The Poem

The First Triumvirate dissolves after the deaths of Crassus and Julia, who was Caesar’s wife and the daughter of Pompey. After his conquest of Gaul, Caesar advances to the Rubicon, then stops to consider his next move. Public morality in Rome is being corrupted by the wealth acquired from plundering its conquests, and public officials are dishonest. When Caesar decides to march on Rome, news of his decision terrifies the Romans. The senate flees, and Pompey hurries to the Adriatic port of Brindisi. Realizing he has lost the allegiance of Rome, and that crossing the Alps to reach his allies in Spain is impractical, Pompey sends for help from Eastern cities. Although Rome is ready to fall, Caesar decides to seize the area under Pompey and block the seaport controlling the Adriatic, but Pompey abandons Brindisi to Caesar.

Pompey decides to seek help from Sicily and Sardinia, while Caesar marches on Rome. In Rome, Caesar is greeted with silence except from a defiant Metellus, and he loots the treasury. Meanwhile, Pompey finds support from Greece and Asia Minor, so Caesar hurries back to Gaul. There he finds Marseilles pleading neutrality, and Caesar prepares an assault against it. Leaving Gaius Trebonius in charge, Caesar moves on to Spain, where he attacks the Pompeians. At first they successfully resist him, but they finally surrender.

Caesar has less success elsewhere. At Curicta, the Pompeians string underwater cables across the straits and wreck Caesar’s ships. Curio, Caesar’s lieutenant in Sicily, sails to Libya, where in a battle with King Juba, he and his men are massacred. There is now a stalemate. The Roman senators, in exile, meet in Epirus and appoint Pompey dictator.

Caesar hurries to Rome to declare himself dictator before joining his fleet at Brindisi and sailing across the Adriatic to Illyria, where Pompey is encamped. The two armies face each other. Pompey tries to breach Caesar’s defenses under cover of a wood....

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Historical Context

Lucan's World
Lucan set his epic more than a century before his own time. To understand why Lucan should feel so strongly about...

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Literary Style

Epic Features
Lucan composed his epic in Virgil's shadow. But he absorbed and transformed Virgil and the whole epic tradition...

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Compare and Contrast

Roman Empire: The Roman Empire, at its height, stretches from modern Iraq to Scotland. The concept of such a superstate has never lost...

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Topics for Further Study

Compare the rise and personalities of American Populist politicians in the first half of the twentieth century to the Populares of the...

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What Do I Read Next?

Virgil's Aeneid, written between 27-17 B.C., is the essential Latin epic. Like Lucan's Pharsalia, it was unfinished at its...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Ahl, Frederick M., Lucan: An Introduction, Cornell University Press, 1976.

----, "Form Empowered:...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bartsch, Shadi. “Lucan.” In A Companion to Ancient Epic, edited by John Miles Foley. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. An analysis of Pharsalia, including discussion of its contents, language, narrator’s voice, reception, stoicism, and depiction of Vergil.

Clark, John. “The Later Roman Epic.” In A History of Epic Poetry: Post-Virgilian. New York: Haskell House, 1964. Summarizes the epic, book by book, and finds its strength in its exalted style and earnest dedication. Considers Lucan the foremost writer of the Latin literature of decadence.

D’Alessandro Behr, Francesca. Feeling History: Lucan, Stoicism, and the Poetics of...

(The entire section is 279 words.)