The Pharsalia has been described by Ahl as "a political act as well as a political poem." Written when Nero's true nature could no longer be denied, it is a harrowing portrait of the disintegration of Rome, civil war, and the triumph of a single will. Lucan's unfinished epic was a subject of criticism even as he wrote it. In Petronius's Satyricon, a bitterly satiric novel written by another victim of Nero, a character complains that it is not a true epic, but a history, because it did not incorporate divine motivation. Even more important to later readings of the poem was the historian Tacitus's negative portrait of the poet in the Annales. From that day to this, Lucan has suffered from Tacitus's portrait and confusion about his approach.
Lucan's ability to paint the terrifying and the unearthly and to produce a pithy quotable line has not endeared him to all critics, but he has never lacked readers. The only copy of a secular poem copied between 550-750 A.D. that survives is a fragment entitled Pharsalia. His partisan portraits of Cato, Brutus, and Marcia made them models for medieval clerics and eighteenth-century revolutionaries. His treatment of the witch Erictho and her necromancy made a fundamental impression on the western mind. Lucan's influence surfaces in the narratives of witch trials as well as in horror literature. Despite Lucan's references to fate, his use of human will as the source of action and events, rather than divine, is more immediately understandable to modern readers. His vision of dismembered bodies and fractured boundaries holds a mirror up to a century that has descended more than once into horror and chaos.
Book One-Five Summary
The unfinished Pharsalia narrates the Roman Civil War's first phase, which ended almost thirty years later in the victory of Caesar's grandnephew Octavius (Augustus), over the forces of Mark Anthony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium. It breaks off with Caesar trapped in Alexandria by the Egyptians.
Lucan begins his epic with themes and images that will run through his work, 'of legality conferred on crime,' images of self-slaughter and self-induced ruin brought on by Rome's own power and her citizens' corruption by wealth and greed. Peace was maintained as long as Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, and Julia, daughter of Caesar and wife of Pompey, lived to hold Caesar and Pompey apart. Their deaths left them unencumbered rivals. Caesar, despite a vision of Rome begging him to turn back, defies the senate and crosses the Rubicon, the river of Italy. He takes Ariminum. Curio comes to urge him to take up arms against Pompey and the Senate. Caeser addresses his troops looking for their support. They are wavering when the senior centurion Laelius speaks, pledging absolute loyalty to Caesar even if it means turning his sword on brother, father, or pregnant wife. They swear their allegiance to Caesar. Fear runs before his army; citizens and senators flee Rome. Portents appear. The senior Etruscan augur sees in the entrails of a sacrificed bull the full horror of the republic's collapse. The astrologer Figulus sees it in the stars. The book ends with a Roman matron filled with the spirit of prophecy running frantically through the streets of Rome prophesying the civil war.
Mothers and wives besiege the altars with prayer. The men prepare for war. An old man who had lived through their horrors recalls the civil war between Marius and Sulla. His picture of the butchery in Rome will be matched by the horrors of the sea fight at Massila (Marseille). Brutus goes to Cato for advice. Cato tells him he intends to join Pompey's side to protect the republic. Marcia, Cato's former wife, arrives from the funeral of her husband, Cato's friend whom she had married at Cato's request to give the man children. Marcia and Cato marry again. Pompey marches to Capua while Caesar comes down the Italian peninsula, driving all before him. Domitius is surrounded in Corfinium, and handed over to Caesar by his own men. Caesar releases him. Domitius hurries to join Pompey. Pompey withdraws to Calabria, and sends his son to rouse the whole Roman world before setting sail for Greece.
(The entire section is 1056 words.)
Book Six-Ten Summary
The armies encamp on neighboring heights. They move, trying to gain advantage. Caesar plans a great entrenchment to hem in Pompey's troops without their knowing it. Pompey realizes his plan and disperses his troops to stretch Caesar's armies. Pompey's forces are well provisioned, but suffering from disease; Caesar's are unable to re-provision because Pompey holds the coast. Pompey attempts to break out. He is nearly successful, but is held at bay by Scaeva, one of Caesar's centurions. Pompey then breaks out at the seacoast. Caesar rushes to fight him, but suffers a defeat. Pompey does not follow up his initial advantage, but as Caesar withdraws Pompey intends to harry his flight. Pompey is urged to return to Rome, but refuses to do so before he can disband his army. Pompey marches towards Thessaly. Lucan recounts the evil things that have originated in Thessaly. The rivals pitch their camps. Sextus, the son of Pompey, urged by fear, decides to consult the senior witch, Erictho. Sextus finds her working on a spell to keep the war at Philippi. The witch is pleased to help and immediately searches for a suitably fresh corpse and forces it to speak, promising safety from any future necromancy. The soldier describes the dead heroes and villains of Roman history mourning or rejoicing over the battle's outcome. He urges the Pompeians to go bravely to death; they will be admitted to Elyssium, the fields of the blessed.
The morning of Pharsalia dawns. Pompey wakes from a dream in which the citizens in Rome acclaimed him. The army urges a speedy engagement and accuses Pompey of hanging back. Cicero (in his one appearance in the Pharsalia), eager to return to the forum, urges Pompey to engage the enemy: "his eloquence gave force to an unsound argument." Pompey has a premonition of the disaster to come. He knows that whichever side wins, horrors and cruelty will follow. The auspices cannot be taken; the bull bolts into the fields and cannot be caught. Caesar, ready for a day of foraging, sees his chance. Caesar urges his army on, telling them the opposing army is full of foreigners; most of the lives they must take are not Roman. Caesar also speaks of his inclination to clemency compared to Pompey and the senate, praying the gods to "give victory to him who does not feel bound to draw the ruthless sword against beaten men, and does not believe that his fellow citizens committed a crime by fighting against him. None of you must smite a foe in the back, and every fugitive must pass as a countryman." Pompey dreads the approach of Caesar's army, and understands his dread as a bad omen. He harangues his troops, urging them to think of Rome, the aged senators, the mothers of families, Romans yet to be born entreating them to secure their freedom. The battle takes place. The slaughter still leaves the world desolate. Liberty was lost...
(The entire section is 1178 words.)