Lucan, The Civil War VII.535-543

After having described how Caesar’s army inflicted severe damage upon Pompey’s, Lucan expresses his wishes about Rome’s future depending on the outcome of Pharsalus’s battle.
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59 CE to 65 CE
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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 which 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 appears after the 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 (v. 384-459; the last part of this excursus is analysed in Lucan, The Civil War VII.412-459), and it takes part in the description of the beginning of the confrontation between Caesar and Pompey’s armies at Pharsalus (v. 460-535). Through his description of the first bloody fights, Lucan insists on the fact that Caesar’s soldiers hit much harder than Pompey’s men (v. 492-503). Pompey tried to react to these first attacks by deploying his cavalry and his light-armed troops, apparently largely made of barbarian soldiers of various eastern origins, a topos in Bellum civile (v. 504-519; Martin, “La ‘barbarisation,’” p. 244). Caesar reacted to this strategy (v. 519-524). His counter-attack frightened so much Pompey’s barbarian soldiers that they fled or offered their throats to their enemies (v. 525-535). After the depiction of how Caesar’s men brought Pompey’s barbarian soldiers to a standstill, Lucan expresses his wishes concerning Rome’s future.

From verse 535 onward, Lucan apostrophizes a personification of the battle of Pharsalus. He wishes that Pharsalia would be satisfied with the blood of the barbarians serving in Pompey’s army, and that she would spare the Roman citizens (v. 535-538). Then, Lucan imagines the opposite situation: Pharsalia could have decided that it was the Roman citizens of Pompey’s army who would have to pay a heavy price during the battle (v. 539). In such a situation, it was the lives of the barbarians which had to be spared.

Verses 540-543 are the most interesting ones. Lucan lists various barbarian peoples incorporated in Pompey’s army. As Paul Martin rightly remarks, they mainly come from Eastern regions of the Empire (the Galatians, the Syrians, the Cappadocians, the Armenians and the Cilicians). The cases of the Galli, the Gauls, and of the Hiberi, the Iberians, have been discussed in relation to whether they refer to western or eastern peoples. According to Paul Martin, the Gauls could be Celts from western regions, but the Iberians would be from Iberia, the region of the Southern Caucasus (Martin, “La ‘barbarisation,’” p. 244). Leaving this debate aside, it is obvious that through this list, Lucan wants to highlight the fact that Pompey’s troops were mainly composed of eastern barbarians. However, the integration of many peoples from the East into Pompey’s army is not perceived by him as good news (for a list of Eastern allies who took part in Pharsalus, see Appian, Civil War II.70-71). When he concludes about the different barbarian tribes: “for after civil war these will be the Roman people (populus Romanus)” (v. 542-543), Lucan is not saying that the Roman empire will be saved thanks to the input of foreigners who will fill up the gap caused by the loss of Roman citizens. Lucan perceives the integration of many peoples from the East into Roman troops as a risky process which could lead to a kind of robbing of identity for the Roman people (see Day, Lucan, p. 199). This narrow, even anti-universalist, conception of the Roman people can be confirmed by the reading of a passage extracted from Lucan’s lamentations, exposed just before the depiction of the battle of Pharsalus. After having complained that Pharsalus caused so many losses that Roman citizens would be barely enough to fill only the city of Rome – leaving empty most parts of the Empire (VII.399-402) –, Lucan regrets that Rome is now filled with foreigners and that Roman citizens are very few compared to the size of their Empire: “… and Rome, crowded / by no citizen of her own but filled with the dregs of the world, / we have consigned to such a depth of ruin that in a body so immense / civil war cannot now be waged” (VII.404-408). Later, in his third Satire, Juvenal depicts also in a very negative way the huge number of eastern peoples which were present in Rome at his time (Juvenal, Satire III.58-125).

Thus, when Lucan forecasts in verses 542-543 that, after Pharsalus, Pompey’s barbarian soldiers could become the populus Romanus, he is manifestly claiming that Rome will never be the same anymore. Pharsalus marks the beginning of a kind of barbarisation of Rome, which will lead to the disappearance of its pure, unified Roman identity. As Paul Martin rightly analysed, Lucan is not the only author who linked the “Easternisation” of the Roman army under Pompey’s command and the destruction of Rome’s identity. This relationship can also be found in explicit terms in Cicero’s correspondence, especially in some letters written during the civil war (Cicero, Letters to Atticus VIII.11.2 and 4, of 27th feb. 49 BCE; IX.9.2, of 17th march 49 BCE; IX.10.3 of 17th march 49 BCE; see Martin, “La ‘barbarisation’,” p. 252-253). Thus, Lucan’s point of view on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and on the specific nature of this civil war – which was the first civil war implying the whole Empire because of the very numerous foreign allies and soldiers enlisted with one of the imperatores – may have been influenced by the use of Cicero’s correspondence. However, the narrow and non-universalist conception of the Roman people that Lucan exposed in his poem, fits in with the opinion of some senatorial groups of his time. For instance, his uncle Seneca criticized in his Apocolocyntosis the fact that Claudius had boosted the extension of the Roman citizenship to many inhabitants of the provinces of the Empire (see Seneca, Apocolocyntosis III). By criticizing Claudius who, according to his words, wanted to see in toga every Greek, Gaul, Spaniard and Briton, Seneca was against some excessive extension of the Roman citizenship to provincials, a position which clearly recalls that of his nephew Lucan.

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