(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Lucan 39-65

(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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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 Work

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

*Bellum Civile [Civil War] (epic poem) c. 61-65

* Also known as the Pharsalia.

Principal English Translations

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Lucan's "Civil War" [translated by P. F. Widdows] 1988

Civil War [translated by S. H. Braund] 1992

Pharsalia [translated by Jane Wilson Joyce] 1993

E. E. Sikes (essay date 1923)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6418 words.)

Eva Matthews Sanford (essay date 1933)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2703 words.)

Berthe M. Marti (essay date 1945)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9713 words.)

Richard T. Bruère (essay date 1950)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12490 words.)

Lynette Thompson (essay date 1964)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4235 words.)

Frederick M. Ahl (essay date 1976)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11531 words.)

Elaine Fantham (essay date 1985)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6803 words.)

W. R. Johnson (essay date 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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

(The entire section is 11078 words.)

P. F. Widdows (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6206 words.)

Jane Wilson Joyce (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6520 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 290 words.)