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A history of the poetry of history

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.

History was also written in prose, of course. Yet a glance at the opening words of some ancient historians may make us wonder whether the familiar division between poetry and prose is as meaningful as we might have thought. Take the opening to Tacitus’ Annals, from the early second century AD –

urbem Romam a principio reges habuere.

‘Kings first governed the city of Rome’

This statement opens a famous passage in which Tacitus describes how the government of Rome transitioned from monarchy, to aristocracy, back to a virtual monarchy again under the Emperor Augustus. What is not so apparent, at least until we read the words aloud, is that they form a perfect dactylic hexameter – the very verse that, since Ennius, had been used by the Romans for the writing of epic poetry. There is no chance that this is just a coincidence. Aristotle calls the iambic trimeter the closest metre to natural speech, remarking that we often utter trimeters in conversation by accident – whereas no-one, he says, would ever unintentionally come out with a dactylic hexameter. And an artist of Tacitus’ calibre just does not do things by accident.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Jugurtha’s capture by Joachin Ibarra. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Tacitus was in fact following a long tradition. At the start of his Jugurthine War (41-40 BC), Sallust writes

bellum scripturus sum quod populus Romanus . . .

‘I am going to write about the war which the Roman people . . .’

This, too, is a hexameter. And Livy, when beginning his monumental history from the foundation of the city of Rome (Ab urbe condita libri, late first century BC), opened his preface with the phrase

facturusne operae pretium sim . . .

‘Whether or not my task will reward me for my labour . . .’

which again starts off in dactylic metre.

By evoking at the start of their works distinctively poetic rhythms, and especially the rhythms of ancient epic, these historians were elevating their subject matter and intensifying their readers’ emotional response to it. Just as writers of verse could tackle historical topics, so too could writers of history incorporate poetry within their prose. But the use of metre signals not just emulation, but also the debt that prose owed to poetry – poetry came first, after all, and Latin prose historians were indebted to those earlier writers of national epics, just as they were indebted to the epic poetry of Homer which in one way or another had a profound influence on all subsequent ancient literature. The historians thus use metre to express their awareness of literary history as they pay tribute to their poetic forebears.

The keen sensitivity to prose rhythm that we can observe in these writers is not confined to the ancient world, or to ancient writers of history. The same technique was used by Sir Ronald Syme, when he opened his book History in Ovid (Oxford University Press, 1978) with the words ‘More history than Ovid, some will say’, which form a perfect beginning to an iambic trimeter: a characteristically subtle opening gambit by that most Tacitean of modern historians.

Featured image credit: View of the Colosseum by Walters Art Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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