Lucan, The Civil War I.183-203

Before the crossing of the Rubicon, Caesar met with an image of patria.
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59 CE to 65 CE
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Title of work: 
The Civil War

The civil war between Caesar and Pompey from 49-45 BCE is the central theme of Lucan’s Bellum civile. This epic initiates general reflections upon the end of the Republic and the way Rome degenerated due to the weakness of the Romans, their inclination towards internal dissent, and the ambitions of men such as Caesar (Toohey, Reading Epic, p. 166-167). Even if he had been close to the emperor Nero, until his disfavour during the 60s CE, Lucan is very critical of the principate. In Bellum civile he wanted to show that a political system emanating from a civil war and the victory of a tyrant could not be a satisfactory regime. After an apostrophe to Roman citizens and an invocation to Nero (Lucan, The Civil War I.1-32; I.33-62), Lucan gets to the heart of the narrative: Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.

First, Lucan insists on Caesar’s quickness to cross the Alps and imagines his future conquests (v. 183-185). The transgression of the boundaries by Caesar is a recurrent topic of the poem (Roche, Lucan, De Bello Civili, p. 204). Thus, Lucan borrowed many elements from Livy’s depiction of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps to describe, in a negative way, Caesar’s actions. After the Alps, the Roman leader was on the verge of violating another boundary, the Rubicon stream, which symbolized the preservation of the Urbs and, more generally, of the Republic.

Then, an imago, that is a sort of “memory-image” (Thorne, “Memoria,” p. 375) of the patria, that is country or fatherland, appears to Caesar. The description of her physical aspect (v. 186-190), fits in with traditional ways of representing a supernatural figure (her impressive height, ingens, “mighty”v. 186; her supernatural luminosity, v. 187) and a mourning woman (trepidantis, “in distress”, v. 186; voltu maestissima, “grief in her face”, v. 187; her scattered white hairs, v. 189; her groaning, gemitu, v. 190). Concerning the literary models that Lucan may have used for this allegory of the fatherland, he may have refashioned some Ciceronian oratories staging patria, especially passages of the Catilinarian Orations in which Cicero “speaks in voice of the Fatherland” to Catiline (Cicero, In Catilinam I.17-18; IV.18; Bernstein, “The Dead,” p. 261). The other model used by Lucan is the scene of the appearance of Hector before the sleeping Aeneas, in the Aeneid (Virgil, Aeneid VI. 268-297; Bernstein, “The Dead,” p. 261). Cicero’s oration, Virgil’s text and Lucan’s text have a common point: “a figure representative of the nation confronts the hero at the outset of a national disaster and warns him away from the fatherland” (Roche, Lucan, De Bello Civili, p. 206). However Lucan’s text differs in two respects: the ‘hero’ Caesar is in fact an anti-hero as he is the cause of the crisis, and he will not obey the order of the apparition.

The entity which is behind this personified patria is not clear. Paul Roche considers that it could refer to Italia (Roche, Lucan, De Bello Civili, p. 208-209), but it seems preferable to consider that the patria is here “the (still only just) free res publica” (Feeney, The Gods, p. 292). The fact that the word patria could refer to the Roman state with “special connotations of loyalty and patriotism,” fits in with the meaning of this term during the Republic (Mellor, “The goddess,” p. 973). However, (1) the “tower-crowned head” on the head of the patria (turriger vertex, v. 188), (2) the reference to the goddess Roma in Caesar’s following speech (v. 199-200), and (3) the crossing of the Rubicon in itself, symbolizing the invasion of the city of Rome, constitute three arguments which could prove that the personified patria was also a “personified Roma” or an “allegoric appearance of Roma” (Moretti, “Patriae trepidantis,” p. 1-2; Mellor, “The goddess,” p. 1010; Thorne, “Memoria,” p. 375; Myers, “Center and Periphery,” p. 412). The attribute of the tower-crown on the head of the patria, has been interpreted as referring to Cybele’s main attribute – this goddess of Phrygian origin, associated with the fecundity and the wilderness, was incorporated in the Roman pantheon as Magna Mater, the “Great Mother”. For scholars opting for this interpretation, the use of this attribute would take part in a global process “of the personification of Rome via Cybele” (for the bibliography, see Myers, “Center and periphery,” p. 413, n. 56; Peluzzi, Turrigero, p. 141-155). However, Gabriella Moretti has shown that it was preferable to see the tower-crown of the personified patria as a symbol related with the Tychè (Τύχη or Fortuna for the Romans), that is the tutelary deity of fortune and prosperity (Moretti, “Patriae trepidantis,” p. 5). Tychè referred to collective values, but was also often associated with a personified city. As Gabriella Moretti has shown, a parallel can be made between the personified and tower-crowned Roma in Lucan’s description, and the well-known statue of Eutychides, the Tychè of Antioch. This statue has a tower-crown on her head, and the woman representing Antioch has the river Orontes at her feet, a situation reminding of Roma and the Rubicon (Moretti, “Patriae trepidantis,” p. 5). If it is actually the Tychè of Roma which is presented in Lucan’s text, the scene would take a new dimension: it would become a confrontation between Roma’s Tychè and Caesar’s Fortuna.

After the description of the physical aspect of the personified patria, the patria shouted out to Caesar’s soldiers about their legitimacy to transgress the boundaries of Rome (v. 190-192). The sentence, “If lawfully you come, if as citizens, this far only is allowed,” highlights the fact that Caesar’s actions were on the verge of becoming criminal (contrary to the ius). By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar and his men would not be cives, that is, Roman citizens anymore; their actions were a direct attack against the populus romanus.

After patria’s speech, Lucan describes Caesar’s reaction. First, he seems to waver and to express usual reactions toward a supernatural appearance: trembling, the hairs standing on his head, the languor (v. 192-194; Roche, Lucan, De Bello Civili, p. 210). Then, he appeals to various deities which were anachronistic, as they were tutelary divinities which were typical of the religious system of Augustus and of the Julio-Claudian house. Inspired by a passage of the Metamorphoses – in which Ovid prays to the same Augustan gods on behalf of Augustus (Ovid, Metamorphoses XV.861-867; Wheeler, “Lucan’s Reception,” p. 370-371) – Lucan probably wants to present Caesar as “a prefiguration of the political and religious system that his victory will help to bring about” (Roche, Lucan, De Bello Civili, p. 210). First, Caesar appeals to Jupiter Tonans, whose temple had been erected by Augustus in 22 BCE (v. 195-196). Then, he alludes to deities which had special connections with him: first, the “Phrygian house-gods” of his family which enabled him to connect his lineage with Aeneas’s (v. 196-197); second, Quirinus (v. 197) with whom Caesar had a special relationship, as in 45 BCE the Senate placed a statue of the dictator in Quirinus’s temple; and third, Jupiter Latiaris (v. 198) who was worshipped in Alba longa, the city of origin of Iulus to whom Caesar affiliated himself. The enumeration ended with a reference to the cult of Vesta (v. 199), a cult which was deeply transformed by Augustus (Feeney, The Gods p. 293), and with a very interesting reference to the goddess Roma: summique o numinis instar Roma, “O Rome, the equal of the highest deity” (v. 199-200). The cult of Roma started in the Greek East, during the Hellenistic period. As the Roman expansion and dominion became more and more obvious, it progressively replaced the cult of the Hellenistic kings (Livy, History of Rome XLIII.6). For the Greeks, worshipping Roma, who was the deification of the Roman state and who had been originally introduced to serve Greek purposes only, was something quite natural. However, in the Western provinces of the Empire, the cult of Roma was not introduced until Augustus’s reign. Actually because of the anti-oriental campaign which had been led in Italy by Octavian against Antony, the introduction of this eastern goddess was problematic in this part of the Empire. That is the main reason which could explain why the cult of Roma had been first introduced in the western provinces which were not the most Romanized. This cult was then closely linked with the imperial cult. Even if, under Augustus’s reign, there was no temple of Rome in the Urbs, representations of Roma progressively appear in the official art, as for instance on the Ara Pacis. Augustus found means to ensure that Roma was the embodiment of “Rome’s noble past” and of Rome’s “germinal force” (Mellor, “The goddess,” quotations p. 1027). Even if there are not many explicit references to Roma the goddess in Augustan literature (the most obvious is in Anchises’s prophecy to Hector when Roma is compared to Cybele, turret-crowned, Virgil, Aeneid VI.781-787; Mellor, “The goddess,” p. 1006-1007), Caesar’s praise of the goddess Roma, in Lucan’s text, clearly echoes one of the most important religious innovations made by Augustus.

Caesar ends his speech by insisting on the legitimacy of his actions: his weapons were not like the Furies, that is, they were not impious (v. 200); and his opponents were the real guilty party (v. 203). His argument reaches its climax when Caesar presents himself as “conqueror by land and sea” (victor terraque marique, v. 201). As Paul Roche has shown, this formula recalls the Augustan formula used to justify the closing of the temple of Janus in the Res Gestae: cum per totum imperium populi Romani terra marique esset parta victoris pax; “when peace had been achieved by victories throughout the whole empire of the Roman people, on land and sea” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti XIII). However, in Lucan’s text the situation is totally different: Caesar self-declared himself victor but, at the same time, he brought the war. Caesar was thus far from the Augustan ideal of the victorious princeps providing universal peace (Roche, Lucan, De Bello Civili, p. 213-214).

Finally, one of the most interesting elements of this text, can be found in the use of the term patria, referring to a personified Rome symbolizing the city and the respublica, and the reference to the goddess Roma, in Caesar’s invocation. Ronald Mellor’s work helps us to understand these semantic differences. Actually, until the end of the Republic, the word Roma “had only the narrow geographical meaning of the city itself” and “there was still great reluctance to allow Roma to be used for the collective patria” (Mellor, “The goddess,” p. 954, 973). On the contrary, the terms patria, res publica, and populus romanus were commonly used to refer to a collective entity that could be the Roman people or the Roman state. From the end of the Republic onward, the word Roma referred progressively to a more collective entity, and it was really under Augustus’s reign that it became not only the personification of the res publica, but also “the divine analogue for the Roman people” (Mellor, “The goddess,” p. 984). Thus, by choosing these terms, Lucan may have wanted to reinforce the contrast between: the personified patria – who would be the perfect embodiment of the Republican Rome trying to contain her future gravedigger – and the goddess Roma praised by Caesar and symbolizing Imperial Rome (Feeney, The Gods, p. 294).

Bibliographical references: 

“The goddess Roma”

Mellor, Ronaldarticle-in-a-bookHaase Wolfgang950-1030“The goddess Roma”Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II, 17.2BerlinW. de Gruyter1981
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