BMCR 2021.05.22

Ennius’ Annals: poetry and history

, , Ennius' Annals: poetry and history. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 351. ISBN 9781108481724 $120.00.

This multi-authored volume constitutes yet further testimony to the ever-increasing diversity, of both approaches and modes of inquiry, that has characterized the scholarship on Ennius’ Annales in the last few decades. As the editors note (p. 1), until the mid-80s most research was concerned with establishing the text of this pivotal but fragmentarily preserved poem. Out of a text originally comprising eighteen books only about 600 lines remain. After the publication in 1985 of Otto Skutsch’s edition,[1] widely recognized as authoritative (and including an extensive commentary), scholars began to address a host of novel issues and soon turned Ennian studies into a vibrant field of research: they have added and continue to add depth and breadth to how we understand not only the early development of Roman literature, but also the origins of historiography.

The well-produced and carefully edited tome, the bulk of which is made up of fourteen numbered chapters divided into four thematic sections, starts with a substantial introduction and closes with a general assessment of the contributions. Many of the contributors count among the foremost students of Ennius. Several have written monographs on Ennius, republican epic poetry or other subjects relevant to the themes of the volume.

In the introduction, ‘History and Poetry in Ennius’ Annals’ (pp. 1–22), the two editors reflect on the development of Ennian studies in recent years, as well as on future prospects, and outline the objectives of the book. They note that the research focus has shifted from problems of textual criticism towards literary, historical and cultural issues, yet they are careful to stress that the editorial assumptions underlying Skutsch’s text have recently been challenged,[2] and that scholars therefore cannot neglect the concerns of earlier research. Highlighting this state of affairs, and its implications, is a principal aim of their book, which “constitutes a first effort to assess where prevailing editorial assumptions have taken us, to evaluate their results in the light of Elliott’s critique, and to begin to chart a course for future research” (p. 2).

Ennius famously pioneered the use of dactylic hexameters in Latin, but his work was innovative also in many other respects. The first thematic section is Part I. Innovation, comprising three essays. Patrick Glauthier, ‘Hybrid Ennius: Cultural and Poetic Multiplicity in the Annals’ (ch. 1, pp. 25–44), deals with the poet’s persona in the poem, arguing that hybrid, multiple or excessive bodies are central to its creation. He suggests that this multiplicity, reflected in Ennius’ perception that he (as a speaker of Oscan, Greek and Latin) possessed tria corda, embraced the essence of Romanness and of being a Roman. Virginia Fabrizi, ‘History, Philosophy, and the Annals’ (ch. 2, pp. 45–62), is concerned with the role of philosophical doctrines in Ennius’ representation of Roman history. In a discussion of  historical change and cultural transfer, she argues that Ennius, by embedding philosophy into his historical epic, highlighted the role of political communities as links between the human and the divine spheres. Joseph Farrell, ‘The Gods in Ennius’, (ch. 3, pp. 63–88), discusses the models for Ennius’ Götterapparat. While he does recognize the impact of Homer on the representation of the gods and the divine in the Annales, he is more concerned with identifying other influences. He suggests that Ennius owes as much to Hesiod as to Homer and also points out the impact from the rationalizing theology of Euhemerus’ Sacred History, a work that Ennius translated into Latin.

Part II. Authority contains four essays. Thomas Biggs, ‘Allegory and Authority in Latin Verse-Historiography’ (ch. 4, pp. 91–106), discusses historiographical devices, perspectives and tropes in the Annales that may derive from two earlier epic poems in Latin: Livius Andronicus’ translation of the Odyssey and Naevius’ Bellum Punicum, both composed in Saturnian verse. He is mainly concerned with the topics of allegory and authority, around which the whole piece is structured. The epics are also considered in relation to Cato’s Origines. Jackie Elliott, ‘Reading Ennius’ Annals and Cato’s Origins at Rome’ (ch. 5, pp. 107–124), makes an important contribution to our understanding of the audiences for early Roman epic poetry on historical themes and for prose historiography. Citing various points of intersection in the sources for Ennius’ epic and Cato’s Origines, she assembles much largely overlooked evidence for these long-lost audiences. Cynthia Damon, ‘Looking for auctoritas in Ennius’ Annals’ (ch. 6, pp. 125–146), is concerned with the poet’s reasoning and critical-thinking skills. In her quest for evidence for these abilities, she looks for demonstrations of historiographical authority in response to conflicting information about the past. Lydia Spielberg, ‘Ennius’ Annals as Source and Model for Historical Speech (ch. 7, pp. 147–166), discusses fictive speeches as mimetic elements in epic poetry and the representation and transmission of historical speech acts in Roman literature. Focusing on speeches taken over or adapted from speeches in Ennius’ poem, and on the poet’s standing as a historical source, she is also concerned with the poet’s cultural authority and later writers’ accuracy in citing him.

Part III. Influence comprises four essays. Sander M. Goldberg, ‘Ennius and the fata librorum’ (ch. 8, pp. 169–187), is concerned with the fate of Ennius’ massive poem. Though possessing unparalleled literary and cultural significance, its destiny was to perish almost completely. Considering how so vast a monument became such a ruin, he discusses its reception and its eclipse by Vergil’s epic. Among the questions addressed are what ordinary Romans were expected to know, pretended to know or actually knew about the poem. He demonstrates that even erudite Romans increasingly came to know Ennius’ poem only at second or third hand, as a source of grammatical, lexical and morphological curiosities—and that the idea of the poem, in the Roman literary consciousness, at some point took precedence over the poem itself. Jason S. Nethercut, ‘How Ennian Was Latin Epic between the Annals and Lucretius?’ (ch. 9, pp. 188–210), deals with the generic impact of Ennius’ poem. Questioning the widely held view that Latin poetry, and especially epic poetry, was dominated by Ennian aesthetics until these were ultimately spurned by Catullus and the other neoterics, he analyzes the remains of early Roman epic. Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, ‘Livy’s Ennius’ (ch. 10, pp. 211–227), examines the various roles Ennius’ epic plays as a source and a programmatic model for Livy. She addresses this intricate issue by looking at Livy’s citation practices (both explicit and impersonal citations) as well as questions pertaining to intertextuality, canon formation and the epic voice as a distinctive feature in historiography and other genres. A. J. Woodman, ‘Ennius’ Annals and Tacitus’ Annals’ (ch. 11, pp. 228–240), is concerned with passages containing metre in Latin prose works of historiography. He considers the intriguing question whether examples of hexameter rhythm in Sallust and Livy, two of Tacitus’ primary models, are allusions to, or even quotations from, Ennius’ epic.

Part IV. Interpretation comprises three essays. Brian W. Breed, ‘Ennius and Lucilius: Good Companion/Bad Companion’ (ch. 12, pp. 243–261), discusses Lucilius’ stance towards  Ennius’ writings (including his satires) within the evolving literary culture at Rome in the last decades of the second century BCE, a time when generic boundaries between epic and satire were just forming. The last two essays in the volume are concerned with the commentary tradition. Jessica H. Clark, ‘Ennius’ Annals as Historical Evidence in Ancient and Modern Commentaries’ (ch. 13, pp. 262–279), focuses on a brief and decontextualized fragment (sed. inc. fr. **62 [513]) that has been variously interpreted in the light of a broad range of comparanda, and she suggests a new context for it. Christina Shuttleworth Kraus, ‘Commenting on the Annals: Steuart, Skutsch, and Ennius’ (ch. 14, pp. 280–295), considers the various approaches a commentator might take to a text as fragmentary as Ennius’ Annales. She begins by considering fragmentary texts in general, offering many valuable methodological observations, and then turns to the scholarship on the fragments of Ennius’ poem. Focusing on the two English-language commentaries, those of Otto Skutsch (1985) and Ethel Mary Steuart (1925),[3] she discusses the many pitfalls and challenges that scholars face as they work with writing that has been separated from an original whole. Not confining herself to methodology, Kraus also deals with the psychology affecting the scholar who works with such fragments. With regard to accuracy and methodological sophistication, she recognizes the superiority of Skutsch’s work, but she also acknowledges the value of its precursor. In her mind, the shortcomings notwithstanding, it too is the work of a learned scholar, with a different voice and a heterodox vision of the poem. And who knows where future research may take us? “In a world where Skutsch’s Ennius may no longer be our Ennius, who knows what will happen?” (p. 295).

In a most valuable ‘Afterword’ (pp. 296–309), Mary Jaeger reflects at length on the findings of the volume, on the new questions that the individual contributions raise, and on their proposed solutions; she also indicates additional points that need to be addressed in future research. This is the place to go for anyone who is looking for research topics. Moreover, the extensive bibliography (‘Works Cited’, pp. 310–338) will serve as a very useful guide to Ennian studies. The volume concludes with a ‘General Index’ (pp. 339–348) and an ‘Index Locorum’ (pp. 349–352).

The volume constitutes an exceptionally significant contribution to the scholarship not only on Ennius, but also on early Roman literature and historiography in general. Providing many significant results as well as exhibiting a rich cross-fertilization of ideas and perspectives, it is bound to stimulate much additional research.


[1] O. Skutsch, The Annals of Q. Ennius, Oxford 1985.

[2] J. Elliott, Ennius and the Architecture of the Annales, Cambridge 2013.

[3] Skutsch 1985 (n. 1); E. M. Steuart, The Annals of Ennius, Cambridge 1925 (repr. Hildesheim 1976 and Cambridge 2014).