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Lucan’s Civil War

In response to:

Roman Grand Guignol from the January 18, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones’ review of the Widdows translation of Lucan’s Civil War [NYR, January 18], which summarizes well the translation’s strong and weak points, and summarizes Lucan’s career and influence, I miss one thing: the pacifism which pervades the epic. This I would call a more important theme than whatever can be gleaned of either a nostalgic or a thoroughly political “republicanism.”

In 1986 I gave a public lecture in Nuku’alofa, Tonga on “Three pacifist poets: Lucan, Jacques Prévert, and Robert Lowell.” It seemed at the time natural to put Lucan in company with the Marxist Prévert and the conservative Catholic Lowell of World War II and the more secular liberal of the Vietnam War era. Lucan, of course, did not repudiate foreign war, nor the empire which entanglements and eventual foreign wars had bestowed on Rome, but, in mounting such a savage attack on civil war, he was, in effect, attacking war itself, inasmuch as civil and not foreign war could more and more be equated with the concept of war in general. This was true from the decades immediately before Caesar’s victories, and on into the times of Augustus and Tiberius and then into Lucan’s formative years. His death was followed within a few years by a shorter, but violent round of civil wars which came to be known as the “year of the four emperors” (68 AD).

Miguel de Unamuno, who read Lucan as a compatriot, placed special emphasis on the clause “…qui pacem potuere pati.” Pompey, leading up to this, says that his faction will not fear war because they have been able to endure even peace—a reversal of what might have been an expected cliché.

The epic takes the position of maintaining that Romans—and perhaps human beings in general—cannot endure peace. Without a religious or a firmly based political point of view such as is felt in Lowell and Prévert, the literary result of pondering on such a paradox must, almost of necessity be a poem of horrors. The snakes of North Africa, the struggle against thirst there, the witchcraft of Erichto, and even a Jonestown-like mass suicide are only such events as properly fit into the context created by Lucan. (I think Lloyd-Jones is right in saying that Lucan is not Stoic in any orthodox sense of the term.)

Lucan perhaps cast a smokescreen across that potential stark interpretation, by letting rhetoric make his poem into a debatable moral enigma. No more than we can point to idealism and nothing more in Don Quijote, can we point to pacifism and nothing more in Lucan. He found his audience after all in the city of gladiatorial shows and was as aware as Hardy that war makes “rattling good reading” as a character in The Dynasts says.

I would correct Lloyd-Jones (and J.D. Duff) who say that Lucan does not mention Caesar’s capture of Marseille. He does mention, or at least imply it at the close of Book III:

At Brutus in aequore victor
Primum Caesareis pelagi decus addidit armis.

(But Brutus, as the winner out on the water, provided Caesar’s warfare with its first maritime glory.) The Brutus referred to is D. Junius Brutus, not the more famous Marcus Brutus, a Pompeian. The “at” which introduces these lines is a stronger word than the English “but,” and sometimes introduces a curse. I am quoting from memory, but I think it is used here because the preceding lines have been a long catalog of horrors suffered by the civilian population on shore. The bringing in of a conventional mention of “glory” is done ironically here, and is in keeping with Lucan’s usual practice of down-grading the traditional topics of heroic-verse adulation.

Roland F. Perkins
Waianae, Hawaii

Hugh Lloyd-Jones replies:

Lucan certainly dwells on the horrors of civil war, as Virgil had done before him; but does that make him a “pacifist”? Professor Perkins writes that “civil and not foreign war could more and more be equated with the concept of war in general”; but foreign wars did not cease to occur during the early imperial period. The final sentence of Book Three, referring, it would seem, simply to the sea fighting, can hardly be taken to be an adequate account of the conclusion of the siege of Massilia.

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