Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Lucan's "Pharsalia".

The following is an (almost) unedited essay written during the honours years of my masters. The topic is Lucan's "epic" poem Pharsalia, which covers the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey. The focus of the essay (the set question, in actual fact) was as follows:

“What difficulties do you think Lucan faced in writing an epic on recent history and how well do you think he coped with them?”

Generally speaking, I still quite like the essay, although re-reading it, I'm not all that convinced I answered the question specifically, but rather gave a summary of scholarship on the topic. In that respect it's not an exceptionally original piece, but I do recall giving it some serious thought, and the Pharsalia remains one of my favourite works of literature from the classical world.

Despite some faults (which I've decided not to rectify), I think it's an interesting topic, and my short essay goes someway to discussing it.


The difficulties that faced Lucan in the conception and production of his Civil War were, to my mind, legion. Writing a little more than a century after the civil war fought between Caesar and Pompey, Lucan would be presented with the problem of crafting a work of rhetorical ars about such a well known, pivotal and relatively recent period of history. If and how Lucan reconciled art with historical fact is the subject of this short essay.

It is my hope to summarise at least some of the quandaries Lucan faced in crafting his epic poem and to generate a personal opinion on how well he dealt with them. To do this I intend to utilise modern scholarship, which, given the indecisive nature of Lucan and how to conceive him (artist? Rhetorician?), is at times problematic. Nevertheless, I believe wandering the minefield of theories and perhaps never finding an ideal one brings one closer to the poem, a mode of understanding I hope will become clear as this essay progresses.

One of the most obvious problems Lucan encountered would be how to write an epic - not a historical treatise - on such a recent period of history and one so well known, no less. Reconciling his artistic vision with historical fact would be a major hurdle.

Frederick Ahl in his excellent work Lucan: An Introduction posits the idea that Lucan overcomes this problem with the simple but elegant solution of sticking to the history (Ahl, pg.71). Ahl understands Lucan’s narrative as following the history for a reason, namely that his adherence to historical fact gives his non-historical embellishments (such as his characterisation and unique rhetorical colouring of events) some force (Ahl, pg.70).

Ahl goes on to say that Lucan makes the decision not to dispute the history to suit his ends because he has other avenues available that allow him to retain his vision. Ahl believes that Lucan uses an exploration and embellishment of motive to communicate his message instead. Conceding that he can’t deny history that has became canon to reinforce his pointed message about, for example, Caesar, Lucan can re-examine Caesars internal and personal motives. Doing so allows an air of legitimacy to surround Lucan’s embellishments in his characterisation of Caesar as a destructive force (Ahl, pg.70).

Ahl continues by declaring:

“History is the raw material of the Pharsalia, not its purpose…It allows Lucan to give the semblance of reality to what he describes, a factual underpinning of his vision which makes the vision itself very hard to refute… [It’s] as much a means to an end as is Virgil’s use of myth…Thus Lucan’s rejection of certain epic conventions both enhances the illusion of fidelity to fact and at the same time allows the poet to manipulate fact to his own ends” (Ahl, pg.72)

So for Ahl Lucan is presented with a problem in deciding to write about the civil war, for it is such a recent chunk of history. Furthermore the enormous effect of it has ensured that it remains well known. Colouring this accepted historical narrative with his specific vision was Lucan’s aim and Ahl thinks to do so he retains the historical (public) fact and instead decides to explore the personal (private) motives of his protagonists in order to serve his vision. For example rather than re-telling the battle of Pharsalia with Caesar a monster he makes the internal motives of Caesar speak to his destructiveness and monstrosity.

As a coping mechanism I must concede that this is quite an interesting one and certainly with some merit. Focusing on the motives of his protagonists (which are open to embellishment and conjecture) - instead of the changing the history to explain how destructive the civil war was and how the evils of Caesar and the ineffectiveness of Pompey that lead to it - is an intelligent strategy. Given the overwhelming portrait of civil war as unnatural and monstrous without any absolute departures from historical fact apparent in the civil war it seems fair to understand Lucan as overcoming this particular problem quite well.

There are, however, some parts of the text where Lucan embellishes the history. The necromancy of book 6 for example serves a literary purpose but lacks a historical basis. It’s clear he uses this prophetic narrative for a purpose - to hint at the future - and in doing so doesn’t deny the history but rather festoons it with artistic force and verve - all ultimately to serve his purpose.

It can be charged that he manipulated his historical characters to fit his ends, making them essentially of his own invention. To counter this I feel Ahl would say something along the lines of he wasn’t denying the historical characters but rather focusing his attention on one aspect of their personas - Caesars malevolence, Pompey’s indecision in the face of it and the moral fortitude of Cato. Doing this allows him to create characters in his vision that have roots in historical fact - a parallel use of characterisation to fit his purposes. I think this is a nice move from Lucan - he can simultaneously confirm the historical Caesar - or an aspect of him - while fashioning his own credible version.

Related to my preceding point, but a bit more pragmatic, is the question of how Lucan could keep the reader interested in something so well known long enough to communicate his bleak vision?

His primary mode of overcoming this is his use of apostrophe, paradoxical epigrams and literary stalling. Susan Braund in her introduction to her translation of the work explains Lucan’s use of delay or obstacle (Braund, pg.47). She uses the opening to the poem as an example, arguing that the criticism Lucan receives for the constant reiteration and paraphrasing of Civil War is Bad in the introduction is invalid for the stalling provided by such use of language is exactly the desired effect. Forcing pause gives the reader a reason to consider what Lucan is saying and to feel its impact more roundly.

Similarly, as Braund continues, his use of paradoxical maxims such as the infamous “mighty structures collapse in on themselves” (Lucan, 1.81) force pause and reflection. As she concludes: “Lucan uses this technique to make the audience stop and confront the issue. He has no interest in wafting us swiftly, mellifluously along” (Braund, pg.48).

This stalling pervades his use of imagery to: “Rising from the ocean more slowly than eternal law summoned him” (Lucan, 7.1). Here the slow dawning of the sun symbolises Lucan’s desire for the reader to stop and consider the coming horrors - in this case the Battle of Pharsalus. M.P.O Morford in The Poet Lucan: Studies in Rhetorical Epic agrees with Braund’s assessment of Lucan’s use of apostrophe, in particular emphasising its rhetorical basis (Morford, pg.70).

I think this conflict between epic story and Lucan’s desire for us to truly think about it - between stalling and telling, so to speak - further symbolises the poem as civil war itself - something I intend to talk about later and a line of argument supported by Jamie Masters in his Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile.

Arguably this may be modern deconstructionist folly but I still consider it an attractive argument. In providing a vision of the civil war that reflects the history but forces a reappraisal of it on his own terms Lucan as succeeded in tangling with recent history through epic to quite some degree.

How to grapple with this epic tradition was yet another problem that Lucan had to overcome. With Virgil having set the standard of epic how was Lucan to deal with this ideal?

Given his pervading motif that the civil war was a human fault and its responsibility was mans, using the Gods as a mechanism for propelling his narrative was troublesome because human responsibility becomes diminished. Furthermore, unlike Virgil, Lucan deals with the recent past and this presented the question of how he could insert Gods into a historical narrative so close in chronology to himself and so far away from the age of myth that Virgil wrote about?

The short answer is that he removes them completely. That is to say he removes the divine machinery that normally permeates epic and instead leaves the emphasis for moral responsibility on human shoulders rather than simply the will of the Gods. Indeed the civil war is famously bereft of any divine machinations. Ahl argues that Lucan “had to expel the Olympians from Pharsalia to achieve the picture he desired, to bring moral issues to the foreground” (Ahl, pg.69).

W.R Johnson in the interesting study Momentary Monsters also considers Lucan’s ejection of the Gods as skilful and required (Johnson, pg.9). Ahl and Johnson reach a point of collusion in that they both consider Lucan’s heavy use of fate and fortune as a replacement for the Gods (Ahl, pg295; Johnson, pg.16-17).

Ahl interprets the use of fate and fortune as a way to explore moral positions (Ahl, pg.295). With the Gods now gone the narrative of history can be attributed to men. As the characters make choices to court fate/fortune or surrender to them then we glimpse their moral interior. For example, Caesar willingly courts fortune making the moral choice his and the responsibility for the consequences his too.

I’m not sure how much to trust in Ahl’s assessment here. Even if Caesar is to court fate or fortune the moral decision still seems somewhat external to him as fate is immutable. It’s almost as if Ahl’s argument seems sound but becomes shaky when the difficult notion of fate is introduced. Nevertheless the basic argument remains an attractive one to me even if it becomes bogged down at points.

A more solid, I think, approach comes from Johnson. He too considers fate and fortune as replacing the tradition divine machinery of epic but considers the effect of doing so to be slightly different.

Johnson posits the theory that Lucan replaces the divine machinery with a broken machine (Johnson, pg.16-17). This broken machine is Lucan’s confusing use of fate and fortune. Johnson believes that Lucan has no set system for the two, indeed they remain as liquid throughout the poem.

Johnson uses an example from book two to illustrate his point:

“..and bound himself in fates eternal chain; or whether fickle fortune leads the dance; nothing is fixed and all things come by chance”

Johnson asks if fate can be lead by fortune and if chance rules all the how are we to conceive of fate and fortune? He concludes that the poem contains “an erratic, violent feeling that oscillates between the two poles of fortune and fate and finds no equilibrium” (Johnson, pg.8).

Johnson considers this conflict central to the poem, arguing that it is symbolic of the poem as a civil war itself: it is unsure which side to pick and what definitions to go for and as a consequence is torn by the two (Johnson, pg.16-17).

I find Johnson’s argument quite remarkable. Perhaps it is to wander in with the goggles of modern scholarship but the explanation of Lucan’s dropping of the Gods out of necessity and replacing them with such an eloquent but paradoxically discordant system renders itself quite believable to me.

That said, dropping the Gods from the epic equation still leaves Lucan with some other problems. Ahl argues that the rejection of the Gods means that Lucan is left with no traditional way of explaining the natural forces, nor how his characters take on certain moral tones and traits based upon their grappling with them.

Ahl continues by using the example of Cato in the desert in book nine as an illustration of the problems this causes. Lucan needs to stress the Herculean stoicism of Cato as a foil to the overwhelming destructive force that is Caesar and so he must find a method that excludes the Gods. For example, Cato cannot battle a dragon or a serpent to display his virtue for this use of myth would undermine Lucan’s seemingly apparent aim of making the civil war the full responsibility of man.

Ahl suggests that Lucan’s answer in putting Cato under the peril of snakes, and how his virtue eventually ensures he lives, is a little contrived, he claims that they were “real enough to have zoological names [but] fanciful enough to be preposterous” (Ahl, pg.74). In other words: just a little too much fantastic for the tone Ahl detects elsewhere in the poem.

Ahl believes that Lucan has fallen between two extremes (Ahl, pg.72). In annihilating the divine propaganda of Caesar (divine heritage etc) and rejecting the Gods from his epic he’s caught in a catch 22. This is because he can’t use such techniques to elevate Cato. So he deals with the problems posed by having no Gods, but it’s not perfect. The snake episode reads as a little forced.

So it seems to me that Lucan’s rejection of the Gods as an answer to the problem of how to lay responsibility for the war at the feet of men works in some respects for his epic, but not in others. Although Ahl concedes that Lucan usually overcomes the hurdles of having no Gods (Ahl, pg.74), he still occasionally fumbles. As he was bucking a well established tradition I think it’s not unrespectable to say that his inventiveness is occasionally a little flat.

Although this short essay means much must be excluded there is another theory I wish to discuss: that of Jamie Masters in his Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Masters put forward the - intrinsically modern - theory that Lucan dealt with his subject matter by allowing his poem to be consumed by it. That is to say: the civil war becomes civil war and in that sense Lucan transcends the problem of writing about such recent history by recreating it in the present of the text.

Masters thinks that Ahl has smoothed over Lucan’s politics a little too much and see the poem as a little more jagged. He construes it as about civil war but also a civil war itself (Masters, pg.10). He considers Lucan fraught with allegiances that give rise to conflict within the text.

Masters claims that “Lucan is Caesarean in his ambition but Pompeian in his remorse. The Pompeian in him condemns Caesar but the Caesar in him condemns - kills - Pompey” (Masters, pg.10).

Masters figures this conflict as being illustrated by Lucan’s ambition to tell the story of a bloody civil war (in this analogy, the Caesar) yet reluctant to explore it - fond of apostrophe and weak in the face of evil (the Pompey) (Masters, pg.10).

So, in essence Lucan responds to dealing with recent history by playing it out metaphorically within his epic.

It’s a challenging theory that Masters submits, for sure. The problem I have with it is that it is quite blatant in its reading between the lines, so to speak. It puts motive and purpose into Lucan that is perhaps not as evident as Masters would like. Nonetheless it’s an interesting idea and if we accept it as being Lucan’s aim then it’s quite masterful as a technique to overcome the problems of writing epic on such a recent period of history. Whether to tow this line or merely consider it a product of modern scholarship imposed on Lucan I’m genuinely unsure.

Shadi Bartsch in the study Ideology in Cold Blood: a Reading of Lucan’s Civil War, raises the point that more modern scholars tend to ascribe the belief to Lucan that his civil war was civil war and that the poem, for them “preserves the unconventional premises of its subject matter: evil without alternative; contradiction without compromise; civil war without end” (Masters, pg.259, Bartsch, pg.6-7).

In essence this school of thought considers Lucan to have no ideology, making him a sort of nihilist. Whether to believe this or the other side Bartsch mentions is a difficult question for they believe he has an ideology: that man is at fault for the civil war. Like much with Lucan the conflict here is difficult to resolve. Bartsch thinks trying to understand the poem through a juxtaposition of these two ideas is the way forward (Bartsch, pg.7).

I think sitting on the fence is a sensible position here, despite my thoughts that the latter camp seems the more attractive owing to the problems posed by deconstructionist modern scholarship (I think it imposes a will upon Lucan that I can’t comfortably agree with). Nevertheless, I think adopting either position still render Lucan an able manipulator of his troublesome subject matter.

These, then, are some of the main problems I believe Lucan encountered in writing about the civil war. To the greater extent I consider him to have coped with them quite well. He grappled with recent history by sticking to it and exercising his puppetry of his characters behind the scenes, in the realms of motive and morality, to communicate his vision. In the process he pragmatically dispensed of any epic tradition that couldn’t accommodate him - the rejection of the Gods being an example.

Johnson argues this problem (or criticism) of rejecting epic tradition comes primarily from the fact that Lucan is not Vergil (Johnson, pg.85) and indeed “epic changed in terms” (Johnson, pg.87). In Johnson’s eyes flying in the face of epic convention is not strictly a problem for Lucan as it was a required step, not a fault. Nevertheless I think he overcomes the problems it still poses quite well. I believe it best to agree with Ahl when he says “successes outnumber failures” (Ahl, pg.74) and consider Lucan’s ability to cope with writing an epic on recent history resilient, steely and, in general terms, quite successful.


Relevant bibliography:


Lucan, "Pharsalia", alt.title: "The Civil War", trans. Braund, Susan, H, Oxford (1999)


Ahl, F, "Lucan: an Introduction", Ithaca (1976)

Bartsch, S, "Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War" Harvard (1997)

Johnson, W.R, "Momentary Monsters", Ithaca (1997)

Masters, J, "Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile", Cambridge (1992)

Morford, M.P.O, "The Poet Lucan: Studies in Rhetorical Epic", Oxford (1967)

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