The Poetics of the Punic Wars, by Thomas Biggs

Dr Thomas Biggs is an expert on Roman Republican literature and author of Poetics of the First Punic War (Michigan, 2020). We interviewed him on the Visualising War podcast recently to find out more about Roman representations of war, and we learnt what a profound impact the Punic Wars had on Roman (and later) visualisations of conflict, conquest and empire. As Tom explained, these conflicts not only shaped Roman politics and identity; they also inspired new forms and trends in literary representation – and these new literary forms and trends in turn helped cement recurring habits of describing, imagining and understanding war. In the blog below, Tom shares with us some excerpts of the Latin texts he refers to in the podcast.

Few verses survive of the Latin poems from the Roman Republic which we discussed in our recent podcast. Studying them means admitting that there are so many things we will never know. The snapshot each fragment provides requires a sceptical stance. Perhaps it only survives because a later author quoted it for a wildly different purpose; or the relevant scrap of a manuscript has by complete chance survived long enough to be copied down again in the modern era. 

Nonetheless, from the epic poems of the Roman Republic, we can still see traces of how war was depicted in this era. I include below a few examples from the earliest Latin poems to depict Roman history: the Punic War of Gnaeus Naevius (composed ca. 220-200 BCE), and the Annals of Quintus Ennius (composed ca. 180-168 BCE). Before these works, Livius Andronicus creatively translated the Homeric Odyssey into Latin and several dramas performed on stage will have engaged with the experience of conflict; but it is in the lines reproduced below that we truly glimpse the earliest literary representations of Rome at war.

Text and translation (sometimes adapted) are quoted from the Loeb Classical Library.

Naevius The Punic War

The poem begins with some type of opening declaration of intent and call for inspiration from the Muses. Naevius also tells readers he fought in the war he is about to narrate: his poem is a veteran’s tale. Aulus Gellius, a later author, preserves the information (17.21.45): ‘Naevius, according to a statement of Marcus 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.’

The war with Carthage (the First Punic War, 264-241 BCE) that forms the main subject of the epic drives the plot from the outset. From the campaigns of 263 BCE, fought in Sicily against the King of Syracuse and the Carthaginians, a surviving fragment touches on one moment of action: ‘Manius Valerius the consul leads a part of his army on an expedition.’ The style is rather declarative and uncomplicated, a choice that creates the feeling of objectivity. We see a more developed use of style to describe the unstoppable Roman advance on Malta in another fragment:

‘The Roman crosses over to Malta, an island unimpaired; he lays it waste by fire and slaughter, and finishes the affairs of the enemy.’

Violent acts compound in a catalogue of Roman success. Roman victory, however, was not always the outcome, and the creation of drama and tension for a reader is attested: ‘that victory rolls to and fro by turns.’

But we have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves. Before Romans could cross to Malta, the poem does something rather curious. It moves from Sicily, the main theatre of the war, back in time to the fall of Troy, that famous topic of Homeric song. The epic may pivot to the past by describing a temple in Sicily. Some lines of the poem record the following: ‘On it there were modelled images showing how the Titans and double-bodied Giants and mighty Atlases, and Runcus too and Purpureus, sons of Earth . . .’ This is a depiction of the war between Giants and Olympian gods, a story used by Greeks and Romans to represent the strife between order and chaos. So, a good myth for making a war seem like it is good vs. evil. A temple in Sicily that famously had these images on it also featured the Trojan war. Some scholars think that this is how we flashback to the account of the sack of Troy and the escape of Aeneas with the refugees of his city. The Trojan story is integrated into Naevius’ poem in detail and informs how any reader understands the more recent conflict with Carthage. That is one of the major innovative moves this poem makes, with earlier myth and literature framing the narrative of a historical war:

The wives of both were passing out from Troy by night; their heads were veiled, and both were weeping many tears, as they went away.


‘Their path many mortals follow. Many other dashing heroes from Troy. . .’

The Trojans are then tossed about on the seas before reaching Italy and setting Rome’s history in motion. The gods play a role, and Jupiter even offers a prophecy of the Roman future, which of course leads directly into the story unfolding in the rest of the poem.

A few other moments of conflict can be found in the extant verses that are worth sharing with you here: ‘Haughtily and scornfully he wears out the legions.’ Perhaps this verse records the treatment of Roman soldiers by an overbearing commander, one likely about to suffer reversal and defeat. The relationship between those in charge and those on the front lines seems to have received some consideration, a fact we might consider unsurprising given Naevius’ veteran status.

The narrator appears to construe the Carthaginians as the enemy while focusing on the physical experience of starvation during the siege of a city: ‘Sharp hunger grows great for the enemy.’ The psychological impact of war also shows up: ‘The tumult of a great fear is master of their breasts.’ Alongside fear, we encounter the desire of combatants to live up to expectations, to feel shame at the thought of dishonour:

and they would rather that they perish then and there than return with disgrace to their fellow-countrymen.’ 

‘But if they should forsake those men, the bravest of the brave, great would be the disgrace to the people through all the world.’

The treaty that closes the war makes note of the taking of captives, the mass enslavement that accompanied many acts of ancient warfare that strikes contemporary readers as utterly unthinkable. After the violence and suffering of war, the effects of conflict persist: 

‘This also the Carthaginians swear, that their obligations shall be such as may meet the demands of Lutatius [general and consul at the final victory]; he on his side demands that the Sicilians must give up very many hostages.’

Ennius Annals

Quintus Ennius wrote his epic Annals in the first half of the second century BCE (ca. 180s-170s). It takes a different approach to Rome’s past, telling the story of everything from Troy to the present. Naevius told of one war in light of the deep past; Ennius goes for something even bigger. His epic is also the first to use all the stylistic features of Homeric poetry. There are far too many surviving lines for us to survey the fragments of the poem, so I include here a few choice examples.

The people and the city transform into marital mode in some striking lines:

‘the proletariat at public cost with shields and savage sword was armed. The walls and city and forum they protect by standing guard.’

Rome’s enemies, in this case the Hellenistic Greek king Pyrrhus who invaded Italy, speak words that surprisingly align with Roman ideologies of war and virtue. Ennius may have had a nuanced way of characterising his combatants.

‘I do not ask for gold for myself, nor should you give me a ransom: not hawking war but waging war, with iron, not with gold let both sides resolve the vital question. Whether you or me Dame Fortune wants to rule, or whatever she brings, let us put to the test by valor. And understand this saying, too: Those whose valor the fortune of war has spared, their liberty it is certain that I spare. I offer them—take them—I give them up, as is the great gods’ will.’

The relationships between a Roman commander and his personal aide, a friend who helps him with the burden of leadership, is told in such a memorable fashion that many ancient readers thought the friend must reflect Ennius himself, and the commander one of his Roman patrons.

‘Having said these things, he summons the man with whom very often
he cared to share his table and conversation and his thoughts
on private matters when exhausted from having spent the greater part
of the day managing the highest affairs of state,
giving advice in the forum and the sacred Senate.
To him he would speak with confidence of matters great and small,
of jests and of matters bad and good alike to say
he would unburden, if he wished, and keep them in safety,
with whom much pleasure
joys privately and openly;
whose character no frivolous or evil thought induces
to do an evil deed; a learned, loyal,
accommodating man, delightful, content with what he has, happy,
discerning, with the right word at the right time, obliging, of few
words, retaining much ancient lore, which time has
buried, and retaining customs old and new,
the laws of many ancient gods and men,
a prudent man, able to speak or keep still on matters spoken.
This man amid the fight Servilius addresses thus:’

When war breaks out between Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War (the one fought with the famous Hannibal), the poem uses high-style language to show Discord herself throwing the world into confusion and conflict. Elsewhere, the less supernatural impact of coming war is explored as public opinion shifts in the face of foreign threat:

‘after loathsome Discord
broke open the ironbound posts and portals of War,’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’

Finally, two examples of the Ennian battlefield itself. One, the clash of troops made visual through a Homeric simile; the other, the depiction of a Roman soldier in language that subtly evokes the Homeric hero Ajax in the Iliad. Both examples show us how many layers went into depicting war in Roman poetry, yet the second underscores the intensity of ancient warfare and the way poetry can convey the sensory experience of it:

‘they clash like the winds, when the South Wind’s gust,
bringing rain, and the North Wind with its own counterblast
compete to raise swells on the mighty main’
‘From all sides the missiles converge like a rainstorm on the tribune:
they pierce his small shield, the boss rings from the shafts,
with the helmet’s bronze echoing, but neither can anyone
though pressing from all sides tear his body with a blade.
All the while he breaks and brandishes the showering shafts.
Sweat possesses his entire body, and he strains greatly,
nor is there a chance to catch a breath. With winged steel
the Istrians harry him as they hurl their spears.’

That is just a flavour of some of the earliest surviving Roman poetry to depict war: the Punic Wars specifically, but – as we have seen – also some mythical and literary precursors of those historical conflicts. Just in these few fragments, we can see something of the complex interplay between literature and history, as old and new literary forms come together to recount real past events and encourage audiences to visualise them through an epic lens. 

You can find out more in Tom’s excellent book – and as Tom mentions above, the texts he cites can be accessed via the Loeb Classical Library.