(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Lucan (LEW-kan) was the grandson of Seneca the Elder and the nephew of the Stoic philosopher and tragedian Seneca the Younger. He was educated in Rome. His poetic talent was recognized early by the emperor Nero, who honored him by making him a quaestor at an early age. However, this patronage ended when Nero, who also considered himself a poet, became jealous of Lucan’s poetic skill. Lucan joined the Pisonian conspiracy, which plotted to overthrow Nero. When the plot was discovered, Nero compelled Lucan to commit suicide.

Lucan’s only surviving work is the Bellum Civile (n.d.; The Civil Wars, 1914). This epic poem narrates the civil wars beginning with Julius Caesar’s march across the Rubicon and concluding with his stay in Alexandria (49-48 c.e.). This epic was left incomplete when Lucan committed suicide. Romans in the first century c.e. criticized Lucan’s poem because it did not contain standard epic conventions such as an epic hero or the gods. His style was judged more rhetorical than poetic.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Although later Roman epic poets turned to Vergil for their inspiration, Lucan was popular in the Middle Ages and among the Romantic poets.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Thirteen of Lucan’s lost works were known to Vacca, one of his major biographers, living in the sixth century. Vacca implied that these works were still extant; and several of them were confirmed by Suetonius, another biographer. Vacca is clear that the thirteen are minor works compared with the epic on the civil war, Pharsalia, but feels that some, at least, are valuable. The items on Vacca’s list include the Iliacon from the Trojan cycle; the Laudes Neronis; the Orpheus; De incendio urbis, a description of the great fire which nearly destroyed Rome; Saturnalia, on the gaities of December; ten books of miscellaneous Silvae; the unfinished tragedy of Medea; a series of letters called Epistulae ex Campania (which, if they had survived, would surely have proved to be a fascinating addition to our specimens of ancient letter writing); as well as speeches for and against Octavius Sagitta. The latter suggest that (in 58 c.e.) Lucan, perhaps acting on the detective instinct, seized upon one of the most exciting murder trials of the day as material for two clever rhetorical showpieces.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Lucan’s poetry covered a great variety of genres, although only his incomplete epic, the Pharsalia, is extant. Based on the titles, the subjects of a number of lost works range from tragedy to satire to occasional verse. The bulk of Lucan’s poetry, including the ten books of the Pharsalia, was probably produced in about five years, beginning in 60 c.e. In the light of this information, his production can only be described as prodigious. The output is all the more remarkable when one considers that Lucan composed much of his poetry while he was involved in a political career. Most poets of antiquity who were also politicians postponed their poetic endeavors until they had withdrawn or retired from state business.

Lucan, then, enjoyed neither the leisure time of the retired senator nor the professional poet’s singleness of purpose. Vergil was able to spend eleven years of his mature creative life working almost exclusively on the Aeneid, and the Thebais occupied Statius for twelve years, but Lucan, still in his early twenties, worked on the Pharsalia for no more than five years and possibly less than three. While he worked, he held an augurate and a quaestorship and joined a conspiracy to kill the emperor Nero.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

When it is remembered that the aim in academic rhetoric was to appear clever and striking at all costs, the central characteristic of Lucan’s epic is at once grasped. The dominant note is one of display. The object is not to be natural but above all to be piquant and impressive. The parade of erudition which leads to catalogs and digressions employs Lucan’s rhetorical training. The realistic detail is calculated to cause a shudder; the subtlety of argument makes a debating speech cogent; the hyperbole arrests attention; points, epigrams, and antitheses produce memorable phrases.

Realism in Lucan is morbid and grotesque. Too often it is paired with the desire to terrify the audience by dwelling on the horrible. Hence he enjoys describing tortures, the agonies of the wounded, the repulsive ghoulishness of a witch, and the revolting aspects of cremation. When realism is strained to the breaking point, it becomes unreal.

Despite such overemphasis on gory realism and hyperbole, Lucan’s rhetoric is often brilliant, expressing his thought in brief, pointed form, often assisted by antithesis. These economical lines and phrases epigrammatically summarize a character, a situation, or—in the older meaning of sententia—a general truth.

Lucan’s mannerisms and willful faults can blind his audience to his merits. It is true that he is rhetorical and sensational, yet when all his inaccuracies, distortions, and digressions have been held against him, his great passages prove that in spite of artificiality he can be fiery and irresistible.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Ahl, Frederick. “Form Empowered: Lucan’s Pharsalia.” In Roman Epic, edited by A. J. Boyle. London: Routledge, 1993. Argues that Lucan’s epic on the Roman Civil War was itself an internal struggle in which he sought to impose his own meaning on history, thus displacing that of Julius Caesar and his successor Augustus.

Bartsch, Shadi. Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s “Civil War.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Bartsch approaches Lucan’s epic as a paradoxical work, a combination of poetry and history where the historical “facts” are less important than the underlying “meanings” which Lucan imposes on them.

Braund, S. H. Introduction to Civil War, by Lucan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Braud’s solid, meticulous translation is put into literary and historical context through his introduction, which reviews both the subject matter and style of the work and its altering reputation over the centuries.

Henderson, John. Fighting for Rome: Poets and Caesars, History and Civil War. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. In a fashion similar to Ahl and Bartsch, Henderson looks at Lucan’s Civil War as an attempt to rewrite history in terms of explaining its meaning if not changing its course. An interesting approach to what Lucan was attempting to do with his poetry and how successful he was in the task....

(The entire section is 415 words.)