You are here


Thomas Biggs

This paper briefly reassesses why much of Latin epic depicted the things it did, Roman warfare and the Homeric (especially the nostoi), and how the contours of the genre formed around the specific challenges of narrating Rome’s first war against Carthage. It is by no means groundbreaking to approach ancient literature though categories of thought approximate to ‘myth’and ‘history,’ but new work continues to refine our perspectives (for Herodotus, Baragwanath and de Bakker 2012; for Ennius, there is much relevant material in Elliott 2013). Although the tides have turned in recent years against criticizing Roman epic for depicting the recent past (concerning Lucan, Reed 2011 solidifies it as handbook level opinion citing Fantham 1992: 7; Asso 2011: 11-13), the ways in which Roman history met epic and delineated these visible outcomes of the genre have yet to be properly situated (some preliminaries set out in Konstan and Raaflaub 2010 passim and Leigh 2010). In an attempt to push the debate further, this paper argues (1) that for the genre of Roman epic, what happened ante urbem conditam was just as much the historia of Rome’s res gestae as it was the fabula of the poets (pace Livy, Praefatio 6); (2) more specifically, that the resulting shape of the Latin epic genre owes its greatest debt to its engagement with the First Punic War. It is no accident that at De Inventione 1.27 Cicero quotes Ennius’ Annales, Latin’s first hexameter epic, as an example of historia, nor is it chance that the line refers to the outbreak of the First Punic War (Appius indixit Carthaginiensibus bellum).

To reframe the nexus of thought concerning ‘myth’ and ‘history’ in Latin epic this paper focuses on how the epics of the First Punic War moment constructed an allegorical perspective which went on to form the backbone of the genre (see Farrell and Nelis 2013: 17). In this light, the categories of ‘myth’ and ‘history’ emerge as something completely different than our expectations. If there is such a thing as Roman ‘historical epic,’ it is not solely defined by a narrative focus on the deeds of Romans. Through close analysis of the content and style of scenes in Livius Andronicus’ Odusia, Naevius’ Bellum Punicum, and Ennius’ Annales, especially highly allusive passages, this paper will show how temporalities often considered distinct (the time of Aeneas and, for example, the deeds of a consul in Malta) are inextricably linked by form, content, and register.

Once Roman affairs are rendered the material of epic, the categories we wish to employ in classifying them often fail. Indeed, the distinction still drawn between mythological and historical epic by many scholars will itself be shown to falter under its own weight, along with easy assumptions regarding historiography and poetry. Consider the scholarly paradox of squaring critiques of Lucan’s Bellum Civile for his elision of the Olympian gods with critiques of Cicero’s Marius for including such Homericising scenes of divine intervention (Goldberg 1995: 165-6). If the goal is to understand the interfaces of history and the Latin epic genre, to do so requires more than reading disparate ancient accounts of poetics (e.g. Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Servius). It is first necessary to understand why and how Romans would have allegorically engaged with a Latin Odyssey in the wake of the First Punic War, as well as how Naevius made the genre what it was by composing a poem that was not only Latin’s second epic, but, more to the point, its first history. If it can be shown that the content of epic was always Roman history, even when it depicted the
Homeric travels of the nostoi, the fact that historia can be considered proxima poetis and lines of Ennius
can be considered historia should trouble us less than the fact we thought it should be any other way.

Session/Panel Title

Historia Proxima Poetis: The Intertextual Practices of Historical Poetry

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy