David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2012 (page 1 of 3)

Lucan’s Civil War: Cato Hates Snakes

Cato the Younger

With Pompey dead, Book IX of Civil War, the action moves to Egypt, where Caesar will ally with Cleopatra. But most of Book IX is taken up by Cato and his army. Cato was a senator, but also an ascetic stoic, extremely stubborn, and utterly incorruptible. (Such traits seem to have run in the family. His great-grandfather Cato the Elder was even more irascible and draconian.)

Cato has been more or less absent from the epic since Book II, where he appeared briefly but memorably as an Über-stoic, remarrying his wife in a ceremony that made great use of one of Lucan’s favorite tropes, negation:

Her words sway her man, and though the times
are strange for marriage, with fate calling for war,
they agree on simple vows, without the empty pomp,
and call the gods as witnesses for the sacred rite.
The threshold was not crowned with festive garlands,
no white wool ribbons twined round both the doorposts.
No customary torches, no ivory steps by which
to mount the bed, with gold embroidered blankets.
The matron wears on her brow no towering crown
nor avoids touching the threshold as she passes.
No bright saffron veil, to lightly conceal the bride’s
blush of timid shame, hid her down-turned gaze.
No jeweled girdle bound a flowing toga,
nor any lovely necklace, nor narrow linen bands
hung from her shoulders, circling her bare arms….

He did not shave from his reverend face his bristling
beard, and he let no joy crack his hard appearance.
For since the time he first saw fatal arms raised up
his white hair went uncut, flowed down his steadfast brow,
and he let a grisly beard grow out on his cheeks.
He was the only one, free from zeal and hatred,
also free to mourn the human race. Their old bed
is not tried again. His strength even stands against
wedded love. It was his custom, the unwavering
habit of tough Cato, to be moderate and observe
the limit, to follow nature, to risk his life for his country.
He believed he was born not for himself but the world.
To conquer hunger was a feast to him.

Civil War II.373-407

For Cato the ascetic, even marital sex is immoderate. W. R. Johnson, in his excellent book Momentary Monsters, claimed on the basis of this passage and others that Lucan thinks Cato is a joke, a parody of the stoic not meant to be taken seriously as a hero. While that might possibly be true in Book II, Cato is far more grave in Book IX. He is reintroduced as the new counterweight to Caesar, and as a far more willing opponent than Pompey ever was. Although Cato will commit suicide (indeed, this is thought to be where Lucan would have really ended the epic), he does so with serious dignity.

Yet what Cato goes up against is drastically different than anything Pompey faced. For all of Book IX, Cato and his men are stuck in the African desert starving. Caesar is absent both physically and conceptually. Cato, for his part, is as merciless as Caesar, excoriating his men for any thought of desertion and enforcing rigid discipline. Cato was historically famous as a speaker, and his words are as binding and motivating soldiers as Caesar’s. Recall the power of rhetoric in this epic.

You were Pompeian, not Roman forces. But now,
you aren’t toiling toward a kingdom. Now
you live and die for yourselves, not for your leaders.
Now you aren’t seeking the world for anybody,
now you are free to conquer for yourselves.
You’re fleeing war and longing for the yoke
now that your neck is free! You don’t know how
to bear life without a king! But now the cause
is worth the hazard for men. Pompey might have
spilled your blood—now, for your fatherland,
you pull back your throats and deny your swords,
when liberty is so near?…

His words called all the ships back from mid-sea,
as when the swarms at once are leaving the combs
of wax from which they’ve hatched, forgetting the hive,
their wings don’t interweave or densely mingle
but each flies lazily off on her own, no longer
tasting bitter thyme….

So the voice of Cato
impressed upon the men endurance for just war.

He decided to spur them on with constant work
and labors of war, to exercise their minds,
which had not learned to hold their peace.

Civil War IX.317-364

Cato uses freedom as a cudgel to berate the men for not standing strong for Rome in the face of Caesar. Both Pompey and Caesar, among many others, invoked freedom as well for all manner of free and unfree causes. Is Cato’s cause superior? Are his words more sincere, are he and his men more clear-minded and free of ate? I do not know if the poem gives a clear answer, nor if it is meant to do so. And I am not sure how much relevance the question even has, ultimately, for reasons given below.

I do, however, believe that Lucan’s praise of Cato is not sarcastic; the esteem is too well-proportioned. If Lucan had meant to ridicule Cato, he would have made Cato ten times more stoic. And notably, Cato does something that no one else has done: he ignores the oracles.

“It’s not oracles but the certainty of death
that makes me certain. The coward and the brave
both must fall. That is Jove’s word, and it is enough.”

For Lucan, this line is enough to grant Cato far more credibility than most characters.

But Cato’s fortitude meets unexpected foes. The starvation has just been the start. Lucan then throws at Cato and his men, in the most absurd way possible, a far deadlier hazard: snakes. A catalogue of them and the varied but always fatal effects of their venom.


Here, for one, is the seps:

A tiny seps struck poor Sabellus on the leg.
Its curved fangs stuck there till he tore it off by hand
and with his javelin pinned it to the sand.
Just a little serpent, but no other holds
so much bloody death. For the broken skin
around the bite drew back, exposing to view
the pale white of the bones, and as the abscess widened
the wound stripped off his flesh. His limbs are awash
in putrefaction, his calves have melted away,
the back of his knee is laid bare, and all the muscles
of his thighs dissolve, while from his groin
a black pus oozes. The membrane holding the belly
burst and his guts spilled out, but not as much
poured on the ground as should have from one body,
since the brutal venom boiled down his limbs
and death constricted it all into potent poison.
The unholy nature of that plague reveals
all there is to man—the ligaments that bind,
the texture of the rib cage, the hollow chest
and everything concealed by the vital organs
is laid bare in death. His shoulders and stout arms
melt away, his neck and head flow down,
quicker than snow thaws in the warm south wind
or wax gives way to sun. It’s not saying much
that his flesh was dripping, burned by the venom
in his blood. Flame can do this too—
but what pyre ever consumed the bones?
These also disappear, along with the marrow
that goes to rot, leaving no traces of his sudden fate.
Of all the pests on Libya’s river Cinyps,
the palm for harmfulness goes to you: the rest
may take the soul, only you take the corpse.

Civil War IX.950-981

There are about half a dozen types of snakes, their venom’s effects all described in creatively gruesome detail. (Dante would make good use of them in Canto 24 of the Inferno.) The emphasis on bodily disintegration meshes well with the theme of the inhuman body that runs throughout the epic, but this section is too isolated too match the drama of earlier setpieces, however gory they were.

Yet I feel I have a sense of what Lucan was trying to accomplish, even if it was not quite successful. Up until now we have had Caesar as the opponent, and no matter how godlike and inhuman he became, he was still ultimately a person, and we the readers thought of him as a person. Book IX, I think, attempts to dissolve that distinction between the human and the inhuman. The snakes are meant to be no different from Caesar. The shock is meant to be that we realize that Cato’s men fighting (and losing to) snakes is no different from Cato’s men fighting Caesar’s men. Cato, trapped in the desert and set upon by natural forces, is just experiencing a different form of what Pompey had been experiencing. Cato recognizes that there is no difference, as does Lucan, but we the readers have not.

(Note that Nero’s place in the sky, all the way back at the beginning of Book I, would set him right above the desert. Rome and the desert are one and the same. And once more, to those who pine for a re-enchantment of nature: this is it, snakes and all, so be careful what you wish for. Nature does not like you.)

So just as Lucan has replaced the anthropomorphic Greek and Roman gods with the forces of the natural world, the purpose of Book IX is to replace the conflict of man against man with one of man against nature—or more properly speaking, one part of nature against another part of nature. He thereby undoes the primacy of the warrior that was established in the Iliad and maintained ever since.

This is, I think, a magnificent and sublime move on Lucan’s part. But I do not think he pulls it off successfully. Lucan simply does not evoke the snakes and the desert with the force and immediacy with which he evoked Caesar, Pharsalia, or Erictho. Yet to give unity to the poem, I feel that this must have been his intent.


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.

Lucan’s Civil War: Pharsalia’s Winner and Loser

Caesar became a leviathan, a monster, a deity during the battle of Pharsalia. But Caesar’s apotheosis is momentary. Lucan takes the time to flash forward to his future death, in order to remind us of that. But the turn in Caesar’s fortune is instantaneous, not delayed.

As far as Pharsalia is the decisive battle of the Roman Civil War, there is no further peak to be reached for Caesar, only honors and formalities. While Caesar sought power, it was not lust for power that drove him to this point, but expression of power, the natural force that inhabited him.

The battle, which has been told more in rhetoric and metaphor than in actual depictions of warfare, ends with both Pompey and Caesar no longer embodying legions within them (Pompey half-heartedly), but reduced to the size of the human. For Pompey this is not a tremendous adjustment, but for Caesar it is. Victory and loss is handed out: these are not forces but conditions, and now Caesar is set upon by nightmares, of all things.

From deserving men
victory exacts stern penalties, and in sleep
hisses and flames assail them, shades of slain
fellow citizens appear, and each is haunted
by a specter of what frightens him the most.
One sees old men’s faces, another the shapes
of boys, another’s dreams are troubled by
corpses of his brothers, or his father
haunts another’s heart. But all of the phantoms
are inside Caesar—just as Orestes, in Pelops’ line,
before he had been purged at the Scythian altar,
beheld the Furies’ faces, or like the mutiny
of mind, utter bewilderment, that Pentheus felt
while he was raving, or that Agave felt
after her madness faded—so is he overwhelmed
that night by every sword Pharsalia saw,
or all that would be drawn on that day of vengeance
in the Senate. Infernal monsters torture him.
And how much punishment is his guilty conscience
sparing the wretch, when he sees in his dreams
the river Styx and Tartarus with its crowds of dead
while Pompey is still alive!

Civil War VII.894-915

I was shocked to read this, coming as it does immediately after the moment of Caesar’s triumph, and also because Caesar’s doubts have only been momentary and minor to this point. But here, it’s as though Caesar is being overwhelmed by the size of the forces that have been inhabiting him. As though they have no place to go now that he is victor but to turn on him. Though he recovers sufficiently the next day to survey the bloody battlefield with great satisfaction, this passage makes his ultimate doom inevitable.

Note that the Underworld itself is turning on him, as it never could on Erictho. He was only a temporary vessel for nature’s forces. The two mythical invocations are apt. Orestes kills his mother whilst spurred on by conflicting familial and ghostly duties. Agave in the Bacchae fades from her madness to see that she has killed her own son, just as Caesar has killed Rome in a bloody Dionysian ritual. But Lucan also cites Pentheus, Agave’s son, while he is possessed by madness, not after it fades, implying that both madness and sanity hold the same tortures. So it is not that Caesar has passed out of madness or into madness. He is just no longer the controlling force at work—and thus now a victim. Lucan denies him much in the way of enjoyment of his triumph.

Pompey is the loser, but at least gains peace in the process. He goes down without even letting all his men die for him, quite a contrast to the fervid suicides of earlier.

“Gods above, spare them!
Do not destroy all nations! Let the world stand,
let Rome survive! Magnus can be the one to suffer.
If more pain would please you, I have a wife and sons.
I’ve pledged them all as security to the Fates.
Is it not enough if the civil war wipe out
both me and mine? Are we too small a loss
when the world is spared? Why do you devastate
and labor to destroy all things? By now,
Fortune, I have nothing left.” So he declares,
and around the army and standards—troops afflicted
on every side—he goes and calls back those
rushing to early doom, tells them he’s not worth it.

Civil War VII.761-774

Again, the gods he appeals to are powerless. But no bad dreams spoil his night. He dreamed of happier times at the beginning of the book, and now sure of his loss, has little to fear. And with that, seemingly, comes much greater sympathy from Lucan.

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

Lucan’s Civil War: The Battle of Pharsalia and Caesar’s Chthonic Apotheosis

In Book VII Lucan reaches Pharsalia, the decisive battle between Caesar and Pompey’s forces, and the indisputable climax of Civil War. (Indeed, the poem is often called Pharsalia.) Though it is clear that the fortune-favored Caesar is in ascent and the tired, hesitant Pompey is doomed, this is not a battle between two generals but between a god and a weakling.

Erictho and her necromancy have shown the whole conflict to be a sick game of fate, and at the largest level there is very little of traditional values and virtues (and virtus, which is not the same as virtue but something closer to valor) to be spoken of. Though Lucan has ambiguously spoken of brave suicides, there is far too much inhuman here for Pharsalia to seem like a pitched or even an unfair fight. It’s the infection of epic with fickle fate and fickle nature.

As though to remind readers that it is not men making history here, Lucan set plague upon Pompey’s horses and men in Book VI, from the same Stygian sources as Erictho’s power:

A bigger worry stops the chiefs from engaging
their armies: Pompey now faced a land exhausted
of grazing supplies; the cavalry trampled it under
as hard hooves racing by pounded the budding plain.
With the fields mowed down, war chargers languish.
Although their mangers brim with import hay,
they grow deathly ill, longing to chew fresh grass;
wheeling round, their knees give out and they fall.
And as their corpses rotted, dissolving limb from limb,
stagnant air drew up the contagious, flowing plague
into a foggy haze, the sort of vapor Nesis sends up,
that Stygian mist from its steaming rocks, and as the caves
of Typhon exhale a lethal madness. Then the men
succumb; the water, which takes on any taint
more readily than air, stiffens their guts with filth.
Their skin hardens tight, their eyes swell up and burst,
a burning fire of sacred fever spreads to their faces;
men are so tired they refuse to lift their heads.
More and more, headlong fate takes everything.
The living aren’t sick long before they die;
the ailment brings death with it. The crowd of fallen
worsened the plague, since unburied bodies lay there
mixed with the living; for those wretched citizens
their funeral was to be cast outside the tents.

Civil War VI.88-111

The animals and the men are on the same level; they become infected bodies spreading plague. This incessant theme must be borne in mind while reading of the battle itself.

Yet Book VII begins with Pompey dreaming of his own days of good fortune, and, finally resigning himself to the caprices of history, he stops running and makes a stand.

“You gave me the Roman state to rule over, Fortune.
Take it back now greater, guard it amid Mars’ blindness.
For Pompey the war will be no crime or glory.
Among the gods above you’ve beat me, Caesar,
with your hostile prayers. The fight is on!”

For victory will not bring more joy to Magnus.
Today, once this massacre’s been committed,
Pompey will be a name that’s either hated
or pitied by all peoples. This final cast of lots
for everything will bring all evils on the vanquished.
All the guilt will fall upon the victor.”

So speaking, he commits the nations to arms
and rage lets loose the reins upon their raving,
as when a sailor, beaten by violent northwest blasts,
gives up his skill and hands the rudder to winds,
like worthless cargo of his ship he’s dragged along…

Civil War VII.128-150

Lucan then throws in a number of portents and omens, as though to underscore just how little control Pompey had to events. (For anyone who dares romanticize a reenchantment of nature, this is what a reenchanted nature promises you: indifferent and malevolent forces beyond control.)

This surrender to fate oddly seems to carry with it more nobility than careful strategy and defiance. Lucan’s attitude from this point on is far more sympathetic and even complimentary to Pompey. He cheers him on during the battle, even though the narrator and the readers know that Pompey is fated to lose. (There is even a flashforward to Caesar’s assassination by Cassius, to remind readers that this is real history and so already set in stone, just as Erictho told Sextus Pompey that fated history could not be altered.)

In Thessaly nature rolled out a day
unlike any other, and if the mind of man
had read through skillful augury all the heavens’
strange new signs, the whole world could have watched
the spectacle at Pharsalia.

maybe my diligent labor can also bring some profit
to these great names: whenever these wars are read,
hope and fear and dying prayers will waver,
all will stand rapt, enthralled, as though their fates
are even now approaching and not yet finished…
they’ll read and, Magnus, they still will cheer for you.

Drain the world of blood,
Magnus! Rob the victor of nations over whom
to triumph! Just annihilate them all at once!

Pompey remains in great esteem for the remainder of the poem, but there is a peculiar irony in the twist of his portrayal. It is as though, once he is known to be the loser and once he embraces his fate as the loser in history, it is safe for him to become idealized and made into a brave hero, because he lost. The history that would have taken place had he won is not known, and so we are free to think that whatever happened would have been better than the outcome obtained with Caesar’s victory. Readers will cheer for Pompey Magnus because he will remind them of better possibilities and hopes never to be realized. You can’t easily disprove a counterfactual. Had Pompey won, paradise would have ensued.

Contrariwise, Caesar grows to even more caricatured levels of evil, barking out frenzied orders like a movie villain Nazi, but with all the talent of Lucan’s charismatic rhetoric. He pours out illogical justifications of his cause and promises fame, glory, power, wealth, anything and everything to enrage his men, activate Atë, and win. It’s quite thrilling to read, and thus disturbing. Caesar howls:

“For if the other side
becomes the judge of war, no hand will be clean.
This struggle is not for me, but so that the lot of you
might be free, hold power over all nations,
that’s my prayer. For me, I long to return
to private life, wear a toga of the people
and be a modest citizen. Just so long as you
are free to do all things, I will not object
to having no position. You can be king!
The hatred can be mine.”

They take the omens of war
and trample the camp in their rushing, stand in no order,
follow no plan of their leader, leave it all to the Fates.
If all of them had been fathers-in-law of Magnus,
all of them seeking to dominate their own city,
and you set them down there in that fatal warfare,
they still would not have stormed so headlong into battle.

That boldfaced line is really key here, a sign that Caesar has come to occupy the hearts and minds of his men. Caesar has become legion and his entire army moves as his body, fighting for him and as him.

Pompey can’t hope to match Caesar’s rhetoric. His speeches actually make sense and appeal to a vaguely consistent ideal of freedom, but they are far less exciting.

Our greater cause urges us
to hope for favor from powers above. They will guide
your shafts through Caesar’s vitals, it’s their will
to ratify Roman laws, sanctified with his blood.
If they were ready to hand my father-in-law
the kingdom and the world, they could have hurled me
in old age down to my fates.

Yawn. Lucan is not a subtle writer, and Pompey’s appeal to “hope” and even logic (the gods would have killed him already if they meant for him to lose the battle) is blatantly feeble, especially with Caesar swelling to beyond-epic proportions.

Caesar, who will be deified by Augustus, reaches his apotheosis here, not in death. He merges with Fortune, becoming a temporary agent of the chaos and conflict that rules the universe, the evil Gnostic god revealed.

Lucan inserts himself into the poem to an even greater extent and describes himself as being overwhelmed by Caesar in similar terms as Dante would describe being overwhelmed by his vision of God at the end of the Divine Comedy. (Dante loved Lucan.) Caesar bested the storm alone in Book IV; now he is the storm.

Here is raving insanity, here are all your crimes, Caesar.
Flee this part of the war, my mind, leave it in darkness,
and let no age learn of such evils from me as poet,
or just how much becomes licit in civil wars.
Let our tears fall dead, fall dead our lamentations.
Whatever you did in this clash, Rome, I’ll keep silent….

Here Caesar goads the crowds to rave and rage,
and so that no part miss out on crime, he ranges
around the lines, adding fire to blazing spirits.
He inspects their swords—which are dripping blood,
which ones still shine, only the point is gory,
what hand shakes as it grips its sword, who is lazy
and who strains to thrust his weapons, who performs
when ordered and who enjoys the fight, whose face
betrays emotion when killing a fellow citizen.
He tours the corpses strewn widely on the fields.
His own hand stanches open wounds of many
whose blood is draining out. Wherever he wanders—
like Bellona cracking her bloody whip, or Mars
impelling Bistones onward, savagely lashing
his chariot stallions thrown into mayhem by
the aegis of Pallas—a vast night of felonies falls,
slaughter springs up, and some gigantic voice
howling, clattering shrieks of armor on chests
collapsing, sword blades shattering sword blades.

Caesar becomes the equal of what people once believed Mars to be. We are far from the actual action of the conflict, Lucan marshaling every myth and nightmare he can summon in depicting the fundamental forces of existence. This must be what the inside of Erictho’s mind is like; it must be what humanity strives to avoid confronting at every turn during brief lives.

And yet then, after this momentary apocalypse, things change drastically….

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