Of the life of this ancient Roman poet but few particulars have been recorded.
It has been commonly supposed that he was a native of Campania, because Gellius (1.24
) characterises the epitaph which he composed upon himself as " plenum superbiae Campanae." Klussmann, however, the most recent editor of Naevius's fragments, thinks that he was a Roman, from the circumstance of Cicero's alluding to him in the De Oratore
(3.12) as a model of pure elocution, and contends that no inference can be drawn from the mention of Campanian pride, which, as is shown by Cicero's speech, De Lege Agr.
(2.33), had become proverbial.
But to this it may be objected, that in the passage of the De Oratore
the name of Plautus, an Umbrian, is coupled with that of Naevius; a fact which invalidates that argument for his Roman birth. And though the pride of the Campanians may have become a proverb, it is difficult to see how it could with propriety be applied to any but those Gascons of ancient Italy. However this may be, it is probable that Naevius was at least brought early to Rome; but at what time cannot be said, as the date of his birth cannot be fixed with any accuracy.
The fact, however, of his having died at an advanced age about the middle of the sixth century of Rome, may justify us in placing his birth some ten or twenty years before the close of the preceding one, or somewhere between the years 274 and 264 B. C. And this agrees well enough with what Gellius tells us (17.21), on the authority of Varro, about his serving in the first Punic war, which began in 264 B. C., and lasted twenty-four years.
The first literary attempts of Naevius were in the drama, then recently introduced at Rome by Livius Andronicus.
According to Gellius, in the passage just cited, Naevius produced his first play in the year of Rome 519, or B. C. 235. Gellius, however, makes this event coincident with the divorce of a certain Carvilius Ruga, which, in another passage (4.3) he places four years later (B. C. 231), but mentions wrong consuls. Dionysius (2.25
) also fixes the divorce of Carvilius at the latter date; Valerius Maximus (2.1) in B. C. 234.
These variations are too slight to be of much importance Naevius was attached to the plebeian party; an opponent of the nobility, and inimical to the innovations then making in the national literature.
These feelings he shared with Cato; and, though the great censor was considerably his junior, it is probable, as indeed we may infer from Cicero's Cato
(100.14), that a friendship existed between them.
It was in his latter days, and when Cato must have already entered upon public life, that Naevius, with the licence of the old Attic comedy, made the stage a vehicle for his attacks upon the aristocracy. Gellius (6.8
) has preserved the following verses, where a little scandalous anecdote respecting the elder Scipio is accompanied with the praise justly due to his merits: --
Etiam qui res magnas manu saepe gessit gloriose,
Cujus facta viva nunc vigent, qui apud gentes solus praestat,
Eum suus pater cum pallio uno ab amica abduxit.
These lines, a fragment probably of some interlude, would have derived much of their piquancy from their contrast with the current story of Scipio's continence after the taking of Carthago Nova, in B. C. 210. Asconius (Cic. Ver. 1.10
) has preserved the following lampoon on the Metelli:--
Fato Metelli Romae fiunt consules;
where the insinuation is, as Cicero explains in the passage to which the note of Asconius refers, that the Metelli attained to the consular dignity, not by any merit of their own, but through the blind influence of fate.
In what year could this attack have been made? From the way in which the answer to it is recorded by Asconius, it would seem to have been during the actual consulship of one of the family. (
Cui tunc Metellus consul iratus responderat senario hypercatalecto, qui et Saturnius dicitur, “Dabunt malum Metelli Naevio poetae”).
It can hardly be doubted, therefore, that the person in question was Q. Caecilius Metellus, consul in B. C. 206.
The haughty aristocracy of Rome were by no means disposed to let such attacks pass unpunished.
By the law of the Twelve Tables a libel was a capital offence, and Metellus carried his threat into execution by indicting Naevius.
The poet escaped with his life, but was given into the custody of the triumviri capitales (Gel. 3.3
); an imprisonment to which Plautus alludes in his Miles Gloriosus
(2.2. 56). Confinement brought repentance. Whilst in prison he composed two plays, the Hariolus
in which he recanted his previous imputations, and thereby obtained his release through the tribunes of the people. (Gell. l.c.
) His repentance, however, did not last long, and he was soon compelled to expiate a new offence by exile.
At that time a man might choose his own place of banishment, and Naevius fixed upon Utica. Here it was, probably, that he wrote his poem on the first Punic war, which, as we learn from Cicero (De Senect.
14), was the work of his old age; and here it is certain that he died; but as to the exact year there is some difference of opinion.
According to Cicero (Cic. Brut. 15
), his decease took place in the consulship of Cethegus and Tuditanns, B. C. 204.
As we learn, however, from the same passage that this was by no means a settled point, and that Varro, diligentissimus investigator antiquitatis,
extended his life rather longer, it may be safer to place his death, with Hieronymus (in Euseb. Chron. Ol.
144.3), in B. C. 202, which was probably the date of Varro.
The epitaph which he composed upon himself, preserved by Gellius in the passage alluded to at the beginning of this notice, runs as follows:--
Mortales immortales flere si foret fas,
Flerent Divae Camenae Naevium poetam.
Itaque postquam est Orcino traditus thesauro
Obliti sunt Romani loquier Latina lingua.
Naevius seems to have transmitted an hereditary enmity against the nobility, if, indeed, the tribune Naevius, who accused Scipio of peculation in B. C. 185, was of his family. (Liv. 38.56
; Gel. 4.18
.) [See above, NAEVIUS, No. 4.]
Naevius was both an epic and a dramatic poet.
The work which entitled him to the former appellation was his poem before alluded to on the first Punic war, of which a few fragments are still extant.
It was written in the old Saturnian metre; for Ennius, who introduced the hexameter among the Romans, was not brought to Rome till after the banishment of Naevius.
The poem appears to have opened with the story of Aeneas's flight from Troy, his visit to Carthage and amour with Dido, together with other legends connected with the early history both of Carthage and of Rome. Originally the poem was not divided into books, and we learn from Suetonius (De Ill. Gramm.
2), that Lampadio distributed it into seven.
It was extensively copied both by Ennius and Virgil.
The latter author took many passages from it; particularly the description of the storm in the first Aeneid, the speech with which Aneas consoles his companions, and the address of Venus to Jupiter. (Cic. Brut. 19
; Macr. 6.2
; Serv. ad Aen. 1.198
A translation of the Cypria Ilias
has been ascribed to Naevius; but the heroic metre in which it is executed is a sufficient proof that it was the production of some later writer, probably Laevius, whose fragments seem to have been frequently confounded with those of Naevius. (Pontan. ad Macrob. Sat.
His dramatic writings comprised both tragedies and comedies; and, among the latter, that more peculiarly Roman species of composition, the Comoedia Togata.
Welcker, however, doubts about his claims to be considered as a tragic poet, and altogether denies that he wrote Togatae. (Die Griech. Tragödien,
pp. 1345, 1372.) Among his tragedies have been reckoned Andromache sive Hector Proficiscens
(by some thought to have been a comedy), the Equus Trojanus
(also ascribed to Livius), and the Dolus,
a title variously spelt (see Müller, ad Varr. L. L.
p. 163). Klussmann (p. 100) holds the Equus Trojanus
to be one and the same play. Several other tragedies seem to have been wrongly ascribed to Naevius, whose dramatic fragments have been frequently confounded with those of Livius, Ennius, and other writers.
Of his Togatae the titles of two only can be cited; the Romulus,
a Praetextata, and the Clastidium,
probably a Tabernaria. (Donat. ad Ter. Adelph.
4.1, 21; Varr. L. L.
p. 163, Müll.)
In addition to these, we find the titles of between thirty and forty comedies, many of which, from their names, seem to have been taken from the Greek, but were probably adapted to Roman manners with considerable freedom, in the fashion of Plautus rather than of Terence. Of most of these comedies, as well as of the plays before enumerated, several short fragments are extant.
Besides these regular dramas, Naevius seems to have written entertainments called Ludi
6); and it was probably in these that he attacked the aristocracy.
The remains of Naevius are too insignificant to afford any criterion of his poetical merits, concerning which we must therefore be content to accept the testimony of antiquity.
That he was so largely copied by subsequent poets, is a proof of his genius and originality. Plautus alludes to him more than once; and Terence, in the prologue to his Andria,
ranking him with Ennius and Plautus, prefers even his more careless scenes to the obscure diligence of his own contemporaries. Cicero (Cic. Brut. 18
) sets his Punic War
as much above the Odyssey
of Livius Andronicus as Myro surpassed Daedalus in the art of sculpture. His antiquated style did not suit the fastidious refinement of the Augustan age. Yet he was still a favourite with the admirers of the genuine old school of Roman poetry; and the lines of Horace (Hor. Ep. 2.1. 53
) show that his works, if not so much read as formerly, were still fresh in the memories of men.
The fragments of Naevius have been published, together with those of other Latin poets, by the Stephani, 8vo. Paris, 1564
; but in this collection many are wrongly attributed to Naevius.
There is another collection by Almeloveen, 12mo. Amster. 1686
The fragments of the Bellum Punicum,
together with those of Ennius, were published by P. Merula, 4to. Leyden, 1595
; and by Spangenberg, 8vo. Leipzig, 1825
. They have also been collected by Hermann in his Elementa Doctrinae Metricae (3.9)
, and by Diintzer and Lersch, in a treatise entitled De versu quem vocant Saturnio, 8vo. Bonn, 1839
The dramatic fragments by Delrio, Syntagma Tragoediae Latinae, 4to. Paris, 1619
; Maittaire, London, 1713
; Bothe, Poetarum Latii scenicorum fragmenta, Leipzig, 1834
The most convenient collection of the entire fragments is that of Klussmann, 8vo. Jena, 1843, accompanied with a life of Naevius, and an essay on his poetry
See also Weichert, Poetarum Latinorum Reliquiae;
and Neukirch, De fabula togata Romanorum, Leipsig, 1833