War’s effect on society

A fragment of Ennius

War drives society to the limits of civility. This is beautifully illustrated in a surviving fragment of the Annals of Ennius.

Joshua R. Hall

Few pieces of literature survive from early Rome, and none of the earliest works produced by the Romans survive in their entirety. However, thanks to citations in later authors, we know at least some lines from the third-/second-century BC epic poet Quintus Ennius.

He was born in 239 BC in southern Italy, being neither a native Roman nor speaking Latin as his first language. Almost certainly of Oscan descent, he grew up in Calabria and would have been exposed to both the Italic culture of his homeland and that of Magna Graecia. This means that his background probably included reading Hellenic poetry and watching Greek theatre. (For an up-to-date overview of his life, see the introduction in vol. 1 of Sander M. Goldberg and Gesine Manuwald’s new Loeb edition: Fragmentary Republican Latin. Ennius: Testimonia, Epic Fragments, Cambridge, MA (2018), pp. xxi-xxxviii.)

Although he wrote in various genres, Ennius is best known for his epic poem, Annals. This traced the history of Rome from the fall of Troy to 184 BC, though obviously not in the same vein as narrative prose, or “scientific”, history. As many as 600 lines survive from this, so we have a relatively good idea of its nature and contents. Amongst the surviving bits is a passage which serves as an interesting and telling critique of war.

The horrors of war

Book 8 focuses on the Second Punic War. From it, a long passage is preserved by Aulus Gellius (NA 20.10.3-5), in which Ennius (Ann. 8.1) wrote (from the new Loeb edition of Goldberg and Manuwald):

pellitur e medio sapientia, vi geritur res;
spernitur orator bonus, horridus miles amatur;
haud doctis dictis certantes, nec maledictis
miscent inter sese inimicitias agitantes;
non ex iure manu consertum, sed magis ferro –
rem repetunt regnumque petunt – vadunt solida vi.

In Goldberg and Manuwald’s new 2018-translation (used throughout this article), this reads (pp. 241-242):

Good sense is driven from view, by force are affairs managed,
The honest advocate is spurned, the uncouth soldier loved,
Not striving with learned speech nor with insulting speech
Do they contend among themselves, stirring up hatred;
Not to lay claim by law, but rather by the sword –
They press claims and seek mastery – they rush on with force unchecked.

Unfortunately, in the passage of Aulus Gellius that this fragment is preserved, we get no substantial context. Knowing that Book 8 of Ennius’ Annals covered the Second Punic War, and would have included events such as Fabius Cunctator’s dictatorship and the Roman disaster at Cannae, I feel that this fragment can be interpreted as a snide comment about what happens in politics during war.

In peace, well-spoken orators and advocates of the people (or of the senate…) make their way to the top of the political pile, but in times of war it is the soldier who floats up from the rest. This is portrayed in a very pejorative way, that the soldier-leader is not a good choice compared to the others. He will lead by the sword and care not for culture and the finer points in life.

This makes sense in the context of the Second Punic War, especially if this fragment was from a section around either the Battle of Lake Trasimene or the Battle of Cannae. These were both crushing Roman defeats in which entire armies were obliterated (for the most part), and in both instances a consul was blamed for being reckless in causing them. Flaminius led his army into a valley from which there was no escape at Trasimene, and Varro (though it could have been his colleague Paulus) was advised against marching out at Cannae.

If either of these – or both – are the context for Ennius Ann. F 8.1b then his original work leaned hard into the tradition which blamed particular leaders for the defeats Rome suffered in the early years of Hannibal’s campaign in Italy. This is not surprising, really, as the other surviving sources for the Second Punic War betray a clearly negative picture of both Flaminius and Varro. Although this bias was due to more than their defeats, it was for these that they were best remembered. And it would go along with other fragments which may represent Ennius’ own thinking, such as F 1.48 in which he says that “it is right that he [perhaps Romulus] guide important affairs of state by cleverness, not force” (astu non vi sum summam servare decet rem). Given the historical quality of his epic, however, it is unclear if we should ascribe this point of view to the poet or to someone who may have been speaking these words in-text.

A political warning

Regardless of where the fragment from Book 8 of Ennius’s Annals fits in his epic of Rome’s war against Hannibal, it is lasting political warning. Though, Machiavelli posited almost the exact opposite when he wrote that in times of peace unworthy men are chosen to lead, while in times of strife – perhaps safe to read war – men of ability are chosen. (I cannot for the life of me remember where this is, nor can I find the passage. If one of our readers would like to remind me, please do.) There is probably some truth to both of these theories, and perhaps they are best read together as a representation of how complicated politics are, discouraging us from trying to simplify our thinking on the subject.

Nevertheless, Ennius does send us a warning from his own time that we should probably heed. Keep on the watch for soldiers – military men – who think with naught but the sword and headstrong arrogance who seek power. For as he tells us, “mindless boars are wont to settle disputes by force” (F 1.47), and we don’t want to be led by pigs.

About this article’s featured image: finding relevant pictures is next to impossible for the (earlier) Roman Republic. The picture shows part of the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (source). It is a sacrifice scene from the so-called “Census Frieze”, dated to the late second century BC. Originally from the Campus Martius, Rome; now in the Louvre. Marble, h. 1.2 m.