(Full name Marcus Annaeus Lucanus.) Latin historian and poet.
Lucan is the author of Bellum Civile [Civil War], a history of the war between Caesar and Pompey (49-48 B.C.). Also known as the Pharsalia, the name of the major battle depicted, the epic work was unfinished at the time of Lucan's death. Lucan uses cynicism, paradox, satire, and hyperbole throughout the Bellum Civile, breaking with tradition by not championing its main protagonist. In the work Lucan is also pro-republican, extremely hostile to Caesarism, and includes many passages that clearly displeased Nero. Lucan viewed the battle of Pharsalia as the end of constitutional government. Lucan scholar W. R. Johnson praises him for the "ferocious vitality" of his unique Latin, and concludes that "there is nothing else like Lucan in Western literature."
Lucan was born in Corduba, Spain, in the year 39, the son of Marcus Annaeus Mela, a wealthy Roman knight, and his wife, Acilia. Lucan's grandfather was Seneca the Elder and his uncle was Seneca the Younger. As a member of such an important family, Lucan enjoyed many privileges including being educated in Rome (where he was taken shortly after birth), where his studies included rhetoric and philosophy, the latter taught by Stoic philosopher Annaeus Cornutus. While continuing his education in Athens in 59, Lucan was summoned by Nero to serve as his tutor. It is believed that for some time they considered each other good friends, and in 60 Lucan won a prize for a poem ("Laudes Neronis") praising Nero. In 62 or 63 Lucan was appointed quaestor, a rare preferment for one not of royal blood. In 64, for assorted and unclear reasons, Nero banned Lucan from speaking in public, effectively ending his career. Historians have speculated as to what caused the break between the two men and include such factors as political differences, Nero's jealousy of Lucan's poetic ability and fame, and a likely public pronouncement by Lucan in opposition to Nero. In 65 Lucan became a member of a plot, led by Senator Caius Calpurnius Piso, to assassinate Nero. The plot was discovered and its conspirators were given the option of being put to death or committing suicide; Lucan chose suicide. Tacitus reports that as the blood flowed freely from his open veins, Lucan recited some lines of original poetry concerning a wounded soldier dying a similar kind of death. Nero had Lucan's father killed when he came to claim his son's property, and later disposed of Lucan's uncle as well.
It is uncertain exactly when Lucan began writing the Bellum Civile, but it is likely that some of the more openly hostile portions were written after Nero's ban. Although only three volumes of the work were presented while Lucan was alive, nine and a half volumes are now available, comprising approximately 8000 lines. The Bellum Civile is rich with allusions and epigrams, and includes more than one hundred speeches exhibiting a tremendous range of rhetorical devices. Its three major protagonists are Caesar, Pompey, and Cato. Caesar is introduced as a near-superhuman warrior; Pompey as an old and tired man who inspires devotion from the public; Cato a Stoic whose overriding concern is the welfare of the state. Through these individuals Lucan relates a story based on actual contemporary events concerning the war between Caesar and Pompey. One of Lucan's liteary innovations in Bellum Civile is his rejection of the gods and their divine machinery, replaced largely with fate and fortune. Critics have suggested that in the history Lucan is reacting against Virgil by exaggerating his style, as in an instance where Lucan describes a darkness so dense that lightning cannot be seen in it. Lucan wrote extensively during his short career, including many letters, poems, and plays; though none of them have survived, their titles are known. His writings include Medea, an unfinished play; ten volumes of verse called Silvae; De Incendio Urbis [About the Burning of the City], written in 64; Iliacon [Song of Troy]; Catachthonion [Trip to the Underworld]; Orpheus; and Letters from Campanalia.
Although it appears likely that Lucan enjoyed a large and appreciative audience of senators and knights, his work was sometimes compared unfavorably to that of Virgil. Lucan's literary reputation soared during the Middle Ages, however, and stayed high for centuries.
Christopher Marlowe had begun a translation, publishing the first book in 1600. He was highly regarded by the Romantics, and Percy Bysshe Shelley considered him a genius superior to Virgil. But with the progress of the nineteenth century and the advent of new political ideas, Lucan's popularity plummeted. By the end of the 1800s Caesarism was admired and Lucan vilified; W. R. Johnson has listed the complaints of critics including that the narrative is obscure; epic conventions are bungled; themes scrambled; Lucan's ideas gibberish. Further, the Bellum Civile has been called metrically monotonous and has often been criticized for its lack of a traditional hero in its major protagonist, Caesar. Critic E. E. Sikes has contended that Cato is meant to play the role of hero; Eva Matthews Sanford has argued that the whole focus on hero is misplaced and that the proper emphasis should be one of theme. Due to the fact that the Bellum Civile was never completed, a major area of interest among scholars, including Richard T. Bruère and Lynette Thompson, has been in speculating what Lucan projected for the scope of the work. It is only in recent decades that critics have once again examined Lucan's work and have suggested very different conclusions, finding in him a "troublesome originality" (Johnson) that calls for new perspectives. Summarizing the more recent view of Lucan scholars, Jane Wilson Joyce has declared that Lucan's epic is "deeply, radically new and different."
Principal English Translations
SOURCE: "Poetry and Philosophy" in Roman Poetry, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1923, pp. 153-220.
[In the following excerpt, Sikes discusses Lucan's portrayal of Cato as a Stoic hero.]
… The Pharsalia, like Paradise Lost, has been' said to want a hero; and, in the popular sense of the word, the criticism is quite true. Caesar is no more, if perhaps no less, the hero than is Milton's Satan, being rather the villain of the piece, although Lucan is forced to admit his greatness. Pompey is at least on the side of the angels, standing for law and order, for the established constitution, and for the unenlightened oligarchs whom Lucan thought to be champions of "freedom". But, in the Civil War, Pompey had become "the shadow of a mighty name", and, with the best will, Lucan could not make him a worthy match for Caesar. His death inspires some fine rhetoric on his former glory, but no rhetoric could disguise the weakness which marked the last phase of his life; and the poet could do no more than make excuses for his failure.
But there was one man whose part in the war, from Lucan's point of view, was perfect. Cato had a double claim to his admiration. In the first place, he was—after Pompey's death—the leader of the Senatorial party, for which Lucan hardly cares to conceal his sympathies. In the second place, Cato was a thorough Stoic, and—though Lucan...
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SOURCE: "Lucan and Civil War," Classical Philology, XXVIII, No. 2, April, 1933, pp. 121-27.
[In the following essay, Sanford contends that Lucan was not concerned with developing heroes in his writing but rather with illustrating the horrors of civil war.]
The old question whether Lucan was a historian or a poet has been largely superseded in these more subjective days by a milder controversy as to the identity of his hero. The popular solutions are familiar enough, but satisfactory chiefly to those who find failure in this essential point of epic consistent with their general conception of Lucan's second-rate quality. Duff argues that Caesar was, despite the poet's intention, the "practical hero of the poem," while Pompey was its "formal" and Cato its "spiritual hero." This is surely a triumvirate from which the Muse of Epic Unity would have averted her face in very shame.1 Heitland disagrees in part; to him Caesar is again hero de facto, and Cato a secondary hero as a model of moral greatness, but Pompey is not a hero in any sense. His final estimate of the question expresses the feeling of numerous other critics:
It is very characteristic of Lucan that it should be necessary to search after the hero at length. And when we have found him, he is a hero not in virtue of the poet's efforts, but in spite of them. This is the Nemesis that follows on an...
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SOURCE: "The Meaning of the Pharsalia," American Journal of Philology, Vol. LXVI, No. 4, October, 1945, pp. 352-76.
[In the following essay, Marti explores Lucan's twin intentions in the Pharsalia—giving new life to the epic and presenting the Stoic ideal.]
In a brief but illuminating study Sikes has shown that the whole conception of the Pharsalia would have been different if Lucan had not been a Stoic, and that "commentators have strangely underrated the importance of philosophy as the chief—if not the only—cause of Lucan's complete break with epic convention."1 He points out the best approach to an understanding of the Pharsalia when he states that the absence of myth and the poet's attempt to explain the motives of human actions are based upon his philosophy. Sikes, however, is more interested in the cause of Lucan's failure to give the gods some place in his poetry, as Lucretius had done, or to find some convincing substitute for them by using, for instance, the device of Personification, than he is in the meaning, structure, or aim of the poem.
In this paper I wish to suggest that the Pharsalia is an experiment in the technique of epic poetry, and an interesting if a not very successful one. I shall attempt to show that Lucan, who knew Aristotle's statement that the unity of a plot does not consist in having one man as the hero but in...
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SOURCE: "The Scope of Lucan's Historical Epic," Classical Philology, Vol. XLV, No. 4, October, 1950, pp. 217-35.
[In the following essay, Bruère discusses Lucan's possible intentions concerning the design of his unfinished Bellum civile.]
In this paper it is proposed to assemble and discuss evidence bearing upon the scope contemplated by Lucan for his historical poem. Although formal appreciation of an incomplete epic is hardly possible ir the absence of a hypothesis concerning its scope—to determine the extent to which a poet would have achieved his purpose one must take into consideration what this purpose was—no agreement on this question has been reached, and for many years there has been little awareness of its importance.
That Lucan's poem is incomplete, breaking off as it does in the midst of a sentence with Caesar in mortal peril on the Alexandria mole, is too evident to require proof; that if it is to attain a tolerable conclusion the narrative should be carried beyond the Bellum Alexandrinum, hardly less so.1 There is no reason to suppose that the ancients possessed more of the poem than we do, and strong indications that they did not.2 None of the statements concerning Lucan found in ancient writers has to do with what the poem, had it been completed, would have contained; with the exception of what may be inferred from some verses of...
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SOURCE: "Lucan's Apotheosis of Nero," Classical Philology, Vol. LIX, No. 3, July, 1964, pp. 147-53.
[In the following essay, Thompson contends that Lucan's description of the deification of Nero indicates that the originally proposed terminal date for the poem should be much later than critics have assumed.]
Since epic poets customarily state their subject at the beginning of their poems it may be assumed that at the time Lucan wrote verses 1-66 of the Bellum civile he had fixed in his mind the outline of the whole, however vague the particulars of the design may have been and however altered they may have become as the work progressed. In 1950 R. T. Bruere suggested that the complete poem would have encompassed the whole period of civil warfare from 49 B.C. to the peace following Actium.1 More recently, 0. A. W. Dilke has inclined to the same view,2 whereas H. P. Syndikus has reiterated the traditional termini of 15 March 44 B.C. or Philippi in 42,3 and H. Haffter has implausibly proposed that Lucan's tenth book, had it been finished, would have marked the end of the epic (47 B.C.).4
To the present writer the hypothesis that Lucan planned to include the entire period of plus quamcivilia bella which ended only with the overthrow of Antony and Cleopatra seems the only tenable one. Scholars favoring an earlier terminal point fail to...
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SOURCE: "Introduction to the Poet and His Age" in Lucan: An Introduction, Cornell University Press, 1976, pp. 17-61.
[In the following excerpt, Ahl explains how some Roman writers used ambiguity of expression to criticize their leaders with relative safety.]
I. The Poet and the Principate
The majority of Roman writers of the first and early second centuries A.D. take a cynical view of the world in which they live. The attacks on the abuse of power, wealth, and human life in Petronius, Persius, Martial, Tacitus, Juvenal, and Suetonius are familiar enough to even the casual reader of the classics. Often neglected, however, is the degree to which this cynicism is found, in one form or another, in writers less frequently read by the modern reader. Valerius Flaccus informs us in the first book of his Argonautica that people of his day have little use for the delights of Elysium.1 Silius Italicus wishes that Carthage were still standing—better this than that Rome should be what it is in his age.2 Lucan's disgust at contemporary decadence as well as Seneca's—and indeed Statius'—vivid portraits of tyrannical savagery and callousness show the same urge to describe a world poised on the brink of spiritual bankruptcy.
There are, of course, exceptions to this widespread disenchantment, but they are few. We may adduce the rather...
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SOURCE: "Caesar and the Mutiny: Lucan's Reshaping of the Historical Tradition in Civili 5.237-373," Classic Philology, Vol. 80, No. 2, April, 1985, pp. 119-31.
[In the following essay, Fantham explores Lucan's dramatization of mutiny and his relationship to the Alexander tradition.]
Lucan must surely be one of the most challenging authors for the student of Roman literature, since his fusion of history and imaginative art doubles the hazards of any interpretation of his poeticmethods, or his relation to the historical tradition. I was prompted to this investigation when the accident of teaching the first and fifth books of the De bello civili in immediate succession made me aware of the relationship which Lucan has constructed between Caesar's first encounter with his soldiers, set at Ariminum in 1. 231-32, and the later confrontation at the mutiny of Placentia, which occupies a similar position in Book 5. But what started as a rhetorical interpretation required an understanding of historical sources—if not of actual relation to fact—and of Lucan's structure within the individual book and the work as a whole, and led finally to investigation of the complex relationship between Lucan and the Alexander-tradition. The scene in Book I needs no separate analysis: it has been well discussed both by R. J. Getty in his separate edition1 and in A. W. Lintott's wider study, "Lucan and...
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SOURCE: "Erichto and Her Universe" in Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 1-33.
[In the following excerpt, Johnson contends that the Pharsalia reflects Lucan's view of the universe as a discordant machine bent on self-destruction.]
But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture?
Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
- This outrageous, sour, impossible poem—why, except to still the rumblings of antiquarian appetites—why should we bother with it at all? The Pharsalia has no hero, or too many. Its narrative is obscure, irritating, botched. It flouts epic conventions, or ignores them, or bungles them. Its central themes are scrambled by radical ambivalence of thought and feeling into what often seems not distant from gibberish. Lucan's was an interesting, small talent that, through a mixture of indolence, vanity, and hysteria, ended by squandering itself on hopeless ambitions and absurd materials....
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SOURCE: An introduction to Lucan's Civil War, translated by P. F. Widdows, Indiana University Press, 1988, pp. xi-xxv.
[In the following excerpt, Widdows offers an overview on Lucan's life, writing, and reputation.]
Our knowledge of the life of Marcus Anneus Lucanus—known variously in the modern vernacular as Lucan, Lucain, and Lucano—is derived principally from two short "lives" prefixed to medieval manuscripts of his poem, one attributed to Suetonius (c. A.D. 70-160), and the other to a grammarian named Vacca, who is thought to have lived in the sixth century, but who derived his material froma much earlier source. Lucan came from a distinguished family of Spanish Romans living in Corduba. His father, M. Anneus Mela, a wealthy knight and businessman, had two brothers, the philosopher Seneca, and Lucius Anneus Junius Gallio, proconsul of the Roman province of Achea (i.e., Greece) in the days of St. Paul's missionary journeys.' His mother, Acilia, came from a talented family, also. Her father was Acilius Lucanus (hence Lucan's name), a well-known lawyer and writer.
Lucan was born in A.D. 39 in Corduba and was taken to Rome in his first year to be brought up and educated. He went through the traditional education of the Roman upper classes, first studying with a grammarian; then with a rhetorician, under whose tutelage he became a star in the art...
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SOURCE: "General Introduction" in Lucan: Pharsalia, translated by Jane Wilson Joyce, Cornell University Press, 1993, pp. ix-xxv.
[In the following excerpt, Joyce provides an overview of Lucan's Pharsalia, his life, reception as a poet, and his influence.]
Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus) was born 3 November 39 C. E. at Cordoba, son of the Spanish financier Marcus Annaeus Mela and member of a remarkable family.1 His grandfather Lucius Annaeus Seneca ("the Elder"), a successful businessman, wrote a history of Rome, now lost, beginning with the civil war that forms the subject of Lucan's Pharsalia; blessed with longevity (he lived to be nearly a hundred) and a phenomenal memory, a keen critic of Roman rhetoric, he could quote at length even from speeches heard in boyhood; some of his work on oratory is extant. One of Lucan's two uncles, Lucius Annaeus Gallio (later adopted and renamed Lucius Iunius Novatus Gallio), is the Gallio who, as governor of Achaea in 52 C. E., threw out the Jews' case against St. Paul in Acts 18:12ff. The other, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, was Rome's richest citizen, the most popular living author of his day, and, for a short while, virtual co-ruler of the Roman world.
Within a few months of Lucan's birth, his father moved the family to Rome; he then retired to a house deep in the country. While it is possible...
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Crosland, Jessie. "Lucan in the Middle Ages: With Special Reference to the Old French Epic." The Modern Language Review: XXV, No. I (January, 1930): 255-77.
Examines the profound influence of Lucan on Mediaeval authors.
Dilke, 0. A. W. "Latin and English Literature." Neronians and Flavians: Silver Latin I, pp. 83-112. Edited by D. R. Dudley. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972. Explores the influence of Lucan on English literature.
Due, Otto Steen. "An Essay on Lucan." Classica et Mediaevalia XXIII (1962): 68-132.
Overview of Lucan that includes analysis of his techniques and literary reputation.
Lapidge, Michael. "Lucan's Imagery of Cosmic Dissolution." Hermes 107 (1979): 344-70.
Discusses Lucan's debt to Stoic cosmological theory.
Lintott, A. W. "Lucan and the History of the Civil War." The Classical Quarterly XXI, No. 2 (November 1971): 488-505.
Discusses Lucan's view of the origins of the civil war and his interpretation of its events.
Martindale, Charles. "Paradox, Hyperbole, and Literary Novelty in Lucan's De Bello Civili." Institute of Classical Studies (1976): 45-54.
Defends Lucan's literary style, explaining Lucan's choices and the resulting effects.
——. "The Politician Lucan." Greece &...
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