Roman intellectual life.

Lecture 9, Thursday 15th February 2018

Heroic lays?

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.3): At a later date than in Greece were poets either known or welcomed by our countrymen. Although, it is stated in Cato the Elder’s Origins* that guests were in the habit of singing at banquets in honour of the virtues of famous men to the playing of a piper.

*Cato’s “Origins” (Origines) was the first history written in Latin. Cato began writing it in 168 BCE and worked on it till his death in 149 BCE.

Habinek 2001: 36: “…the ancient Romans believed, and there is little reason to doubt them, that they had a literary culture — or, more precisely, a musical culture from which literature could emerge — prior to the Second Punic War. As in other archaic city-states, so in Rome citizens sang songs of praise and blame, recounted the achievements of their ancestors, persuaded each other through political oratory, hymned their deities at civic festivals, and taught their children proper behaviour through anecdotes, examples, and precepts. They had a cultural system comparable to what the Greeks called mousikē, one linked, as in Greek cities, to the institution of the symposium [=ritualized male drinking] celebrated by clusters of aristocracts, known in Latin as sodalitates.”

Habinek 2001: 37: “It is important to recognize that we are not speaking here of a transition from oral to literate society; archaic Rome was literate centuries before it developed what we have come to call literature.”

Early Latin playwrights (3rd-early 1st century BCE)


origin + date


what do we know about them?

Livius Andronicus Tarentum
b. 290? BCE
— produced a play for Ludi Romani in 240 BCE
— “Hymn to Juno” sung by 27 women in 207 BCE (Liv. 27.37.7)
— translated Homer’s Odyssey into Latin saturnians


—  captured when Rome conquered Tarentum in 272 BCE
— he was owned and freed by Livius Salinator consul in 207 BCE (Jerome)
— worked as a teacher in Rome (Suet. gramm. 1.2)
— acted in his own plays (Liv. 7.2.8)
— his guild of actors + scribe = Temple of Minerva on the Aventine (Festus 492, 22)
Suetonius (ibid.) calls him a “half-Greek” (semigraecus)
Gnaeus Naevius Campania
d. 204 or 201 BCE
— “The song of the Punic War” (Bellum Poenicum): an account of the First Punic War in saturnians
praetextae: Latin plays about historical events; Naevius invented this genre:
“Romulus” or “Wolf” (Romulus or Lupus)
Clastidium (war of 222 BCE where Marcellus killed an enemy in single combat)

free citizen

— Gellius (1.24) refers to his “Campanian arrogance”
— he was a Roman citizen or had Latin rights (Boyle 2006: 36)
— Naevius making fun of the Metelli on stage led to his imprisonment (referred to in Plautus’ Braggart Soldier, 210-212)
— he fought in the First Punic War (Gell. 17.21.44)
Plautus Sarsina
254-184 BCE
— comedies

free citizen

see lecture 5
Quintus Ennius Rudiae, Calabria
239-169 BCE
— “Annals” (Annales): Rome’s first epic poem written in hexameters, covering Roman history from fall of Troy to early 2nd c. BCE.

  • “Ambracia” (Ambracia)
  • “Sabine Women” (Sabinae)

a number of other works of various genres

non-citizen of free birth, received citzenship 184 BCE

— Gellius (17.17.1) refers to Ennius speaking Oscan, Greek, Latin.
— in Second Punic War he was serving in Sardinia as an officer (Silius Italicus, 12.393-395) when he was picked up by Cato the Elder in 204 BCE (Skutsch 1985:1)
— he was closely associated with M. Fulvius Nobilior; Ennius accompanied Fulvius on campaign against Ambracia (189 BCE), celebrated this campaign in both the Annales and a play, Ambracia
— wrote poems for Scipio Aemilianus, + was a sculpture on their tomb (Cic. Arch. 22)
— worked as a teacher in Rome (Suet. gramm. 1.2)Suetonius (ibid.) calls him a “half-Greek” (semigraecus)
— seems to have received Roman citizenship in 184 BCE (Cic. Brut. 79)
Marcus Pacuvius Brundisium
c. 220-c.130 BCE
praetexta: “Paullus” (Paullus): dramatized historical events related to L. Aemilius Paullus

free citizen

— the name “Pacuvius” is Oscan (other forms = Pacuius, Pacuius, Paquius)
— nephew of Ennius (Pliny NH 35.19)
— painter: Pliny (NH 35.19) notes that the Temple of Hercules in the Forum Boarium had a painting of his
— Cicero implies that he was a friend of Scipio Aemilianus (On Old Age 24)
Terence Carthage
185/4-159 BCE
— comedies


see lecture 5
Lucius Accius Pisaurum
170-c. 86 BCE
praetextae: “Children of Aeneas” or “Decius” (Aeneadae siue Decius), “Brutus” (Brutus

son of freedmen parents (Jerome)

— Pacuvius + Accius staged a play in the same year (Cic. Brut. 229 = 140 BCE)
— Cicero met him (Brut. 107)
— c. 120 BCE he became prominent in the Guild of Poets (collegium poetarum, by this time Temple of Hercules of the Muses)
— associated with Iunius Brutus Callaicus, consul 137 BCE (Cicero, Arch. 27, Leg. 2.54, Brut. 107).

For titles of the plays, see Čulík-Baird 2016.


a la carte Roman poetsMap of the origins of the early Latin poets. Generated with the AMWC’s à-la-carte map. Text overlay of poets’ names by Čulík-Baird.

Quintus Ennius 

Boyle 2006: 59: “Ennius wrote an epic… It was the first Latin history of Rome… the poem was ‘completed’ perhaps a decade or so before the appearance of the first prose history of Rome in Latin. Annales’ cultural impact would be difficult to overstate. Written by a south Italian immigrant, Ennius’ epic yet played a constituitive part in defining for the Roman elite of the next 150 years what it was to be Roman.”

The Sacred Poet

Cicero, Pro Archia* (18-19): We have it on the highest and most learned authority that while other things are matters of science, formula, and technique, poetry depends solely upon an inborn faculty, is evoked by a purely mental activity, and is infused with a divine spirit. Rightly, then, did our Ennius call poets “sacred” (sancti), for they seem recommended to us by the benign bestowal of the gods. Sacred, then, judges, in your enlightened eyes let the name of poet be, which not even any barbarian race has violated. *The very rocks of the wilderness give back a sympathetic echo to the voice; savage beasts have sometimes been charmed into stillness by song. Will we, who are nurtured upon all that is highest, be deaf to the appeal of poetry? Colophon asserts that Homer is her citizen, Chios claims Homer for their own, Salamis appropriates Homer, while Smyrna is so confident that Homer belongs to her that she has even dedicated a shrine to him in her town. And many other cities besides engage in mutual strife to possess Homer. These peoples, then, are ambitious to claim, even after his death, one who was an alien, merely because he was a poet. Shall a living poet be repudiated by us, though he is ours both by our desire and by law?

*In 62 BCE, the Roman citizenship of Archias, a poet from Syria, was contested under the lex Plautia Papiria (89 BCE). Cicero successfully defended him in court. Archias had written poetry celebrating the military accomplishments of Gaius Marius (Pro Archia 5).

*Cicero refers here to the myths of Amphion, who used his lyre to build the walls of Thebes, and/or to Orpheus, legendary musician, poet, prophet-figure, who could use his music to charm all living creatures and rocks.

Roman Homer, or, the Immortal Poet 

Lucretius On the Nature of Things (1.112-122):
For what the soul may be they do not know,
Whether ’tis born, or enter in at birth,
And whether, snatched by death, it die with us,
Or visit the shadows and the vasty caves
Of *Orcus, or by some divine decree
Enter the brute herds, as our Ennius sang,      > ENNIUS
Who first from lovely *Helicon brought down
A laurel wreath of bright perennial leaves,     > PERENNIS
Renowned forever among the Italian clans.
Yet Ennius too in everlasting verse
Proclaims those vaults of *Acheron to exist,
Though, he said, neither souls nor bodies reach it,
But only phantom figures, strangely pale,
And tells how once from out those regions rose
Immortal Homer’s ghost to him and shed salt tears
And with his words unfolded nature’s source.

*Orcus, the Latin word for the underworld, or the god of the underworld, Pluto.
*Mount Helicon, in Boeotia, the home of the Muses, and where the Greek poet Hesiod was poetically inspired in the Theogony (22-35).
*Acheron, a river of the underworld, sometimes metaphorically the underworld itself.

Cicero, Academica (2.58): When Ennius dreamed, he said: “the poet, Homer, appeared to me…” [= uisus Homerus adesse poeta]

Cicero, Academica (2.88): Isn’t it the case that we think Ennius heard the whole speech, which begins, “Oh pietas of spirit?” [= o pietas animi]

Ennius Annals fr. 11: I remember becoming a peacock [= memini me fiere pauom]

Oplontis villa of PoppaeaWall painting from Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis, before 79 CE, depicting a peacock. Image: wikimedia.

+ go back and reread Ilia’s Dream, and the August Augury from lecture 2, both from Ennius’ Annales. 

Stoic philosopher falls into shit (c.169 BCE)

Suetonius, On Grammarians (2): In my opinion then, the first to introduce the study of grammar into our city was Crates of Mallos [Stoic philosopher, head of library of Pergamum in 2nd c. BCE], a contemporary of Aristarchus [head librarian at Alexandria in 2nd c. BCE]. He was sent to the senate by king Attalus between the Second and Third Punic wars, at about the time when Ennius died [=169 BCE]; and having fallen into the opening of a sewer in the Palatine quarter and broken his leg, he held numerous and frequent conferences during the whole time both of his embassy and of his convalescence, at which he  constantly gave instruction, and thus set an example for our countrymen to imitate. Their imitation, however, was confined to a careful criticism of poems which had as yet but little circulation, either those of deceased friends or others that met with their approval, and to making them known to the public by reading and commenting on them.

The Cloaca Maxima (Great Sewer) in Rome, said to have been built by Rome’s last kingLeft: line drawing of the Great Sewer. Image: Project Gutenberg. Right: modern photograph of a visible part of the Great Sewer. Image: William Thayer @ LacusCurtius.

The “magic” of philosophy (155 BCE)

PlutarchLife of Cato the Elder (22): When he [=Cato the Elder, 234-149 BCE] was now well on in years, there came as ambassadors from Athens to Rome, Carneades the Academic, and Diogenes the Stoic philosopher,* to beg the reversal of a certain decision against the Athenian people, which imposed upon them a fine of five hundred talents. The people of Oropus had brought the suit, the Athenians had let the case go by default, and the Sicyonians had pronounced judgment against them.  Upon the arrival of these philosophers, the most studious of the city’s youth hastened to wait upon them, and became their devoted and admiring listeners. The charm of Carneades especially, which had boundless power, and a fame not inferior to its power, won large and sympathetic audiences, and filled the city, like a rushing mighty wind, with the noise of his praises Report spread far and wide that a Greek of amazing talent, who disarmed all opposition by the magic of his eloquence, had infused a tremendous  passion (eros, ἔρως) into the youth of the city, in consequence of which they forsook their other pleasures and pursuits and were “possessed” (ἐνθουσιῶσι = enthusiasm) about philosophy. The other Romans were pleased at this, and glad to see their young men lay hold of Greek culture and consort with such admirable men.  But Cato [the Elder], at the very outset, when this zeal for discussion came pouring into the city, was distressed, fearing lest the young men, by giving this direction to their ambition, should come to love a reputation based on mere words more than one achieved by martial deeds. And when the fame of the visiting philosophers rose yet higher in the city, and their first speeches before the Senate were interpreted, at his own instance and request, by so conspicuous a man as Gaius Acilius, Cato determined, on some decent pretext or other, to rid and purge the city of them all.  So he rose in the Senate and censured the magistrates for keeping in such long suspense an embassy composed of men who could easily secure anything they wished, so persuasive were they. “We ought,” he said, “to make up our minds one way or another, and vote on what the embassy proposes, in order that these men may return to their schools and lecture to the sons of Greece, while the youth of Rome give ear to their laws and magistrates, as before.”

Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights 6.14.8-11): This threefold variety [of style] is also to be observed in the three philosophers whom the Athenians sent as envoys to the senate at Rome, to persuade the senators to remit the fine which they had imposed upon the Athenians because of the sack of Oropos; and the fine amounted to nearly five hundred talents. The philosophers in question were Carneades of the Academy, Diogenes the Stoic, and Critolaus the Peripatetic. When they were admitted to the House, they made use of Gaius Acilius, one of the senators, as interpreter; but beforehand each one of them separately, for the purpose of exhibiting his eloquence, lectured to a large company. Rutilius and Polybius declare that all three aroused admiration for their oratory, each in his own style. “Carneades,” they say, “spoke with a vehemence that carried you away, Critolaus with art and polish, Diogenes with restraint and sobriety.” Each of these styles, as I have said, is more brilliant when it is chastely and moderately adorned; when it is rouged and be powdered, it becomes mere jugglery.

Philosophy at Rome

Stoicism: founded by Zeno of Citium (4th/3rd c. BCE)
Epicureanism: founded by Epicurus (4th/3rd c. BCE)

Stoics vs Epicureans[pdf] Stoicism vs. Epicureanism 

The bad kind of Epicureanism…

Cicero, In Pisonem (68-69): You have of course heard it said that Epicurean philosophers assess the desirability of anything by its capacity to give pleasure—whether rightly or wrongly is no concern of ours, or at any rate not relevant to the present issue—it is, however, a dangerous argument to put before a young man of only moderate intelligence, and one that often leads to disaster. Accordingly as soon as the lewd Piso heard pleasure praised so highly by so great a philosopher, he did not pick and choose; he so stimulated all his pleasurable sensations, and raised such a whinnying to welcome his friend’s arguments, that he plainly thought he had found in the Greek not a professor of ethics but a master of the art of lust.

Cicero, In Pisonem (67): Though all excess is vicious and degrading, there is a form of it that is not all unworthy of gentleman and a free man. You will find in Piso no good taste, no refinement, no elegance; you will find in him—to give the devil his due—nothing exceptionally extravagant, save his licentiousness. Embossed ware—not a piece of it; enormous tankards—Placentine ones, too, that he might not be thought to despise his countrymen; the table piled not with shellfish or fish, but with huge joints of tainted meat; slatternly slaves do the waiting, some even old men; cook and hall-porter are one; neither breadmaker nor wine-cellar on the premises; the bread from abakehouse, the wine from a tavern; Greeks packed five or more to a couch, himself alone on one; toping until the wine is poured straight out of the jar.

The Epicurean poet:
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1st c. BCE)

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1.911-914):
the same elements a little changed in their relations create
fires and firs? Just as the words themselves too > IGNES + LIGNUM
consist of elements a little changed,
when we mark fires and firs with a distinct name.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1.1-49):
Mother of the race of Aeneas, delight of gods and men, > AENEADUM GENETRIX
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands-for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For *Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour-
Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm. Lull to a timely rest
O’er sea and land the savage works of war,
For thou alone hast power with public peace
To aid mortality; since he who rules
The savage works of battle, powerful Mars,
How often to thy bosom flings his strength
O’ermastered by the eternal wound of love-
And there, with eyes and full throat backward thrown,
Gazing, my goddess, open-mouthed at thee,
Pastures on love his greedy sight, his breath
Hanging upon thy lips. Him thus reclined
Fill with thy holy body, round, above!
Pour from those lips soft syllables to win
Peace for the Romans, glorious Lady, peace!
For in a season troublous to the state
Neither may I attend this task of mine
With thought untroubled, nor mid such events
The illustrious scion of the *Memmian house
Neglect the civic cause.

* Gaius Memmius = governer in Bithynia in 57 BCE, with whom Catullus traveled (see poem 10).

Fantham 2013: 48-49: “There was a conflict in Lucretius between the inspired poet and committed Epicurean. Poetically Lucretius saw himself in the tradition of Ennius, “noster Ennius,” who first brought down a golden circlet of undying foliage from Helicon (1.118); he cites Ennius’ beleif in metempsychosis and his vision of Homer’s shade emerging from Elysium. However, Epicurus had rejected poetry as a vehicle for expounding his ideas. Epicurus had also declared that the gods did not concern themselves with human prayers or sins but lived a carefree life in the empyrean. Lucretius too makes this claim, but after he has opened his great poem with a splendid, almost ecstatic hymn to Venus as ‘ancestress of the children of Aeneas and delight of men and gods’ (1.1). The hymn first addresses her as a fertility spirit bringing vitality and desire to creatures wild and tame, of earth and sky and sea, then imagines her reclining in the arms of her lover, Mars, before ending with a prayer to bring peace — for in this time of strife, Lucretius cannot act freely and Memmius has to devote himself to Rome’s common welfare (1.1-43).”

Further reading: