BMCR 2021.10.11

Poetics of the first Punic War

, Poetics of the first Punic War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. Pp. 264. ISBN 9780472132133. $80.00.


Of all the republican literature we do not have, Naevius’ Bellum Punicum must be one of our greatest losses. A veteran’s account of the First Punic War that also managed to narrate – two centuries before the Aeneid – the story of Aeneas, Naevius’ epic seems to have been a remarkable poem, a kind of neoteric experiment avant la lettre in its intermingling of personal experience and the mythical past, if not in its public themes. Some of its 60 or so fragments are astonishingly beautiful, too: take fr. 5, amborum uxores / noctu Troiad exibant capitibus opertis / flentes ambae, abeuntes, lacrimis cum multis,[1] whose trail of echoing adjectival phrases so perfectly captures the repetitive burden of the Trojans’ grief. This is accomplished, fascinating poetry; Anglophone scholarship neglects it too often.

The publication of Thomas Biggs’ Poetics of the First Punic War, then, should be celebrated: here we have an intelligent and impeccably researched monograph that offers a sustained reading of Naevius’ epic within a much broader study of the cultural reception of that poet’s main theme, the First Punic War. Starting from the initial insight that that war “holds an underappreciated place in the history of Latin literature” (so the dustjacket), this book analyses the various ways in which Romans, from the third century BCE to the late first century CE, remembered their first overseas conflict.[2] As the first Roman to write about this conflict at length and explicitly, Naevius looms large, but Biggs devotes considerable space to the poet who anticipated him (Livius Andronicus), poets who wrote in his wake (Horace, Propertius, Virgil, Silius Italicus), and paintings, columns, and coins that memorialize or engage with the war in which he had fought. In its generally careful but imaginative handling of poetic fragments, in its integrated treatment of literary and material evidence, and in its illuminating application of various theoretical approaches, Poetics of the First Punic War seems to me an exemplary work of scholarship: readers of early Latin poetry will find it especially valuable, but Latinists and Roman cultural historians broadly ought to take note.

After an introduction that summarizes the book’s contents and reviews some of the methodological issues involved in working with fragments (in short: we have to be very, very careful), Biggs proceeds chronologically from the Middle Republic. Chapter 1, “Rome, the Sea, and the ‘Roman Odyssey,’” like most of the chapters in the book, is bristling with interesting ideas; I wish I could enumerate them more fully. After a consideration of the “semiotic power of the maritime” in mid-republican material culture, the focus here is Livius Andronicus’ fragmentary version of the Odyssey, a text which Biggs, developing recent historicizing interpretations,[3] reads as an allegorical “verse historiography.” Essentially, this chapter argues that the written experience of Andronicus’ seafaring Odysseus reflects the lived experience of contemporary Romans, who, in the years of the First Punic War, came to know, and struggle upon, the sea for the first time. The Odusia is thus “about” Rome’s relationship to the maritime, and so paved the way for Naevius’ more explicitly historiographical poem.

The next two chapters focus on Naevius himself. These 70-odd pages seem the book’s strongest stretch and are probably the most important contribution to the literary critical study of that poet since Goldberg’s Epic in Republican Rome (1995, Oxford).[4] Chapter 2, “Naevius’ First Punic War,” largely consists of a series of close readings of the Bellum Punicum, in which Biggs is particularly concerned to present his protagonist as a trend-setter whose innovative portrayal of Rome’s first overseas conflict shaped later literature and, to a certain extent, Roman thought. On the available record, as Biggs sees it, Naevius’ trend-setting innovations include: his act of elevating (“epicizing”) Roman history to the level of Trojan myth; of representing, and thus helping to establish, the city of Rome as a literary and cultural capital (Pascale Casanova is brought in very nicely to argue this point);[5] of constructing Carthage as a “mirror city,” on whose destruction Rome’s existence depends; and of introducing intertextuality and “intermediality” to the Latin literary tradition. Inevitably, some of these innovations are disputable as such (given the state of our evidence, I for one am pretty hesitant to grant that “the inception of the intertext” [6] occurred precisely in the late third century BCE). And a few of Biggs’ individual points will be familiar to those who work on early Latin poetry. But in every instance, Biggs’ arguments are intelligent and engaging, and the larger thesis is convincing and novel: Naevius was not the marginal figure we often take him to be; his textualization of the First Punic War was a key moment in Latin literary history. Particularly in this millennium, when Naevius’ kid brother Ennius has been hogging the attention of Anglophone Latinists with a taste for the fragmentary, those are salutary, important points.

Chapter 3, “Mediated Memories,” zooms out from the nitty-gritty of the Naevian fragments and, drawing on media and memory studies,[6] attends to the impact of the Bellum Punicum at Rome. Surprisingly and excellently, Biggs here finds a modern analogue for Naevius’ epic in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. After discussing how Coppola’s film (and the nightly news) mediated public perception of the Vietnam War in twentieth-century America (Jean Baudrillard plays a major role in this discussion), Biggs suggests that, in “epicizing” the First Punic War, the Bellum Punicum similarlycreated a new version of history for the Romans – a hyperbolic, Homeric “simulacrum” of the First Punic War, which, in Biggs’ view, erased more pragmatic, less romanticized memories of the event. Though necessarily speculative (we know even less about the initial reception of Naevius’ poem than we do about the poem itself), this is an intriguing – even exciting – take, enriched by some thoughtful reflections on “factualizing” in Roman historiography.

From the third century BCE, we leap hundreds of years ahead in the last two chapters and epilogue to the post-republican “afterlives” of the First Punic War. The types of evidence and methods of analysis used are attractively diverse. Chapter 4, “An Augustan First Punic War,” offers a wide-ranging, semiotic-tinged discussion of how Augustan art, architecture, and poetry[7]  appropriate the maritime symbols of the third century BCE and the themes and contrasts of Naevian poetry: engaged in a complicated – at times amical, at times polemical – conversation, these various media work to draw an analogy between the Augustan present and the republican past. Chapter 5, on the other hand, “The First Punic War in Silius Italicus’ Punica,” after a fleeting discussion of Flavian coinage, offers a more conventional and focussed reading of Silius Italicus: as Biggs shows, that poet valorizes the First Punic War throughout his Punica, making it a source of pressure on his characters. The book closes with a brief epilogue on the reception of the First Punic War in the Tripoli Monument, a full bibliography, and two helpful indexes.

While I doubt these closing chapters will shape the study of Augustan culture or Silius Italicus in the way that the earlier chapters might shape the study of Naevius, and the epilogue, to my mind, is slightly anticlimactic,[8] there is a lot that is really valuable here. Sharp insights on individual poems proliferate (the discussions of Prop. 4.6 [143-47], Verg. Aen. 4 [149-60], and Sil. Pun. 2 [171-77] are highlights for me), and Chapter 4 does a superb job of drawing a mass of disparate evidence and bibliography together into a compelling narrative. This chapter would probably work very well in an undergraduate course on Augustan culture or poetry. It is a shame, then, that some of its translations are a little careless: p. 126 leaves Hor. Epod. 9.12, a crucial line, untranslated; p. 134 offers Heyworth’s version of Prop. 2.31.3, tota erat in spatium Poenis digesta columnis, but then translates something else (“It’s all divided up spatially by Punic columns, a sight to see” seems to render both the archetype, in speciem [“a sight to see”], and Heinsius’ conjecture, in spatium [“spatially”], which Heyworth prints instead of the archetype); and then p. 134 again makes a tiny but confusing mistake in Prop. 2.31.11: the chariot of Sol was not “in the temple” of Palatine Apollo – it was “on top of it” (in quo).[9]

Unsurprisingly, there are some details in this ambitious book with which I would quarrel: I doubt, for instance, that it is anachronistic to attach “epic” to the Odusia and Bellum Punicum, as Biggs seems to believe (Andronicus evidently had Homer, so he, at least, among third-century Romans had some conception of “epic”); and, pace p. 2, I am suspicious of the claim that the First Punic War was the primary cause of epic’s invention (a literary genre seems far too complex a phenomenon to have such a clear and tidy aetion). I wish, too, that Biggs’ prose were sometimes more precise and less reliant on buzzwords: “the second Roman author to tackle poetic representation through an epic lens” (5), for instance, strikes me as an awkward periphrasis for “the second Roman epic poet.” But none of this seriously distracts from or undermines Biggs’ many achievements. Poetics of the First Punic War displays an impressive mastery of four hundred years of Roman poetry and culture. It makes valuable contributions to the study of virtually every topic it touches, and it stands to change the way we think about one of Rome’s earliest and most interesting poets. Go forth, readers, and read it.[10]


[1] “The wives of both, / at night, were leaving Troy, their heads covered, / the both of them weeping, departing, with many tears.”

[2] The book thus nicely complements Feeney’s Beyond Greek (2016, Cambridge, MA), which likewise emphasizes the literary historical importance of the First Punic War but stays put in the Middle Republic. Biggs makes his debt to Feeney very clear.

[3] Especially M. Leigh, 2010, “Early Roman Epic and the Maritime Moment,” CP 105.3: 265–80.

[4] Valuable, but less sustained, literary critical engagement with Naevius appears in E. Sciarrino, 2011, Cato the Censor and the Beginnings of Latin Prose, Columbus, OH and J. Elliott, 2013, Ennius and the Architecture of the Annales, Cambridge: 269-72. Commentaries on the Bellum Punicum have appeared in recent years, too: E. Flores, 2014, Commentario a Cn. Naeui Bellum Poenicum, Naples; A. Viredaz, 2020, Fragmenta Saturnia heroica, Basel.

[5] Biggs in particular draws on Casanova’s influential monograph, La République mondiale des Lettres (1999, Paris; translated by M. B. DeBevoise as The World Republic of Letters [2004, Cambridge, MA]). This book argues for the reality of an international and relatively autonomous “world of letters”; in the 19th and 20th centuries, as Casanova sees it, Paris functioned as the “literary capital” of this world – the place endowed with the most literary prestige and “credit.” Biggs’ believes that, with Naevius’ help, Rome became such a capital in the third century BCE.

[6] And classical scholarship that has already engaged with the methods of memory studies, e.g., L. D. Ginsberg, 2017, “Staging Memory, Staging Strife: Empire and Civil War in the Octavia,” Oxford.

[7] The main subjects are the Naulochus column; Hor., Epod. 1 and 9, Carm. 2.12 and 3.6; Prop. 2.1, 2.31, 3.11, and 4.6; and Verg, Aen. 1, 4, and 8.

[8] If I am being honest, the concluding claim that the “legacy [of the Punic Wars] lives on” (210) falls a bit flat when the evidence adduced in its favour is a largely forgotten monument celebrating a minor nineteenth-century war.

[9] Mistakes in modern languages are infrequent: “of” is missing at p. 14 (“Chapter 3 continues to unpack some of…”); “indebted” is probably not the right word at p. 118, n. 1; “third elegy” should be “thirty first elegy” at the top of p. 134; a line break interrupts “[r]affigurazioni” at p. 144, n. 70; and there is an error in spacing in the block quote on p. 176.

[10] It is worth mentioning, too, that this book is exceptionally well designed and manufactured: the binding is sturdy; the cover is beautiful; and the pages have a nice weight and texture. Kudos to University of Michigan Press.