Eternal Fame, or Specks of Gold in a Sh*theap? – Early Reception of Ennius

In response to a comment about Ennius’ reputation in Joel’s post from yesterday, I began to wonder about the reception of Ennius’ poems.  I remembered that Ennius was cited by practically every (surviving) Roman poet of the Golden Age, but  I could not recall a consistent portrait emerging from these references. The only anecdote which readily stuck in my mind was the one of Vergil, cited by Donatus and Cassiodorus, saying that he was “looking for gold in the shitheap of Ennius.” Yet this is a late reference, and likely a totally fabricated story. As such, I dug through all of the major surviving Roman poets of the 1st century BC for direct references to Ennius, in order to form some sort of rough sketch of Ennian reception at the time. I omitted any prose authors (especially Cicero) in order to keep the search limited to the manageable which seemed appropriate for slapdash online posting, but I may later delve deeper into the subject. For now, here is a brief summary of early Ennian reception:

One of the recurring themes among the poets who mention Ennius is his lack of art or technical skill. This may be readily attributed to the fact that he was, in effect, a pioneer of Latin versification; we ought not to be surprised if his compositions lack the polish of the later writers who took him to task for his roughness:

And as grave Ennius sang of Mars with his own style – Ennius, the greatest in talent, but wanting in art.

utque suo Martem cecinit grauis Ennius ore,
Ennius ingenio maximus, arte rudis:
Ovid, Tristia II

The work which you ask for is a mortal thing, but I am seeking eternal fame, that my praises might be sung the world over. Homer will live on, while Tenedos and Ida still stand, while the Simois churns its rapid waters into the sea. Hesiod, too, will live, while the grapes teem with must and Ceres falls when cut by curved sickle. Callimachus will always be sung all over the world, though more for his skill than his native talent. No loss will ever befall the Sophoclean buskin; Aratus will last as long as the sun and moon. As long as there be a lying slave, a harsh father, a saucy madam and a pleasing prostitute, Menander will live on; Ennius, lacking art, and windy-mouthed Accius have a name that will die in no age.

Mortale est, quod quaeris, opus. mihi fama perennis
    quaeritur, in toto semper ut orbe canar.
vivet Maeonides, Tenedos dum stabit et Ide,
    dum rapidas Simois in mare volvet aquas;               10
vivet et Ascraeus, dum mustis uva tumebit,
    dum cadet incurva falce resecta Ceres.
Battiades semper toto cantabitur orbe;
    quamvis ingenio non valet, arte valet.
nulla Sophocleo veniet iactura cothurno;               15
    cum sole et luna semper Aratus erit;
dum fallax servus, durus pater, inproba lena
    vivent et meretrix blanda, Menandros erit;
Ennius arte carens animosique Accius oris
    casurum nullo tempore nomen habent.      

Ovid, Amores 1.15.7-20

This appears rarely in the noble trimeters of Accius, and presses upon the verses of Ennius, sent onto the stage with a great weight, with the shameful fault either of hasty workmanship lacking art, or lack of technical skill.

…Hic et in Acci
nobilibus trimetris adparet rarus, et Enni
in scaenam missos cum magno pondere uersus               260
aut operae celeris nimium curaque carentis
aut ignoratae premit artis crimine turpi.

Horace, Ars Poetica 258-262

Propertius in particular seems to focus on the gravity of Ennius as a foil to his own image as the Roman Callimachus in search of softer themes and softer expression. Yet, this impression of gravity which is attributed to him by Propertius is undercut by a note of Horace:

I dreamt that I reclined in the gentle shade of Helicon, where the water of Bellerophon’s horse did flow, and that I could sing, O Alba, your kings and deeds – ah, such a work! – with my instruments. I had brought my tiny mouth to those grand founts (from whence thirsty Ennius once drank, when he sang the Curian brothers and the Horatian spears, and the regal trophies carried on the Aemelian raft, and the victorious delays of Fabius, and the awful fight at Cannae, and the gods who turned to our pious prayers, and the Lares chasing Hannibal from the Roman land, and how Jupiter was saved by the voice of a goose). Suddenly, Phoebus saw me from a Castalian tree, and leaning on his golden lyre by the cave, said, ‘What business have you, you madman, with this stream? Who ordered you to undertake the work of a heroic poem?

Visus eram molli recubans Heliconis in umbra,
Bellerophontei qua fluit umor equi,
reges, Alba, tuos et regum facta tuorum,
tantum operis, nervis hiscere posse meis;
parvaque iam magnis admoram fontibus ora
(unde pater sitiens Ennius ante bibit,
et cecinit Curios fratres et Horatia pila,
regiaque Aemilia vecta tropaea rate,
victricisque moras Fabii pugnamque sinistram
Cannensem et versos ad pia vota deos,
Hannibalemque Lares Romana sede fugantis,
anseris et tutum voce fuisse Iovem),
cum me Castalia speculans ex arbore Phoebus
sic ait aurata nixus ad antra lyra:
‘quid tibi cum tali, demens, est flumine? quis te
carminis heroi tangere iussit opus?
Propertius, 3.3

Ah me, how light is the sound in my mouth! Yet, whatever flows from the tiny heart of this stream, all of it will serve my country. Let Ennius gird his sayings with a bristly crown: but Bacchus, give me the leaves of your ivy, so that Umbria may swell with pride as the birthplace of the Roman Callimachus!

ei mihi, quod nostro est paruus in ore sonus!
sed tamen exiguo quodcumque e pectore riui
    fluxerit, hoc patriae seruiet omne meae.
Ennius hirsuta cingat sua dicta corona:
    mi folia ex hedera porrige, Bacche, tua,
ut nostris tumefacta superbiat Vmbria libris,
    Vmbria Romani patria Callimachi!

(Propertius, 4.1)

But I have said that he flows like mud, and often bears many things which must be removed from that which should remain. Yet tell me, with all of your learning, do you find nothing to criticize in great Homer? Does pleasing Lucilius change nothing of tragic Accius? Does he not also laugh at the verses of Ennius, which are lighter than the gravity of their subject, when he speaks of himself as not being greater than the things which he reproaches?

at dixi fluere hunc lutulentum, saepe ferentem               50
plura quidem tollenda relinquendis. age quaeso,
tu nihil in magno doctus reprehendis Homero?
nil comis tragici mutat Lucilius Acci?
non ridet versus Enni gravitate minores,
cum de se loquitur non ut maiore reprensis?

Horace, Sermones 1.10.50-55

Yet, Ennius is still given a certain amount of credit for his pioneering efforts. Lucretius and Horace both note the importance of Ennius as a bold adventurer in early Latin versification. Horace, in particular, focuses on his enhancement of Latin vocabulary by “bringing forth new names for things.”

No one knows what the nature of the soul might be, whether it be born, or whether it be inserted into us as we are born, and whether it die at the same time as us, or whether it visits the shadows and vast lakes of Orcus, or whether it insert itself into new flocks, as our Ennius has sung, who first brought down the eternally blooming crown from pleasant Helicon, to appear renowned through all of the Italian races.

ignoratur enim quae sit natura animai,
nata sit an contra nascentibus insinuetur
et simul intereat nobiscum morte dirempta
an tenebras Orci visat vastasque lacunas               115
an pecudes alias divinitus insinuet se,
Ennius ut noster cecinit, qui primus amoeno
detulit ex Helicone perenni fronde coronam,
per gentis Italas hominum quae clara clueret;
Lucretius, 1.112-119

Yet what will the Roman give to Caecilius and Plautus, taken away from Vergil and Varius? Why am I, if I am able to obtain a little, envied, when the language of Cato and Ennius enriched their country’s speech, and brought forth new names for things? It has, and always will be possible to bring forth a name distinguished by some present thing of note.

…. Quid autem
Caecilio Plautoque dabit Romanus, ademptum
Vergilio Varioque? Ego cur, adquirere pauca               55
si possum, inuideor, cum lingua Catonis et Enni
sermonem patrium ditauerit et noua rerum
nomina protulerit? Licuit semperque licebit
signatum praesente nota producere nomen.

Horace, Ars Poetia 53-59


Horace also suggests that these early attempts at poetry have been sanctified by their age itself, giving expression to the old notion of gloria primis:

Ennius, a man wise, and brave, and even a second Homer (as the critics say) seems to have given rather light care to where the promises and dreams of Pythagoras fall. Naevius is not to hand, and clings to the mind as though he were almost recent? Such is the sanctity of every ancient poem.

Ennius, et sapiens et fortis et alter Homerus,               50
ut critici dicunt, leuiter curare uidetur
quo promissa cadant et somnia Pythagorea.
Naeuius in manibus non est et mentibus haeret
paene recens? Adeo sanctum est uetus omne poema.

Horace, Epistulae, 2.1.50-54

Yet, for all of the faults which these poets attribute to Ennius, they all accord to him a certain respect. Comparisons to Homer abound, and Ovid suggests that Ennius has earned his immortal fame:

What is sought by our sacred poets, except for fame alone? The sum of our labor inclines to this. At one time, poets were the concern of the gods and kings: ancient choruses bore off great rewards. Poets had a sacred majesty and a respectable name, and great wealth was bestowed upon them. Ennius, born in the Calabrian Mountains, deserved to be placed next to you, great Scipio. Now the ivy crowns lie without honor, and the waking, laborious care exercised by the learned Muses has the name of indolence. But vigilance is a help to Fame: who would have known Homer, if that eternal work, the Iliad, had been hidden?

Quid petitur sacris, nisi tantum fama, poetis?
     Hoc votum nostri summa laboris habet.
Cura deum fuerant olim regumque poetae:               405
     Praemiaque antiqui magna tulere chori.
Sanctaque maiestas et erat venerabile nomen
     Vatibus, et largae saepe dabantur opes.
Ennius emeruit, Calabris in montibus ortus,
     Contiguus poni, Scipio magne, tibi.               410
Nunc ederae sine honore iacent, operataque doctis
     Cura vigil Musis nomen inertis habet.
Sed famae vigilare iuvat: quis nosset Homerum,
     Ilias aeternum si latuisset opus?

Ovid, Ars Amatoria 3.403-414

Finally, Ennius is mentioned along with Homer, not just as a great poet, but also as one who relied on the assistance of Bacchus for his versification:

The sweet Muses almost smelled of wine in the morning; Homer may be proven to be a sot from his praises of wine. Father Ennius himself never sprang to the task of describing battles unless he got drunk first. ‘I will leave the Forum and the Well of Libo to the sober.”

uina fere dulces oluerunt mane Camenae; 5
laudibus arguitur uini uinosus Homerus;
Ennius ipse pater numquam nisi potus ad arma
prosiluit dicenda. ‘Forum putealque Libonis
mandabo siccis, adimam cantare seueris’:
Horace, Epistulae 1.19.5-9

4 thoughts on “Eternal Fame, or Specks of Gold in a Sh*theap? – Early Reception of Ennius

    1. Not quite. There is definitely some ambivalence in the opinions expressed about him, but even the poets who praise him can’t help but note his rude versification. For the record, I myself like the remnants of Ennius which still survive, but I also know that my ear isn’t attuned to the language in the way that a real Roman poet’s would have been.

      I am in some way interested in following this up with further notes on Ennius in other authors, but it took a while just to piece this limited selection together!

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