The Pharsalia

by Lucan
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 785

Lucan wrote with his already claustrophobic world closing in on him. He wrote as if he could not possibly believe that the conspiracy against Nero would succeed; he was no longer rallying his time, but all time to the cause of libertas. Criticism of Pharsalia has regularly spilled over into criticism of the man who implicated his own mother in the plot against Nero. Political circumstances have set the critical agenda for the Pharsalia even more than changes in literary taste. But can this really be wrong when the Pharsalia is above all, political literature?

Even while Lucan was at work on his epic, there was critical unease about the suitability of his treatment. It was not that he chose to handle a historical narrative but that he did not make the gods the prime movers in events. Virgil's Aeneid had co-opted the Roman gods literally into the Julian clan to which Julius Caesar belonged. He had enshrined in his magnificent poetry their belief that they were descended from Iules, son of Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus and grandson of Jupiter himself. Lucan sidestepped this by replacing divine wills with fate and human will. His contemporary, Petronius, criticized the decision, but his criticism is placed in the mouth of such a sleazy character that the traditional assumption that the criticism is serious may be wrong. Nevertheless, the idea that the Pharsalia was history rather than epic because of its treatment of causation, is repeated again and again in antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Although Lucan's portrait of Julius Caesar is at odds with that of many medieval writers, he was popular with readers. Four hundred manuscripts of his epic survive, including a fragment that represents the only surviving copy of any secular poem made between c. 550 and c. 775 A.D. It was translated into Old Irish and was used by at least one Icelandic saga writer. Lucan was quoted by Aldhem in seventh-century England and in twelfth-century France by Heloise. In the sixteenth century, Christopher Marlowe published a translation of Book I; Shakespeare adapted its opening lines in Julius Caesar; Ben Johnson used a speech from Book VIII in his play Catiline. Lucan's politics found him admirers at the end of the eighteenth century. Ahl wrote that he "codified the political rhetoric of liberty."

The later nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century were not so good for Lucan. Both imperialist and socialist ideologies were against him, as well as the steady retreat of classical studies and the overwhelming position of Virgil, both in the curriculum and in criticism. As Greek and Latin's position in western education slowly contracted, Lucan was no longer a standard author. Lucan's idea of liberty and his ambiguous treatment of the imperial nation state lost its hold in both England and Germany. In Germany, national unity had finally arrived under a German Caesar. To the English speaking world, caught between pax Britannia and manifest destiny, Julius Caesar and Augustus were the leaders of a benign empire, taking chaos by the scuff of the neck. Attacks on Lucan became personal and vicious. His political ideals were irrelevant; his dedication to them hypocritical; he informed on his own mother. His poetry was lost in the politics; though it is fair to say he brought this on himself by producing one of the most intensely and single-mindedly political poems ever written.

It is a measure of the strength of the Virgilian ideal that when Brisset began Lucan's rehabilitation it was by denying he was a republican. It has been the twentieth century's experience of tyranny and the broken bodies of its victims that has turned the critical tide. Lucan's experience has come home. In the last three decades, interest in Lucan has grown, and it has been positive. Johnson's studies of the characters of Erichtho, Cato and Pompey are not only deeply perceptive, (and often devastatingly funny), they are written by a scholar who makes straight for the heart of the Pharsalia.

Lucan's "disgusting exaggeration" is neither disgusting nor exaggeration. We should be horrified, but our horror should spring from our lacerated common humanity, not from broken canons of literature. Bartsch reads the Pharsalia very much as a document for our time. Her quotations from Arendt and from the experiences of the concentration camps are apt, but her own prose often comes between her and her meaning, let alone her audience. Masters on the other hand provides at least the beginning of the commentary on the Pharsalia which it has lacked, the historical background, the sources, the manipulation of history and of the literary tradition, which alone will save the modern reader from flattening Lucan's narrative into mere reportage.

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