Born: c. 239 BC
Birthplace: Rudiae, Calabria, Italy
Died: c. 170 BC
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: Ancient Rome
Executive summary: Founder of Roman literature
Ancient Latin poet, born at Rudiae in Calabria. Familiar with Greek as the language in common use among the cultivated classes of his district, and with Oscan, the prevailing dialect of lower Italy, he further acquired a knowledge of Latin; to use his own expression, he had three "hearts" (corda), the Latin word being used to signify the seat of intelligence. He is said to have claimed descent from one of the legendary kings of his native district, Messapus the eponymous hero of Messapia, and this consciousness of ancient lineage is in accordance with the high self-confident tone of his mind, with his sympathy with the dominant genius of the Roman republic, and with his personal relations to the members of her great families. Of his early years nothing is directly known, and we first hear of him in middle life as serving during the Second Punic War, with the rank of centurion, in Sardinia, in the year 204, where he attracted the attention of Cato the Elder, and was taken by him to Rome in the same year. Here he taught Greek and adapted Greek plays for a livelihood, and by his poetical compositions gained the friendship of the greatest men in Rome. Amongst these were the elder Scipio and Fulvius Nobilior, whom he accompanied on his Aetolian campaign (189). Through the influence of Nobilior's son, Ennius subsequently obtained the privilege of Roman citizenship. He lived plainly and simply on the Aventine with the poet Caecilius Statius. He died at the age of 70, immediately after producing his tragedy Thyestes. In the last book of his epic poem, in which he seems to have given various details of his personal history, he mentions that he was in his 67th year at the date of its composition. He compared himself, in contemplation of the close of the great work of his life, to a gallant horse which, after having often won the prize at the Olympic games, obtained his rest when weary with age. A similar feeling of pride at the completion of a great career is expressed in the memorial lines which he composed to be placed under his bust after death -- "Let no one weep for me, or celebrate my funeral with mourning; for I still live, as I pass to and fro through the mouths of men." From the impression stamped on his remains, and from the testimony of his countrymen, we think of him as a man of a robust, sagacious and cheerful nature; of great industry and versatility; combining imaginative enthusiasm and a vein of religious mysticism with a skeptical indifference to popular beliefs and a scorn of religious imposture; and tempering the grave seriousness of a Roman with a genial capacity for enjoyment.
Until the appearance of Ennius, Roman literature, although it had produced the epic poem of Naevius and some adaptations of Greek tragedy, had been most successful in comedy. Naevius and Plautus were men of thoroughly popular fibre. Naevius suffered for his attacks on members of the aristocracy, and, although Plautus carefully avoids any direct notice of public matters, yet the bias of his sympathies is indicated in several passages of his extant plays. Ennius, on the other hand, was by temperament in thorough sympathy with the dominant aristocratic element in Roman life and institutions. Under his influence literature became less suited to the popular taste, more especially addressed to a limited and cultivated class, but at the same time more truly expressive of what was greatest and most worthy to endure in the national sentiment and traditions. He was a man of many-sided activity. He devoted attention to questions of Latin orthography, and is said to have been the first to introduce shorthand writing in Latin. He attempted comedy, but with so little success that in the canon of Volcacius Sedigitus he is mentioned, solely as a mark of respect "for his antiquity", tenth and last in the list of comic poets. He may be regarded also as the inventor of Roman satire, in its original sense of a "medley" or "miscellany", although it was by Gaius Lucilius that the character of aggressive and censorious criticism of men and manners was first imparted to that form of literature. The word satura was originally applied to a rude scenic and musical performance, exhibited at Rome before the introduction of the regular drama. The saturae of Ennius were collections of writings on various subjects, written in various metres and contained in four (or six) books. Among these were included metrical versions of the physical speculations of Epicharmus, of the gastronomic researches of Archestratus of Gela (Hedyphagetica), and, probably, of the rationalistic doctrines of Euhemerus. It may be noticed that all these writers whose works were thus introduced to the Romans were Sicilian Greeks. Original compositions were also contained in these saturae, and among them the panegyric on Scipio, unless this was a drama. The satire of Ennius seems to have resembled the more artistic satire of Horace in its record of personal experiences, in the occasional introduction of dialogue, in the use made of fables with a moral application, and in the didactic office which it assumed.
But the chief distinction of Ennius was gained in tragic and narrative poetry. He was the first to impart to the Roman adaptations of Greek tragedy the masculine dignity, pathos and oratorical fervor which continued to animate them in the hands of Pacuvius and Accius, and, when set off by the acting of Aesopus, called forth vehement applause in the age of Cicero. The titles of about twenty-five of his tragedies are known to us, and a considerable number of fragments, varying in length from a few words to about fifteen lines, have been preserved. These tragedies were for the most part adaptations and, in some cases, translations from Euripides. One or two were original dramas, of the class called praetextae (dramas founded on Roman history or legend); thus, the Ambracia treated of the capture of that city by his patron Nobilior, the Sabinae of the rape of the Sabine women. The heroes and heroines of the Trojan cycle, such as Achilles, Ajax, Telamon, Cassandra, Andromache, were prominent figures in some of the dramas adapted from the Greek. Several of the more important fragments are found in Cicero, who expresses a great admiration for their manly fortitude and dignified pathos. In these remains of the tragedies of Ennius we can trace indications of strong sympathy with the nobler and bolder elements of character, of vivid realization of impassioned situations, and of sagacious observation of life. The frank bearing, fortitude and self-sacrificing heroism of the best type of the soldierly character find expression in the persons of Achilles, Telamon and Eurypylus; and a dignified and passionate tenderness of feeling makes itself heard in the lyrical utterances of Cassandra and Andromache. The language is generally nervous and vigorous, occasionally vivified with imaginative energy. But it flows less smoothly and easily than that of the dialogue of Latin comedy. It shows the same tendency to aim at effect by alliterations, assonances and plays on words. The rudeness of early art is most apparent in the inequality of the metres in which both the dialogue and the "recitative" are composed.
But the work which gained him his reputation as the Homer of Rome, and which called forth the admiration of Cicero and Lucretius and frequent imitation from Virgil, was the Annales, a long narrative poem in eighteen books, containing the record of the national story from mythical times to his own. Although the whole conception of the work implies that confusion of the provinces of poetry and history which was perpetuated by later writers, and especially by Lucan and Silius Italicus, yet it was a true instinct of genius to discern in the idea of the national destiny the only possible motive of a Roman epic. The execution of the poem (to judge from the fragments, amounting to about six hundred lines), although rough, unequal and often prosaic, seems to have combined the realistic fidelity and freshness of feeling of a contemporary chronicle with the vivifying and idealizing power of genius. Ennius prided himself especially on being the first to form the strong speech of Latium into the mould of the Homeric hexameter in place of the old Saturnian metre. And although it took several generations of poets to beat their music out to the perfection of the Virgilian cadences, yet in the rude adaptation of Ennius the secret of what ultimately became one of the grandest organs of literary expression was first discovered and revealed. The inspiring idea of the poem was accepted, purified of all alien material, and realized in artistic shape by Virgil in his national epic. He deliberately imparted to that poem the charm of antique associations by incorporating with it much of the phraseology and sentiment of Ennius. The occasional references to Roman history in Lucretius are evidently reminiscences of the Annales. He as well as Cicero speaks of him with pride and affection as "Ennius noster." Of the great Roman writers Horace had least sympathy with him; yet he testifies to the high esteem in which he was held during the Augustan age. Ovid expresses the grounds of that esteem when he characterizes him as "Ingenio maximus, arte rudis."
A sentence of Quintilian expresses the feeling of reverence for his genius and character, mixed with distaste for his rude workmanship, with which the Romans of the early empire regarded him: "Let us revere Ennius as we revere the sacred groves, hallowed by antiquity, whose massive and venerable oak trees are not so remarkable for beauty as for the religious awe which they inspire."
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