In Pharsalia, Lucan is more rhetorical than poetic, often epigrammatic, and often invective, although there are passages of real brilliance. Lucan, who completed his education in Athens, was a Stoic, influenced partly by his uncle, Seneca, and partly by his studies under the Stoic philosopher Cornutius in Athens. Lucan also was a republican, and this poem reflects his philosophical views. It was written over the last five years of his life; the first three books were completed only before the last year, and the poem was broken off at the tenth book when Lucan was executed for conspiring against Nero. Evidence within the poem indicates Lucan intended two more books in which Caesar would return to Rome and defeat Scipio and Cato, leaders of the Pompeians; Pompey’s ghost would reappear; and Caesar would be assassinated. Lucan’s views, which included a hatred of the Caesarean dynasty, were affected by the events in those years: his estrangement from Nero, involvement in a plot to assassinate Nero, and final trial.
As Lucan indicates in his opening lines, the theme of the poem is the civil war between Pompey and Caesar. This involved not only fellow citizens but also fratricide between relatives (Caesar and his father-in-law, Pompey) and affected not only Rome but also the Western world. In the early manuscripts, Pharsalia was titled “Bellum civile” (concerning the civil war). Throughout the epic, Lucan introduces passages that reinforce this theme: In book 1, as Caesar approaches Rome, Lucan points out that there is panic similar to that in Thebes when two powerful brothers turned on each other. In book 2, the feud between Sulla and Marius, with its brutal slaughter, is recalled. As the poem progresses, it is clear that Lucan is also lamenting the tragic destruction of the Roman Republic and the demise of liberty.
The theme enables Lucan to indulge his predilection for violent realism and his taste for the macabre to present the horror of civil war. He depicts bizarre incidents in the sea battle off Marseilles, where a body is torn in half, the top half falling into the sea to vainly struggle against drowning, and two fathers fight over a headless body, each claiming it is that of his respective son. In the bloody battle of Pharsalia, brother despoils brother, son mutilates father, and a victorious Caesar is served breakfast in a place where he can survey the mounds of corpses settling into corruption and the streams running red. Packs of wild animals and huge flocks of birds feast on the corpses, dropping fragments of gore and flesh as they take flight after gorging themselves.
Although the poem is a lament for the losses of the civil war, the greatest casualty, from Lucan’s point of view, was the destruction of the Republic, and with it, republican liberty, at the hands of the Caesarian dynasty. Liberty is the key image, and republican Cato, the third and last of the major characters, is the nearest to being the hero of the poem. Lucan set out to offset or undercut Vergil’s glorification of the founders of Rome, the reputed ancestors of the Caesars. In so doing, he embarks upon innovations in epic poetry, the most obvious being discarding the role of gods and goddesses, setting a precedent for a new fusion of history and poetry, mingling both pleasing and revolting details.
There is a progression of events in which first Pompey, then Caesar, and finally Cato dominate. Caesar is depicted as a ferocious and treacherous ogre, tireless and ruthless, the antihero who destroyed the republic. One cannot help but relate Lucan’s...
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hatred of Caesar to his own feud with Nero, Caesar’s descendant and successor. Pompey is identified with the republican cause, but his motives and intentions are suspect, and he is unable, sometimes reluctant, to defend himself or his cause against an energetic and ruthless Caesar. He is an eminently respectable person, but not an engaging one. He is neither a successful general nor a successful leader, and he has outlived his reputation, although he continues to have a large following. Cato is the moral hero, a superhuman figure near to the Stoic ideal of a perfect man. He is the only one of the protagonists to emerge from the catastrophic civil war with his luster undimmed, the embodiment of liberty. Although the unfinished epic ends with a victorious Caesar in Alexandria, allied to Cleopatra, his life is still in danger because of a plot for his assassination. Hints within the poem indicate that Cato will emerge at the end as the hero, with his suicide on behalf of the republican cause, and that Caesar will be assassinated in the senate.
Lucan has been described as the classic exponent of the Stoicism of the age of Nero, showing confrontations between the forces of destiny and fortunes and individuals with strong moral virtues. When omens appear, as when Caesar crosses the Rubicon, and before the battle at Pharsalia; when allies want to consult the Delphic Oracle about the future of Rome; when Sextus Pompey disgraces his father by insisting on consulting the witch Erichtho—the noble characters defy that future.
Lucan’s treatment of some women characters—the vignettes of Marcia, Cato’s wife, and Cornelia, wife of Pompey—may reflect the strong affection between Lucan and his wife, Polla Argentaria. After Lucan’s death, his widow celebrated his birthday every year with a gathering of his friends. According to tradition, she also assisted him in the writing of Pharsalia.
Poet Robert Graves labeled Lucan the “father” of the costume film. Pharsalia, he said, “consists of carefully chosen, cunningly varied, brutally sensational scenes, linked by . . . historical probability and alternated with soft interludes in which deathless courage, supreme self-sacrifice, memorable piety, Stoic virtue, and wifely devotion” appeal to popular taste.