By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Roman literature has been enormously influential in the history of Western culture. The Pharsalia, an Epic poem by Lucan, was once widely read, and inspired many great Renaissance writers, such as Christopher Marlowe and Dante. This work tells the story of the great Roman Civil War between Julius Caesar and his legions on one side, and Pompey and his supporters in the Senate on the other. The Epic is one of the masterpieces of the Silver Age of Roman literature, and it is not only a remarkable work of art, but it also offers many insights into the history of Rome.
The Poet and his Epic
The author of the Pharsalia was Lucan (39 AD – 65 AD) who was born in what is now southern Spain. He was the grandson of Seneca the Elder, and the nephew of the Stoic philosopher and statesman, Seneca the Younger. He became a close friend of Nero, who helped Lucan to secure the post of Quaestor. Lucan managed to write the Epic which consists of ten books in a remarkably short period of time. In this he was assisted by his loyal wife. At some point, Lucan and Nero had a falling out. Some sources suggest that Lucan dared to criticise the work of Nero. In 65 AD, Lucan became involved in a conspiracy led by Piso. This plot was discovered, and Lucan was implicated. Ancient sources alleged that the poet revealed information about the other conspirators, including his family members, in a bid to save his life. This failed and he was forced to commit suicide by opening his veins by Nero.
The Epic is also known in Latin as the De Bello Civili (Concerning the Civil War). The work narrates in dramatic detail the events of the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey (49-45 BC), which led to the downfall of the Roman Republic. The work opens with a dedication to Nero and a denunciation of civil war. In Book One it relates how Caesar defied the Senate and marched on Rome. It then narrates how the Senate and Pompey were forced to leave Italy. The poem tells how Caesar campaigned against forces loyal to the Senate in Spain. The poem concentrates on the events surrounding the battle of Pharsalus, which took place in Thessaly in Greece. This was the crucial battle of the Civil War and it forms the centrepiece of the Epic. The poem became known as the Pharsalia by later Roman commentators, naming it after the battle.
Lucan relates how Caesar was able to defeat Pompey, and how the latter was forced to flee. The last Books are concerned with the wanderings of the defeated general, and finally his assassination in Egypt. The Epic concludes with the Julius Caesar in Egypt fighting for his life after he became involved in the Egyptian Civil War, and his infatuation with Cleopatra. Scholars believe that if Lucan had lived, the poet would have continued his Epic until the assassination of Caesar, or even the rise of Augustus. The Epic is not an accurate historical document and there are many sections of the work such as Pompey consulting with a witch that are inventions.
The Style of the Epic
The poem shows the influence of Virgil and Ovid, the key figures in the Golden Age of Roman literature. The influence of oratory on the poet is evident as well, and there are many sententious phrases in the Epic. It is structured in a series of discrete episodes and eschews a linear narrative. Lucan does not respect the Epic convention of portraying divine intervention in human affairs. The Epic minimizes the role of the Gods and even seems to deny that they exist. On the other hand, it focuses a great deal on the supernatural, such as witches and oracles. The work of Lucan is a good example of the type of literature that was favored by Nero and his court. The style of the work has made it difficult to read for many modern readers.
The Themes of Pharsalia
The Epic is often interpreted as being anti-imperialistic. It is clearly sympathetic to the cause of Pompey and the Senate. Many have argued that the poet shows his sympathies to the Republican system of government. The sentiments in the work could also be interpreted as being critical of Nero. There are some academics who believe that this is not the case. They argue that the occasions when Julius Caesar is portrayed negatively were warnings to Nero. An important theme in the book is the importance of character and how it can influence events. The Epic can be seen as being anti-war, and the poet graphically describes the tragedy caused when Romans fought Romans, which is rare in Latin literature.
Some have seen Lucan as part of a Neronian Renaissance in Roman literature, along with writers such as his relative Seneca the Younger and Petronius. The Pharsalia influenced literature during the Renaissance but subsequently fell out of favor. While it is not comparable to the work of Virgil and Ovid, it still an important literary work. Today, scholars have revived the study of the Epic poem because it provides insights into the culture of First Century Rome.
Leigh, M. (1997), Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement. Oxford.