Roman painter and playwright. Born c. 220 BCE in Brundisium (present-day Brindisi), died c. 130 BCE.
A nephew of the great poet Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius left his native Brundisium and came to Rome, where he soon became part of the circle surrounding the noted orator, soldier and politician Gaius Laelius. In Rome, he made a name for himself as a painter and a tragedian.
The plays of Pacuvius are not preserved in extenso, but fragments and titles of twelve tragedies and one fabula praetexta (national drama), "on Paullus"1, are known.
From the titles, it is clear that Pacuvius, like most Roman playwrights, relied heavily on Greek material for his plays. His most famous work, Antiope, imitates Euripides, and his Niptra probably takes its source material from Sophocles.
Possibly because of his "countrified" origins, some idiosyncrasies of diction appear to have crept into Pacuvius' work. At any rate, he was mocked for this by Lucilius and Persius. Nevertheless, the general impression of his work is of a competent command of pathos, and a definite talent for drawing up his characters in broad strokes.
Presumably because of his scholarly understanding of Greek myth and literature, he was referred to by his contemporaries as doctus, clearly intended to be a term of praise. Cicero, in his De Amicitia, calls him the greatest Roman tragedian, and decribes the popularity of a scene in his Orestes:
(Laelius:) ... What acclamations lately rang throughout the whole theatre at the performance of the new play of my guest and friend Marcus Pacuvius, when, the king not knowing which of the two was Orestes, Pylades said that he was Orestes, so that he might be put to death in his stead, while Orestes maintained, as indeed was the case, that he was Orestes.2 The audience rose and applauded at an imaginary incident; what do we think they would have done in real life?
1 Probably Lucius Aemilius Paullus.
2 Compare: "I'm Spartacus!".