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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)

By Ennius (239–169 B.C.)

DOUBTLESS every human race—surely every Aryan clan—has felt, and in some measure gratified, the need of lyric utterance, in joy, in grief, and in wrath. The marriage song, the funeral chant, the banqueters’ catch, the warriors’ march, the hymn of petition and of thanksgiving—these must have been heard even in early Latium. Yet this Latin peasant soldier was surely as unimaginative a type of man as ever rose to the surface of self-conscious civilized life. His folk-song, like his folk-lore generally, must have been heavy, crude, monotonous, clinging close to the soil. Macaulay’s Lays still stir the boyish heart, though Matthew Arnold did repeat, with uncharacteristic severity, that he who enjoyed the barbaric clash of their doggerel could never hope to appreciate true poetry at all! But good or bad, they are pure Macaulayese. No audible strain has come down, even of those funeral ballads and festival lays whose former existence is merely asserted, without illustration, by Cato and by Varro.

At the threshold of Hellenic literature stand the two epics whose imaginative splendor is still unrivaled. The first figure in Roman letters, seven centuries later, is a Greek slave, or freedman, Livius Andronicus, translating into barbarous Saturnian verse the Iliad and Odyssey, and rendering almost as crudely many a famous tragedy. Next Nævius sang, in those same rough Saturnians, the victory of Rome in the Punic wars. Joel Barlow’s ‘Columbiad’ and “meek drab-skirted” Ellwood’s ‘Davideis’ might have made room between them for this martial chant, if it had survived. Then Plautus, fun-maker for the Roman populace, “turned barbarously” into the vulgar speech plays good and bad, of the Middle and New Attic Comedy. The more serious of these dramas, like the ‘Captivi,’ seem like a charcoal reproduction upon a barn door of some delicate line engraving, whose loss we must still regret. Yet much of the real fun in Plautus is Roman, and doubtless his own. Moreover, he or his Greek masters—probably both—knew how to make a comedy go in one unpausing rush of dramatic action, from the lowering to the raising of the curtain. But to true creative literature these versions of Menander and Philemon bear about the same relation as would adaptations of Sardou and Dumas, with local allusions and “gags,” in Plattdeutsch, for the Hamburg theatre.

The next figure in this picturesque line is Ennius, who like nearly all the early authors is no Roman gentleman, not even a Latin at all. Born (239 B.C.) in the village of Rudiæ of far-off Calabria, he heard in this cottage home the rough Oscan speech of his peasant race. This language held for them somewhat the position of Aramaic among the fisher folk of Galilee two centuries and a half later. In both lands, Greek was the ordinary speech of the market-place; Latin, at most, the official language of the rulers. The boy Ennius seems to have been educated in the Hellenic city of Tarentum. Even there, he may not yet have spoken Latin at all. Cicero apparently confesses in the ‘Archias’ (62 B.C.) that his native speech had even then made no headway “beyond the narrow boundaries” of Latium. In Magna Græcia, Ennius probably often heard classic Greek tragedy acted, as Virgil intimates he still did in his time.

We have referred elsewhere to the dramatic incident, that Cato the Elder brought in his train from Corsica the man who, more than all others, was to establish in Rome that Hellenic art most dreaded by the great Censor. Cato was the younger of the two. Ennius was just

  • “Midway upon the journey of our life.”
  • He was then a centurion in rank; that is, he had fought his way, no doubt with many scars, to the proud place at the head of his company. (A young Roman gentleman, invited by the general to join his staff, knew little of such campaigning.) This was at the close of Rome’s second and decisive struggle with Carthage, so long the queen of the Western Mediterranean. Ennius lived on, chiefly in Rome, as many years longer; his death coinciding with the equally decisive downfall of Macedonia (168 B.C.). His life, then, spans perhaps the greatest exploits of Roman arms. This was doubtless also the age in which the heroic national character reached its culmination—and began to decay.

    Of this victorious generation the Scipios are probably the best type. Its chief recorder was their friend and protégé, the Calabrian peasant and campaigner. Of all the missing works in the Latin speech, perhaps not even the lost books of Livy would be so eagerly welcomed—so helpful in restoring essential outlines, now lacking, of Roman action and character—as the ‘Annals’ of Ennius, in eighteen books, which followed the whole current of Roman tradition, from Æneas and Romulus down to the writer’s own day. And this work was, at the same time, the first large experiment in writing Homeric hexameters in the Latin speech! So true is it, that the Hellenic Muse was present at the birth of Roman literature. Though no work of Ennius survives save in tantalizing fragments, he is the manliest, the most vivid figure in the early history of Latin letters.

    Gellius preserves a saying of Ennius, that in his three mother tongues he had three hearts. But his fatherland had accepted in good faith, long before, the Italian supremacy of Rome. His love for the imperial city quite equaled that of any native. He became actually a citizen through the kindness of his noble friend Fulvius, who as one of the triumvirs appointed to found Potentia, enrolled Ennius among the “colonists” (184 B.C.).

  • “Romans we now are become, who before this day were Rudini!”
  • is his exultant cry, in a line of the ‘Annals.’

    It is not likely that he had any assistance on this occasion from Cato, who had already discovered his own grievous error. Some years earlier one of the Fulvii had taken Ennius with him on a campaign in Greece (189 B.C.); but evidently not as a centurion! It is of this Fulvius that Cicero says in the ‘Archias,’ “He did not hesitate to consecrate to the Muses memorials of Mars.” The alliteration suggests a poetic epigram; and Cato is known to have complained in a public oration that Fulvius “had led poets with him into his province.” Ennius might have been useful also as an interpreter, as a secretary, and as a table companion.

    One of the longest fragments from the ‘Annals’ describes such a friend of another Roman general. Gellius, who preserves the lines, quotes good early authority for considering them as a self-portraiture by Ennius.