Quintus Ennius, The Father of Latin Poetry
Written by: New Gresham Encyclopedia
Quintus Ennius, the father of Latin poetry, was born at Rudiæ, in Calabria, in 239 B.C., and died in 170 B.C. Like our own early poet Gower, he was trilingual, speaking Greek, Oscan, and Latin. He was of good family, and claimed descent from the legendary kings of Calabria. Little is known of his life; he served in the Second Punic War, and held the rank of centurion in 204 B.C.; at a later date he went to Rome, supported himself by teaching, and was friendly with the greatest of his contemporaries. He died of gout in his seventieth year. Ennius was a man of great versatility. He held perhaps the foremost place among writers of tragedies at Rome. He wrote good comedies. He wrote satires, and prepared the way for Lucilius. He wrote didactic poetry, and prepared the way for Lucretius. Most important of all, he wrote epic poetry—the Annales—and prepared the way for Virgil. He was the first to transplant the hexameter into Italy. His predecessors wrote in a rough kind of verse scanned by accent rather than quantity, and known as 'Saturnian verse'. Ennius contemptuously called this "the verse of fauns and soothsayers", and introduced the strong-winged music of Homer into his verse. He also brought in the elegiac couplet, which was to attain perfection at the hands of Propertius and Ovid. He left a permanent impress on the language. He made a systematic study of orthography, and invented a system of shorthand. He was fond of philosophical speculations, and made the Romans acquainted with the rationalism of Euripides and Euhemerus. He was, therefore, a remarkably versatile and prolific writer. His translations from the Greek tragedians were of the greatest importance in the history of Roman drama. His chief fame, however, rests upon his Annales, a great epic in eighteen books. Like all of the works of Ennius, it only survives in fragments quoted by later writers. It was a great national epic, recording the history of the Roman state from the landing of Æneas down to the poet's own time. The city itself—urbs quam dicunt Romam—may be said to have been the central figure of his poem, a nobler figure than the pious Æneas. The verse of Ennius is sometimes crude and harsh, but it contains many fine lines and grand passages. Some of these lines are world-famous, like those on Fabius Maximus beginning with
Unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem,
or the great line
Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque,
which sums up some of the qualities which placed Rome at the head of the civilized world. In a famous simile Quintilian (Inst. Or. x, 1, 88) compares Ennius to a sacred grove of ancient oaks, whose massive immemorial trunks are awe-inspiring rather than beautiful. In his own epitaph Ennius boasted that he still lived as he passed to and fro through the mouths of men (volito vivu' per ora virum). Though his works are lost, this is still true, for he inspired Virgil and influenced all Latin literature.—Bibliography: W. Y. Sellar, Roman Poets of the Republic; L. Müller, Quintus Ennius; J. W. Duff, A Literary History of Rome.