Cnaeus Naevius Essay - Critical Essays

Cnaeus Naevius


Cnaeus Naevius c. 270 b.c.-c. 201 b.c.

Latin dramatist and epic poet.

The inventor of the Roman historical play and the writer of the first truly Roman epic, the Bellum Punicum, Naevius was a politically outspoken author of both tragedies and comedies. His work is extant only in fragments, but based on what remains, critics consider him an original and independent writer. He is credited with breaking away from Greek subjects in drama, practicing contaminatio, (combining two plots from other works into a single new piece), advancing the use of musical accompaniment on stage, and for aiming his stinging satire and sarcasm at, among others, the leaders of Rome.

Biographical Information

It is uncertain whether or not the Latin poet was a native of Rome. A remark by Aulus Gellius about Naevius’s epitaph demonstrating “Campanian pride” is ambiguous, as the term could be proverbial or factual, but Henry T. Rowell has argued convincingly that Naevius was indeed born in the city of Capua in Campania. Little is known of Naevius’s life. It is known that he was born into a plebeian family and soldiered towards the end of the first Punic War, which lasted from 264 b.c. to 241 b.c. Naevius first began presenting plays around 235-31 b.c. Not long after 222 b.c. he originated the fabula praetexta or Roman historical play, with Clastidium, which concerned Marcus Claudius Marcellus’s victory in 222 b.c. over the Gallic Viridomarus. The Bellum Punicum was written when Naevius was fairly old, possibly around 210 b.c. Naevius used his plays as opportunities to systematically abuse prominent Roman statesmen. A remark, now infamous, offended the house of Metelli: “Fato Metelli Romai fiunt consules.” Tenney Frank, among others, explains that the line can be understood in either of two different ways, or more likely both at the same time: “The Metelli became consuls at Rome by chance” or “The Metelli became consuls to Rome’s sorrow.” The reply by Lucius Caecilius Metellus, the Metullus in charge in 206 b.c., threatened: “Debunt malum Metelli Naeuio poetae” (“The Metelli will give misfortune to the poet Naevius”). Naevius was imprisoned about 204 b.c. and, while held captive, wrote two plays, Ariolus and Leon, apologizing in each work for his hurtful remarks. Seemingly repentant and with the help of his peer Plautus, Naevius was released by the tribuni plebis. Soon, however, he offended the aristocracy again and was banished from Rome and Italy. He settled in Utica, in northern Africa, where he died around 201 b.c.

Major Works

Naevius’s many works exist only in fragments. Seven titles of his tragedies are known, and from them only about sixty lines remain. The titles are Aesiona or Hesione, Andromache, Danaë, Equos Troianus, Hector Proficiscens, Iphigenia, and Lycurgus. Most of the surviving fragments seem to come from the Lycurgus. Little can be ascertained except they appear to be adaptations of Greek dramas. Naevius used Roman history in writing his Clastidium and Romulus, or Alimonium Romuli et Remi. Not enough of the latter survives to comment upon except that it likely dealt with the legendary origins of Rome. Thirty-four titles of comedies by Naevius are known, comprising about one hundred and thirty lines. Nothing in the line of narrative or plot can be determined from their scarce remains, but J. Wight Duff has written that “there is enough to illustrate that observation of character which, combined with a fondness for mordant innuendos and unwelcome exposures, made his plays amusing to the plebeian and sometimes too spicy for the noble.” The titles—which are all that exist for the majority of them—are Acontizomenos, Agitatoria, Agryphontes, Appella, Ariolus, Astiologa, Carbonaria, Colax, Commotria, Corollaria, Dementes, Demetrius, Dolus, Figulus, Glaucoma, Gymnasticus, Hariolus, Lampadio, Leon, Ludus, Nagido, Nautae, Nervolaria, Paelex, Personata, Projectus, Quadrigemini, Stalagmonissa, Stigmatias, Tarentilla, Technicus, Tribacelus, Triphallus, and Tunicularia. Naevius drew from his experiences in the Punic War while composing the Bellum Punicum, an epic in Saturnian verse (a native Italian meter) that traces the history of Rome. Less than eighty lines of it survive. Originally written as one piece, the book was divided into seven by C. Octavius Lampadio sometime in the second century b.c.

Critical Reception

Naevius appears to have been regarded rather highly in his time and influenced Ennius. The Roman critic Volcatius Sedigitus considered him, circa 100 b.c., third best in his list of authors of comedy. While some scholars balk at this assessment, determining the true merits of Naevius’s verse is not possible due to its fragmentary state. Many of his lines have been preserved only by virtue of being quoted in the texts of grammarians as examples; critics have pointed out that it is highly unlikely that the cited examples are typical Naevius. Thelma B. De Graff, however, believes there is sufficient material to render judgment. In examining his most famous line, “Fato Metelli Romae fiunt consules,” she writes that “there is a sting more deadly than the sting which lurks at the close of Martial’s most bitter epigram. Only a man whose pride and self-assurance were boundless would have been capable of such an utterance against a member of the aristocracy in the Roman oligarchy of the third century b.c.” She adds that Naevius had a glorious spirit and the gift of vigorous expression. The value of the Bellum Punicum is reflected in the fact that it strongly influenced the poet Vergil. In addition to debating Naevius’s overall merit as a writer, scholars argue over the proper assignation of fragments to the Bellum Punicum. Rowell, for example, has taken issue with earlier reconstruction attempts and advocates a method employing rigorous testing with due consideration of both the textual tradition and the implications of a new order.

Principal Works

Remains of Old Latin, Vol. II (translated by E. H. Warmington) 1936

Bronze and Iron: Old Latin Poetry from Its Beginnings to 100 B.C. (translated by Janet Lembke) 1973


Leonhard Schmitz (essay date 1877)

SOURCE: “Cn. Naevius” in A History of Latin Literature, William Collins, Sons, & Company, 1877, pp. 24-5.

[In the following excerpt, Schmitz provides a brief summary of Naevius’s life and importance.]


… Cn. Nævius was a native of Campania, but probably a Latin, though not a Roman citizen, as in this case he could hardly have been treated by his enemies with the severity he had to submit to. He produced his first plays on the Roman stage in b.c. 235. He had served as a soldier in the first Punic war. As a poet he followed, on the whole, the example of Livius Andronicus, but preferred comedy to tragedy; and as a Campanian he seems...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

W. Y. Sellar (essay date 1881)

SOURCE: “The Beginning of Roman Literature—Livius Andronicus—Cn. Naevius, b.c. 240-202” in The Roman Poets of the Republic, Clarendon Press, 1881, pp. 47-61.

[In the following excerpt, Sellar discusses the importance of Greek literature as the model for early Roman literature and praises Naevius’s Latin for its vigor and purity.]

The historical event which first brought the Romans into familiar contact with the Greeks, was the war with Pyrrhus and with Tarentum, the most powerful and flourishing among the famous Greek colonies in lower Italy. In earlier times, indeed, through their occasional communication with the Greeks of Cumae, and the other colonies in...

(The entire section is 4842 words.)

George Augustus Simcox (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: An introduction to A History of Latin Literature from Ennius to Boethius, Vol. 1, Harper & Brothers, 1883, pp. 1-21.

[In the following excerpt, Simcox ventures that “a superb and reckless character served [Naevius] instead of literary talent.”]

… The first Latin playwright, the first schoolmaster who taught Greek literature, was Titus Livius Andronicus. He was a native of Tarentum: he came to Rome as a slave, and employed himself after his emancipation as a schoolmaster and an actor. In the latter capacity he originated the curious division of labor whereby one actor, commonly himself, danced and acted, while another, whom the audience were not...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Tenney Frank (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: “Naevius and Free Speech,” American Journal of Philology, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, 1927, pp. 105-10.

[In the following essay Frank offers his interpretation of Naevius’s most famous line, “Fato Metelli Romae fiunt consules,” and explains why it held a “double sting” for Metellus.]

The famous senarius of Naevius Fato Metelli Romae fiunt consules was preserved only by Pseudo-Asconius1 in commenting upon Cicero’s thrust at Metellus Creticus in the first Verrine oration, but it is clearly assumed as known by Caesius Bassus2 who quotes the answer of Metellus. Wissowa3 following Zumpt attempted to prove the line much...

(The entire section is 2291 words.)

Tenney Frank (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: “Early Tragedy and Epic” in Life and Literature in the Roman Republic, University of California Press, 1930, pp. 30-64.

[In the following excerpt, Frank notes Naevius’s innovations in drama, which include disregarding time and place and increasing the use of musical accompaniment; he also discusses the role of Naevius and his fellow dramatists in the development and eventual failure of Roman tragedy.]

Browning has recalled the story of how Greek war captives taken at Syracuse in the Peloponnesian war earned their release by reciting snatches from the plays of Euripides. It was a century and a half after that seige that the Romans came to Sicily in the...

(The entire section is 9724 words.)

Thelma B. De Graff (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: “Some Remarks on Naevius as Poet and as Man” in Naevian Studies: A Dissertation, W. F. Humphrey, 1931, pp. 58-66.

[In the following excerpt, De Graff explains why it is so difficult to evaluate Naevius’s merit as a writer and points out that many fragments of his work are extant solely because they were used as examples in grammar texts.]

There are certain great names in the world of letters which are immortal1 Upon them has been impressed the stamp omnium temporum et aetatum et locorum2, which marks them as classic. In the chorus of universal approval which greets them there is scarcely a discordant note. To estimate their...

(The entire section is 3357 words.)

Henry T. Rowell (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: “The Original Form of Naevius’s Bellum Punicum,American Journal of Philology, Vol. LXVIII, No. 1, January 1947, pp. 21-46.

[In the following essay Rowell contends that the common distribution and assignment of fragments of the Bellum Punicum is faulty and he offers suggestions for a different arrangement of particular segments.]

From statements of Suetonius and Santra, it is known that Cn. Naevius wrote his Bellum Punicum in the form of a single unbroken narrative which was later divided into seven books by C. Octavius Lampadio, probably in the second half of the second century b.c.1 That this edition of Lampadio was used...

(The entire section is 9567 words.)

Henry T. Rowell (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: “The ‘Campanian’ Origin of C. Naevius and Its Literary Attestation” in Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. XIX, Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 15-34.

[In the following essay, Rowell examines the earliest source material, particularly the efforts of Varro, for compiling biographical information concerning Naevius, with emphasis on the question of whether or not Naevius came from the city of Capua.]

The only indication which we have of the origin and nationality of the poet Naevius appears in a chapter of the Attic Nights in which Aulus Gellius records the epitaphs of Naevius, Plautus, and Pacuvius.1 In introducing the...

(The entire section is 7632 words.)

J. Wight Duff (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: “The Pioneers of Roman Poetry” in A Literary History of Rome: From the Origins to the Close of the Golden Age, Ernest Benn Limited, 1960, pp. 87-113.

[In the following excerpt, Duff examines some examples of what he considers inspired verses of Naevius.]

In Cn. Naevius (circ. 270-circ. 199) greater independence and originality are recognisable.1 He may be called home-born, and the native spirit is strong in him. Especially in the historical plays (fabulae praetextae or praetextatae) invented by him, and in his epic, he proves himself inspired by the greatness of the national life. His truly Latin genius is testified to...

(The entire section is 3179 words.)

Further Reading

Duckworth, George E. “The Golden Age of Drama at Rome,” in The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment. 1952. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1994, pp. 39-72.

Brief profile describes Naevius as original, independent, outspoken, and the inventor of the Roman historical play; mentions Plautus’s borrowing various passages from him.

Warmington, E. H. Introduction to Remains of Old Latin, Vol. II. Edited and translated by E. H. Warmington. 1936. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. vii-xxx.

Examines Naevius’s accomplishments, including the Punic War, termed the first national or really Roman epic, and...

(The entire section is 97 words.)