A Brief Life History of Each of the Epic Poets


Ennius (239-169B.C)

Bust of Quintus Ennius

Quintus Ennius - to Lucretius - was the immortal father of Roman poetry, whilst for Silius Italicus he was a poetic icon of the past. Ennius was born in 239B.C. at Rudiae, a town in Calabria, and was able to speak Latin, Greek and Oscan. In 204B.C. he was discovered by Cato ('the Censor') when serving in the Roman army as centurion in Sardinia, and brought to Rome, where he was eventually granted full citizenship. Ennius was perceived as being able to give adequate treatment to the serious themes of Roman history, which he treated in his Annales, and especially to the great achievements of a Roman army commander. In this way the Roman form of literary patronage was born, which valued poetry on serious themes and established the poet as a distinguished member of society, whilst in return he immortalised his patrons in his verse. (Right : Bust of Ennius)


Virgil (70-19B.C.)

Bust of Virgil

Publius Virgilius Maro was born at Andes near Mantua in Cisapline Gaul, in the year of Pompey's first consulship, and was thus a little older than Augustus and Horace. His father was a farmer, with enough ambition and money to send his son to school, first to Cremona, where Virgil assumed the toga virilis, then to Milan and shortly afterwards to Rome, where he studied such subjects as philosophy and rhetoric. Returning to his Mantuan farm, he began the 'Eclogues' in 43B.C, but the confiscations of land which followed Philippi in 41B.C. drove him from his farm. His petition to Octavian seems to have led to his reinstatement, although he left not long after, living briefly in Rome, and then in Campania, at Naples and Nola. He was introduced to the emperor by his patron, Maecenas, to whom he introduced the young Horace. Virgil completed and published the Eclogues in 38-9 B.C., and the Georgics in 29 B.C, after which he devoted the remaining eleven years of his life to composing the Aeneid. In the last year of his life he undertook a voyage East, to visit some of the places he had described, but fell ill at Megara and returned to Italy. He died in 19B.C upon reaching Brundisium, and was buried in Naples. It is reported that on his deathbed he asked his friends to destroy the Aeneid, since he felt it was still unfinished; however the request was ignored, and Augustus ensured the poem wasMosaic of Virgil published the poet's death. Virgil lived in a time of intense political upheaval, and his decision to write a national epic appears to have been heavily influenced by these events. (Above left : Bust of Virgil. Right : Mosaic with Virgil and Muses)

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Ovid (43B.C.-18A.D.)

Publius Ovidius Naso was born the year after the death of Julius Caesar at Sulmo, in the Apennines, Paelignian territory east of Rome. His family was of equestrian rank, and Ovid was educated in rhetoric at Rome, since his father wished him to practise law. However, according to the Elder Pliny, he showed a preference from an early stage for the emotive rather than the argumentative side of rhetoric. He travelled widely, spending some time studying in Athens, and visited Asia and Sicily before holding some minor public posts in Rome. Ovid married three times; the first two marriages were both very brief, but his third wife remained loyal to him throughout his life. In A.D.8 he was banished to Tomi, on the shores of the Black Sea. According to Ovid, the grounds of this sentence were a poem (possibly the notorious Ars Amatoria) and an error (possibly some indiscretion on his part). He spent the remaining years of his life hoping for permission to return to Rome. This was not forthcoming, and he died at Tomi after ten years spent in exile. Ovid was primarily a writer of elegiac poetry, writing in a light and witty manner, prior to creating his epic poem, the Metamorphoses. His works appear to have been written in the following order, although this is hard to establish, and Ovid published more than one version of some of these poems at different times : Amores, Heroides, Medicamina faciei femineae, Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amoris, Medea,Metamorphoses, Fasti, Tristia, Epistulae ex Ponto. Other works attributed to Ovid are the Halieutica, on the marine creatures of the Black Sea, and the Ibis, a satirical poem imitating a work of Callimachus, directed against some enemy. Only the Halieutica and the Metamorphoses are in hexameters, all of Ovid's other works were written in elegiacs.

Lucan (A.D.39-65)

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus was born at Corduba in Spain, and came from an illustrious family. He was educated at Rome partly by the Stoic Cornutus, whose tuition he is said to have shared with Persius. Lucan showed early brilliancy, and for some time was numbered amongst Nero's intimate friends. He was advanced to theBust of Nero quaestorship at an early age and joined the college of augurs. At the Neronia of 60A.D. he recited the laudes of the princeps, written for the occasion, and, according to some sources, published the first three books of the Pharsalia. However he seems to have incited the disapproval of the emperor, Nero, potentially as a result of literary jealousy, although it is possible that Nero did not approve of the nostalgia for republicanism expressed in Lucan's poem. In indignation Lucan joined the Pisonian conspiracy; when the plot was discovered he was commanded to take his own life, despite his confession. He committed suicide on 30th April 65A.D. His chief surviving work is the Pharsalia, or Bellum Civile, although we have the titles of other (lost) works. (Right : Bust of Nero)


Silius Italicus (A.D.25/26-101)

Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Italicus was probably born at Patavium (Padua), and was consul in 68, the last year of Nero's reign, during which he had gained a bad reputation as an informer. He was to gain high praise, however, for his efficient administration as proconsul in Asia, after which he enjoyed an elegant retirement amongst friends in Rome and Campania. A wealthy man, he owned many country houses, was a connoisseur of books, pictures and statuary and repaired Virgil's tomb in Naples. Finding that he was suffering from an incurable disease, he chose to starve himself to death to shorten the ailment. His poetic interest seems to have been begun late in life, and he is remembered for his poem thePunica.

Statius (c.A.D.45-96)

Publius Papinius Statius was born at Naples, where his father, himself a poet, was a schoolmaster, who encouraged his son's literary tastes. Statius won a prize for poetry at the Neopolitan competition of the 'Augustalia', then moved to Rome where he recited his poems to large audiences, won a contest held by Domitian at Alba with a poem on the emeror's exploits, but failed, to his disappointment, at the Capitoline contest of 94A.D. Statius' major epic was the Thebaid, published in 92 A.D., and he began a second epic, on the life of Achilles, prior to his death, of which the first two books survive. He appears to have been happily married, although he had no children, and he expresses grief in the last poem in the Silvae over an adopted child who died young. Towards the end of his life he retired to Naples, where he died, seemingly before the murder of Domitian. He appears to have lived comfortably, although not wealthy, and his Silvae give glimpses of a typical elite aristocratic lifestyle.

Valerius Flaccus (d.?A.D92)

Very little is known of the life of Gaius Valerius Flaccus Balbus Setinus, other than that he may have been a "quindecimvir sacris faciundis"(1.5.7), and that he refers to the erruption of Vesuvius in 79 B.C.(4.507-9). His only known work is the Argonautica. The only certain reference to him in Roman literature is Quintilian's brief expression of regret at his demise (Inst.10.1.90), dating from 95 B.C.

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