The Pharsalia Essay - Critical Essays

Lucan

Critical Evaluation

In Pharsalia, Lucan is more rhetorical than poetic, often epigrammatic, and often invective, although there are passages of real brilliance. Lucan, who completed his education in Athens, was a Stoic, influenced partly by his uncle, Seneca, and partly by his studies under the Stoic philosopher Cornutius in Athens. Lucan also was a republican, and this poem reflects his philosophical views. It was written over the last five years of his life; the first three books were completed only before the last year, and the poem was broken off at the tenth book when Lucan was executed for conspiring against Nero. Evidence within the poem indicates Lucan intended two more books in which Caesar would return to Rome and defeat Scipio and Cato, leaders of the Pompeians; Pompey’s ghost would reappear; and Caesar would be assassinated. Lucan’s views, which included a hatred of the Caesarean dynasty, were affected by the events in those years: his estrangement from Nero, involvement in a plot to assassinate Nero, and final trial.

As Lucan indicates in his opening lines, the theme of the poem is the civil war between Pompey and Caesar. This involved not only fellow citizens but also fratricide between relatives (Caesar and his father-in-law, Pompey) and affected not only Rome but also the Western world. In the early manuscripts, Pharsalia was titled “Bellum civile” (concerning the civil war). Throughout the epic, Lucan introduces passages that reinforce this theme: In book 1, as Caesar approaches Rome, Lucan points out that there is panic similar to that in Thebes when two powerful brothers turned on each other. In book 2, the feud between Sulla and Marius, with its brutal slaughter, is recalled. As the poem progresses, it is clear that Lucan is also lamenting the tragic destruction of the Roman Republic and the demise of liberty.

The theme enables Lucan to indulge his predilection for violent realism and his taste for the macabre to present the horror of civil war. He depicts bizarre incidents in the sea battle off Marseilles, where a body is torn in half, the top half falling into the sea to vainly struggle against drowning, and two fathers fight over a headless body, each claiming it is that of his respective son. In the bloody battle of Pharsalia, brother despoils brother, son mutilates father, and a victorious Caesar is served breakfast in...

(The entire section is 970 words.)