Gnaeus Naevius Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Gnaeus Naevius (NEE-uhs NEE-vee-uhs) is believed to have been of Campanian, perhaps specifically of Capuan, origin. He is reported to have participated in the First Punic War and so may have served among the Campanian socii (non-Roman nationalities who were allies of the Romans) in the war and taken up residence in Rome at the war’s end. At some time during his life, Naevius was imprisoned for attacks on prominent citizens. After his release from prison, he left Rome and died at Utica in North Africa.

He presented his first plays, principally based on Greek models, in 235 b.c.e. He wrote comedy, tragedy, and epics. He invented a new serious dramatic form based on Roman themes, the praetexta. He wrote an epic on the First Punic War in the native Saturnian meter rather than in the Greek hexameter.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Naevius is symbolic of the absorption of the destiny of the entire Italian peninsula into that of Rome; although he came from Campania, he became one of the most nationalistic of Rome’s early poets. In his dramas based on Greek models, he inserted native elements. He invented a new serious dramatic form based on Roman themes, and his choice of a theme and meter for his epic indicates his desire to make Latin literature more truly a Roman product. His writings survive only in fragments.

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Gnaeus Naevius created a Roman national epic with his poem in Saturnian verse, the Bellum Punicum (c. 250-205 b.c.e.; The Punic War, 1935-1940). He also authored the historical epic Annales (c. 250-205 b.c.e.; Annals, 1935-1940).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the Bellum Punicum, Gnaeus Naevius claimed to have fought with distinction in the First Punic War. Testimony that he made this statement comes through Varro, who quoted Naevius, and Gellius, who quoted Varro. Even so, a greater achievement was the new life Naevius brought to the Roman stage. Naevius followed Livius Andronicus, enlivening Roman drama considerably, in part through what Terence called his neglegentia. Terence’s use of the word “carelessness” probably refers to Naevius’s willingness to modify the Greek originals from which he worked.

It is also likely that Naevius invented the poetic form known as the fabula praetexta or praetextata. The toga praetexta was the purple-bordered toga worn by Roman magistrates as a mark of their office, and correspondingly the fabulae praetextae were plays with characters drawn from Roman history or myth who might have worn such a toga. The effect gave antiquity to such Roman customs, for Romulus would wear the gown of a Roman senator.

Similarly, such dress allowed references to other customs. In a fragment from the Clastidium (which probably dealt with the Roman victory there in 222 b.c.e.), there is a reference to the triumph that the hero can expect when he returns to his native land. Though some critics maintain that Naevius also invented the form known as the fabula Atellana (a series...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Goldberg, Sander M. Epic in Republican Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Goldberg’s study of the epic in Republican Rome touches on Naevius.

Gruen, Erich S. Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. This study on the ancient Greeks and Romans provides insight into Naevius’s life and works.

Rowell, H. T. “The Original Form of Naevius’s Bellum Punicum.” American Journal of Philology 68 (1947): 21-46. Although this article focuses on Naevius’s The Punic War, it provides some insight into this dramatist’s life and other works.