Lucan, The Civil War VII.412-459

Lucan’s lamentations about the negative outcome of the battle of Pharsalus.
Name of the author: 
59 CE to 65 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
The Civil War

The civil war between Caesar and Pompey between 49 and 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 emanated from a civil war and the victory of a tyrant could not be a satisfactory regime.

This text is an excerpt from the seventh book whose main theme is Lucan’s description of the battle of Pharsalus on 9th August 48 BCE (VII.460-616). This text is the final part of a moralizing excursus, inserted after Pompey’s and Caesar’s pre-battle speeches to their troops, in which Lucan imagines the negative outcome of the fight. From verse 412 to verse 427, Lucan develops a main idea of his interjection: Rome grew up so fast and reached such exceptional dimensions that her fall was inevitable and terrible. He insists on “the enormous scale of Rome’s loss at Pharsalus”, and argues that all the worst natural catastrophes could not cause as many deaths as this battle (v. 412-415; see Day, Lucan, p. 202).

Afterwards, Lucan attributes the responsibility of these disasters to a key figure: Fortune (Fortuna, v. 415-419). In the Bellum civile, Lucan speaks indiscriminately of fatum or of Fortuna to refer to a “supernatural element” which is represented most of the time as “perfidious by nature” (Rudich, Dissidence, p. 141). Fortune appears here as the element which organized and led to the battle of Pharsalus (see the passage in which Fortune “stations on the plains the peoples and the generals,” v. 417-418). From verse 418 onward, Lucan apostrophes Rome by showing it its own past – in particular its former greatness represented by the huge number of men present on the battlefield – and also by forecasting its future, in particular its irremediable fall. For Henry Day, Lucan presents Pharsalus as an “historical rupture” after which Rome will not be itself anymore, since the Republican Rome will disappear afterwards. In this passage, the destiny of Rome is thus totally opposed to the promise made by Jupiter in the Aeneid, when he foretells to Rome a boundless and endless Empire (Virgil, Aeneid I. 278; see Narducci, Lucano, p. 83).

Afterwards, to insist on the extent of Rome’s decay, the poet recalls Rome’s greatness due to the extent of its territory (v. 419-420). He uses common figures to refer to Rome’s territorial expansion: Rome was victorious in every war against a foreign people (v. 421); its territory was so big that it could be contemplated from the cosmos, and it reached the northern and southern boundaries of the Earth (v. 421-422). Lucan even imparts that Rome’s expansion was so complete that “not much space of the eastern land (terrae Eoae) remained” (v. 423). This detail clearly recalls Pompey’s speech in which he is pleased to have conquered many Eastern regions (Lucan, The Civil War II.568-595). However, the Parthians are the main absentees from his list, and the poet may have alluded to them when he claims that only some Eastern territories remained not under Rome’s control before the battle of Pharsalus. Lucan ends his hyperbolic depiction of Rome’s former greatness by saying that night and day, but also the ether and the stars attended Rome’s hegemony (v. 424-425). However, Rome’s greatness was not endless, the extraordinary destructive power of the battle of Pharsalus put an end to it.

Afterwards, Lucan insists on “the arrest and reversal of Roman imperial expansion” (v. 427-436; for the quotation see Reed, “The Bellum Civile,” p. 25). He comes back to the main theme of the beginning of the first book: instead of waging internal war, the Roman people should have dedicated their efforts to fight foreign enemies who were making profit out of Rome’s inner conflicts (Lucan, The Civil War I.1-32). From verse 428 to 431, the poet distinguishes four examples proving the “external decline” of Rome (see Leigh, Lucan, p. 93). He claims that various foreign peoples, such as the Indians, the Dahae (that is a confederation of tribes living on the south-eastern shores of the Caspian Sea), the Sarmates and, Rome’s main enemies, the Parthians, did not fear Rome’s military power or revenge. The poet goes on and, from verse 432 to 436, deals with the effects of Pharsalus on Rome’s internal situation. He explains that civil war has been the main cause of “Rome’s internal decline” because of the disappearance of a key element: libertas (see Leigh, Lucan, p. 93).

Lucan leads to the strange conclusion that, after Pharsalus, Liberty “has withdrawn beyond Tigris and Rhine, never to return, and wanders on, after our so many murderous attacks” (v. 433-434). With this sentence, he expresses the idea that, after Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus, Liberty definitely disappeared from the “civilized world,” that is from the Roman empire. As Carin Green rightly analyses, the Tigris and the Rhine symbolize here the “boundaries between the civilized and the barbarian world”. Thus, Lucan claims that the main consequence of the civil war would have been to lead to “the liberation and civilizing of the barbarians,” and to “the enslavement and barbarization of the Romans” (Green, “Lucan and Homer,” p. 170). Among the barbarian peoples enjoying the advent of libertas, Lucan quotes the Germans and the Scythians.

After having mentioned that Liberty drifted to barbarian territories after Pharsalus, the narrator adds another provocative idea: it would have been better if Rome had never been free rather than experiencing the loss of its freedom (v. 437-445). He imagines that it would have been better if Rome had remained in slavery (servisses, v. 437) from Romulus’s time to the battle of Pharsalus. Then, he comes to an interesting conclusion: “Fortunate are the Arabs and the Medes and eastern earth, kept by the Fates beneath continuous despots (tyrannis)” (v. 442-443). In this sentence, we can appreciate how the Lucanian narrator views the political systems of the Eastern nations, here depicted as despotic monarchies (regna) ruled by tyrants. We can wonder if, by referring to the Eoa tellus, “the eastern earth,” he includes or not the Judeans among the peoples living under a tyrant. The other main reference to Judea in the Bellum civile, appears in a speech attributed to Pompey before his departure for Brundisium. In this speech, Pompey lists various Eastern nations he submitted, among whom an Arab people and Judea (Lucan, The Civil War II.590-594), but he does not dwell on the political regime of Judea. Going back to Book VII, the last sentence of this development, “Of all the peoples who endure tyranny (regna ferunt), our situation is the worst: we are slaves, and ashamed” (v. 444-445), is very interesting, as Lucan claims that, from Pharsalus to the narrator’s day, that is under Nero, the Roman people have been enslaved. Through this sentence, the poet may have wanted to denounce the principate, and in particular Nero’s reign, because it was drifting towards tyranny. As Emanuele Narducci writes, Lucan is denouncing only some aspects of the transformation of the imperial rule into a more personalized and authoritative regime. As we will see later, for the poet, the most obvious and perverse example of the phenomenon was the establishment of the imperial cult. However, for Emanuele Narducci, this critique does not mean that Lucan wanted to restore the Republic and refused to be ruled by an emperor (Narducci, Lucano, p. 22-26; Berstein, “The Dead,” p. 278). Such an understanding of Lucan’s rhetoric and provocative assessments has to be taken into account, but the violence of his denunciation of Rome’s state of slavery, since the battle of Pharsalus, seems to be a severe critique against the principate.

Lucan’s lamentation ends with another strange and provocative assessment: “Without a doubt, we have no deities (numina): since human life is swept along by blind chance, we lie that Jupiter is king” (v. 445-447). The fact that the battle of Pharsalus produced so many deaths and led to the victory of a criminal party against a lawful one, pushed Lucan to “doubt the justice or power of the gods” (Friedrich, “Cato,” p. 367-368). For Lucan, the civil war and Pharsalus are indicators of the fact that Jupiter, and the gods in general, have no concern for human affairs and men’s troubles (idea explicitly mentioned v. 444-445). Thus, Lucan seems to negate the existence of divine providence (Neri, “Dei, fato,” p. 1982). This idea is reinforced by the critical depiction of Jupiter, who is presented as a passive spectator (spectabit) watching humans’ misfortunes without using his powers to save them (v. 443-444). As Matthew Leigh underlines, this depiction of Jupiter’s spectatorship recalls the attitude of the Stoic sage and echoes passages of Seneca, especially De Otio IV.2: Quit sit deus; deses opus suum spectet an tractet.; “Who is god; whether he indolently watches his creation or takes it in hand” (Leigh, Lucan, p. 30, 95). If both Lucan and Seneca associate Jupiter’s spectatorship with passiveness, the way Lucan rejected “the faith in providence and divine justice,” two main elements of Stoic philosophy, proves that he distances himself from Seneca’s Stoicism – it is important to recall that Seneca the philosopher was Lucan’s uncle (Fantham, Lucan, p. 12).

These sentences have been used to determine Lucan’s philosophical position. Firstly, as Wolf Friedrich recalls, scholars have debated if verses 445-455 should be read as the result of “a momentary turmoil” or of “a deeper conviction of the poet’s” (Friedrich, “Cato,” p. 370). Secondly, they have also debated the nature of Lucan’s opinions towards the gods: does he really deny their existence and thus express a form of atheism? Or, does he critique the gods and question their powers just so as to denounce their passivity towards humans’ troubles? For Wolf Friedrich, Lucan does not deny Jupiter’s existence with the sentence mentimur regnare Iovem, “we lie that Jupiter is king” (v. 447). For him, Lucan is just expressing his deception in front of Jupiter’s passiveness. Lucan would thus represent Jupiter as an “impotent or even malevolent being,” but would not deny his existence (Friedrich, “Cato,” p. 370-371). If the passage dealing with Jupiter’s passivity (v. 447-448) can actually be understood in that way, the previous part of the sentence, “Without a doubt, we have no deities (numina): since human life is swept along by blind chance…” (v. 445-446) seems more critical towards gods’ existence. As Randall Ganiban rightly analyses, this passage echoes a reflection at the beginning of book II. In this passage, Lucan asked if Jupiter (rector Olympi, “ruler of Olympus,” II.4) and a sort of “Stoic causation” brought the strife about (II.4-11), or if nothing guides events but Chance (fors incerta vagatur, “Chance at random wanders,”II.12) (see Ganiban, “Crime,” p. 331-332). If, at the beginning of Book 2, Lucan remains uncertain about “the way the world works” (Ganiban, “Crime,” p. 332), the poet seems to answer this question in VII.445-446: human affairs and the human world seem to be governed by chance and not by any divine control or providence (Ganiban, “Crime,” p. 340).

In the last part of this text, the poet claims that humans took revenge on the gods, whose passivity caused the disaster of Pharsalus, by creating their own gods, mortals who have become rivals to the traditional gods (v. 455-457). Here Lucan is denouncing the establishment of the imperial cult, based on the deification of dead emperors. As Matthew Leigh rightly remarks, civil war is presented as the key element of the mortals’ revenge. Through a circular reasoning, Lucan presents civil war as the main cause of the establishment of the new gods, but he also insists on the fact that these new gods – embodying “the spirit of the Caesars” – will also bring civil war to heaven by becoming rivals to traditional gods (Leigh, Lucan, p. 98). Lucan pursues his negative depiction of the imperial cult: “with thunderbolts and rays and stars Rome will adorn the dead and in the temples of the gods will swear by ghosts” (fulminibus manes radiisque ornabit et astris inque deum templis iurabit Roma per umbras, v. 458-459). In this sentence, a personified Rome – which may represent the members of the Roman Empire – is presented as taking part in the imperial cult by adorning the emperors with some ornaments, which could recall the radiate crown (Griffin, Nero, p. 217-218). The most critical passage of the depiction is when Lucan writes that in the temple of the old gods, Rome will now “swear by ghosts.” The deified emperors are thus presented as “ghosts” (umbrae), that is as false gods. By reading this passage, it is impossible not to think about the invocation to Nero at the beginning of the first book, in which Lucan forecasts the future apotheosis of the ruling emperor (Lucan, The Civil War I.33-62). As Neil Berstein writes, Lucan “endeavors to debunk the myths propagated by the Julio-Claudian emperors” by underlying “the arbitrariness of their conceptual foundations” (Berstein, “The Dead,” p. 277).

In this text, Lucan clearly wants to present the civil war and the battle of Pharsalus as a turning point in Rome’s history as they mark the end of the Republic, the loss of Liberty (libertas), and the end of a step in Rome’s expansion. Of course, as he lived under Nero’s reign, the poet knew that Pharsalus did not put an end to Rome’s conquests and foreign policy. This lamentation has thus to be understood as a provocative and excessive expression of Lucan’s pessimism and nostalgia. The most critical part of the text appears between verses 445-459. As Elaine Fantham rightly remarks, Lucan’s negative and critical assessment about the gods and Fortune led him to develop opinions totally opposed to the “optimism” of the “Augustan generation,” but also to “the faith in providence of his Stoic teachers” (Fantham, Lucan, p. 9). In the Aeneid, only “lesser deities” obstruct Aeneas’s progress, and, at the end, gods and Fortune do not prevent Aeneas from succeeding; on the contrary, they stand on his side. In the Bellum civile, gods and Fortuna are always presented as unjust, useless or willing the worst for the Roman people. The passivity of Jupiter described by the Lucanian narrator at the end of this text, clearly appears as the antithesis of Horace’s portrayal of Augustus, whose power is described as being the earthly counterpart of that of Jupiter (Horace Odes III.5.1-2; see Leigh, Lucan, p. 93). The fact that Lucan denigrates Jupiter’s power and presents the coming and the deifications of the emperors as a major piece of evidence of the indifference and non-intervention of the gods in humans’ affairs, clearly shows the singularity of Lucan’s perspective. By attacking the imperial cult in such a way, the poet may have wanted to express his disillusion about the tyrannical drift of Rome’s political regime.
Bibliographical references: 

“Cato, Caesar, and Fortune”

Friedrich, Wolf H.article-in-a-bookLucan Charles Tesoriero370-410“Cato, Caesar, and Fortune”OxfordOxford University Press2010

“Crime in Lucan and Statius”

Ganiban, Randallarticle-in-a-bookBrill’s Companion to Lucan Paolo Asso327-343“Crime in Lucan and Statius”LeidenBrill2011

“Lucan and Homer”

Green, Carin M. C.article-in-a-bookLucan Charles Tesoriero149-183“Lucan and Homer”OxfordOxford University Press2010
Realized by: