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  • Fauns, Prophets, and Ennius's Annales
  • T. P. Wiseman


The invention of Latin epic is attributed to Ennius by the grammarian Diomedes in the fourth century C.E.:1

Epos dicitur Graece carmine hexametro diuinarum rerum et heroicarum humanarumque comprehensio . . . Latine paulo communius carmen auditur. epos Latinum primus digne scripsit is, qui res Romanorum decem et octo complexus est libris qui et annales <in>scribuntur, quod singulorum fere annorum actus contineant, sicut publici annales quos pontifices scribaeque conficiunt, uel Romais, quod Romanorum res gestas declarant.

Epos in Greek means the composition of the deeds of gods, heroes, and mortals in a hexameter poem . . . In Latin it is more often called carmen. The first Latin epos worthy of the name was written by the poet who encompassed the deeds of the Romans in eighteen books, which are entitled Annales because they contain the events of practically each year, like the public annals composed by the priests and scribes, or the Romaid because they make manifest the achievements of the Romans. [End Page 513]

Ennius himself expressed his primacy in a famous passage, one of the most frequently cited of all the surviving fragments of the Annals (206-07):

                                 scripsere alii remuorsibus quos olim Faunei uatesque canebant.

Others have written of the matter [the first Punic War] in the verses which of old the Fauns and prophets chanted.

The reference is to Gnaeus Naevius.2 Although Ennius thinks of him as a fellow writer, it seems that Naevius doesn't count as a proper "literary author" because he used a meter appropriate to the pre-literary world.3

That, at least, is my reading of the lines. But it is important to remember how little we know about the culture and society of third-century Rome-despite the confident assumptions of some recent scholarship. In this volume, for instance, Enrica Sciarrino argues that the audience for early Roman epic was not the same as for drama, and that Livius Andronicus's Odyssey translation "opened the way to the encroachment of poets . . . on more exclusive sites of social interaction" (see above p. 458). Perhaps so: but Homeric bards like Demodocus performed for the games in the agora as well as for the "elite" at the palace;4 and Oliver Taplin has very plausibly argued (2000.23-32) that only a festival context can explain the length and complexity of the Homeric epics themselves. Can we really be sure that conditions were radically different in Rome? Why not imagine the Ludi Romani-or the Ludi Plebeii, for that matter-as the primary performance context of oral narrative poetry, and then of Naevius's and Ennius's epics?

As for the "elite" itself, the use of sociological models may be misleading if it implies that Roman society was necessarily as hierarchical in the third century B.C.E. as it was in the first. There was no differential seating at the ludi until 194 B.C.E., when privileged seats were provided for the senators, and the sources for that innovation (contradictory as they [End Page 514] are) show clearly how controversial and unpopular it was.5 Equally clearly, Pliny's account of the equestrian insignia implies a proliferation of hierarchical indicators from the Gracchan period onwards-but not before (Nat. 33.29-36).

I am much more in sympathy with Sander Goldberg's sense of how little is really known about the world of Naevius and Ennius. But here, too, I have a reservation. Is it really true, as he asserts (see above p. 446) that "whatever archaic tradition preceded [Ennius's poem] remains beyond recovery"? If it is, then there is no point trying to understand what Ennius meant when he called Naevius's meter "the verses which of old the Fauns and prophets chanted." I hope to show that it may be possible, after all, to say something useful about the "pre-literary" world of third-century Rome.

Glimpses into that world, from people close enough to it to be well informed, are hard to interpret but disproportionately precious. The most famous of them is the elder Cato's evocation of the custom, long obsolete in his own time, of...


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