Ennius occupies a foundational yet anomalous position in the history of authorial portraiture in Rome. The story that a statue of the poet was placed in the tomb of the Scipiones is a departure from the standard tropes of authorial depiction: it locates the poet’s statue not in a public space (e.g. a library) nor in his own tomb, but in a tomb belonging to his ‘patrons’ – who thereby thank him for the fame he has granted them. Whatever the factual status of the story (Badian 1972; Zetzel 2007), for those later writers who report it, it comes to emblematise the reciprocity entailed in the correct working of cultural capital in Republican Rome. This aspect of the story is enhanced by the suggestion that Scipio himself refused to have statues erected in his honour, making the idea of a gesture to commemorate Ennius with a statue part of a complex set of displacements in the circulation of prestige.
Reports on Ennius’ imago are compromised by their teasing relationship with an epigram that Ennius is widely believed to have composed for his own tombstone (Courtney 1993: 42-3, Schwindt 2001). In its proclamation of literary immortality, Ennius’ ‘epitaph’ stands in explicit defiance of the stasis of the tomb, whilst in its promotion of the poet, it contradicts the reciprocal relationship enshrined in the story of his being honoured by his patrons in return for having immortalized them. The epitaph is one of the most quoted texts written by Ennius (or any other Latin author, for that matter) in Latin literary history, where it operates both as a conduit for literary tradition and as an index of the kind of recognition that comes from other poets. The story about Ennius’ statue and the literary history of his epitaph thus illustrate two different, yet complementary, forms of prestige: one that operates on a synchronic axis, as the poet is commemorated by his peers and patrons; and another that operates diachronically, as his words are echoed by subsequent poets who strive to connect with him across time.
The two traditions become conflated in authors who recount the story of the bust in terms that allude to the epitaph. Cicero, who is earliest witness to both, describes the lustre that Ennius’ poetry’ shed on his compatriots in terms that recall the fame which the epitaph predicts for the poet himself. Valerius Maximus recounts the story of Ennius’ statue in terms that allude to the reception of Ennius’ epitaph in the poetic tradition. For Livy, the story of Ennius’ bust in Scipio’s tomb stands for the substitution of poetry for history and fiction for fact (Jaeger 1997). Each of these prose authors recounts the story of the bust in ways that allude to the poet’s ‘own’ last words, and thereby contributes to the process that works the story into the poetic tradition.
The process culminates, fittingly, in the hands of a poet. Ovid is an important witness to the story of Ennius’ statue in Ars 3.405-14, and that story plays a latent role throughout the Tristia as an unspoken foil for thinking through the breakdown of reciprocity in the circulation of prestige between poets and their patrons. The Tristia is, moreover, a text that quotes Ennius’ famous ‘epitaph’ with an almost obsessive frequency, as Ovid uses this text to reflect on the capacity of an author’s texts to conjure up the nomen, though not the imago, of the author in his absence, thereby providing an entirely new spin on the relationship between text and image in comparison to earlier treatments of Ennius’ bust. The story of the statue and the epitaph thus come together in exemplary fashion in Ovid’s Tristia, a poetic collection that offers the most sustained meditation available to us from antiquity on the death and entombment, both actual and virtual, of a poet.
Tombs of the Poets: The Material Reception of Ancient Literature