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Naevius’ Bellum Punicum and Manius Valerius Messalla: Art and Text at the Beginnings of Latin Literature

Thomas Biggs

This paper outlines the dynamics of how a fragment of Naevius’ late 3rd century BCE epic the Bellum Punicum interacts with the first public painting on a historical theme at Rome, that of Manius Valerius Messalla on the side of the Curia Hostilia. By analyzing the reception of this instance of mixed-media poetics, Naevius’ poem is shown to co-opt the representational power of senatorial public art and in turn define some key modes of visualization within Roman epic for his successors. Although earlier paintings on historical themes are attested at Rome in private and votive contexts, and the display of scenes at triumphs is at times retrojected to this point in the Republic, ancient sources confirm the innovative nature of this piece of public art. The First Punic War was a time of ‘firsts,’ political and cultural, and this study of a primary point of intersection between elite public display, commemorative art, and Rome’s first historical epic provides new insight not only into Naevius’ poem, but also Roman literary and artistic production and its reception in the Middle Republic.

In an attempt to outline the poem’s famous narrative transition from historic to mythic time, much scholarship on the Bellum Punicum has rightly focused on a different fragment from Book One (7 Flores = 4 Strezelecki), one that contains an ekphrastic depiction of the gigantomachy and a context that could allow for the presentation of Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy (Fränkel 1935: 59-61; Barchiesi 1962: 271-294; Feeney 1993: 108-120; Jahn 2007: 52-73; Duffalo 2012: 14-20). The visual arts are thus rightly considered by scholars as central to an understanding of the technique of Rome’s first historical epic. Nevertheless, an understudied section of Naevius’ epic on the First Punic War narrated an event of recent Roman history well known to the poem’s audience, one with its own direct connection to public art, Manius Valerius Messalla’s victory over Hiero of Syracuse in 263 BCE and his subsequent triumph (4 Flores = 3 Strezelecki). Valerius’ campaign achieved lasting fame through the installation of a painting of his deeds on the side of the Curia Hostilia, the Senate house at the time, a work of art that he likely commissioned and Pliny states was the first of its kind (Pliny, NH 35.22; Holliday 2002: 80ff.; Duffalo 2012: 14ff.). The painting transformed the Curia into a Roman Stoa Poikile and furthered the role of historical commemoration at the symbolic core of the state’s political power, in turn achieving landmark status throughout the Republic (Cicero, ad Fam. 14.2.2; in Vat. 21).

In this paper, I contend that the Bellum Punicum’s narrative of a scene from the same historical episode as depicted on the Curia, composed quite some time after the installation of the painting, produces a coalescence of the authority and aesthetic qualities of these differing media, while simultaneously problematizing the social disjuncture between their authors; one the poetic narrative of a combat veteran of the First Punic War, the other a painting commissioned by an elite Roman, a consular commander during that war. Through this reading, it is proposed that at its beginnings, Roman epic authorizes itself as a medium of historical representation by integrating the mode and function of commemorative art, a genre already entrenched within Roman elite culture and memorializing practice. Further understanding of this passage’s reception at Rome is sought through brief consideration of other pieces of the near contemporary Roman mediascape, such as Livius Andronicus’ Odusia, the Elogia Scipionum, Ennius’ Annales, and the Esquiline tomb paintings. What emerges as clear is that Rome’s first poem about Roman history does not distance itself from the visual arts, but joins these differing ways of conceptualizing and communicating the past, the verbal and the pictorial, within the totalizing force of the epic. 

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Art, Text, & the City of Rome

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