(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."
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.
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.
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."