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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Character of Fabius
By Ennius (239–169 B.C.)
 
FROM that more prolonged dubious and mortifying struggle with the greatest of Carthaginians, wherein Ennius himself had played a manful part, no such effective passage is quotable. There are however three lines only in praise of the great Fabius, which we might be glad to apply to our own Washington or Lincoln:—
  SIMPLY by biding his time, one man has rescued a nation.
Not for the praises of men did he care, but alone for our safety.
Therefore greater and greater his fame shall wax in the future.
  1
  The Greek element in this monument of Roman patriotism was evidently large. Numerous passages yet remain which can be profitably compared with their Hellenic originals. Indeed, upon his formal side Ennius may have been as far from independence as Virgil himself. Like most Roman poets, he is interesting less as a creative or imaginative artist than as a vigorous patriotic man, endowed with robust good sense and familiar with good literary models. His own character is at least as attractive as his work.  2
  For these reasons we may regret somewhat less the loss of his tragedies, which were no doubt based almost wholly upon Greek originals. Mere translations they were not, as the rather copious fragments of his ‘Medea’ suffice to show when set beside Euripides’s play. In any case, it would be unfair to hold him responsible for sentiments uttered by his dramatic characters; e.g.,
  “I have said, and still will say, a race of Heavenly gods exists:
But I do not think they care for what concerns the human race:
If they cared, the good were happy, bad men wretched. ’Tis not so!”
Of course, whoever said this may have had as prompt cause for remorse as Sophocles’s Jocasta. There was however in Rome—more perhaps than in Athens—a prevailing conviction that the dramatic stage should offer us only manly and elevating types of character. For instance, excessive lamentation over physical or psychical woes was sternly condemned, and perhaps largely eliminated from the Latin versions of Attic dramas. Even a single play of the best Roman period, like Ennius’s ‘Medea,’ would give us fuller knowledge on all such questions; but we can hardly hope that any have been preserved, even in Egyptian papyrus rolls.
  3
  In many other interesting ways Ennius took a leading part in enabling “vanquished Greece to conquer her victors.” In the list of comic poets, indeed (quoted by Gellius, xv. 24), Ennius has but the tenth and last place, even this being granted him merely “causa antiquitatis.” In truth, humor was probably the one gift of the gods almost wholly denied to Ennius, as to another sturdy patriot-poet, John Milton. He translated a Greek work on Gastronomy, a subject with which he may have been only too familiar. In his ‘Epicharmus’ the old Sicilian poet appeared to him, like Homer, in a dream:—
  “For it seemed to me that I was lying dead upon my couch….
Some are truthful visions, yet it need not be that all are so….
’Tis the soul perceives and hearkens; all things else are deaf and blind.”
The purport of the vision was a material explanation of the universe, based upon the four elements of Empedocles. Ennius hit upon a recondite truth, in attempting to explain away the very gods of the Roman Pantheon:—
  “That I mean as Jupiter which among Greeks is known as air.”
Modern philology verifies this almost literally. These may well have seemed bold words to publish in Rome, though the refined circle about the Scipios had doubtless as little belief in the popular mythology as the men of the world—and of letters—who met two centuries later around Mæcenas’s board. Ennius even translated Euhemerus, who has given his name to the theory that makes the divine legends mere distorted reminiscences of real men and women, living many generations earlier. The Transmigration doctrine is hardly consistent with these atheistic tendencies, and the whole tale of the identity between Homer’s and Ennius’s soul may be based merely on some bold assertion of Ennius’s own supremacy in Latin letters. Few Roman poets have any false (or real) modesty on this question.
  4
 
 
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