Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, or Lucan (LEW-kuhn), was one of the foremost writers of the Latin Silver Age of literature. He is generally regarded as the most significant author of verse epic after Vergil, with whom he stands in great contrast. His suicide before the age of twenty-six, a result of his involvement in a plot against the emperor Nero, was a great loss to Latin and world literature, for his anti-Caesarian epic Pharsalia represented a new and dramatic departure from traditional epic form and content.{$S[A]Marcus Annaeus Lucanus;Lucan}

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Lucan was born into a rich and well-connected Spanish family that occupied an important position in imperial life. His uncle, Seneca the Younger, was a distinguished philosopher, poet, and statesman. For a time, as tutor and later adviser to the young emperor Nero, Seneca exerted great control over the rule of the Roman Empire. It was likely through the influence of his uncle that Lucan came to Rome at an early age to study and, while a pupil of the noted Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, was introduced to court life, where he became a personal friend of the emperor.

In 60 c.e. Nero raised Lucan to the senatorial rank, a mark of considerable honor. Within a short period of time, on December 5 in either 62 or 63 c.e., Lucan was named quaestor, an important and highly visible office in the Roman government. Generally, quaestorships were granted to men under the age of twenty-five only if they were immediate members of the imperial family; Lucan’s appointment was therefore a signal of favor that indicated the personal intervention of the emperor himself. At about the same time, Lucan was brought into the college of augurs, the priestly body that was consulted for divine guidance before important public decisions. Clearly, the young man from the Spanish provinces had become a court favorite.

It was at this same time, around the year 60 c.e., that Lucan began his serious artistic career; indeed, it may have been his poetic efforts that first attracted him to Nero, who fancied himself a poet and artist. Aside from his masterwork, Pharsalia, Lucan’s many other works are known only by title or by reference, but they included an unfinished tragedy on the legend of Medea, various satires and poems (including ten books known as the Silvae), and numerous other compositions. Among these writings, however, were those which aroused Nero’s anger; one of them, De incendio urbis (of the burning of the city), was a poem about the great fire that destroyed much of Rome in 64 c.e.—a fire for which Nero was, rightly or wrongly, often blamed. The other verse which provoked the imperial ire was the publication (that is, the public reading) of the first three books of Lucan’s epic Pharsalia, whose subject was the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great.

This civil war was a subject of some sensitivity, because its eventual result had been the destruction of the old Roman republic and the establishment of the imperial dynasty of which Nero was the ruling representative. Although he opened his epic with a generous, even fawning, tribute to Nero, Lucan had written a poem that clearly was on the side of the defeated republicans, and it was also clear from these early books of the epic that Lucan regarded Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalia (the battle that would give the poem its best-known title) as one of the greatest disasters to befall Rome.

Nero’s response was to ban Lucan from further publication and from appearing in the Senate or in law courts; he thus effectively stripped Lucan of any public role. This action was taken in 64 c.e. The following year, Lucan joined a conspiracy to assassinate Nero and restore the republic; in fact, he may well have been one of the most prominent of the conspirators, for the historian Suetonius describes him as their “standard-bearer.” The plot, however, was discovered, and those involved were either arrested and executed, or, once exposed, obliged to commit suicide. This was the course chosen by Lucan, who killed himself on April 15, 65 c.e. At the time of his death he was not yet twenty-six years old.

The incomplete epic Pharsalia is one of the greatest works of classical literature, and one of the most controversial. Written during a period of imperial dominance of Roman political life, it celebrates the antique republic that had been destroyed by Julius Caesar and then replaced by his eventual successor Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Pharsalia is an epic that dispenses with the traditional epic conventions, most notably the presence of the divine gods and goddesses as motivating characters in human events. Stylistically, it is an epic that obviously and deliberately flouts the epic tradition of restraint, propriety, and decorum. Pharsalia is therefore one of the most subversive works of classical writing.

After its ironic dedication to Nero, the poem opens with Caesar’s celebrated crossing of the Rubicon River, which began the civil war that brought the final end to the Roman republic. It ends, unfinished, after the defeat of the republican army under Pompey at the battle of Pharsalia and Pompey’s betrayal and death in Egypt. The work is notable for its extensive use of rhetorical devices more often associated with prose than with poetry, as well as its emphasis on the horrors of civil war. Most notably, Pharsalia stands in vivid contrast to Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), for where the latter celebrates Caesar and his accomplishments as bringing peace to the Roman world, Lucan’s epic reveals the imperial dream as the end of a Rome that was once free and now is no more.

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