Cnaeus Naevius Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.