Sunday, March 8, 2015


Jay Fisher, The 'Annals' of Quintus Ennius and the Italic Tradition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pp. 200. ISBN 9781421411293. $69.95.

Reviewed by James J. Clauss, University of Washington (

Version at BMCR home site


The 'Annals' of Quintus Ennius and the Italic Tradition began life as a doctoral thesis and has now become an impressive contribution to Ennian studies. As we learn in Chapter 1 ("Ennius and the Italic Tradition"), at the heart of the study is the contention that, although Ennius (unlike Vergil and later writers) lacked a lengthy Roman literary tradition to engage, there existed "the formulaic language of significant cultural practices in the Roman Republic such as warfare and ritual" (p. 3), the largest portion of which involves the latter. A central goal of the study is to identify "traditional collocations" within the poem; that is, combinations of words that, regardless of their order, would refer to specific practices or phrases that would be understood by the audience as native or naturalized. What is more, such collocations, because they came from rites that evolved over the course of time in the Italian peninsula, represented the practices of a number of different peoples—Italic, Etruscan, and Greek—but would have been experienced as Roman because of the long process of cultural absorption. As Fisher aptly notes, "[t]he Italic contribution to the Annals should serve as a powerful reminder that Latin, and later Western literature, is not simply Greek literature translated into another language but rather a hybrid of cultural elements that underpins our very understanding of what it means to be 'literature' and what it means to be 'poetry'" (p. 5).

The first example cited is Ann. 232 (all citations are from Skutsch): Non semper vostra evortit nunc Iuppiter hac stat. Fisher argues that Iuppiter stat refers to the temple and cult of Jupiter Stator in Rome and Iuppiter evortit alludes to the Oscan cult of Jupiter Versor, known from a Lucanian inscription. In the Third Samnite War, when the Romans were in flight, the commander Regulus vowed a temple to Jupiter Stator—the god who stops—in opposition to the Oscan Jupiter Versor, the god who routs. What is more, the Oscan cult looks to be Greek in origin (Ζεὺς Τροπαῖος). Fisher suggests that after its early adoption, the Greek cult over time would have become naturalized in Oscan and apparently known by the Romans as Samnite. The argument involving Regulus' choice of divinities makes sense on its own, as his troops were in flight, similar to Romulus' legendary dedication to this god during a comparable flight, but indeed it would derive extra significance if opposed to an "antonymic" cult of Jupiter among the Samnites. The citation of supporting antonymic parallels would have been helpful. What complicates this reading is the fact that Macrobius places the fragment in Book 7, the beginning of the Second Punic War and thus a generation after the Samnite conflict alluded to. Fisher suggests that, if Hannibal uttered the line, the poet could be understood as anticipating a similar positive conclusion for this war for the Romans through the intervention of Jupiter Stator. Unfortunately, this suggestion involves Hannibal's stating that this divinity would help the Carthaginians when in fact the Romans ultimately won the war, although the irony in such a reading parallels what Fisher argues for in the case of Pyrrhus (see below).

As examples of the inclusion of liturgical language, Fisher cites Ann. 240-41, a list of the twelve Olympian gods. By comparing other texts and inscriptions that offer comparable lists, Fisher not unreasonably concludes that such lists, invoked in comprecationes (similar to litanies in the traditional Catholic rite), originated in ritual language among Romans (particularly in the lectisternium), Etruscans, and Oscans, which, also paralleling Greek lists of the 12 Olympians, evinces cultural hybridity. Ann. 26 (Teque pater Tiberine tuo cum flumine) resembles a prayer to the river god cited by Servius ad Aen. 8.72-73 (Adesto Tiberine cum tuis undis). The combination of bonus, felix, and fortunatus at Ann. 102-3 recalls prayers in Plautus (Aul. 787-88), Cicero (Div. 1.102) and Livy (6.86). Moreover, the beneficiaries of this Ennian prayer (mihi reique fidei regno vobisque Quirites) parallel those in an Umbrian prayer "for myself, the Iguvinian people, for this established ordinance" (p. 23). In short, Fisher offers intriguing evidence for the evolution of an Italic ritual culture, combined of Greek, Umbrian, Oscan, Etruscan and Roman, that occurred prior to Ennius during "the earlier central Italian koinê period" (p. 26; 7th-4th centuries BCE, p. 4) and that the poet availed himself of this tradition in the creation of a new hexametric epic.

In Chapter 2 ("The Annals and the Greek Tradition"), Fisher argues that even passages that we associate with Homeric texts and the Greek tradition show evidence of engagement with the native Roman/Italian tradition, beginning with the first line of the Annals: Musae quae pedibus magnum pulsatis Olympum. While Musae and Olympum are clearly Greek in origin, Fisher proposes that pedibus … pulsatis is a traditional ritual collocation based on the evidence of Livius' phrase pulsu pedum (cited in Livy 27.37.14), Horace's nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus (C. 1.37.1-2), and Plautus' combination of pes, pulsare, and pro-pudium (Bac. 5579-81), "allowing for the possibility that a speaker of Latin might make a connection between a root with the shape pVl- (i.e., as in pulsatis) and pVd- (i.e., as in tri-pudium), regardless of the historical validity of such a connection" (p. 42). According to Fisher, if pedibus … pulsatis calls to mind the traditional tripudium (he compares Umbrian ahatripursatu), the Greek Muses are performing a traditional Latin dance. Apart from the fact that the Bacchides passage has nothing to do with ritual dance, the argument contains many leaps, as it were, and even Fisher wisely backs off from his own argument, allowing for the alliterative quality of the phrase to mark it as ritual language (p. 44). But I have to say that I admire his willingness to push the interpretive envelope, which has the potential to set the stage for new insights.

Ennius' presentation of the augural contest between Romulus and Remus forms the topic of Chapter 3 ("Ritual and Myth in the Augurium Romuli [Annals 72-91]"). This remarkable passage, quoted by Cicero (Div. 1.107-8), contains a striking example of a Homeric simile: the anxiety of those watching the events is compared to that at the start of a chariot race at which a consul will give the signal to begin. The presence of a republican magistrate even before the emergence of Rome's first king offers a striking anachronism. As part of this elision of time, Fisher argues that augural terminology embedded in the passage also has the ability "to impart some solemnity to the story and thus strengthen the connection between the past and present" (p. 86). The terms examined include dant operam, auspicio augurioque, avem servat, pulcerrima praepes, cedunt de caelo, and the "acrostic" avium … conspicit … auspicio (lines 89-91) that etymologizes the latter by the collocation of the former two. The arguments deployed are clear and convincing, and gain much from the comparison with Umbrian parallels that support the overall thesis of an underlying Italian cultural koinê.

"Ritual, Militia, and History in Book 6 of the Annals," the topic of Chapter 4, comprises a detailed study of Ann. 183-90 and Ann. 191-93. With regard to Pyrrhus, at issue is the fact that he "unwittingly deploys the language of Roman ritual throughout in ways that signal to the audience that he does not understand the importance of the pax deorum even in times of war" (93). So when the Epirote offers to give back the Roman prisoners without ransom, he does so volentibus cum magnis dis (190), unaware that magni di is a cult title of the Penates and thus inadvertently asking the blessing of gods favorable to the Romans (as Hannibal may have done; see above). When he states about his act of generosity do … dono (ibid.), the phrase recalls the traditional ritual collocation donum dare which occurs in Latin, Oscan and Umbrian, but he uses it inappropriately, inasmuch as it is used primarily of gifts to gods and not mortals, and thus risks losing the pax deorum. Similarly at 190 Pyrrhus states accipe dictum when inviting the Romans to hear his decision. Accipere and dare (forms of the latter are used at the beginning and end of his speech) are in fact words used in deditio, which the audience would have picked up, according to Fisher, and realized that Pyrrhus was predicting his own defeat. On the contrary, the devotio of Decius Mus at Ann. 191-93 is appropriately performed, as Fisher's detailed analysis of the wording, with reference to other texts including an Oscan curse tablet, suggests, even if he Decius Mus survived his act of self-sacrifice. The details offered are fascinating and the words deployed by the poet, even if they are of the most ordinary kind, do appear to reflect ritual language. It would take a very subtle reader to draw the kinds of conclusions that Fisher draws, but they are reasonable within the terms of his argument.

In the fifth and final chapter ("Ritual, Kinship, and Myth in Book 1 of the Annals"), Fisher probes the Dream of Ilia (Ann. 34-51) for traditional kinship and ritual collocations and finds therein a "deconstruction of the binary opposition between mortal and immortal" that "suggests that Ennius had a sophisticated understanding of the limits of language" (p. 131). The passage includes a number of family terms (prognata, pater, germana soror, gnata), two of which are employed in the phrase Eurydica prognata pater quem noster amavit (36). Fisher argues that the phrase prognata pater, even if it is not linked syntactically, recalls the traditional collocation prognata patre that has illocutionary force, particularly when referring to the mortal offspring of divinities, which is the case here, now that Aeneas Pater is a god. Moreover, after the departure of her divine father, Ilia stretches out her arms to the sky (manus ad caeli caerula templa tendebam, 48-49), which is a traditional ritual collocation for prayer to a god, and calls out to her departed father using another ritual collocation, voce vocabam (49) that finds parallels in Latin and Umbrian (suboco subocau). The sentence Vires vitaque corpus meum nunc deserit omne (37) contains a phrase that recalls a ritual collocation in an Oscan curse tablet, biass biítam ("strength life") and, together with corpus, parallels a phrase from the Johns Hopkins Tabellae Devixionum, eripias salutem corp[us] colorem vires virtutes Ploti. Fisher argues that the collocation anticipates Ilia's forthcoming death. Add to this the fact that also in Book 1 at Ann. 106-8 Romulus is addressed as pater and genitor, when he never produced an heir, and here lies the blurring between family relationships and divinity that Fisher wants to underscore. If Ann. 110-11, which mentions the di genitales in the context of Romulus' apotheosis, reflects the Pythagorean association of mortals with the divinity of the stars, we might observe in Book 1, according to Fisher, a protodeconstructive undermining of the categories of mortal and god that would not be "out of the realm of possibility for the man who translated Euhemerus and allegorized the gods in his Epicharmus" (p. 161). As he also notes, "[t]he flux between divinity and humanity that continued over three generations (i.e, Aeneas-Ilia-Romulus) surely challenged the credulity of some members of the audience" (p. 162). While his conclusion may overreach, the combination of traditional language and blurred relationship between humans and gods by way of kinship is clearly present.

The 'Annals' of Quintus Ennius and the Italic Tradition offers a fascinating study of the language of the first hexametric epic in Rome. The parallels between phrases in the text and what would appear to be traditional Italian collocations are striking and offer sound evidence for what we might have expected but have not yet seen demonstrated fully: the inclusion of traditional Italian ritual phrases in a consciously Hellenizing narrative. The comparisons of Ennian phrases with Oscan and Umbrian counterparts are particularly effective. While readers may disagree with some of Fisher's conclusions or even take issue with some of the collocations, on balance the number and quality of the latter proposed throughout the book are impressive. I enjoyed and learned much in reading this fine monograph.

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