Lucan’s Civil War: Pompey’s Death and Some Graverobbing

Like Caesar himself, who suddenly turns vulnerable and human in the wake of his victory, Civil War deflates after the climactic battle of Pharsalia. The waning of conflict results in the waning of tension, even fatalistic tension. The remainder of the epic is a peculiar series of scenes and digressions that continue the narrative at a distinctly lower energy level.

To some extent, I think such a shift was inevitable, whether or not Lucan intended such a deflation. When an epic is built, as Civil War has been, on excessive setpieces that continually top their predecessors, the work could only avoid deflation by ending precisely at the moment of climax. Though it is hard to imagine how Lucan could have topped the demonically apocalyptic contents of books VI and VII, I suspect that he could have made the work yet darker and nihilistic.

For whatever reason, however, he chose quite consciously not to do so, and the final two and a half books read very differently from the first seven. Since he did not finish the work, we can’t know whether the dissipation would have been reversed. Given Lucan’s unpredictability, I can’t even guess.

Lucan is not without resources, however, and he employs strange strategies in order to continue giving shape to the work. In general, however, they lack (must lack) the overwhelming impact of what has gone before. The epic is less effective from this point on, and some sections are downright dull. Yet Lucan makes some brilliant advances in spite of the loss of his momentum, consolidating ideas and reexamining them in the light of that post-climactic letdown.

Book VIII serves as an extended memorial to Pompey, who flees to Egypt only to be killed there by rulers who hope to gain Caesar’s favor. Often, the elegaic tone is restrained and touching, and so utterly at odds with the entirety of the poem so far:

Fortune kept the faith and carried Magnus
successfully through to the end of his fate,
pursuing him in death from the heights of power
to make him pay on one lone brutal day
for all the disasters from which she kept him safe
for all those years. Pompey was one who never
saw blessings mixed with sorrows, his happiness
no god disturbed, nor any spared his misery.
Fortune held back, then struck him down at once.
Beaten by sands, torn on the rocks, his wounds
drinking the waves, a laughingstock of the ocean,
when nothing of his form is left, one last sign—
the missing head—will tell you it was Magnus.

Civil War VIII.862-874

I find this quite lovely, which only serves to make it so much more anomalous. I know some readers have claimed this praise of Pompey to be fatuous, but I can’t believe that to be the case. I do not think Lucan subtle enough to write in a fake beautiful elegaic tone without exaggeration.

In addition, there are enough contradictions even within Book VIII to make it evident that Lucan has still not adopted a decisive position toward Pompey. As the most striking example, there is Pompey’s brief emotional rally when he imagines gathering forces from the East to fight back:

 “I wish my confidence in the fierce Arsacidae
were not so great. Fates that inspire the Medes
too closely rival our Fates. Their nation has many gods.
I will uproot the peoples from this other land
and pour them out, rouse the Orient from their homes
and set them loose. Favor my endeavors, Rome.
For what greater happiness could the gods above
have ever offered you, than to wage your civil wars
with Parthian troops, and destroy so great a nation
by drawing them into our troubles? When Caesar’s armies
clash with the Medes, Fortune will be forced
to avenge either me or the Crassi.”

Civil War VIII.381-391

This may not appear so damning on its own, but as Susanna Braund and others point out, Pompey asks “Favor my endeavors, Rome” exactly as Caesar did in Book I. And Pompey’s fatalistic attitude toward the outcome—someone will be avenged at least!—doesn’t quite paint him as the Republican martyr that he is elsewhere. Even given that Lucan was a typical Roman imperialist, Pompey’s virtue is hardly pristine.

That ambivalence itself comes across to me rather brilliantly in a late image in Book VIII, where Pompey’s lieutenant Cordus cremates him:

Off in the distance he sees
a small fire, cremating a poor man’s body
with no guardian. From there he snatches flames
and, stealing some half-burned logs out from under
the limbs, says, “Whoever you are, so neglected
by your own, unloved, but still a happier shade
than Pompey, please forgive this stranger’s hand
which violates your grave after it’s arranged.
If any awareness survives death, you yourself
would give up your pyre and accept these losses
from your mound, you would feel the shame
of being burned while Pompey’s spirits scatter.”

Civil War VIII.914-925

Cremates Pompey, that is, by stealing the wood from another cremation already in progress. Cordus insists that, after all, Pompey is the better man, and so more deserving of a proper death. This wholly gratuitous move on Lucan’s part points out, yet again, that Pompey, the dead loser, will still be better remembered and better loved than some anonymous man who died some way or another.

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