The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

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

(The entire section is 1141 words.)

Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

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

(The entire section is 963 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

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

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

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

(The entire section is 250 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

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

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

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

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(The entire section is 390 words.)


(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 Passion. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007. Examination of Pharsalia focusing on Lucan’s use of apostrophe—the rhetorical device in which the narrator talks directly to his or her characters. Describes the ethical and moral stance that the poet-narrator takes toward his characters and his audience.

Graves, Robert. Introduction to Lucan, “Pharsalia”: Dramatic Episodes of the Civil Wars. London: Cassell, 1961. Argues that this epic is a historical phenomenon anticipating many twentieth century literary genres.

O’Hara, James J. “Postscript: Lucan’s Bellum civile and the Inconsistent Roman Epic.” In Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, and Lucan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Examines contradictory passages in Pharsalia, describing how these inconsistencies shed light on the major problems in Lucan’s epic.

Sullivan, J. P. “The Stoic Opposition? Seneca and Lucan.” In Literature and Politics in the Age of Nero. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Argues that this epic is written from the standpoint of an emotional republican who believes that Caesar and the later heads of the Roman state held power illegally and that power must be restored to the senate.