The Pharsalia

by Lucan

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LibertasLibertas for a Roman citizen meant a web of rights and obligations. Particularly important to the Roman sense of self was the freedom, theoretically, to have a voice in shaping Roman law and policy. They acknowledged only the law and the lawfully constituted magistrates whose power derived from their will. It is easy to dismiss libertas, particularly in the late republic, as merely aristocratic privilege. From the Pharsalia, it is clear that Lucan is aware of the shortcomings of libertas (1.158-82).

Lucan's libertas may appear limited or naive to some, but it has touched a chord with every period to which the liberty of the individual to live a considered and self-controlled life in an orderly and humane society has been recognized as a supreme good. It is unfair to speak of his concept of libertas as being restricted to one class. Lucan displays the imaginative sympathy to recognize the nobility and virtus (courage) of anyone who yearned for the right and the honorable. He carefully draws attention to the Massilians who have left the Romans behind in the practice of their own virtues. They emerge, as no Roman does, clothed in the qualities of the early republic. They are resolute, true to their friends, desiring only to behave with piety towards gods and men.

Suicide and Fratricide Lucan begins the Pharsalia by reminding his audience that the Roman civil war is worse than civil, it is fratricidal. Pompey and Caesar were, as he repeats at every turn, son-in-law and father-in-law, kin against kin. Rome turns its sword upon itself. The speech of the Centurion Laelius is chilling not only for the fanaticism it places in the service of an amoral leader, but also for the complete breakdown of the social contract and common humanity. Laelius will turn his sword against the gods, his father, his brother, even his pregnant wife out of loyalty to Caesar. He has lost the sense of the wounds each such blow would inflict upon him. This sort of war involves all participants in guilt; no man's hands, however righteous his cause, are free from the blood of his brother, his fellow citizen.

Lucan never allows his readers to forget the suicidal nature of the conflict. Even the grammatical structure of Lucan's sentences serves to carry the theme. Again and again the logical object of a sentence is made the grammatical subject as in 4.561-2 "their breasts dashed against the steel, and their throats struck the hand." Lucan uses this because it is a profound expression of the paradox of civil war, where every blow struck wounds the one who strikes even more than the one who receives it.

Nevertheless, suicide has its positive side for Lucan. It is the final weapon against the tyranny of men and events. No one can be forced to endure any evil, if they do not fear death. Death removes a man from all compulsion. It is also, in the sense of the Roman concept of devotio, the means whereby a man offers his life to the gods for the good of the people. The word devotio paradoxically and appropriately means both consecrating and cursing. These meanings are reflected in Cato's wish to offer his life to the powers of heaven and hell, to atone for his country's sins.

Fortune, Fate, and Chance Lucan makes little distinction between fortune and fate. They both correspond roughly to the modern use of "fate," but they are not exactly interchangeable. Servius wrote, "Birth and death are the provinces of fate; all that lies between is the province of...

(This entire section contains 963 words.)

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fortune." Ahl explains this remark as meaning that Fate is used to suggest the definite and definable order of the world, the ultimate boundaries of life on individuals, nations, and the universe itself. Death is the only certainty in life, and therefore, it is the only thing over which the individual has control and it is the ultimate weapon in defense of freedom. Lucan attributes to natural law the existence of inevitable moral entropy. The empire's own growth brought it to the state where collapse was inevitable.

Chance is only a cause for which men do not understand the reason. Fortune is chance controlled by a higher power. Because it favors certain individuals, fortune appears to have a rudimentary personality. This favor, however irrational or immoral, is a series of occurrences that has a pattern. Fate in the opening of the Pharsalia is described as invidia, jealous. This might be too little to allow it to be described as a personification, but it recalls the Greek belief that the gods would never allow mankind or its institutions to blur the distinction between the human and the divine through too much success.

VirtusVirtus is the word behind the modern English "virtue." But while the modern English word tends to mean what is practiced, the Latin focused on the practice. That is virtus did not refer to individual virtuous states, like honesty, prudence, humility, but to the strength that carries out right action. The difference between pietas and virtus is the difference between sterile and unthinking dedication to the mos maiorem or traditional customs and values and the conscious thoughtful commitment to discovering and following the good. The suicide of Vulteius and his men is a classic example of the Stoic use of death, but their virtue is thrown away on a man who will reduce men and women to a society where death is the only freedom. The Centurion Scaeva is the embodiment of martial courage and devotion to duty. He withstands the onslaught of an army, but his virtus is corrupted because it is directed towards the victory of a tyrant over libertas. Caesar's mercy on this view is a punishment to the one who receives it.