The Pharsalia

by Lucan

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Achillas The Egyptian official who kills Pompey on the order of the Pharaoh Ptolemy and his council. He is later executed by the Egyptian princess Arsinoe.

Arruns The oldest of the Etruscan seers, he is called to Rome in Book I to perform the traditional rites of divination. When he inspects the internal organs of the bull sacrificed to the gods, he discovers that "What we fear is unspeakable, but worse will follow."

Brutus A Roman senator and follower of Stoicism. He is a descendant of Brutus the first Consul who drove the tyrant king Tarquin Superbus out of Rome and founded the Republic. At first, he intends to join neither side to avoid the guilt of civil war and to free himself to deal with the winner, whether Pompey or Caesar, until Cato convinces him to join Pompey's camp. He sets himself of being the enemy. Brutus was with Cassius, the leader of the group that assassinated Caesar in 44 B.C.

Caesar The 'antihero' of Pharsalia, a Roman general and politician from an ancient Roman clan who claim descent from Iules, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas and the grandson of the goddess Venus. Caesar is fortune's man, but he also makes the most of fortune. He grabs every advantage with both hands. When fortune wavers, he makes his own. He was a master of military engineering. His personal bravery and consideration for his men made him popular with the men in the ranks. The historical Caesar was noted for his clemency, but Lucan plays this down at every turn.

Cato The moral center—if not the hero—of the Pharsalia, Cato has been traditionally seen as the embodiment of Stoic ideals in the service of the Roman state, although Lucan, according to some critics, seriously undercuts his fulfillment of these ideals. Johnson quotes a Stoic text that suggests that Cato is a caricature of every virtue except the one that makes the others palatable: humility. Cato joins Pompey to keep before him the ideals of the Roman republic and the rule of law, so that if he wins he will not think he has won Rome for himself. Ahl describes Cato as more a symbol than a hero, "urging men to fight for themselves, not for someone, or even something, else." Ahl goes on to note some strikingly Christian echoes in his portrait, notably his desire to be a scapegoat, to 'devote' himself to the gods in self-sacrifice to save the Roman people and their institutions: "This blood redeem the people, this death pay the penalty of whatever Rome's corruption deserves." Unfortunately this is couched in terms of his being the only person who cares about the republic. There is also something jarring about his image of himself as a father mourning his lost son in reference to the Republic; surely the more acceptable image would have been of the son mourning the father.

Cicero Conspicuous by his almost complete absence from the poem, he was the greatest orator and one of the most important politicians in Rome for nearly forty years. Never a military man, he worked for most of his political life to bring about an equitable consensus among all good citizens, consensus omnium bonorum. Cicero was not present at the battle, but Lucan gives him a speech which in context drips with irony to shame Pompey into battle. He insists that Pompey, always the favorite of fortune, fighting in a cause the gods will favor, make use of the luck that has always been his.

Cleopatra The sister and queen of the young Ptolemy,...

(This entire section contains 2087 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

king of Egypt. She throws her lot in with Caesar, and distracts him from his duties in pursuing war. For Lucan, civil war appears to be preferable to dallying with Cleopatra.

Cornelia The widow of Crassus's son who died at Carrhae with his father, massacred by the Parthians (the inhabitants of modern Iran). She married Pompey after the death of his wife Julia. The reaction of the people of Lesbos when she leaves the island with her husband presents a picture of a truly lovable woman. She believes herself to be a source of her husband's bad luck.

Lucius Ahenobarbus Domitius Lucius Ahenobarbus Domitius is an ancestor of Nero. Lucan treats him with some respect, not because he wishes to flatter Nero, but because he was the one major republican to actually die in battle at Pharsalia.

Erictho The chief Thracian witch who is more than happy to oblige to contact the god at Delphi. She is the most notorious of the famous Thracian witches; in fact, she has gone beyond their traditional witchcraft to invent spells of her own. In many ways, she is the female equivalent of Caesar.

Figulus An astrologer whose readings of the stars confirms the terrible, if enigmatic, prophecies of Arruns. Peace will only bring the endless loss of freedom. He urges the Romans not to pray for an end of the bloodshed because when it ends, their freedom will too.

Crassus With Pompey and Caesar, Crassus dominated Roman politics until he and his son, Cornelia's first husband, were slaughtered along with their legions in an attempt to conquer the Parthians, the inhabitants of what is now Iran.

Curio One of the tribunes of the people. These were officials whose duty it was to look after the rights of ordinary citizens. Once a defender of law and liberty, he urges Caesar to defy the Senate and fight his fellow countrymen. He is, for Lucan, even viler than Caesar. Caesar bought his country's liberty, but Curio sold it. He is a potent symbol of Roman strengths and talents diverted from the good of the commonwealth to personal aggrandizement. His death is described in terms of a sacrifice to the unquiet shades of Carthage.

Deiotarius A client king, ruler under Roman patronage of part of Asia minor, he is a loyal friend to Pompey and the republican cause. Disguised as a beggar, he is sent by Pompey in the aftermath of the battle of Pharsalia on a secret mission to the king of the Parthians in modern Iran.

Gnaeus Pompeius Pompey's eldest son. His father sends him to raise soldiers and allies all over the Roman world.

Iuba The king of Libya, who destroys the army of Curio. He is an image of the timeless enmity between Rome and Carthage.

Julia The daughter and only child of Caesar and the wife of Pompey. She was the child of his beloved first wife Cornelia, who died young. When the civil war begins, she is dead, and Pompey is married to another Cornelia, the widow of Crassus' son who died with his father fighting the Persians. At the beginning of Book III, she appears in the guise of a fury (a spirit who punishes kin murder) in a dream to Pompey to prophesy his death and the carnage of the civil war. She resents Pompey's quick remarriage, and tells him that in battle she will appear to him as a constant reminder that the war is, as Lucan wrote at the beginning of Pharsalia, not merely between fellow countrymen, but kinsmen.

Laelius The senior centurion of Caesar's army, his speech in Book I convinces the army to follow Caesar into civil war. Laelius's attitude of unwavering loyalty to Caesar rather than to his country or even his family represents a disastrous change in the late Roman republic. Soldiers' loyalty to a charismatic patron commander rather than to Rome fueled the rise of dictator warlords like Sulla and Marius in Pompey and Caesar's youth, as well as Pompey and Caesar themselves. In Lucan's childhood, the continuing loyalty of the legions to Caesar's family had frustrated an attempt to restore the republic after the murder of the Emperor Caligula. Their preference for the rule of one man rather than the Senate continued after the death of Nero.

LagusSee Ptolemy.

Publius Cornelius Lentulus Publius Cornelius Lentulus is one of the consuls for 49 B.C. He convened the senate at Epirus and commanded the left wing of the republican forces at Pharsalia. In Book VIII, he takes the lead in quashing the idea that the Parthians should be called into the war.

MagnusSee Pompey.

Marcia Cato's wife and the mother of his three children. Cato divorced her so that his childless friend Hortensius could marry her and father a family. In Book II, Hortensius has just died. Marcia comes to Cato from Hortensius' funeral and asks him to marry her again so she can be with him in his struggle for Rome and die his wife. Some commentators see Marcia as a symbol of Rome.

Marius Roman general, dictator, and husband of Caesar's aunt. He was the opponent of Sulla.

Metellus The tribune of the people who attempts to stop Caesar from breaking into the public treasury to pay his soldiers. Lucan undercuts his stand by observing that it was only his love of money that made him incapable of fear.

Old Roman Man In Book II, an old man recounts the sorrows and horrors of the civil war and proscriptions in the time of Sulla. He is the counterpart of the matron inspired with prophecy in Book I. His description of the murder, mutilation, and inhumane treatment of the dead will be paralleled in every battle of the civil war.

Pompey Pompey (also known as Magnus) is a successful general and politician who has managed to almost live down his connection with the vicious dictator Sulla. There sometimes appears to be two Pompeys. The first is a man as bloodstained and hungry for power as Caesar. The second is the leader of the fight for libertas, not the perfect hero, but as Cato says of him, good in terms of his evil times. Pompey is a man who needs love and admiration. His actions are reactions to the demands others place upon him, of others' perceptions of him. His love for his wife ought to be admirable, but like everything he does in the poem, somehow annoys.

Porthinus The chamberlain of the young Egyptian king and the power behind the throne. He suggests the murder of Pompey and attempts to kill both Caesar and Cleopatra in the palace at Alexandria. He argues: "If a man would be righteous, let him depart from a court. Virtue is incompatible with absolute power. He who is ashamed of cruelty must always fear it." He is executed by Caesar.

Ptolomy Ptolemy, also known as Lagus, is the young king of Egypt and brother of Cleopatra. Some writers see in him at least a partial portrait of Nero. The variant name is derived from his ancestor, the first Macedonian king of Egypt.

Roman Matron Book I ends with a series of three prophecies of war. The first two are made by men trained in the reading of the future, Arruns in the Etruscan manner observing the internal organs of sacrificed animals, and Figulus, an astrologer. The final and most clear and violent prophecy is spoken by a Roman matron who is possessed by Apollo, the god of prophecy. While the others are professionals who have been asked to read the signs, her words represent the direct intervention of the divine in human affairs. As a matron (the mother of a family), Apollo's choice of her to be his mouthpiece is particularly poignant. Not only will she naturally fear for the men of her two families, but a defining point in early Roman history was the intervention of the Sabine women to end a battle between their Roman husbands and Sabine fathers and brothers.

Scaeva A Roman centurion, the paramount example of virtus perverted. He single-handedly holds off Pompey's army while Caesar brings up reinforcements. Caesar sees Scaeva in the last lines of the Pharsalia. It has often been assumed that this must be a vision, but Masters, in his argument that the poem as we have it is complete, although not thoroughly revised, points out that the historical Scaeva survived his much exaggerated wounds at Dyrrachium.

Pompeius Sextus The younger of Pompey's two sons. He decides out of fear to consult Erichtho. It has been suggested that he is meant as a portrait of Nero.

Sulla The first of the Roman dictators in the modern sense of the word as opposed to the traditional Roman sense of a man given special constitutional powers for a limited period in times of national crisis. His rule was infamous for massacres and wave after wave of political murders.




Critical Essays