Quintus Ennius Essay - Critical Essays


Only about four hundred lines of Quintus Ennius’s twenty plays remain extant. A few lines remain from the Sabinae and the Ambracia, the two praetextae (historical dramas) regularly attributed to him. Nothing except the titles Cupuncula and Pancratiastes survives of his comedies, and even his authorship of these depends on the testimony of the literary historian Volcacius Sedigitus, whose list of Roman comedians has been preserved in the Noctes Atticae (c. 180 c.e.; Attic Nights, 1927) of Aulus Gellius. Even these meager remains would probably not have survived if Ennius had not been so frequently quoted by subsequent Roman writers. That Varro and Cicero quote so frequently from Ennius testifies to the importance he had for classical Latin authors.

Euripides and Ennius

Euripides’ plays especially attracted Ennius. Their modern and adventuresome qualities no doubt appealed to Ennius’s own free spirit. Most contemporary critics agree that more than half his plays derive from Euripides . Sufficient material survives from Hecuba, Iphigenia, and Medea to compare the fragments with the Euripidean originals. Eumenides, the third play of Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777), probably inspired Ennius’s Eumenides, and Aristarchus was probably the source of his Achilles. The historian Cicero reports that Homer inspired Ennius, though any direct translation is unlikely, based on the evidence that is available. In any case, it appears to have been the established practice of Roman dramatists to base their plays directly on a given Greek tragedy or comedy.

In his De finibus bonorum et malorum (45 b.c.e.; On the Definitions of Good and Evil, 1702), Cicero reports that all the Roman tragedians translated their works verbatim from the Greek originals. This, indeed, seems to have been the case, for the Ennian fragments can almost always be compared with a Greek original when that play itself exists. Still, Gellius maintained that there was nothing in Euripides’ Iphigenia to compare with the choral ode he quotes from Ennius’s play. In Euripides’ play, the chorus is composed of Chalcian women who have come to Aulis to witness the arrival of the Greek fleet. Moreover, they influence the play’s action very little, and their songs are lengthy, oblique, and sometimes obscure. Ennius, however, had made his chorus a group of soldiers and gives them a song on idleness that anticipates Plautine patter. Clearly, Ennius departed from his Greek original when he believed that he could improve dramatic structure or where the Greek became too abstruse to translate directly. Even here, though, such conclusions have to be tentative. Ennius may have maintained the Euripidean chorus and introduced the soldiers on his own as an excuse to present a piece of his own poetry.

Very strong Euripidean influence appears in Ennius’s Eumenides. All the fragments...

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