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Roman Grand Guignol

Lucan's 'Civil War'

translated into English verse by P.F. Widdows
Indiana University Press, 294 pp., $47.50

There has been no English verse translation of Lucan since 1853, but our age is so much more sympathetic to the baroque in art and literature that a new one is obviously needed. Mr. Widdows, as I shall try to show, successfully supplies the need.

Why is Lucan an important poet? Five famous Roman authors of the first century of the common era came from Spain. Three of these belonged to a rich family that came from Corduba (Cordova), the Annaei. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was the author of a witty and entertaining account of the rhetorical training that then formed the staple of Roman education, and of the various declaimers. The influence of that training upon his son Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) and his grandson Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan) was pervasive. The Spaniards are right to begin their histories of their literature with these men, for the baroque poetry of the two last has an obvious affinity with the work of Gongora, of Goya, and indeed of Luis Buñuel.

The younger Seneca was the confidant of the younger Agrippina, the second wife of the Emperor Claudius and the mother of the Emperor Nero. At the beginning of Nero’s reign, he was not only the leading man of letters, but also one of the richest and most powerful men in Rome. His main literary achievement lies in his prose writings as a Stoic philosopher and moralist; but he was also the author of tragedies dealing with the same Greek myths that were the subject matter of the Greek tragedians, and intended, it would seem, for recitation rather than for stage performance.

At this time an author’s private reading aloud of his productions to a select audience was of prime importance, and this encouraged authors to aim at an immediate emotional effect in much the same manner as an orator or a declaimer. Seneca’s Stoic philosophy furnished him with a dogmatically determinist view of human life that serves as a perfect background for his exploitation of its ironies and horrors. His tragedies are melodramatic to a degree, filled with ghosts and atrocities, as well as with sententious moralizing that escapes dullness only through the amazing skill and fluency of the writing and the dexterity and conciseness with which one rhetorical point after another is scored up. Sharply reacting against the calm serenity of the classical writers and the smooth and polished manner of the Augustan age, Seneca writes, in both prose and verse, short, staccato sentences, full of paradoxes and antitheses; as the seventeenth-century biographer John Aubrey put it, “Seneca writeth as a boar pisseth, scilicet, by jerks.”

At the time of the Renaissance, when few people understood Greek at all well, these were the only ancient tragedies available, and in consequence their influence on Renaissance drama was immense, as T.S. Eliot showed in one of his most famous essays, “Seneca in Elizabethan Tradition.” During the ascendancy of Romanticism, always hostile to rhetoric, Seneca’s stock was low. But lately he has made something of a comeback. Academic interest, not only in his other works, but in his tragedies, is now strong. The greatest living expert on the latter, Otto Zwierlein, has produced an excellent Oxford text; and it is amusing to note that in the very year in which Zwierlein powerfully argued that the tragedies were written for recitation rather than production, Seneca’s Oedipus was successfully put on in London by admirers of the Theatre of Cruelty of Antonin Artaud.

Seneca’s brother Mela—another brother was the Gallio who as governor of Achaea “cared for none of these things” when the Jews accused Saint Paul (Acts 18:17)—was the father of Lucan, born in CE 39, who early gave evidence of prodigious powers, both as an orator and as a poet. He won the favor of his near contemporary, the Emperor Nero, who allowed him to hold the quaestorship, the first stage of the cursus honorum leading to the highest office, before the legal age of twenty-five, and admitted him to the venerable college of augurs.

Lucan published a number of poems, including the first three books of the epic upon which his fame rests. It was probably entitled The Civil War, though it has long been popularly called Pharsalia. Its prologue contains an extravagant encomium of Nero. But Nero became jealous of him and forbade the publication of his poetry, with the result that Lucan eagerly threw himself into the conspiracy which in CE 65 aimed to assassinate Nero and replace him with the Roman nobleman Gaius Calpurnius Piso. The conspiracy was detected and the conspirators were eliminated; the brilliant account of it in the Annals of Tacitus must have been recalled to the mind of everyone who had read it by the story of the conspiracy against Hitler of July 1944.

To save himself Lucan is said to have accused his mother, but to no avail; at the age of twenty-six he was forced to commit suicide. He left seven more books on the Civil War, the last obviously unfinished. Three years later Nero too was dead and his memory had been condemned. Lucan’s memory was kept alive by his widow, Polla Argentaria, who no doubt published the remaining books of her husband’s epic.

Lucan’s poetry has much in common with that of his uncle, the younger Seneca. Faced with the difficulty of writing a great epic in Latin after Virgil, he tried to distance himself from that author, who was never out of his mind for long, by every possible means. First, instead of locating his epic in the mythical past, he chose a comparatively recent episode, the civil war of BCE 49–45, which had been fought all over the Mediterranean world and whose prize had been that world itself. The struggle between Caesar and Pompey, which was continued in Africa by Cato the Younger after Pompey’s defeat at the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE, offered a magnificent theme for epic treatment; one need only think of what Shakespeare achieved with the not dissimilar subject of Antony and Cleopatra. Next, he abandoned the divine machinery customary in epic. His stoic determinism supplied him with a frame not unlike the vaguely deterministic frame of Hardy’s Dynasts, and Stoic pronouncements abound, though other philosophical influences, including even Epicurean elements, have been detected.

But the poem is not Stoic in any orthodox sense. Stoicism proper is optimistic, and Lucan is decidedly the opposite: the gods favor Caesar’s cause, which is evil, because it subverts the republican constitution, and the good cause, chosen by the virtuous Cato, who defends the republican constitution against dictatorship, fails. A traditional epic always has its hero, but the Civil War has none; Caesar is a complete villain and Cato has not a central enough role to be called the hero. Pompey, or Magnus, as Lucan likes to call him, the rival military dynast who took the side of the defenders of the republican constitution, is portrayed sympathetically, but is shown as being in decline, “the shadow of a mighty name,” so that it is in his account of him that Lucan comes nearest to the spirit of tragedy.

Does Lucan’s hostility to Caesar, in a sense the founder of the Empire, mean that Lucan loathes the Empire?1 The matter is not so simple. The prelude to Book I, published in Lucan’s lifetime, contains enthusiastic praise of Nero, and attempts to show that this was meant ironically do not convince. Yet even the three books published during Lucan’s lifetime contain several passages that seem to condemn not only Caesar but the whole idea of monarchy; thus near the end of Book I the astrologer Nigidius Figulus says that when peace comes it will come with a dominus, an absolute ruler or a tyrant. But under Nero it was safe to criticize the dictator Caesar, as it had been even under Augustus.

Although Augustus owed his start as a contender for power to his adoption by Caesar, his great-uncle, he carefully dissociated himself, the restorer of the republic, from the dictator; thus Virgil in describing the portrayal of the battle of Actium, in which Augustus defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE, upon the shield made by Vulcan for Aeneas, exclaims to Caesar, “Drop the weapons from your hand, descendant of Jove!” Livy, the Augustan historian who was Lucan’s principal source, called himself “a Pompeian,” i.e., an adherent of Pompey, so, if “a Pompeian” can mean a defender of the republican constitution, was Augustus himself, who went to such pains to conceal monarchy behind a republican façade. Under Nero there was much talk of a return to the age of Augustus, so that Nero too, at least early in his reign, might have claimed not to be a dominus but to be a Pompeian in this sense. It is true that in the seven books of the Civil War which were published only after Nero’s death condemnation of Caesar, exaltation of Cato, and pronouncement of apparently republican principles are extremely common; but so they are even in the earlier books, and it would be unwise to take this as proof of genuine republicanism on Lucan’s part.

A test case is that of the treatment of Nero’s great-grandfather, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who played a considerable part in the civil war and was killed fighting against Caesar in the battle of Pharsalus. In Book VII of Lucan’s epic, this person dies a heroic death, with his last breath defying Caesar. In fact, three different authorities record that Domitius and his contingent turned and ran, and that Domitius, becoming exhausted, was overtaken and cut down by Caesar’s cavalry. The general attitude of high-minded Romans under the Empire was that the monarchy was deplorable, but necessary—“we are able to put up neither with our vices nor with their remedies,” as Tacitus puts it—and we have no reason to think that Lucan was an exception.2

Even if we judge Lucan’s poem on its own terms and do not condemn it for not being what it never tries to be, we must acknowledge that it has grave faults. Lucan, wrote the famous scholar Eduard Fraenkel in a brilliant lecture given at the Warburg Institut in 1925, when it was still in Hamburg, and never translated, does not deliberately look for the extreme, he lives and thinks in extremes; and this habit can become wearisome. His concentration on securing the maximum possible immediate effect often makes for a wrong distribution of emphasis; it means that we get a succession of disjointed episodes rather than a continuous description of the war, and sometimes important details are left out, as when after 484 lines about the siege of Massilia (Marseille) by Caesar’s forces, we are never told that Caesar finally took the place. Long geographical, meteorological, and zoological excursuses slow down the narrative; and the poet can seldom resist the opportunity for a Grand Guignol–like effect, as when the Thessalian witch Erictho raises up the ghost of a soldier killed, apparently, in the battle just about to happen, in order that he may predict its result, or when Cato’s march through the Libyan desert is made the pretext for a long and harrowing account of the poisonous snakes that infest that region and the damage they inflicted.

But even these episodes, peripheral though they are, are brilliantly carried off; Goethe in the second part of Faust made effective use of this material and Dante in the twenty-fifth canto of the Inferno used it to obtain lurid effects. Describing the heroic stand of Caesar’s centurion Scaeva, Lucan says (in Mr. Widdows’s version), “His guts were exposed and only preserved by / Clusters of spears that stuck in his bones and served as a cover.” Virgil in writing of the Sibyl of Cumae’s prophecy to Aeneas vividly describes the effect upon the Sibyl of her possession by the god; but Lucan in his account of how the Delphian priestess prophesied to the Roman noble Appius Claudius goes much further:

Out of her foaming lips there at first poured sounds that were senseless,
Groans and gasps, with loud and inarticulate mouthings;
Then came dismal wails that echoed all over the cavern,
Finally ending in speech, as Apollo mastered the maiden.

Lucan keeps this up throughout an episode extending over more than a hundred lines.

But provided that one recognizes that the aims and methods of the baroque and anticlassical epic are wholly different from those of the classical writers, one sees that Lucan is a considerable poet, greatly superior to the later epic poets of the Silver Age, who simply imitated Virgil. Unlike Virgil, he is not a melodious versifier, but he is a marvelously fluent and skillful writer. Like Juvenal, he excels in striking off concise and epigrammatic formulations of pregnant utterances, many of which have become proverbial. Victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni is rendered by Mr. Widdows as “gods on the conquering side, but Cato choosing the conquered”; nil actum credens cum quid superesset agendum (said of Caesar) by “Nothing, for him, was done while anything waited to be done”; Iuppiter est quodcumque vides, quocumque moveris by “God is whatever you see and every move of your being.” But this is not all; the speeches of his characters, artificial as their rhetoric seems to a taste conditioned by Romanticism, often attain real poignancy and passion. Infuriating as we may find his idealization of the self-righteous Stoic pedant Cato, Cato’s reply to the man who during the march through the desert found a trickle of water and brought it to his general is memorable:

“You excuse for a soldier! You really thought me the only
Man without guts in the army? Too soft to put up with the slightest
Touch of heat? You deserve to be punished by having to drink this
Out in front of your comrades, while they go thirsty.” And Cato,
Furious, emptied the helmet: so all had plenty of water.

(The last words, suffecitque omnibus unda, are not well rendered by Mr. Widdows; the Latin means “all had enough of the water,” which is much apter.) Caesar, forcing the ferryman Amyclas to carry him across the Adriatic in a raging storm, says:

“Spread your sails to the storm, and ignore the threats of the ocean.
If you refuse to cross because the sky is against you,
Cross because I command it. The only excuse for your fear is
Not to have recognized your passen- ger as a person
Never abandoned by heaven, and badly treated by Fortune
When she comes only in answer to his entreaties. So, forward!
Break through the storm: you are safe with me to protect you.”

During Cato’s march through the desert, he passes close to the famous oracle of Jupiter Ammon, once consulted by Alexander the Great, and Labienus asks Cato whether he too will not consult it. Cato replies in proper Stoic fashion:

“What do you want me to ask, Labienus? Whether I think it
Better to die in battle, free, than to live in oppression?
Whether, if life is lived, its length is irrelevant? Whether
Violence never can harm a good man, and fortune is helpless
When confronted by virtue; and whether what counts is the will to
Praiseworthy acts, and success can add nothing to honest intentions?
All this I know, and I need no rein- forcement from Hammon.
Men are bound to the gods, and, with all their oracles silent,
Nothing we do is done without their direction. The deity
Needs no audible voice: the general author of all things
Opened up to us men at our birth time, once and forever,
All that he means us to know. Did he choose this desert from which to
Prophesy to a few, and bury his truth in the sand drifts?
Where can he make his abode except in the elements, land, sea,
Air, and the sky above, and in virtue wherever he finds it?
Why extend our search for deities further beyond that?
God is whatever you see and every move of your being.
Prophecies I leave to men who are doubtful and always
Anxious about the future; I look for certainty not from
Oracles, but from death, the one thing certain. The hero,
Like the coward, must die, for so has Jupiter spoken:
That is enough for me.”

Though popular during the Flavian period, Lucan lost favor during the archaizing age of Hadrian and the Antonines. But from the third century on he was recognized as one of the leading Roman poets. The existence of more than four hundred manuscripts, including remains of three ancient books and about ten complete texts dating from the ninth and tenth centuries, attests to his popularity during the Middle Ages. During the earlier part of that period he owed much of his popularity to his moralizing vein and to his remarkable power of producing memorable aphorisms; but from the twelfth century on he owed more to his power of obtaining strong emotional effects.

The twelfth-century writer Honorius of Autun likens poetry to a fortress defended by four towers; the tower of tragedy is commanded by Lucan. “Tragedy” at this time meant writing in the grand manner; only in the tragic style, says Dante in the letter dedicating the Paradiso to Cangrande della Scala, can we write about Salvation, Love, and Virtue. In the Inferno Lucan is named as one of the four great Roman poets, after Virgil, Horace, and Ovid; this judgment must be surprising to the moderns, most of whom would prefer Lucretius and Catullus to Lucan, if not to Ovid also. Dante did not know Lucretius or Catullus, but I doubt if he would have rated either higher than he did Lucan.

Petrarch esteemed Lucan as highly as did Dante; and his popularity did not decline with the coming of the Renaissance. The earliest printers, Sweynheim and Pannartz, were quick to print his work at Rome in 1469, edited by the genial bishop-designate of Aleria, Giovanni Andrea de’ Bussi. In the cathedral of Orvieto, Luca Signorelli portrays him with other poets as a handsome and moving figure, with a touch of arrogance. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France it was energetically debated whether Virgil or Lucan was the greater. Lucan inspired Robert Garnier’s tragedy Cornélie (1574) and Corneille’s La Mort de Pompée (1643); if Louis XIV forbade his inclusion among the Delphin Classics, that was for political rather than literary reasons.

But as early as the sixteenth century signs of a movement against Lucan can be discerned. Those who had studied the literary criticism of the ancients noted that they had admired above all else writing that was true, simple, and rational, and for these qualities Lucan does not score high marks. Julius Caesar Scaliger in his Poetics of 1561 depreciates him, and his more famous son Joseph expressed the wish that the early Roman epic poet Ennius had survived entire, and that we had lost instead Lucan, Statius, Silius Italicus “et tous ces garçons-là.” Boileau, whose influential aesthetics were founded on the treatise On the Sublime attributed to Longinus, did not care for Lucan; neither did Bayle, who in his Dictionnaire Philosophique calls Silver Latin “une dépravation de gout.” And in eighteenth-century Germany the powerful critic Gottsched followed their lead.

Only in Italy did Lucan’s fame survive. Alfieri much admired him, as did the poets Foscolo and Leopardi and the essayist Giordani; here ideology came into play, but there was also a lingering Italian sympathy with the baroque. Elsewhere, despite the striking use Goethe made of Lucan in the Klassische Walpurgisnacht, the nineteenth century was a bad time for Lucan, as it was for Seneca; only lately, with the revival of interest in rhetoric and baroque art, has it started to recover.

The only major English poet to have tried his hand at translating Lucan was Marlowe, who had unfortunately not got beyond Book I when he was killed in 1593. Thomas May (1626) not only translated Lucan but finished off his poem, ending the twelfth book with the murder of Caesar. The seventeenth century produced baroque versions by the Spaniard Jauregui (1640), the Frenchman Brébeuf (1655), said to be “more like Lucan than Lucan himself,” and the German Seckendorff (1695). Lucan inspired Addison’s Cato, the most successful tragedy of its time, and in 1719 was translated by Nicholas Rowe, poet laureate, whose character Lothario, from his tragedy The Fair Penitent, a precursor of Richardson’s Lovelace and of Don Juan, supplied a popular name for characters of their kind. But during the nineteenth century Lucan’s unpopularity was reflected in the lack of translations; H.T. Riley’s version of 1853 (not 1896, as Mr. Widdows says) is not too bad a specimen of Victorian verse.

The version in the Loeb Classical Library is excellent; J.D. Duff was a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a friend and colleague of Housman, and his Loeb volume of 1928 presents a text based on Housman’s great edition of 1926, together with a lively and accurate prose version. But Robert Graves’s Penguin version is deplorable; W.R. Johnson, in his attractive small book on Lucan called Momentary Monsters,3 justly asks, “What droll demon prompted the master of several exquisite prose styles to eviscerate the two Latin authors (Lucan and Apuleius) least suited to his prose?”

There is thus a very real need for a new poetic version, and Mr. Widdows has carried out the difficult task most creditably. Lucan is hard to render into prose, and harder still to render into verse. His extreme concentration is almost impossible to give an idea of in a language that is not inflected, and every version that has been produced has been longer than the original. Mr. Widdows’s meter is the English hexameter; defending this choice, he points to Longfellow’s Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish and to Arthur Hugh Clough’s The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuorlich. These not very distinguished exemplars are both very unlike Lucan; and English hexameter is very unlike the Latin hexameter, being based on stress accent rather than on quantity.

Like all other translators, Mr. Widdows gives no real notion of Lucan’s pungency and concentration. But the narrative moves along with plenty of life; and in bringing out Lucan’s other great quality, his power to achieve pathos, Mr. Widdows is successful, as the examples I have given may suggest. He has added an admirable introduction and explanatory notes, avoiding the cardinal error of being too long, and he makes few mistakes, although one is surprised at finding him persist in calling the German editor C.M. Francken, described by Housman as “a born blunderer, marked cross from the womb and perverse,” as “Fraencken.” His one big mistake relates to the numbering of the lines; he numbers the lines of his translation, which is naturally considerably longer than the original, but fails to give in the opposite margin the numbers of the lines of the original, which makes it hard to look up any particular passage in his version. But his translation is both accurate and readable, and in our age, so much kinder to baroque art than the ages that preceded it, he should have many readers.


Lucan & 'Amours De Voyage' March 29, 1990

What Did Cato Mean? July 19, 1990

Lucan's Civil War October 25, 1990

Lucan's Civil War October 25, 1990

Lucan's Civil War October 25, 1990

  1. 1

    The question is well handled by W.D. Lebek, Lucans/Pharsalia: Dichtungsstruktur und Zeitbezug (Göttingen: Hypomnemata, 1976). 

  2. 2

    “Lucan als Mittler des antiken Pathos,” Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, 1924–1925 (Leipzig, 1927), pp. 229–257; Kleine Beiträge zü klassischen Philologie (Rome: 1966), pp. 233–266. 

  3. 3

    Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes (Cornell University Press, 1987), which should be added to Mr. Widdows’s brief bibliography.