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date: 06 October 2022

Ennius, Quintus, free

epic and dramatic poet, 239–169 bce

Ennius, Quintus, free

epic and dramatic poet, 239–169 bce
  • Gesine Manuwald


Ennius was the most prolific poet in the early period of Latin literature and is particularly known for his epic and his dramas. He composed plays for public festivals down to the year of his death, a major narrative epic, a large amount of non-dramatic verse, and at least one work in prose. While Ennius’ entire output only survives in fragments, his life and writings are better documented than those of most other early Republican writers, which is partly the result and an indication of his esteem among the Romans.


  • Latin Literature

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords and summary added.

Ennius was born in 239 bce (Cic. Brut. 72; Tusc. 1.3; Gell. NA 17.21.43; Hieron. Ab Abr. 1777 [p. 133a Helm]) in the Calabrian town of Rudiae (Cic. Arch. 22; Hor. Carm. 4.8.20 with Schol. ad loc.; Strab. 6.3.5 [p. 281 C.]; Ov. Ars am. 3.409–410; Mela 2.66) and claimed descent from the legendary king Messapus (Serv. ad Verg. Aen. 7.691). Coming from southern Italy, Ennius would have been familiar with both Greek and Oscan language and culture as well as with Roman culture and the Latin language (Gell. NA 17.17.1). He was influenced by Greek philosophical doctrines and later contributed to promoting those in Rome. He was brought to Rome from Sardinia in 204 bce by M. Porcius Cato (Nep. Cato 1.4; [Aur. Vict.] De vir. ill. 47.1; Hieron. Ab Abr. 1777 [p. 133a Helm]). At Rome, Ennius is said to have lived in a modest house on the Aventine Hill (Hieron. Ab Abr. 1777 [p. 133a Helm]) and to have been a teacher of Greek and Latin (Suet. Gram. et rhet. 1.2–3). He had friendly relations with distinguished families, including the Sulpicii Galbae (Cic. Acad. Pr. 51), the Scipios (Cic. De or. 2.276; Hor. Sat. 2.1.16–17 with Porph. ad loc.; Suda s.v. Ennius), and the Fulvii. He was a member of the entourage of M. Fulvius Nobilior (cos. 189 bce) for his campaign in Aetolia (Cic. Arch. 27; Tusc. 1.3; [Aur. Vict.] De vir. ill. 52.1–3); subsequently, he is said to have received Roman citizenship in 184 bce through the efforts of Nobilior’s son, Q. Fulvius Nobilior (cos. 153 bce) (Cic. Brut. 79). Ennius’ association with the Scipios gave rise to the belief that a portrait bust of his was in the tomb of the Scipios (Cic. Arch. 22; Liv. 38.56.4; Ov. Ars am. 3.409–410; Val. Max. 8.14.1; Plin. HN 7.114) or even that he was buried there (Hieron. Ab Abr. 1849 [p. 140a Helm]) after his death in 169 bce (Cic. Brut. 78; Sen. 14). As a result of the attested links to aristocrats, Ennius was regarded by modern scholars as a client poet, promoting the partisan interests of patrons; more recently, he has been seen as acting more independently and pursuing a broader cultural programme.

Although Ennius, like other early Roman poets, was not Roman by birth, he was called pater Ennius (‘father Ennius’) by later Romans (Hor. Epist. 1.19.6–8 with Porph. ad loc.; Prop. 3.3.6); this was largely due to his epic poem Annales, the first proper national epic for the Romans. The narrative (originally in fifteen books) covered the history of the Roman people from the fall of Troy to the seizure of Ambracia in 189 bce and the triumphal return of M. Fulvius Nobilior. The title Annales (which may be Ennius’ coinage) has been linked to the records that the pontifices kept of religiously significant events, but it is no longer generally believed that these inspired his composition. In any case, while focusing on Roman subject-matter, he moved away from some Roman traditions and assimilated new, Greek-inspired conventions, which offered novel avenues for artistic development: instead of the ancient Camenae, he invoked the Musae, recently imported and given a home by M. Fulvius Nobilior in a new temple on the Campus Martius (Cic. Arch. 27; Macrob. Sat. 1.12.16; Serv. ad Verg. Aen. 1.8; Pan. Lat. 9.7.3). In the epic’s first book, Ennius represented himself as a reincarnation of Homer. As regards form, he replaced the Saturnian verse (used by his Roman predecessors, L. Livius Andronicus and Cn. Naevius ) with a Latin version of the dactylic hexameter (to become the canonical metre of Roman epic) (Isid. Etym. 1.39.6; Schol. Bern. ad Verg. G. 1.477), which enabled the adoption of a number of Homeric stylistic devices. The history of Rome was told largely chronologically. The sequence of books can be structured into groups of three: Books 1–3 give the story from the arrival of Aeneas to the expulsion of the last Roman king and the foundation of the republic; Books 4–6 deal with the reduction of Etruria and Samnium and the seeing off of the Epirote king Pyrrhus; Books 7–9 cover driving the Carthaginians back to North Africa and the incorporation of the old Greek cities of southern Italy and Sicily into the Roman empire; Books 10–12 narrate the campaigns of the first decade of the second century, on the Greek mainland and in Spain; Books 13–15 cover the defeats inflicted on Philip V, Antiochus III, and the Aetolian Confederacy. Ennius later added a further three books (16–18) to the Annales (Plin. HN 7.101): these feature deeds in the wars of the 180s and 170s bce against the Istrians, Ligurians, and other minor tribes. The poem emphasized the constant expansion of the Roman empire and the eclipse suffered by the Greek states that had sacked Troy and by their descendants.

Like all early Roman playwrights, Ennius produced dramas in more than a single dramatic genre; he seems to have been most successful in the area of tragedy and was active right down to the year of his death (Cic. Brut. 78). To some of the twenty recorded titles of tragedies (Achilles [Aristarchi], Aiax, Alcmeo, Alexander, Andromacha [Aechmalotis], Andromeda, Athamas, Cresphontes, Erectheus, Eumenides, Hectoris lytra, Hecuba, Iphigenia, Medea [exul], Melanippa, Nemea, Phoenix, Telamo, Telephus, Thyestes) are attached fragments sufficiently extensive to indicate that he was particularly influenced by Euripides (see tragedy, Greek) and that he adapted his tragedies in the free manner Latin poets had been using for half a century (Gloss. 2.11 [CGF I, p. 73 Kaibel]). In Cicero’s time, a triad of Roman tragedians was established (on the Greek model), consisting of Ennius and his successors M. Pacuvius and L. Accius; they were all appreciated, while their different styles were recognized (Cic. De or. 3.27), with that of Ennius felt to be in line with everyday language (Cic. Orat. 36). He also produced fabulae praetextae (see fabula), original plays on events from Roman history in the serious style of tragedy: he wrote one (Sabinae) on an incident from early Roman history, the rape of the Sabine women, and another (Ambracia) on a recent event, the capture of the town of Ambracia in Aetolia by M. Fulvius Nobilior (189 bce). Of Ennius’ comedies, which were not rated highly by later critics (Volcacius Sedigitus, Carm. F 1 FPL4, ap. Gell. NA 15.24), only two titles survive (Caupuncula and Pancratiastes); these dramas were apparently written in the tradition of (Greek) New Comedy, as exemplified by Plautus and Terence and recently developed by Cn. Naevius (see comedy, Latin). The metres recognizable in Ennius’ dramatic fragments include the spoken metres of iambic senarii and trochaic septenarii as well as various lyric metres.

In addition, Ennius introduced or updated a number of other literary forms in Rome. The remains of several books of Saturae, as they were called (Hor. Sat. 1.10.46–49 with Porph. ad loc.; Diom., Gramm. Lat. I, p. 485.32–34 Keil), apparently a collection of miscellaneous pieces, show a considerable variety of metres and themes (see satire). There are signs of comic elements, and the use of fables, proverbs, parodies, and moralizing statements.

Whereas it had been the custom to write epitaphs for leading men in Saturnian verses and even senarii, Ennius was said to have been the first to use a Latin version of the elegiac couplet (Isid. Etym. 1.39.15). He produced epigrams in this metre on the death and achievements of P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus (the elder) (236–183 bce) and of himself.

Scipio also showcased P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus (the elder); its form, genre, and precise content, however, remain uncertain. Most probably, Scipio was a separate work, an occasional poem in praise of Scipio.

Epicharmus is named after the Sicilian writer Epicharmus, who was a comic poet, but also had philosophical material circulate under his name. Epicharmus seems to have presented philosophical ideas, such as the doctrine of the four elements and their relation to mind and body. The work may have been opened by a dream narrative like the Annales. The fragments exhibit various metrical patterns.

Euhemerus was a Latin version of the Sacred History by Euhemerus of Messene, discussing the human origin of gods (Cic. Nat. D. 1.119). The fragments of Ennius’ text mainly concern stories on the genealogy and life of Jupiter; some of these suggest that Jupiter was deified after his death. The views expressed sometimes differ from other mythological accounts and the official Roman state religion, but the author’s position cannot be determined. Not all passages have been transmitted as verbatim quotations; even so, they probably still indicate accurately that this work was written in prose, which makes it one of the oldest literary prose texts in Latin literature.

The single surviving fragment of the Hedyphagetica describes different kinds of fish and the places where these are best; it is thus the earliest example of a didactic poem in Rome. The piece was probably based on a gastronomic poem by Archestratus of Gela, but Ennius used Italian place names instead of Greek ones. The poem was written in hexameters like the Annales, but deviates in metrical details, probably as a result of the difference in literary genre.

The Sota employed a metrical form associated with Sotades and probably presented a range of topics in this characteristic metre.

Whether the two works Protrepticus and the Praecepta are identical, as sometimes assumed, cannot be established, since for each only one fragment survives. The Praecepta may have presented moral and ethical doctrines; the title Protrepticus suggests an exhortation to philosophy.

Ennius stands out among Latin writers for the diversity of the works he produced and the influence he had on the development of Roman literature and culture, although some later authors regarded his works as not sufficiently sophisticated. Ennius’ tragedies were still performed and read in the late Republic (Cic. Att. 4.15.6; Acad. Pr. 20; Acad. post. 10; Fin. 1.4; Tusc. 3.45; Off. 1.114). The Annales was studied by M. Tullius Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan. The text was still available in the Flavian period, but copies had become rare by the 5th century ce. Commentators on Virgil’s Aeneid pointed out borrowings from the older poem. Nonius Marcellus is the only late writer who can be shown to have read any of the tragedies. Apuleius was able to find in a library a copy of the Hedyphagetica and Lactantius one of the Euhemerus. Although no manuscript of Ennius seem to have reached the Middle Ages, the Humanists of the Renaissance were again interested in his work, and the fragments were collected and published in separate editions from the 16th century.

Primary Texts


  • Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft V 2, s.v. “Ennius 3,” by Skutsch, Franz (1905): 2589–2628.
  • Boyle, Anthony J. An Introduction to Roman Tragedy. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Breed, Brian W., and Andreola Rossi, eds. “Ennius and the Invention of Roman Epic.” Arethusa 39, no. 3 (2006).
  • Consoli, Maria Elvira. Quintus Ennius: Fortuna ed enigmi. Lecce, Italy: Adriatica Editrice Salentina, 2014.
  • Elliott, Jackie. Ennius and the Architecture of the Annals. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Fisher, Jay. The Annals of Quintus Ennius and the Italic Tradition. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014.
  • Fitzgerald, William, and Emily Gowers, eds. Ennius Perennis: The Annals and Beyond. Cambridge Classical Journal, Suppl. Vol. 31. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Philological Society, 2007.
  • Goldberg, Sander M. Epic in Republican Rome. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Goldschmidt, Nora. Shaggy Crowns: Ennius’ Annales and Virgil’s Aeneid. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • La Barbera, Sandro. “Ennius.” Oxford Bibliographies Online, 2014.
  • Skutsch, Otto, ed. Ennius. Sept exposés suivis de discussions. Entretiens sur l’antiquité Classique XVII. Vandœuvres-Genève, Switzerland: Fondation Hardt, 1972.
  • Suerbaum, Werner. Ennius in der Forschung des 20. Jahrhunderts: Eine kommentierte Bibliographie für 1900–1999 mit systematischen Hinweisen nebst einer Kurzdarstellung des Q. Ennius (239–169 v. Chr.). Bibliographien zur Klassischen Philologie 1. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 2003.