Civil War (also known as the Pharsalia) must stand as a contender for the weirdest and craziest epic poem of all time. I recommend reading the introduction below first, then reading through the commentary posts in order.
Lucan was a Roman poet who lived from 39 to 65 AD, forced to commit suicide at age 25 when he was found to have been involved, along with his literary mentor and friend Seneca, in a plot against his patron Nero.
He had been remarkably productive to that point: Civil War is all that survives, but there’s mention of at least a dozen other works. Civil War was never finished: it breaks off in the middle of Book 10.
It is vastly different from the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and the Metamorphoses. Homer, Virgil, and Ovid all dealt with mythical material in the distant past. Civil War chronicles the chaos of middle-first century BC, when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon to invade Rome, displacing his former ally Pompey and the Senate. After great battles against Pompey’s armies across the whole of the Roman state, Caesar briefly became supreme ruler of Rome before being assassinated.
So when the world’s compounded union breaks,
Time ends and to old Chaos all things turn;
Confused stars shall meet, celestial fire
Fleet in the floods, the earth shall shoulder sea,
Affording it no shore, and Phoebe’s wain
Chase Phoebus and enrag’d affect his place,
And strive to shine by day and full of strife
Dissolve the engines of the broken world.
All great things crush themselves [in se magna ruunt], such end the gods
Allot the height of honor.
Civil War I.72-82 (tr. Christopher Marlowe)
Lucan chronicles the bloody war with sarcasm, disbelief, and a subversive attitude toward all tradition. The Greek/Roman gods of those other epics are nearly absent, replaced by the fickle and frequently sadistic Fortune, as well as a multicultural array of superstitions and divinatory practices.
Though the material is primarily historical, taking place barely 100 years in the past, Lucan tosses in ghosts, spirits, the underworld, witches, and more. He utterly defies the linear and/or episodic nature of the earlier epics, shifting frequently between multiple plotlines and adding in loosely related interludes of both historical and mythical material.
No clear heroic or moral values emerge from the chaos. The characters are largely unredeemed: Caesar is a near-demonic monster, Pompey a tired and corrupt politician. Death is purposeless, and life is an unstinting sway of caprice. Knowledge is, if anything, a curse:
Ruler of Olympus, did you add these cares
to anxious mortals, to know future disasters
through dire omens? Either the creator of things,
when first flame abated and he obtained the reign
over rude and formless matter, fixed the causes
eternally—by which he holds all in order,
obeying the law himself—then partitioned
the world into ages, set limits for the fates;
or nothing is settled and fortune wanders uncertain,
twisting and turning events, and chance rules mortals.
May it be sudden, whatever you devise. Let
the minds of men be blind to future fate.
Leave them free to hope within their fears.
Civil War, II.4-17 (tr. Matthew Fox)
The poem feels stunningly modern, because so much of the values and rhetoric it invokes are immediately undermined and questioned. The non-linear narrative and drastic shifts in tone, coupled with Lucan’s frequent sarcasm and very black humor, conjure a world that is falling apart civically, ideologically, and spiritually.
It was and it wasn’t. With Nero’s suicide 68 AD (after having killed his mother and driven several generals into open revolt), another Civil War ensued in Rome. It was followed by the self-explanatory Year of the Four Emperors, before the reasonably competent emperor Vespasian stepped in and set the stage for another hundred years of comparative stability for the Roman Empire, including a couple of the best emperors Rome would ever have (Trajan and Hadrian, who ruled twenty years each from 98-138).
From Lucan’s perspective, things looked far worse. Being so close to Nero could not have made him anything but pessimistic and fatalistic. It’s worth comparing Lucan to his obvious antecedent Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid for Augustus, just as Lucan wrote the Civil War for Nero. Arguably, each got the epic they deserved. The Aeneid sets the founding myth of the Rome in place to anchor Augustus’ founding of the Roman Empire in tradition. Civil War tears it to shreds, just as Nero was the last of Augustus’ dynasty to rule the Roman Empire. Virgil waited until the age of 40 before starting on his epic, dying just before making final revisions. Lucan started in his early 20s and still did not live to come close to finishing it.
Lucan and Seneca were hugely influential on Renaissance poetry and drama, the Greeks not having gained the prominence they have today. Both ostensibly subscribed to Stoic philosophy; both wrote extremely bloody literature. Seneca’s plays have always felt too artificial and one-dimensional to me, but Lucan’s fervid creativity and chaotic inspiration make Civil War gripping and frequently mystifying. It captures the raw chaos of existence as well as Kleist or Celine. It is a work of inspiration in the most literal sense.