BMCR 2022.02.15

Ennius noster: Lucretius and the Annales

, Ennius noster: Lucretius and the Annales. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 272. ISBN 9780197517697 $99.00.

Ennius was the poet of the Romans, and the Annales was perhaps the most influential Latin poem of any period of the literary history of Rome. Lucretius calls the poet Ennius noster at 1.117–119. “This is not a book about Ennius’ Annales,” Jason Nethercut is keen to specify several times in his book, yet scholars of Ennius will also benefit greatly from this contribution. Nonetheless, this volume is aimed primarily at Lucretius scholars and consists of an in-depth analysis of Lucretius’ interpretation of Ennius’ work. The author believes that Lucretius chose Ennius as a model, not only out of admiration or the inevitable need to use a reference point for writing in Latin hexameters, but above all to completely dismantle what he considered Ennian values: first, history as a poetic subject; secondly, the value of Roman conquests; and finally, a philosophical conception of literary history.

Nethercut points out that his book is based on a central insight from Lucretian criticism, led over the last two decades especially by Monica Gale and Philip Hardie: Lucretius would have gone to great lengths to criticize the heterodox philosophical views of other poets. Furthermore, Nethercut accepts recent studies that read the Annales as a universal history but regards Lucretius’ own universalizing as standing in contrast to that of Ennius and to the complex condition of the Roman state in the years during the composition of De rerum natura.[1] For Nethercut, the DRN sought to transcend all previous traditional conceptions of poetry, both mythological and historical, but Ennius is Lucretius’ most conspicuous and demanding poetic target.

The relationship between Lucretius and Ennius has been mainly interpreted in previous studies as a function of form (language and style), not content. Lucretius wrote the DRN in an insistently Ennian style, and traces of Ennian language are scattered throughout his work. But it should not be surprising that Lucretius attacked some of the most rooted concepts in Ennian poetics and its philosophical content, such as the idea of metempsychosis, which he considered misleading and which he refuted on Epicurean principles. Nethercut focuses on distinguishing what Ennius actually wrote from what Lucretius certainly read.

My argument will thus de-emphasize the complex process of allusion, which involves, as Hinds argues, “indirection as much as direction, concealment as much as revelation;” (…) this does not mean, however, that I deny that allusion is a complex process. In adopting such an approach, I am also insisting on more discipline in adducing literary influences. I assume that one must show that verbal parallels are combined with thematic elements or motifs, and that one can interpret this combination. “Allusion” understood in the way I have advocated can more efficiently address these criteria for reception than “intertextuality” can. (pp. 12–13)

The introduction is a guide for the reader, who can benefit enormously from it. These studies on Ennius and Lucretius have been developed by Nethercut over a decade and his ideas are clear and convincing. Clarity of presentation is one of the strengths of this study, accompanied by a confidence in the presentation of his theses, sometimes restated several times, repeatedly, I would say, in a sort of “tribute” to the Lucretian style.

Chapter 1 presents a survey of the history of Ennian scholarship from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present, which well explains how the interpretation of Ennius has been conditioned by the work of Friedrich Leo, Geschichte der Römischen Literatur (1913), who believed that Ennius was influential on all subsequent Roman epic (pp. 19–23), particularly Virgil. Nethercut demonstrates that the continued acquiescence to the assumptions of Leo about Republican epic replication of Ennian form and content represents a striking critical anachronism. These mistaken assumptions persist in contemporary scholarship on Ennius. First of all, many scholars assume that the second and first centuries BCE witnessed the production of many historical epics in Latin, even though we have evidence for only a few. Secondly, they tend to imagine that Ennius’ influence was so pervasive that it dominated not only the many unattested historical epics, but also extended into other genres and subgenres. Thirdly, they assert that this putative Ennian tradition operated on a rather low stylistic level, and that the poems as a whole were repetitive and monotonous. Finally, these scholars assume that the degree of Ennian engagement to be found in the very few lines we have from the very small number of poems titled Annales is quite typical (Nethercut devotes a whole paragraph to the title Annales).

Nethercut analyzes the remains of Republican epic or, more precisely, historical epic written in Latin hexameters before Lucretius, but without the benefit of Lucretian hindsight that most such accounts assume. The approach without hindsight is crucial, since it is precisely because of Lucretius and his overt and insistent Ennianizing poetics that many scholars have come to the conclusion that Ennian aesthetic principles dominated Latin poetry.

In Chapter 2, “Lucretius and the Ennian Cosmos”, Nethercut explores how the Annales represents a model for Lucretian poetry about the universe. Lucretius identifies Ennius and Ennius’ Homer as the two poets who write on “the nature of things” in the proem to the DRN (1.117–126). Nethercut is capable of recognizing that Lucretius does not epicize his own poem, but epic poetry is inherently philosophical. Lucretius associates his poetry with that of Homer, Ennius and Empedocles, and in this way, he takes advantage of Aristotle’s debate on the topic (Poetics 47b13–20). Lucretius recurrently represents the universe in his work in dialogue with Ennius’ cosmos, involving both philosophical and poetic polemics. Lucretius articulates a universe whose strongly Epicurean philosophical dynamics are anti-Ennian.

In Chapter 3, “Ennian Historiography in Lucretius”, Nethercut argues that Lucretius responds to the Annales’ conceptualization of history and time in a revisionist way. According to Ennius, there was a causal connection between past events and their effects in the present. Lucretius rejects this notion of historical teleology. Lucretius argues that the past does not exist: nothing exists per se except atoms and void. History is implicated in this “destruction”: therefore, past events are accidents of the regions in which they took place (1.459–470). In this context, Lucretius introduces the example of the Trojan War, an event that Lucretius clearly treats as historical (1.471–482). Lucretius asserts that earth and sky had to have some beginning, and thus that our world is mortal and will one day be destroyed: in fact, were our world immortal, existing from the time everlasting, we would have stories older than the epic poems on the Theban and Trojan Wars (5.324–331). Mythological epic is historiography: all epic treats of historical events, so events celebrated in epic poetry could be read as history.

Nethercut devotes his attention to a famous passage about the origin of religio in DRN 5. Most commentaries have suggested that Lucretius alludes in 5.1226–1235 to Pyrrhus and to Ennius’ version of the Pyrrhus narrative (Ann. 235 Sk). However, it is highly likely that this Ennian fragment should be ascribed to Annales 7, and it is almost certainly would have described Hannibal’s use of elephants in battle during the Second Punic War. In Lucretius’ lines, Ennius’ Pyrrhus is primarily presented as an example of anti-Epicurean religiosity. Nethercut raises perceptive doubts about the nationality of the mysterious induperator, a word that might suggest a reference to Roman legions, taken together with 5.1234pulchros fascis saevasque secures. Perhaps the answer could lie in the universal character of Lucretius’ “natural historiography”: whatever the induperator’s nationality is, the real enemy of the DRN is religious superstition, which scares all non-Epicureans.[2] Moreover, Lucretius’ treatment of warfare suggests that this aspect of history does not develop in a teleological, linear, or cyclical way, but that in some sense nothing ever changes in this domain: Homeric warriors and Roman soldiers of all periods are not different from primitive humans.

“Ennian Poetology and Literary Affiliation in Lucretius” is the last chapter of the book. Nethercut extends the same arguments used to prove Lucretius’ rejection of Ennian historiography to his rejection of Ennian poetology. Lucretius rejects conventional ideas of literary affiliation and poetology in terms of the physical first principles of Epicureanism. In DRN 1.112–135 the connection between Ennius and Homer is flaunted, and Ennius claimed to be Homerus redivivus. Here Lucretius insists that this statement violates the laws of nature: souls, in fact, cannot be reborn. If the soul were able to rebuild itself, it would not be able to keep its previous memory. Lucretius rejects not only the psychology of Ennius and Pythagoras, but also the historical-literary claims linked to Ennian psychology.

In the Conclusion, Nethercut provides an overview of what the Annales might have looked like according to Lucretius’ view of Ennius’ work. Lucretius tell us more than what we know from independent sources about the specifics of Ennius’ narrative of Roman history and about Ennian claims about the literary tradition.

About a third of the book is occupied by five useful appendices: “Greek and Roman Hexameter in the Late Republic”, “Typology of Ennianism in Lucretius”, “Comparative Data on Latin Hexameter Line-Endings”, “Comparative Data on Alliteration in Republican Latin Poetry”, and “A Comprehensive Map of Ennianism in Lucretius”.

This book by a learned scholar is an invaluable aid for all researchers in Latin literature. As Damien Nelis rightly writes on the back cover of this book, “Nethercut opened up exciting ways of thinking about questions of literary influence, allusion, and genre in relation to poetry, philosophy and historiography”. At the end of reading this innovative and, I dare say, necessary work, one has the feeling of having learned something genuinely new. The right scholar has finally come along to throw light on these matters from a fresh perspective.


[1] Cf. J. Elliott, Ennius and the Architecture of the Annales. Cambridge, 2013, 233–294.

[2] Cf. N. Bruno, L’origine della violenza e della paura. Commento a Lucrezio, De rerum natura 5, 1110-1349, Nordhausen, 2020, 323–325.