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A history of the poetry of history

February 8, 2016

An excerpt from an OUPblog article published on Sunday 7th February 2016, authored by Patrick Finglass, Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham, a Fellow of All Souls College, and an editorial board member for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.

"History and poetry hardly seem obvious bed-fellows - a historian is tasked with discovering the truth about the past, whereas, as Aristotle said, ‘a poet’s job is to describe not what has happened, but the kind of thing that might’. But for the Romans, the connections between them were deep: historia . . . proxima poetis (‘history is closest to the poets’), as Quintilian remarked in the first century AD. What did he mean by that?

From its beginnings, epic poetry in Latin was frequently based on actual historical events - so Naevius’ Bellum Punicum in the third century BC told the story of the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage, whereas the subject of Ennius’ Annales, from the second century BC, was the history of Rome from mythological times down to the poet’s own day. Evidently the Romans had no difficulty with taking a genre used by the Greeks mainly for the retelling of myth and employing it to celebrate their own national past, and indeed present. Even Cicero found the time to write an epic poem (complete with gods) about his own consulship (De Consulatu Suo) - after unsuccessfully attempting to interest some real poets in the job. Barely more than the first line has survived; and that verse, o fortunatam natam me consule Romam, ‘O happy Rome, born when I was consul’, is as inelegant (with its ugly repetition -natam natam) as it is immodest."

Discover more: Read the rest of this article on the OUPblog


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