A History of Roman Literature
by Charles Thomas Cruttwell
Charles Scribner's Sons (1906)

CN. NAEVIUS, (269? - 204 B.C.) a Campanian of Latin extraction and probably not a Roman citizen, had in his early manhood fought in the first Punic war.1 At its conclusion he came to Rome and applied himself to literary work. He seems to have brought out his first play as early as 235 B.C. His work mainly consisted of translations from the Greek; he essayed both tragedy and comedy, but his genius inclined him to prefer the latter. Many of his comedies have Latin names, Dolus, Figulus, Nautae, &c. These, however, were not togatae but palliatae, treated after the same manner as those of Plautus, with Greek costumes and surroundings. His original contribution to the stage was the Praetexta, or national historical drama, which thenceforth established itself as a legitimate, though rarely practiced, branch of dramatic art. We have the names of two Praetextae by him, Clastidium and Romulus or Alimonium Romuli et Remi.

The style of his plays can only be roughly inferred from the few passages which time has spared us. That it was masculine and vigorous is clear; we should expect also to find from the remarks of Horace as well as from his great antiquity, considerable roughness. But on referring to the fragments we do not observe this. On the contrary, the style both in tragedy and comedy is simple, natural, and in good taste. It is certainly less laboured than that of Ennius, and though it lacks the racy flavour of Plautus, shows no inferiority to his in command of the resources of the language.2 On the whole, we are inclined to justify the people in their admiration for him as a genuine exponent of the strong native humour of his day, which the refined poets of a later age could not appreciate.

Naevius did not only occupy himself with writing plays. He took a keen interest in politics, and brought himself into trouble by the freedom with which he lampooned some of the leading families. The Metelli, especially, were assailed by him, and it was probably through their resentment that he was sent to prison, where he solaced himself by composing two comedies.3 Plautus, who was more cautious, and is by some thought to have had for Naevius some of the jealousy of a rival craftsman, alludes to this imprisonment:—4

"Nam os columnatum poetae esse indaudivi barbaro,
Quoi bini custodes semper totis horis accubant."

The poet, however, did not learn wisdom from experience. He lampooned the great Scipio in some spirited verses still extant, and doubtless made many others feel the shafts of his ridicule. But the censorship of literary opinion was very strict in Rome, and when he again fell under it, he was obliged to leave the city. He is said to have retired to Utica, where he spent the rest of his life and died (circ. 204 B.C.). It was probably there that he wrote the poem which gives him the chief interest for us, and the loss of which by the hand of time is deeply to be regretted. Debarred from the stage, he turned to his own military experience for a subject, and chose the first Punic war. He thus laid the foundation of the class of poetry known as the "National Epic," which received its final development in the hands of Virgil. The poem was written in Saturnian verse, perhaps from a patriotic motive, and was not divided into books until a century after the poet's death, when the grammarian Lampadio arranged it in seven books, assigning two to the mythical relations of Rome and Carthage, and the remainder to the history of the war. The narrative seems to have been vivid, truthful, and free from exaggerations of language. The legendary portion contained the story of Aeneas's visit to Carthage, which Virgil adopted, besides borrowing other single incidents. What fragments remain are not very interesting and do not enable us to pronounce any judgment. But Cicero's epithet "luculente scripsit"5 is sufficient to show that he highly appreciated the poet's powers; and the popularity which he obtained in his life-time and for centuries after his death, attests his capacity of seizing the national modes of thought. He had a high opinion of himself; he held himself to be the champion of the old Italian school as opposed to the Graecising innovators. His epitaph is very characteristic:6

"Mortales immortales si foret fas flere,
Flerent Divae Camenae Naevium poetam.
Itaque postquamst Orcino traditus thesauro
Obliti sunt Romae loquier Latina lingua."

1 Gell.xvii.21,45

2 The reader may like to see one or two specimens. We give one from the tragedy (Lycurgus):
"Vos qui regalis corporis custodias
Agitatis, ite actutum in frundiferos locos,
Ingenio arbusta ubi nata sunt, non obsita;"

and one from comedy (the Tarentilla), the description of a coquette—
                                                            "Quasi pila
In choro ludens datatim dat se et communem facit;
Alii adnutat, alii adnictat, alium amat, alium tenet.
Alibi manus est occupata, alii percellit pedem,
Anulum alii dat spectandum, a labris alium invocat,
Alii cantat, attamen alii suo dat digito literas."

3 The Hariolus and Leo.

4 Mil.Glor.211.

5 Brut.19,75.

6 If mortals might weep for mortals, the divine Camenae would weep for Naevius the poet; thus it is that now he has been delivered into the treasure-house of Orcus, men have forgotten at Rome how to speak the Latin tongue.