Quintus Ennius Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman poet{$I[g]Roman Republic;Quintus Ennius[Ennius]} Known as the father of Latin poetry, Ennius extended the Latin language into areas previously reserved for Greek, offering explanations for Roman origins. He thus paved the way for the Golden Age of Latin poetry and influenced poets ranging from Lucretius to Vergil.

Early Life

Not much is known concerning the early life of Quintus Ennius (EHN-ih-uhs) aside from the material he included in his own works. Because of the popularity of his writings, it is likely that this information is accurate: His contemporaries could easily have contradicted him. It is clear that Ennius was born in Calabria and that his circumstances were humble. His origins were a point of personal pride that he would conscientiously maintain throughout his life. Even when established at Rome as a teacher and recognized poet, Ennius lived with somewhat awkward simplicity in the wealthy surroundings of the Aventine and employed but a single servant.

Ennius began his career as a soldier rather than as a poet and served with distinction during the Second Punic War. It was, paradoxically, his military talent rather than his skill in writing verse that first brought him to the attention of Cato the Censor, whose surname and hatred for Carthage made him a symbol of stern discipline and morality, even in his own time. It was during these years, while stationed in Sardinia, that Cato, then serving as military quaestor (a post with many of the same duties as quartermaster), tutored Ennius, his centurion, in Greek. Cato introduced Ennius to Scipio Africanus and Fulvius Nobilior; these men would further Ennius’s interests after he went to Rome. Ennius subsequently served on Fulvius’s staff during the Anatolian campaign, and in 184 b.c.e. Fulvius’s son, with the approval of the Roman people, awarded Ennius a lot among the triumviri coloniae deducendae. This award constituted a grant of citizenship, though it brought him no personal wealth. Scipio, too, remained friends with his junior officer, and (at least according to tradition) asked that a bust of Ennius be placed next to his tomb.

Copies of this bust from the tomb of the Scipios may surprise the person who imagines Ennius as an old Roman ascetic. If this bust is, indeed, of Ennius (and some would disagree), he was full-faced, with an aquiline nose, thick lips, and generally provincial features. His hair is close-cropped in the republican mode but with straight locks rather than the “crab-claw,” curled ones found in Imperial sculpture. He wears the expected laurel wreath, but, again unlike Imperial sculpture, the artist has made no attempt to idealize his subject. One should contrast this frank rendering of Ennius with the sensitive, idealized (also suspect) sculptures of his successor Vergil. These are products of Augustan Rome and present Vergil as an idealized poet of an idealized city.

Life’s Work

At first, Ennius supported himself in Rome after his military service by teaching, armed with impressive recommendations from Cato, Scipio, and Fulvius; these were essential to attract good students, and Ennius, no doubt, attracted the best. Even so, Ennius must always have had intentions of making his mark in literature, and he wrote from his first arrival in the city.

Circumstances favored his efforts. The dramatist Livius Andronicus died in 204, and his colleague Gnaeus Naevius retired soon after, thus leaving a place to be filled. Ennius began writing dramas, all penned c. 204-169 b.c.e., primarily on mythic themes related to the Trojan War: Achilles, Aiax (Ajax, 1935), Andromacha (Andromache, 1935), Hectoris lytra (The Ransom of Hector, 1935), and Hecuba. He seems also to have chosen mythic subjects that would allow one to draw moral lessons on the folly of excess and pride: Alexander, Andromeda, Athamas, Erechtheus, Eumenides, Iphigenia, Medea, and Thyestes. Clearly, the Trojan War plays would have been very popular among republican audiences. Rome wistfully traced its uncertain origins to an amalgam of Trojan, Latin, and native Italic stock and consequently saw its history in its myth. Similarly, moralizing was popular in republican Rome; at least, high moral standards were officially privileged. The second group of subjects provided fertile ground for this. Unfortunately, these works (indeed, all of Ennius’s writings) survive only as fragments quoted by subsequent authors. Even order of composition and dates of first performances are uncertain.

What is clear is that Ennius became popular quickly after 204 and that he was versatile. Though he continued to write drama throughout his...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Information concerning Quintus Ennius’s life comes largely through references in his own works. For this reason it is probably reliable, as it could easily have been contradicted by his contemporaries given the wide circulation his works had during his lifetime. His Calabrian origins were humble, and even after he came to Rome and established himself on the Aventine he lived simply, with a single servant.

Though he served in the Second Punic War and held the post of centurion in Sardinia, his experience in the military served mainly to introduce him to Cato, Scipio Africanus, and Fulvius Nobilior, who would further his interests after he came to Rome. According to tradition, a bust of Ennius was placed beside Scipio’s tomb.

Roman teachers required recommendations to advance their careers, and Ennius certainly had these, though it may well be that the death of the dramatist Livius Andronicus and subsequent retirement of Ganeus Naevius helped advance Ennius’s literary career after 204 b.c.e. Indeed, Ennius saw himself in roles that were to some extent contradictory—as a free spirit and innovator, a sophisticated Grecophile, on the one hand, and, on the other, a Roman citizen intensely proud of his adopted city, enamored of its origins and concerned with propagandizing them.

Ennius’s literary career increasingly preoccupied him in his middle years, and indications are that the Annals, which eventually filled eighteen books, probably were circulated in successive parts of three books each. They were immediately accepted into the school curriculum, and their praise of Rome won for Ennius a wide audience. The longest extant passages from this collection are the “Dream of Ilia” (the daughter of Aeneas) and the “Auspices of Romulus and Remus.” Each of these is about ten lines long. It may be that wide acceptance of the Annals inspired Ennius to write a praetexta (historical drama) called Sabinae, on the rape of the Sabine women, and perhaps another entitled Ambracia, in praise of the achievements of Fulvius, though the authorship of these works is open to question.

Though always poor, Ennius enjoyed living well, and personal references in his works attest his longtime sufferings with gout. Despite such mundane reflections and evidence of stilted versification, Ennius provided a source of inspiration traceable throughout the subsequent history of Roman literature. Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, and others owe him a substantial debt.