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This article was written on 25 Mar 2012, and is filed under Lucan's Civil War, Miscellania, Quotations.

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Lucan’s Civil War: Lucan’s Latin

J.C. Bramble has a 30-page section on Lucan in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature (edited by E.J. Kenney). Bramble makes some great remarks on Lucan’s Latin, and since I haven’t been able to comment on that topic, here are some of his comments, most of which emphasize Lucan’s perversity, bizarreness, grittiness, and willful subversion of poetic ideals.

In the sphere of diction and metre Lucan avoids the precedent of mainstream epic. He abandons the versatility of the Virgilian hexameter, opting for a rhythm which is unmusical and prosaic. Logopoeia — ‘ poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of intelligence among words and ideas, and modifications of ideas and words’ (Ezra Pound)—is his chosen mode, a more suitable vehicle for the abstractions and difficulties of his theme than the musicality of Virgil.

In diction he is less concerned to embellish his material than present it in a dry sardonic light. For instance, cadauer, a real and uncompromising word used only twice in the Aeneid and once in the Metamorphoses, occurs thirty-six times in the Bellum Civile, while mors, the everyday term, is preferred to the poetic letum—for in civil war, death is not romantic. By the same token he prefers the realistic pilum to iaculum, the heroic word.

His prosaic tendency is seen again in the precedence of terra over tellus, caelum over polus, uentus over aura, aqua over lympha or latex; and, once more, the modernity and realism of his subject matter dictate a predilection for gladius, with its forty incidences, against five in Virgil, two in Valerius, and one in Statius. Unpoetic verbs are rife, many of them compounds.

Constantly at odds with conventional epic, Lucan is not averse to coinages, or taking words from other areas of Latin literature: but most of the innovations have a cold, metallic ring. There is nothing especially ornamental about his coinage quassabilis or his four otherwise unattested verbs, circumlabi, dimadescere, intermanere, supereuolare, or again, his cumbersome three new compounds, illatrare, iniectare, superenatare; peritus, formonsus, and deliciae have no place in the higher genres; nor should lassus have been so frequent, when fessus was available.

Nouns like auctus, ductus and mixtura are more reminiscent of Lucretius and Manilius than the vocabulary of epic, and uxor, like alloquium, area, armamentum, bucetum, columen, constantia, excrementum, opera and sexus would not have pleased the critics. Of his verbal nouns in -tor, which are many, seven of them new, several are unnecessarily prosaic, or even bizarre.

Technical terms are frequent, for instance bardus, biblus, bracae, cataracta, coccus and couinnus: sparingly used by most poets, Lucan likes them for their scientific edge, which is especially apt for digressions.

He has also read his Virgil with an eye for such terms: from the Georgics he takes ardea, defectus, dilectus, donarium and monstrator; from the Aeneid, asylum and caetra. Virgil’s ‘poetic’ vocabulary, on the other hand, is consistently avoided.

Similarly, his colour vocabulary is less rich than that of mainstream epic; roughly half as many terms, used rather less then half as frequently. From a total of 34 terms, white, grey and black are the dominant tones, accounting for 15 terms with 64 occurrences. Black is preferred to white, but Lucan draws no distinction between the epic ater, Virgil’s option, and the more ordinary niger: likewise, he rejects the Virgilian albus and the evocative niueus, in favour of the neutral pallidus and palleo.

Red is Lucan’s next favourite colour — we remember the frequency of deaths in his epic — but the conventional purpureus which accounts for 15 of Virgil’s 38 reds, and the decorative roseus are entirely absent, replaced by rubere and cognates, which claim 14 out of the 25 incidences in the Bellum Civile. Blues, yellows, and greens are sparse: caeruleus and caerulus only appear once each, ousted by the duller liuens and liuor; the epic fuluus has only three incidences, flauus five, and croceus one; while uirens, at 9.523, is the only green in this predominantly monochrome epic.

J.C. Bramble

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