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Homer redivivus? Rethinking Ennian Metempsychosis

Patrick Glauthier

Dartmouth College

Critics agree on the broad outlines of the dream that opened Ennius’ Annals: Homer appears, explains (inter alia) the process of metempsychosis, and reveals that he once became a peacock and that his soul has now been reborn in Ennius. In this paper, I pose a simple question: To whom does the soul in Ennius’ body actually belong?

Metempsychosis narratives can present the reincarnation of a particular individual’s soul or of a soul that used to belong to someone (e.g. Pl. Resp. 10.620). The distinction matters since Ennius uses metempsychosis to frame his relationship to Homer and, I argue, to think about cultural transfer and ownership. By claiming to be Homer, Ennius establishes his place in the epic tradition and justifies his use of Homeric meter, mannerisms, and allusions (Aicher 1989, Goldberg 1995: 89–90, Goldberg and Manuwald 2018: 118–119; cf. Suerbaum 1968: 82–91, Skutsch 1985: 148–49, Mariotti 1991: 39–62, Fabrizi 2012: 119–20). The narrative also alerts the reader to the cosmic scope of Roman history and of the Annals itself (Hardie 1986: 76–83, Elliott 2013: 252–55, Goldschmidt 2013: 166–67). And yet, if the soul is by definition Homer’s, if Ennius is Homer redivivus (e.g. Suerbaum 1968: 83), Ennius is subordinate to or defined by Homer, and the Roman present is circumscribed by a cultural legacy that is not fully its own. This might not be a problem, but we should consider Ennius’ position.

So, whose soul is it? In paraphrasing the dream, the most explicit witnesses (Cornut. ad Pers. 6.10, Porph. ad Hor. Epist. 2.1.51) record that Homer’s soul (anima Homeri) came or was transferred into Ennius’ body in accordance with the teaching of the philosopher Pythagoras (secundum Pytagorae philosophi definitionem secundum Pythagorae dogma).

But Ennius may have phrased the matter differently. An epigram attributed to Antipater of Thessalonica (74 Gow-Page) states that in accordance with the philosophical pronouncement of Pythagoras the soul that had previously belonged to Homer made a second home in the breast of Stesichorus (οὗ [sc. Στασιχόρου] κατὰ Πυθαγόρεω φυσικὰν φάτιν ἁ πρὶν Ὁμήρου | ψυχὰ ἐνὶ στέρνοις δεύτερον ᾠκίσατο). There is one soul that begins as Homer’s and then becomes Stesichorus’. Now, Homeric metempsychosis occurs only in Ennius and this epigram, and critics agree the two are somehow related (Fuchs 1955: 201–202, Suerbaum 1968: 87–91, Brink 1972: 557–60). That both the epigram and the witnesses to Ennius qualify Homeric metempsychosis with almost exactly the same phrase about Pythagoras implies that Ennius wrote something similar. The question becomes whether Ennius wrote of Homer’s soul or the soul that used to belong to Homer (ἁ πρὶν Ὁμήρου ψυχά). Critics assume the former, which subordinates Ennius to Homer. If it was the latter, however, the soul simply moves from owner to owner, belonging first to Homer, then to Ennius. In this scenario, Ennius puts himself on equal footing with Homer, a bold move that would not be out of character (cf. Feeney 2016: 187–88).

This proposition fits well with the testimony of Lucretius (1.112–26). According to Lucretius, Ennius wrote of reincarnation, the underworld, and a distinction between soul (anima) and shade (simulacrumspecies). After death, the soul enters a new body, while the shade endures in the underworld—in the dream, Ennius meets Homer’s shade, a virtual clone of the original (cf. Serv. ad Aen. 4.654). Homer’s shade continues in some sense to be Homer, but the soul that used to belong to him has moved on and now belongs to another.

This reading subtly changes the cultural dynamics of Ennius’ dream. Homer and Greece may come before Ennius and Rome, but the past does not determine the identity of the present. The soul that used to belong to Homer now fully belongs to Ennius, a world that used to belong to others now fully belongs to Rome.

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Latin Poetry

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