expression of Gellius characterizing his epitaph as written in a vein of "Campanian arrogance" it has been inferred that he was born in one of the Latin communities settled in Campania arrogance" seems to have been proverbially for "gasconade"; and, as there was a plebeian Gens Naevia in Rome, it is quite as probable that he was by birth a Roman citizen. The strong political partisanship which he displayed in his plays is favorable to this supposition, as is also the active interference of the tribunes on his behalf. On the other side weight must be given to the remark of Mommsen, viz., "the hypothesis that he was not a Roman citizen, but possibly a citizen of Cales or of some other Latin town in Campania, renders the fact that the Roman police treated him so unscrupulously the more easy of explanation." He served either in the Roman army or among the socii in the First Punic War, and thus must have reached manhood before the year 241 B.C. We learn from Cicero that he lived to a good old age, and that he died in exile about the end of the 3d century B.C. The date of his birth may be thus fixed with approximate probability about the year 265 B.C. No particulars of his military service are recorded. Sicily was the great battlefield of the combatants during the latter years of the war. No important Sicilian city was without its theatre, and it seems legitimate to connect the new taste for regular dramatic performances (and especially for tragedy, to which there was nothing corresponding among the Italian races) developed at Rome immediately after the conclusion of the First War with the Sicilian experiences of the Roman and allied armies serving in the war. Another important influence in Roman literature and Roman belief which first appeared in the epic poem of Naevius also has its origin in Sicily, viz., the recognition of the mythical connection of Aeneas and his Trojans with the foundation of Rome. The origin of this belief may probably be attributed to the Sicilian historian Timaeus; but the contact of the Romans and Carthaginians in the neighborhood of Mount Eryx may have suggested that part of the legend which plays so large a part in the Aenied, which brings Aeneas from Siciliy to Carthage and back again to the neighborhood of Mount Eryx. The actual collision of Phoenician and Roman on the western shores of Sicilym of which Naevius may well have been a witness, if it did not originate, gave a living interest to the mythical originof that antagonism in the relations of Aeneas and Dido.

The career of Naevius as a dramatic author began with the exhibition of a drama in or about the year 235 B.C., and was carried on energetically for thirty years afterwards. Towards the close of this career he incurred the hostility of some of the nobility, especially, it is said, of the family of the Metelli, by the attacks which he made upon them on the stage, and at their instance he was imprisoned, - a circumstance to which Plautus alludes in a passage of the Miles Gloriosus (211). After writing two plays during his imprisonment, in which he is said to have apologized for his former rudeness (Gellius, iii. 3, 15), he was liberated through the interference of the tribunes of the commons; but he had shortly afterwards to retire from Rome (in or about the year 204 B.C.) to Utica. The generally received accounts assigned his death to that year; but Cicero (Brutus, 15, 60) quotes Varro as an authority for the belief that his life was prolonged beyond that date. It may have been during his exile, when withdrawn from his active career as a dramatist, that he composed or completed his poem on the First Punic War. Probably his latest composition was the epitaph already referred to, also written in Saturnian verse:-

"Immortales mortals flere si foret fas,
Flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam;
Itaque postquam est Oreino traditus thesauro]
Obliti sunt Romai loquier lingua latina."

If, as has been supposed, these lines were dictated by a jealousy of the growing ascendancy of Ennius, the life of Naevius must have been prolonged considerably beyond the year 204 B.C., as it was only in that year Ennius first settled, and began his career as an author, in Rome.





Like Livius, Naevius professed to adapt Greek tragedies and comedies to the Roman stage. Among the titles of his tragedies are Aegisthus, Lycurgus, Andromache or Hector Proficiscens, Equus Trojanus, &c. We find in the letters of Cicero a reference to a representation of the last-named play at the opening of the theater of Pompey in 55 B.C.; but it seems to have retained its popularity so long not so much from its dramatic merits as from the scope it afforded for the gratification of the Roman taste for gorgeous spectacles. The few fragments preserved from the tragedies show the first rude beginnings of that artificial poetical phraseology and poetical word-formation which the impulse derived from Greek literature developed in the speech of Latium, and also the more native product of pithy sayings (such as the "kaudari a laudato viro," "sero sapient Phryges") which has passed into proverbs in the age of Cicero. The national cast of his genius and temper was further shown by his deviating from his Greek originals, and producing at least two specimens of the fibula praetexta, one founded on the childhood of Romulus and Remus (Romulus s. Alimonium Romuli et Remi), the other called Clastidium, which celebrated the contemporary victory in which Marcellus carried off the spolia opima.

But it was as a writer of comedy that he was most famous, most productive, and most original. While he is never ranked as a writer of tragedy with Ennius, Pacuvius, or Accius, he is placed in the canon of the grammarian Volcatius Sedigitus third (immediately after Caecilius and Plautus) in the rank of Roman comic authors. He is there characterized as "Naevius qui ferbet," a phrase expressive of his ardent, impetuous character and style. He is also appealed to, along with Plautus and Ennius, as a master of his art in one of the prologues of Terence. His comedy, like that of Plautus, seems to have been rather a free adaptation of his originals than a rude copy of them, as those of Livius probably were, or an artistic copy like those of Terence. The titles of most of them, like those of Plautus, and unlike those of Caecilius and Terence, are latin not Greek. Among the few lines preserved from them we find in one the "Laurentines and Praenestines" spoken of, just as we find mention of provincial Italian towns frequently in Plautus. He drew from the writers of the old political comedy of Athens, as well as from the new comedy of manners, and he attempted to make the stage at Rome, as it had been at Athens, an arena of political and personal warfare. A strong spirit of partisanship is recognized in more than of his fragments; and this spirit is thoroughly popular and adverse to the senatorian ascendancy which became more and more confirmed with the progress of the Second Punic War. Besides his attack on the Metelli and other members of the aristocracy, the great Scipio (whose services and world-wide fame he acknowledges) is the object of a censorious criticism on account of a youthful escapable attributed to him. Among the few lines still remaining from his lost comedies, we seem to recognize the idiomatic force and rapidity of movement characteristic of the style of Plautus. There is also found that love of alliteration which is a marked feature in all the older Latin poets down even to Lucretius. In one considerable comic fragment attributed to him,- the description of a coquette,- there is great truth and shrewdness of observation. But we find no trace of the exuberant comic power and geniality of his great contemporary. His critical spirit and vehement temper declare his affinity rather to Lucilius than to Plautus.

He was not only oldest native dramatist, but the first author of an epic poem,-which with a mythical background, may be said to have created the Roman type of epic poetry. The poem as he gave it to the world was one continuous work, and was divided into seven books by a grammarian of a later age. The earlier part of it treated of the mythical adventures of Aeneas in Sicily, Carthage, and Italy, and borrowed from the interview of Zeus and Thetis in the first book of the Iliad the idea of the interview of Jupiter and venus, which Virgil has made one of the cardinal passages in the Aeeneid. The later part of the poem treated of the events of the First Punic War in the style of a matrical chronicle. The few remaining fragments produce the impression of vivid and rapid narrative, to which the flow of the native Saturnian verse, in contradistinction to the weighty and complex structure of the hexameter, was naturally adapted. Mommsen has noticed that in these fragments the story is told in the present tense. The disparaging criticism of Ennius-

"Scripsere alii rem
Versibu’ quos olim Fauni vatesque canebant, &c."-

Applied to the rudeness of the verse, not to the spirit or substance of the work. Cicero speaks of it as giving pleasure, like a statue of Myron, and the grudging admissionof Horace-

"Naevius in minibus non est et mentibus haeret
Paene recens"-

Attests the fresh pleasure with which it still could be read in the Augustan age.

The impression we get of the man is that, whether or not he actually enjoyed the full rights of Roman citizenship, he was a vigorous representative of the combative spirit of the ancient roman commons,-of the political not, like Plautus, of the bourgeois type of the Roman plebeian. Energy of character and vitality of temperament are shown by the prolonged continuation of his career as a writer, notwithstanding the discouragement of his imprisonment, and what was a greater trial than temporary imprisonment, his exile. The chief service which he rendered to roman letters was that he was one of those who made the Latin language into a great organ of literature, and that with the new formative energy which he applied to it he transmitted the force of the best popular speech of his time. the phrases still quoted from him have nothing of an antiquated sound, while they have a genuinely idiomatic ring. As a dramatist he worked more in the spirit of Plautus than of Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius, or Terence; but the great Umbrian humorist is separated from his older contemporary, not only by his breadth of comic power, but by his general attitude of moral and political indifference. The power of Naevius was the more genuine Italian gift-the power of satiric criticism-the "Italum acetum" which was employed in making men ridiculous, not, like that of Plautus, in extracting amusement from the humors, follies, and eccentricities of life. His more truly creative faculty seems to have shown itself, not only in rapid and animated narrative, but in pregnant invention which still lives in literature, owing to the recognition of its value by the receptive and reproductive genius of Virgil. Although our means of forming a fair estimate of Naevius are more scanty than in the case of the other makers of Roman literature whose work is only known to us in fragments, yet all that we do know of him leads to the conclusion that he was far from being the least among them, and that with the loss of his writings there was lost a vein of national feeling and genius which reappears rarely in the writings of the later republican and the imperial times-the vein which probably was predominant in Cato, which may still be traced in the fragments of Lucilius and in the personal and political lampoons of catullus, and may be detected under the rhetorical invective of Juvenal.

Collections of the Fragments have been made and commented on by Klussmann (1843) and Vahlen (1852). A short study of the life and writings of Naevius (De C. Naevii vita et scriptis) has been written by M. Berchem. (W. Y. S.)






The above article was written by: Prof. W. Y. Sellar, LL.D.



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