Lucan was an audacious author. In touch with an imperial court, he dared to write his long poem Pharsalia glorifying the opposition to the founder of imperial power in Rome. Lucan must have been sufficiently aware of the arbitrary tyranny of Nero to recognize that in writing such an epic he played a game involving the highest of stakes. Conscious of his genius, independent in spirit, and impetuous in his youth, he was perhaps fascinated by a hazard with double danger. It was dangerous enough to challenge Nero in literary competition, but it was even more perilous to celebrate the defenders of the ancient Republican system. Theirs had been a lost cause, yet Lucan makes idols of Pompey and Cato and so implicitly challenges Caesarism. There were several justifications for this anti-Caesarism. Corduba, the Spanish seat of his family, acknowledged a traditional allegiance to Pompey, and Lucan’s own youthful imagination dreamed up rosy visions of a Republican past. His readings of Livy, the great propagandist for the Republic, confirmed his attitude. Nero’s unfairness in trying to silence him drove him to detest the Caesarean dynasty.
Lucan’s independent spirit affected not only the subject of his epic but also its composition. He broke away from epic tradition by resolutely rejecting mythology. Lucan’s originality lay not so much in the choice of a Roman historical theme—there had been many epics, renowned and unrenowned, on national...
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