Quintus Ennius believed that his greatest achievement was the ability to speak three languages: Greek, Latin, and Oscan. He was fond of saying that he “possessed three hearts.” Significantly, these are the three languages of ancient drama. In his own time Ennius was considered the Latin Homer because of his Annals. Apparently he was not considered a dramatist of stature equal to either Pacuvius or Accius in tragedy. Volcacius Sedigitus, who in the second century b.c.e. drew up a list of the ten best comic poets, places Ennius tenth and notes that he includes him only because of his early date.
Ennius’s achievements were not only literary; he also served with distinction as a centurion in the Roman army in Sardinia. It was during this period that Cato, who was then quaestor in Sardinia, taught him Greek. Ennius also served on the staff of the general Fulvius Nobilior during the Roman campaign in Aetolia. In 184 b.c.e., Fulvius’s son, with approval of the people, awarded Ennius a lot among the Triumviri Coloniae Deducenrae, thus constituting him a Roman citizen, although none of these honors brought him personal wealth.
Ennius’s military career brought him the acquaintance of wealthy and powerful Romans, and when he came to Rome in 204 b.c.e., he quickly established himself as an effective teacher and began the literary career that would win him further renown. His Annals were praised in his own time, both because they extended the Latin language into areas that had been previously reserved for Greek and because they dealt with explaining Roman origins, a theme that repeatedly appears in Latin literature. His Saturae further demonstrated his versatility and contained poems on Pythagoreanism (his knowledge in this area probably was acquired through his residence in southern Italy) and even Greek gastronomy. No doubt he knew the Greek towns of southern Italy as well, for he was in every sense a Hellenized Roman, the Roman historian Suetonius having coined the word “semi-Graecus” to describe him.
The greatest achievement of Ennius’s dramatic production was his ability to imitate in Latin the style of the Greek tragic poets. Probably his most successful efforts here were imitations of Euripides, though some of the titles indicate that he adapted Aeschylus and Sophocles as well.