Quintus Ennius (239-169 B.C.) was a Roman poet. Called the father of Latin poetry, he is most famous for his "Annales," a narrative poem relating the history of Rome.
Ennius was born at Rudiae in Calabria. He knew three languages or had, as he said, "three hearts": Oscan, his native tongue; Greek, in which he was educated, possibly at Tarentum; and Latin, which he learned as a centurion in the Roman army. While stationed at Sardinia during the Second Punic War, he met Cato the Elder, whom he taught Greek. Cato took him to Rome in 204 B.C.
At Rome, Ennius lived frugally on the Aventine. He supported himself at first by teaching Greek, then turned to adapting Greek tragedies and some comedies for the Roman stage, and he wrote poetry as well. He was a friend of prominent Romans of that time, especially Scipio Africanus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior and his son Quintus, who gained for him Roman citizenship. Ennius knew the comic poet Caecilius Statius, and Pacuvius, the Roman dramatist, was his nephew.
Ennius was a very versatile poet although, according to Ovid, he possessed more genius than art. The remains of Ennius's works are fragmentary. Of the Annales, the most important part, some 600 lines or about one-fiftieth of the whole, remains. Some fragments are as long as 20 lines.
Naevius had written a historical epic before Ennius, but the special claim to greatness of his Annales is its meter, the hexameter. Henceforth, much of the greatest Latin poetry would use this meter. The poet's hexameters seem crude and clumsy beside Virgil's, often being heavily spondaic, ignoring caesuras and elisions, and carrying alliteration and assonance to extremes. Nevertheless, they can at times rise to a rugged and powerful dignity.
Euripides was a favorite model for Ennius in his adaptations of Greek tragedy. Of the 22 titles of plays known to be his, 3 are from extant tragedies of Euripides. Fragments of his tragedies number about 400 lines.
As a writer of comedy, Ennius was evidently less successful, for only two titles are known. Lesser works include Satires (Latin satura, medley), a work in varying meters on different topics, including criticism of morals and politics, and the first work of its kind; Epigrams; Hedyphagetica, or The Art of Dining; Epicharmus, a didactic poem on nature; and Euhemerus, a rationalization of Greek mythology.
Ennius's contribution to Roman culture was twofold. First, by adapting Greek tragedies he made Greek ideas current at Rome; and second, he had a direct influence on subsequent writers.
Ennius was of a convivial nature if Horace, who said he always composed in his cups, and Jerome, who said he died of gout, can be believed. He was writing until his death, and his version of the play Thyestes was produced the year he died.
A standard reference work on Ennius is The Tragedies of Ennius: The Fragments, edited by H. D. Jocelyn (1967), a comprehensive volume with a Latin text, full explanatory introduction, and extensive interpretative commentary. For more information on Ennius and his place in Latin literature see H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Latin Literature (1936; 3d ed. with a new bibliography, 1961), and Moses Hadas, A History of Latin Literature (1952).