The Pharsalia

by Lucan

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

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. Pompey would have won a victory had not one of Caesar’s men, Scaeva, rallied his comrades and slaughtered the Pompeians. Scaeva is killed, and Pompey traps Caesar, but Pompey restrains his troops, having scruples against killing his son-in-law.

Caesar now quits this region and leads his army into Thessaly. Pompey is urged by councillors to reoccupy Rome but decides he should pursue Caesar until he has a peace and can disband his army. Despite a witch’s predictions of disaster and ominous portents, Pompey’s men are eager for battle, and Pompey reluctantly assents. The armies clash at Pharsalus with great enthusiasm: one to establish tyranny, the other to resist it. The slaughter is great, and Pompey is defeated.

Caesar surveys the scene and gloats. Pompey rides off without waiting for the final scene. He rides from city to city, greeted by weeping citizens, his fame undimmed by the defeat. He now looks to his former allies among the Eastern princes, focusing on Parthia. His associates insist that he approach Ptolemy, the boy king of Egypt, and Libya instead, so Pompey sails to Egypt. Ptolemy is persuaded by his councillors to murder Pompey and keep the Romans out of their country. Pompey is decoyed ashore, stabbed to death, and decapitated. His trunk is rescued from the ocean by one of his servants, cremated on a pyre, and buried in a mound.

Pompey’s ghost now swoops down for vengeance, first in Cato’s heart and then in the heart of the noble Brutus. Cato assumes the role of protector of Rome, rearming the partisans of liberty and rescuing the survivors of Pharsalia. The dead Pompey sends his son, Sextus, back to Egypt to...

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take orders from Cato. Gnaeus, his other son, in Libya, sets out to rescue his father’s body and ravage Egypt’s sacred pyramids, but he is dissuaded by Cato. The Pompeians are inspired again by Cato to fight tyranny and renew the war. They cross the desert sands of Africa and reach the Oracle of Jupiter Ammon. There they meet emissaries from the Eastern powers who want to consult the Oracle, but Cato proceeds.

In the meantime, Caesar pursues the Pompeian survivors of Pharsalia as far as the Hellespont, where he stops to identify himself as a descendant of Aeneas. He then goes to Alexandria and takes Ptolemy hostage. Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra, seduces Caesar. Pothinus, who had engineered the assassination of Pompey, now conspires the death of Caesar but postpones the deed to keep from endangering Ptolemy. The attack on Caesar fails, and Caesar sets fire to the ships and the city and seizes the Pharos, capturing Pothinus and putting him to death. Cleopatra’s younger sister now takes command of the Egyptian army. She orders the execution of Ptolemy as a sacrifice and the assassination of Caesar, but Caesar successfully beats off the attack.

Historical Context

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Lucan's World Lucan set his epic more than a century before his own time. To understand why Lucan should feel so strongly about events that not even his grandfather could have remembered, it is necessary to understand the circumstances in which the young poet found himself, circumstances which were the direct result of the defeat of the senatorial cause. While the empire at large was reasonably well-governed with peace, prosperity and even justice, the upper classes of Rome and Italy suffered the caprices of immediate absolute rule under a series of men who were not immune to either the temptations of their power or the paranoia attendant upon it. Even allowing for the possibility of a certain amount of sensationalism in our sources for events in Rome between Augustus and Nero, it is clear that Rome was a place of enormous uncertainty and real danger for anyone whose place in society involved them in public life. Disengagement was not always a protection because it could be interpreted as a sign of disapproval and disloyalty.

Senatus Populusque Romanus The tradition of participation in government and public service were vital elements in the formation of the Roman character. The Roman republic was theoretically ruled by the Senate and the People or, in Latin Plebs, but was effectively governed by the Senate, three hundred men chosen for life and drawn in general from the landed aristocracy. The senate's position derived from custom rather than any specific law. Its capable handling of affairs, particularly during the life or death struggles with Carthage and the complex situations Rome found itself in with Greece, meant that the Roman people were willing to leave foreign affairs and problems of finance to the Senate.

In 287 B.C., the Lex Hortensia had recognized the sovereign authority of the Roman people and had enacted that their resolutions plebescita should have the force of law for the whole community. Democracy went no further in Rome, partly because of the expertise that the Senate provided, and partly because the common people were content to leave matters in their hands. Furthermore, the people's representatives, the tribunes, were responsible for bringing in a considerable amount of legislation through the Tribal Assembly and were always at hand to keep an eye on the senate, whose acts they could veto.

The Collapse of a System Lucan never idealized the Roman Republic in its last days. Wealth and widespread slavery, the products of her vast conquests, exacerbated some problems and created others that would have in earlier times been resolved by compromise among a people whose chief characteristic was pragmatism. Much of Roman politics was family-based and a relatively restricted small group of noble families controlled the consulship, the state religion, and the senate. Loyalty to family and a desire to protect and increase its power became, in the absence of a powerful external enemy, many senators' first aim. Among the people at large, the Tribal Assembly came to represent almost exclusively the wishes of city plebs, although, if sufficiently aroused, the generally more conservative small farmers would come in to vote. After the Lex Claudia barred senators from taking part in banking or commerce in 218 B.C., a third class arose. The equites were originally plebs who could afford to serve as mounted soldiers. After senators were barred from trade, they became the entrepreneurial class in Rome, agitating for more influence on government policy. The equites were in a position to benefit from Rome's expansion, and their interests became more and more a pretext for further expansion. Enormous wealth flowing into Rome from its conquests upset the traditional economy based on the small farmer. The wealthy could afford slaves to cultivate their land; the small farmer could not. Grain flowing in from large slave cultivated estates in Sicily and Sardinia exacerbated the problem of a class who had suffered enormous losses of manpower in the fight against Carthage. Furthermore, this wealth introduced not only pleasurable distractions to Rome's ruling class, but the possibility of bribing the urban plebs to ensure the outcome of elections. Into this changing world in which power was becoming more closely linked with privilege than with duty, two factions emerged in the Senate: The Optimates and the Populares.

Optimates and Populares It is wrong to think of the Optimates as a reactionary senatorial party and the Populares as a democratic or reform party; neither was there any real class distinction between them. All were senators; among the most notorious Populares were men of the most ancient families. Whatever their motives and intentions, the real distinction between them is one of method. The Optimates controlled the Senate, and by blocking the policies of other senators, led them to seek support from the Tribal Assembly. Some Populares, like the Grachi brothers, were genuine reformers concerned about the effects of the growing disparity between rich and poor citizens, but many, if not most, sought personal power.

Stoicism Stoicism, particularly as it was adapted by the teacher Panaetius of Rhodes, appealed to many Romans because it provided a philosophical basis for such traditional Roman ideals as virtus (courage), pietas (dutiful love and loyalty), and gravitas (seriousness). In Roman Stoicism, a person seeking wisdom and right living could feel love, loyalty, and friendship. They were expected to concern themselves with humanity and, therefore, were not to exclude themselves from political life. In matters of religion, the Roman Stoics, like Stoics in general, rejected the traditional gods of mythology, but believed that God was reason immanent in the universe; divine reason gave men and woman an ethical impulse. Stoicism could be hard and self-sufficient, but the call to follow reason struck a chord in the Roman character.

Taste and the Age of Nero Morford stressed that Lucan was a product of the age of Nero. Literature had been in the doldrums since the death of Augustus, partly because of the daunting greatness of the works of writers like Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, and partly because of imperial hostility. The first century was an age of scholarship. When we read Lucan on Etruscan forms of divination, on the details of necromancy or on snakes, we must not forget the emperor Claudius's work on Etruscan divination or the elder Pliny's Natural History. When education was primarily literary and rhetorical, the treatment of works like the Aeneid suggested that epics should be more or less overtly learned. Nero intended to launch a cultural revival. His literary ambitions, combined with a petty nature and an autocratic style of government, meant that true literary activity, which requires freedom of the critical as well as the creative facility, was impossible. A revival of the republicanism that was never far buried in Roman hearts and minds was inevitable. Nero simply did not have the character to compete with Rome or with a philosophy for men's allegiance.

Literary Style

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Epic Features Lucan composed his epic in Virgil's shadow. But he absorbed and transformed Virgil and the whole epic tradition back to Homer. He was forced to jettison the traditional gods, not so much by the use of his Stoic education, but because the Virgilian epic and Julio-Claudian propaganda had so closely associated the traditional pantheon with Caesar. His choice and development of the witch Erictho and of the image of Anateus are good examples of his subversion of the Virgilian epic.

Point of View It is important to distinguish between Lucan and his narrator. Lucan the poet depicts situations and characters so that we look at them one way, while the narrator insists we look at them in another. It is an interesting, if pointless question to ask how the point of view would have changed if the conspiracy against Nero had succeeded.

Setting The action of Pharsalia sweeps back and forth across the Roman world. The choice of setting was dictated largely by history, but the specific treatment of places is atmospheric, pulled between the traditional associations of wild places and city. City equals family and society. Wilderness is danger and horror, the result of the breakdown of society and family.

Imagery and Symbolism The leading images of the Pharsalia are those of shattered boundaries and dismembered bodies. The horrific treatment of men's bodies forces the reader to place both sides before the bar of common humanity. Civil war must destroy even what the republican cause hopes to save. Persistent images of disintegration are a symbol of the violent disintegration of the Roman state and the bonds between friends, kinsmen, and brothers. This is buttressed by the repeated reference to friends and kinsmen, seeing each other across the battle lines.

Related to the image of broken bodies is the image of the broken boundary. Under this category is the crossing of the Rubicon and the deaths of Crassus and Julia who had at the same time joined Pompey and Caesar and kept them from confrontation. Lucan places Crassus and Julia in a continuum with two emotionally potent episodes in Roman history: Romulus's murder of his brother for defiantly jumping over the lines of Rome's unbuilt walls and the Sabine women's throwing themselves between the opposing forces of their husbands and fathers. The first preyed on the Roman mind with a sense of fratricidal bloodguilt. The second was a bracing example of woman's virtus in the service of duty born of love. Cato in Book II pulls together this imagery when he wishes that he could stand between both armies and intercept every blow.

The battle between Curio and Iuba is described in terms of gladiatorial combat. Lucan's focus on the gladiatorial combat hinges on the original function of these combats as funeral games and sacrifices to the dead. Curio's death is described as an offering to the dead of Carthage.

Lucan's landscapes and their symbolism are firmly within the traditional Latin literature. Fear of the wild, often expressed in terms of forests and mountains, seems to have been embedded in the Roman psyche. Cities represent the natural law of humanity, family, and social cohesion. The wilderness is a place of war, of the breakdown of human society, even on the most basic level of the family.

Digressions Lucan often inserts apparently extraneous descriptive or narrative passages in the Pharsalia. These digressions draw on a well-developed practice in public speaking and are paralleled in the epics of Lucan's contemporaries, Statius and Silius. Lucan's intensity as he tells his main story leaves little space for the delight and technical virtuosity that audiences expected. Lucan's delight and technical virtuosity are placed almost entirely in his digressions and allow his audience to regroup emotionally. Despite their apparent lack of justification in the work as a whole, internally, they are carefully composed. They had to display a thorough knowledge both of their subjects and of their traditional literary treatment. Stylistically, they are dramatic and concrete with neatly turned phasing and pointed moral or philosophical reflection.

The digressions are in fact far more integrated into the narrative proper than is often admitted. The birds-eye view of Brundisium begins with its foundation as a refuge for peaceloving fugitives. The focus narrows line by line from Italy to its extreme southeast corner, to the city itself, the hills behind, the harbour, and to the ships at anchor before opening out again to the sea. The movement of vision recapitulates Pompey's flight through Italy to the refuge of Brundisium and foresees his flight overseas. The description creates not only a sense of place, but more importantly draws the narrative movement into ironic focus.

Rhetoric Quintillian called Lucan, grandson of the greatest teacher of public speaking in Rome, a better model for a public speaker than for a poet. His poem exploits all the tools of rhetoric, not only in the formal speeches, but also throughout the Pharsalia. Rhetoric has a bad connotation for many people, although like all tools, it is morally neutral. Rhetoric is simply the means by which a speaker or writer, but usually a speaker in Rome, can explain a position or idea, and/or convince an audience to adopt a particular attitude towards what has been explained. The duty of the orator or, indeed, of any writer was to teach, to move, and to entertain. The writer must assemble materials, inventio, carefully organize it, dispositio, and use language to its best advantage, elocutio. He must carefully plan out the introduction and development of his themes, divisio, reduce them to apt and striking comments, short, often ironic, but always didactic, sententiae. Finally, he must present his facts in a particular light, or color, so that his audience will at least experience them from his point of view.

Compare and Contrast

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Roman Empire: The Roman Empire, at its height, stretches from modern Iraq to Scotland. The concept of such a superstate has never lost its hold of the western imagination; the modern European union could be described as a subconscious attempt to recreate a lost ideal.

Modern Day: Latin imperial culture changed the linguistic and cultural face of Europe, providing a bedrock for the development of western culture, whatever way individual societies built on it. Today, former colonial peoples in Africa and the Indian sub-continent have embraced much of the literary and cultural heritage of the former imperial powers and have adapted and transmuted it even as Europeans earlier treated the culture bequeathed them by the Roman empire.

Roman World: Lucan's world is dominated by the figure of an absolute ruler, whose actions can be curbed only by his own moral sense or assassination. In the twentieth century, nations as diverse as Haiti, Germany, and Cambodia have experienced the same terrifying situation.

Modern Day: Lucan placed one of the most frightening speeches ever written in the mouth of Caesar's senior centurion. In it, he pledges that he will forget all ties of affection and even common humanity to follow Caesar's orders. There is a chillingly prophetic quality to Lucan's lines. They catch the attitude that made the most vicious regimes of the last century possible.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

----, "Form Empowered: Lucan's Pharsalia," in Roman Epic, Routledge, 1993, pp. 125-142.

Bartsch, Shadi, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan's Pharsalia, Harvard University Press, 1998.

Bowersock, G. W., Fiction as History: Nero to Julian, University of California Press, 1994.

Boyle, A. J., Roman Epic, Routledge, 1993.

Fornara, Charles William, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome, University of California Press, 1983.

Gillespie, Stuart, The Poets on the Classics: An Anthology, Routledge, 1988.

Gotoff, Harold C., Cicero’s Caesarian Speeches: A Stylistic Commentary, North Carolina University Press, 1993.

Johnson, W. R., Momentary Monsters: Lucan and his Heroes, Cornell University Press, 1987.

Kaster, Robert Andrew, “Servius and Idonei Auctores,’’ in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 99, 1978, pp. 181–209.

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus), Lucan: The Civil War (Pharsalia), translated by J. D. Duff, Harvard University Press, reprint, Harvard University Press, 1988.

Masters, Jamie, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Morford, M. P. O., The Poet Lucan Studies in the Rhetorical Epic, Bristol Classical Press, 1996.

Reynolds, L. D., Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics, reprinted with corrections, Clarendon Press, 1986.

Sanford, Eva Mathews, “Lucan and his Roman Critics,” in Classical Philology, Vol. 26, 1931, 233–57.

Scullard, H. H., From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68, 3d ed., Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1970.

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, translated by Michael Grant, revised edition, Penguin Books, 1996.

Tarrant, R. J., “Lucan,” in Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics, pp. 215–218.

Further Study Ahl, Frederick, "Form Empowered: Lucan's Pharsalia," in Roman Epic, Routledge, 1993, pp. 125-142. Perhaps the best short critical analysis of the Pharsalia available. Ahl ends with a powerful overview of Lucan's place as the poet of libertas.

Boyle, A. J., Roman Epic, Routledge, 1993. An-up-to-date survey of the Latin epic from its beginning to the Latin epics of the Renaissance. A specialist in a particular author or period writes each chapter. The articles are scholarly without being either dry or difficult.

Gotoff, Harold C., Cicero's Caesarian Speeches: A Stylistic Commentary, University of North Carolina Press, 1993. The introduction to the Latin texts of the speeches is useful even to those who are not familiar with Latin. It investigates the nuances of discourse and the interplay of events and personalities during the civil war and Caesar's subsequent return to Rome.


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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.


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