Chapter 21. Naevius: Dabunt malum Metelli Naevio poetae

We find the theme of the exiled Roman poet first in the life of Naevius (ca. 270–199 BC), Rome’s first writer of plays with Roman subjects, and writer of the first Roman epic with Roman subject matter, The Punic War. The scant details of his life, with their story of satirical freedom and political repression, have been thoroughly debated. [1] I tend to place some credence in the historicity of the traditions, though if they are not historical, they have an equal interest, if a different meaning.
Naevius began to present plays in Rome in about 235 BC. [2] Though he wrote tragedies adapted from Greek originals and historical plays, his métier must have been comedy, for he wrote a great number of them (thirty-four, as compared to seven tragedies). The fragments of these are full of satire and political needling. A youthful indiscretion of Scipio Africanus is referred to in one fragment:
Etiam qui res magnas manu saepe gessit gloriose,
cuius facta viva nunc vigent, qui apud gentes solus praestat,
eum suus pater cum palliod unod ab amica abduxit.
Even that man whose hand did often accomplish mighty exploits gloriously,
Whose deeds wane not but live on to this day,
the one outstanding man in all the world—
That man, with a single mantle, his own father dragged from a lady-love’s arms.
Gellius 7.8.5, trans. Warmington, adapted [3]
This passage is an elegant combination of praise and blame—the praise sets up the satirical punchline, which entirely deflates it.
According to one testimony, Naevius “wounded” many with his plays. Gellius speaks of “his misdemeanors, and … the insolence of his utterances with which he had wounded [laeserat] many in the past,” and of “constant slander and abuse [maledicentiam et probra] uttered against leading men of the state in the manner of Greek poets.” [4]
Naevius’ most famous targets were the Metelli, whom he attacked with a celebrated line: Fato Metelli Romae fiunt consules: “By chance the Metelli become consuls at Rome.” [5] Robert Elliott ascribes importance to the fact that the objects of the satirist’s attack were named in this verse; thus it fits into his account of name magic in archaic satire, a virulent form of malevolent spell, a curse. [6] Such a powerful form of “magic” would have turned against the poet; it was so powerful, whether for magical reasons or for more mundane reasons of intolerable embarrassment in a culture concerned with saving face, that the politically powerful targets would not endure it. Paradoxically, as we have seen, such power often brings about the poet’s exile.
The Ciceronian commentator who preserves this fragment describes the line as “spoken in a witty and spiteful way” (dictum facete et contumeliose). Caesius Bassus adds that “the Metelli … were several times exasperated [lacessiti, literally, ‘wounded’] by him [Naevius] in verse.” [7] The current Metellus consul, “angered” (iratus), answered in an ominous catalectic Saturnian: Dabunt malum Metelli Naevio poetae. “The Metelli will hurt the poet Naevius.” [8] Caesius Bassus reports that the verse was posted in a public place. [9]
Accordingly, the poet “was thrown into chains by the triumviri.” [10] Plautus, a contemporary of Naevius, probably referred to his imprisonment in Miles Gloriosus (211–212), “I have heard that the face of a foreign [11] poet is columned, and two guards always watch him at all hours.” [12] Tenney Frank suggests that Naevius was the victim of “strict censorship … applied temporarily by some praetor … The Metelli were supporting Scipio’s invasion of Africa to end the war. Scipio was vigorously opposed by the older conservative nobles and Naevius was writing in the interest of the latter. The younger group were ready to resort to extreme measures to remove the offensive satirist.” [13] If this scenario is correct, we have a situation similar to that of Aristophanes: a conservative poet attacking a more militaristic political faction. One wonders if Naevius attacked war directly, as did Aristophanes.
Our judgment of how serious a punishment this was will vary according to whether we consider Naevius a Roman citizen. H. D. Jocelyn considers him “a migrant from Capua” with “the private rights of Roman citizenship, but where public life was concerned even his right to vote was circumscribed, if it existed at all.” According to H. J. Rose, however, the very fact of the punishment itself argues that the poet was not a citizen; J. Wight Duff argues from the poet’s name, common in Rome, that he was. [14] And Frank remarks on the severity of the punishment if Naevius was guilty only of verbal attacks, however scurrilous; many later Roman satirists escaped political reprisal; Lucilius is a good example. [15] If Naevius was a Roman citizen, this punishment was considerable. [16]
According to Gellius, the poet wrote two apologetic plays in prison, which effected his release. “We have received also concerning Naevius that he wrote two plays in prison, Hariolus and The Lion.” “He was freed by the tribune of the plebs when in the plays I mentioned above, he atoned for his misdeeds and the insolence of his utterances, by which he had wounded many previously.” [17] But he was nevertheless exiled. Jerome writes, “he was driven from Rome by a faction of the nobles and especially the Metelli.” [18] He died in Utica, Africa, around 201 BC. [19]
So we have such familiar themes as conflict of satirist with political leaders; imprisonment of poet; his exile. The death in exile adds a piquant touch to the story.
How historical is this tale? Jocelyn concludes that it contains some elements of truth, but also has contradictory details that undermine its credibility. A. Momigliano, after arguing for slander as a capital crime in the Twelve Tables, takes this as a likely key for understanding Naevius’ story. [20] The two certain points in the poet’s story, for him, are the imprisonment and death at Utica, which he thinks are most likely connected (by an exile).
But even if the story of Naevius’s punishment and exile were entirely fictitious, it would be valuable as an example of how it was felt desirable to fit satirical poets into the mold of the victim—imprisoned and exiled. If it is historical, of course, it shows once again how the satirical poet can become a victim in history as well as myth.
A few relevant ancillary themes show up in Naevius’s vita, especially in relation to war. Naevius fought in the First Punic War. [21] So, as was the case in Greece, we find the archaic poet with satirical leanings serving as a soldier.
The subject matter of Naevius’ magnum opus was, of course, the same war. This epic, The Punic War, started with explanations of the ancient roots of the strife of Rome and Carthage. Such a theme creates a bridge between Naevius the satirist and Naevius the soldier and military poet, for the mythological beginnings of strife are basic to the outlook of the archaic blame poet. [22] The similarities to the Aeneid are obvious; the influence this poem had on Virgil has often been discussed. [23]
One of Naevius’ fabulae praetextae, the Clastidium, had a martial theme. Its hero was M. Claudius Marcellus, a victor in 222 BC and winner of the spolia opima from the Gallic chieftain Virdumarus. [24] The one fragment we possess from Clastidium is standard praise, referring to the eternal glory of the warrior: “Back to his native land, happy in life never dying” (Vita insepulta laetus in patriam redux). It is probable that we will never find a pure praise poet or a pure blame poet. Even in Archilochus we find praise, and even in Sappho and Pindar we find blame. [25] The archaic poet will love his friends and hate his enemies; in poetic terms, this is praise and blame.
Thus Naevius, the satirist, exiled by a powerful political faction for his poetry, was a soldier and wrote on martial themes.
We know little about the death of Naevius, beyond the datum that he was believed to have died at Utica. But we do have the epitaph he supposedly wrote for himself. In it we find a familiar and fitting theme:
Immortales mortales si foret fas flere
flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam.
Itaque postquamst Orchi traditus thesauro,
obliti sunt Romae loquier lingua latina.
If it were lawful for the immortals to weep for mortals,
The divine Muses would lament the poet Naevius.
And so, after he was delivered to the treasure vault of Orchus,
They forgot how to speak the Latin language at Rome.
Gellius 1.24.2 [26]
This poet-soldier envisions himself as worthy of lamentation by the Muses, like Achilles; so his life ends with a theme closely tied to hero cult in Greece.


[ back ] 1. The most important testimonia on Naevius’ life are conveniently collected in Jocelyn 1969. For his poetry, see Büchner 1982:20–40, and Marmorale 1950.
[ back ] 2. Gellius 17.21.44.
[ back ] 3. See also Marmorale 1950:226, 99; Jocelyn 1969:38–39; Cicero On Oratory 2.249.
[ back ] 4. Gellius 3.3.15 (Jocelyn 1969:37) The full passage, part of which is translated and discussed below: Sicuti de Naevio quoque accepimus fabulas eum in carcere duas scripsisse, Hariolum et Leontem, cum ob assiduam maledicentiam et probra in principes civitatis de Graecorum poetarum more dicta in vincula Romae a triumviris coniectus esset. Unde post a tribunis plebis exemptus est, cum in his quas supra dixi fabulis delicta sua et petulantias dictorum quibus multos ante laeserat diluisset. For Naevius’ “wounding,” cf. Horace Epistle 2.1.150–151.
[ back ] 5. “Asconius” ad Cicero Verrines 1.10.29 (Marmorale 1950:254, 66; Jocelyn 1969:42). For interpretation of the ambiguous fato ‘chance’ (Frank) or ‘evil’ (Frank) or the Stoic ‘fatal necessity’ (Wissowa, Zumpf) or ‘oracular prediction’ (Marx), see Frank 1927:105–106. Frank believes that Naevius’ fato combined an ablatival sense, ‘by fate’ and a double dative: ‘for an evil’, with intentional ambiguity (108).
[ back ] 6. Elliott 1960:123, 122–129. For naming in poetry, see below, ch. 22 (Cicero); ch. 23 (Ovid); ch. 26 (Juvenal); above, ch. 17 (on Dub’s “sea-spell”; on the glám dicenn as satire/spell).
[ back ] 7. Keil 1857 6.266 (Jocelyn 1969:42), my trans. Sed ex omnibus istis qui sunt asperrimi … optumus est quem Metelli proposuerunt de Naevio, aliquotiens ab eo uersu lacessiti: ‘malum … etc.
[ back ] 8. “Asconius.” Cf. references in Warmington 1936:154; Frank 1927.
[ back ] 9. Keil 1857 6.266. Cf. Jocelyn 1969:43n106.
[ back ] 10. Gellius 3.3.15. See Marmorale 1950:104–105.
[ back ] 11. Probably from a Greek standpoint.
[ back ] 12. Nam os columnatum poetae esse indaudiui barbaro, / Quoi bini custodes semper totis horis occubant. See Marmorale 1950:112ff.; Jocelyn 1969:34–37. For the os columnatum, see Jocelyn 1969:36.
[ back ] 13. Frank 1927:110n17.
[ back ] 14. Jocelyn 1969:34, cf. 33n15 (Gellius 1.24.2); Rose 1960b:26n29; Duff 1960:93n5, with further references. See also Marmorale 1950:21–26.
[ back ] 15. Frank 1927:109.
[ back ] 16. Jocelyn 1969.
[ back ] 17. Gellius 3.3.15, my trans.; Jocelyn 1969:37; Marmorale 1950:124–134.
[ back ] 18. pulsus Roma factione nobilium ac praecipue Metelli. Jerome Chronological Tables, year 1816 (from Abraham) = 201 BC; Jocelyn 1969:41; Marmorale 1950:132.
[ back ] 19. See Jerome, ibid.; Marmorale 1950:31; Duff 1960:94.
[ back ] 20. Momigliano 1942. As do Lewis and Crawford 1996:679.
[ back ] 21. Varro ap. Gellius 17.21.45 (Marmorale 1950:233): “Naevius, according to … M. Varro … served as a soldier in the first Punic War and asserts that very fact himself in the Song which he wrote on that war” (M. Varro … stipendia fecisse ait (Naevium) bello Poenico primo, idque ipsum Naevium dicere in eo Carmine quod de eodem bello scripset). An introduction to this epic can be found in Feeney 1991:108–112.
[ back ] 22. Nagy 1979:127–141, 213–221, 309–316; Hunt 1981:31–32; and above, ch. 17 (poets Aithirne and Laidchenn as causes of strife and war). Cf. the importance of Mōmos ‘Blame’ in the mythological beginnings of the Trojan War (Cypria fr. 1, in Allen 1919 5:117; West 2003b:80): “For they say that the earth, burdened by an overabundance of men, and since there was no piety among men, asked Zeus to be relieved of the weight. Zeus with no delay first brought about the Theban war, through which he dispatched very many men. Later, once again, he took Momos as his advisor, whom Homer calls the plan of Zeus, since Zeus was prepared at that time to destroy all men by thunderbolts and cataclysms. Momos hindered this, but suggested to him Thetis’ marriage to a mortal and the begetting of a fair daughter [Helen], from both of which war came about for the Hellenes and barbarians” (φασὶ γὰρ τὴν γῆν βαρουμένην ὑπ’ ἀνθρώπων πολυπληθίας, μηδεμιᾶς ἀνθρώπων οὔσης εὐσεβείας, αἰτῆσαι τὸν Δία κουφισθῆναι τοῦ ἄχθους· τὸν δὲ Δία πρῶτον μὲν εὐθὺς ποιῆσαι Θηβαικὸν πόλεμον, δι’ οὗ πολλοὺς πάνυ ἀπώλεσεν· ὕστερον δὲ πάλιν συμβούλῳ τῷ Μώμῳ χρησάμενος, ἣν Διὸς βουλὴν Ὅμηρός φησιν, ἐπειδὴ οἷός τε ἦν κεραυνοῖς ἢ κατακλυσμοῖς πάντας διαφθείρειν. ὅπερ τοῦ Μώμου κωλύσαντος, ὑποθεμένου δὲ αὐτῷ τὴν Θέτιδος θνητογαμίαν καὶ θυγατέρος καλῆς γένναν, ἐξ ὧν ἀμφοτέρων πόλεμος Ἕλλησι τε καὶ βαρβάροις ἐγένετο). For mōmos as blame diction, in fact, “blame” in binary opposition to “praise” (epaineō), see Nagy 1979:223–224. For the overburdened earth as an IndoEuropean mythical theme, see Dumézil 1968:31–257; De Jong 1985:397–400. For the personified “Strife” (Eris) as cause of the Trojan War, bringing about the Judgment of Paris from an otherwise peaceful marriage feast, see Proclus Chrestomathy 1, in Allen 1919 5:102; Apollodorus Library, Epitome 3.3 (with further references in Frazer 1921); Nagy 1979:218–219. For satire and the beginnings of war, cf. Aristophanes Acharnians 509–556 on the beginnings of the Peloponnesian war.
[ back ] 23. See e.g. Duff 1960:97–98; Warmington 1936:xvii; Luck 1983; Terzaghi 1929; Wigodsky 1972. Ennius was also influenced by Naevius’ poem, Cicero Brutus 75–76.
[ back ] 24. Varro On the Latin Language 7.107; 9.78; Jocelyn 1969:34; Duff 1960:95; Marmorale 1950:202.
[ back ] 25. See on Pindar in ch. 3 (Archilochus).
[ back ] 26. Gellius 1.24.2 = Marmorale 1950:261, my trans. Earlier, Naevius had addressed the Muses in the beginning of his epic: “You daughters nine of Jupiter, harmonious sisters,” Novem Iovis concordes filiae sorores.” (Caesius Bassus ap. Keil 1857 6.265.10; Marmorale 1950:233). Cf. the beginning of Livius’ Odyssey (Gellius 18.9.5): “Tell me, Muse, of the cunning man …” (Virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum). See also Latacz 1976. See above, ch. 16, the Muses lamenting Achilles’ death.