(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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 history—but in the treatment of his theme without the conventional introduction of the gods. The way in which Lucan introduced mythology as an appendix to geography only served to measure his contempt for it. When he described a region which had a legend, he told the legend with the proviso that it was not true. For Lucan, the strongest motive for relating a legend was that it was an incredible explanation of facts for which no credible explanation was forthcoming. Aware of the intrinsic greatness of the figures in a colossal struggle, Lucan relied for his effects more on history than on romance. In his theme, therefore, he broke away from Vergilian precedent and for legendary glamour substituted interest in a human conflict of a comparatively recent time.


Pharsalia is the only work by Lucan extant, and only ten books survive. This epic treats the war between Caesar and Pompey that erupted in 49 b.c.e. The title Pharsalia is borrowed from book 9, verse 985 of the poem. It consists of more than eight thousand hexameters but still does not complete the poet’s design; the tenth book, about 150 lines shorter than the next shortest, ends abruptly, leaving Caesar at war in Egypt.

Modern critics have tended to condemn Lucan as tasteless and uninspired, and his Pharsalia is frequently (as has been said about John Milton’s Paradise Lost of 1667) more talked about than read. In the Middle Ages, however, few classical authors were more widely read or praised than Lucan. In eighteenth century England, the Pharsalia not only was popular but also was considered to be the work of a poet even greater than Vergil. Lucan must be given credit for picturesque and striking language, but above all for his attempt to reinfuse a somewhat wilted Roman literature with the spirit of life. As Vergil had correctly seen, historical themes were not well suited to epic treatment. Nevertheless, Lucan was right in perceiving that Roman literature could not go on forever dealing with mythological fantasy, with ancient never-never lands and legendary history. If literature was to have any real meaning, it had to bring itself back to reality.

Lucan’s attempt to make philosophy and science serve as the divine and mythological machinery had once served, however, is less than successful. The philosophical portions of the poem seem pompous, forced, and insincere, and require entirely too much argument. The scientific and pseudoscientific episodes are too long and detailed and clog the narrative. Lucan also failed to notice that if he was to write about real men and real history, he must write about them in “real” language and not in the high-flown, artificial style of the rhetorical schools.

The conflict between character and circumstance, each always victorious on its own ground, is the subject which gives interest and dignity to the Pharsalia. The poem opens with a delay of the action as Lucan describes the emperor Nero as a god and addresses him as sufficient inspiration for a poet. Lucan anticipates Nero’s apotheosis and acknowledges that civil war was not a heavy price to pay for the blessings of Nero’s reign. This opening probably owes something to Seneca, and certainly the poet is not at first so violently opposed to Caesar as he later becomes. Lucan is able to recognize that the war was a result of Pompey’s inability to endure an equal and Caesar’s inability to endure a master. It is a solitary gleam of insight. Referring to Pompey’s lack of recent battle experience, Lucan unduly stresses his advanced age. In his fifty-seventh year, he was only four years older than his opponent, and, as Lucan more than once reminds his readers, had become Caesar’s son-in-law by marrying Julia, whose death made the breach between them more probable. The poet, although sincerely embracing Pompey’s cause, perceives him as a man overconfident because of previous battles and too trusting in the power of his name. The contrasting figure of Caesar is drawn forcefully although not sympathetically. He is a character who relies much on the sword and who enjoys creating havoc.

The strict narrative begins with Caesar’s passage across the Alps, bringing his big plans to the small river Rubicon. (The adjectival antithesis is Lucan’s.) Caesar is confronted with the majestic image of his native country protesting against further advance. The Rubicon is crossed; Arminium is taken; Caesar is met by his supporters. A summons for troops from Gaul presents an opportunity for digressions on Gallic tribes, tides, and Druids; then, a description of panic in Rome at Caesar’s approach leads to the introduction of omens and expiatory rites. The book ends gloomily amid presages of disaster. Lucan, while he removes from his historical epic the conventional gods of epic poetry, puts in their place the supernatural, represented here by the symbolic figure of Roma, by portents, and by the prophecy of both an astrologer and a...

(The entire section is 2641 words.)