Gnaeus Naevius was born a Roman citizen in either Rome or Campania. His year of birth is unknown, but it was likely around 270 BCE, since he was old enough to fight in the First Punic War.
A prolific writer, Naevius’ main claim to fame were his comedies, which true to Greek Old Comedy contained numerous attacks on current politicians. Seemingly none were spared, not even Scipio Africanus, victor over the Carthaginians. In 206 BCE, Naevius faced backlash from the Metelli, another prominent family in Rome, who had him locked up for slander. It is possible that Plautus alludes to this event in his Miles Gloriosus (210 ff.)—written around this time—where he mentions an imprisoned, censored poet, though some scholars see this as coincidence.
Though Naevius soon apologized and was freed by a tribunus plebis, he thereafter went into exile at Utica. He died there, and his epitaph was said to be his final composition:
Immortales mortales si foret fas flere
flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam.
Itaque, postquam est Orchi traditus thesauro
obliti sunt Romani loquier Latina lingua.
It would be lawful for the gods to weep for man,
the divine Muses would weep for the poet Naevius.
And so, after he was handed over to the treasury of Orcus,
The Romans forgot how to speak the Latin language.
Naevius was most famous for his comedies and his epic, the Bellum Poenicum (Punic War), written in his exile at Utica. This work, of which only about 65 lines of thousands survive, was important for being the first wholly Roman epic (as opposed to Andronicus‘ translation of the Odyssey, which is the first epic in Latin).
The Bellum Punicum was written in Saturnians and covers the First Punic War, though also includes the origins of Rome and Carthage traced back to Troy and Phoenicia respectively. It was likely a model for Vergil’s Aeneid and Ennius’ Annales, the latter of which likely skipped over the First Punic War because of Naevius’ poem.
Naevius was also a prolific comedy writer. The chief form of comedies at this time were the palliatae, adaptations of Greek comedies, though he also wrote a number of togatae, which used Roman subjects instead of Greek. The names of thirty-two comedies are transmitted to us: Acontizomenos, Agitatoria, Agrypuntes, Assitogiola, Carbonaria, Chlamydaria, Colax, Cemetria, Corollaria, Dementes, Demetrius, Dolus, Figulus, Glaucoma, Gymnasticus, Hariolus, Lampadio, Leo, Nagido, Neruolaria, Pellicus, Personata, Proiectus, Quadrigemini, Stalagmus, Stigmatias, Tarentilla, Technicus, Testicularia, Tribacelus, Triphallus, and Tunicularia. Of them, the names Assitogiola, Cemetria, Pellicus, and Tribacelus could be corrupt.
We know the names of fewer tragedies: Danae, Equos Troianus, Hector Proficiscens, Hesiona, Iphigenia, and Lycurgus.
Soon after 222 BCE, Naevius composed the Clastidium, incidentally inventing a new kind of play, the fabula praetexta, the Roman historical play. The play commemorates the victory won at Clastidium by M. Marcellus. Another, Romulus, soon followed.
Publishing his first comedy a mere five years after Livius Andronicus’, Naevius rivaled and even surpassed his predecessor/contemporary. Unfortunately, his prolific output was all but lost by the first century BCE, and only the Bellum Poenicum and a single play survived. The loss of his work can perhaps be viewed on account of the harsh criticism of Ennius (as reported by Cicero in his Brutus 72), whose own Annales, chronicling the history of Rome from its beginning, attempted to (and was successful at) replacing Naevius’ effort. There is no evidence that his works survived through the fifth century CE.
Latin: PHI Latin Texts
English translation of Bellum Punicum: ForumRomanum
- H. D. Jocelyn 1969. “The Poet Cn. Naevius, P. Cornelius Scipio and Q. Caecilius Metellus.” Antichthon 3: pp. 32–47.
- Gesine Manuwald 2011. Roman Republican Theatre. Cambridge.