David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2012 (page 2 of 3)

Lucan’s Civil War: Erictho the Witch, the Necromancer, etc.

Oh Erictho, where do I even begin? Driven seemingly by a desire to top what had gone before, Lucan continues to astonish as the poem goes on, and Erictho is his trump card. Erictho is a witch—the witch, in fact—and her underworld sequence at the end of Book VI has been called both the worst and the best section in the book. It’s definitely one of the most extreme, if only because Lucan comes off as exceptionally self-conscious, piling on the gratuitous horrors far beyond the point where most anyone would stop. But because Lucan is inspired, he pulls it off. What he pulls off is uncertain, but even in translation, the section bears its weight.

As a description of Erictho’s excess, I can’t do better than W.R. Johnson, who terms Erictho a hero of Civil War alongside Caesar, Pompey, and Cato:

She is enormously pleased with the satanic discors machina. She knows exactly how to operate it, and her prayers to it, unlike Lucan’s prayers to more traditional numina, are invariably answered in her favor. For her, doing bad things to good people, or even to bad people, or to any one at all—virtue and vice do not engage her imagination—is fun.

She shows an inexhaustible fullnes of life and an unwearying zest for malicious and purposeless activity that remind me of two of my other favorite characters: Stendhal’s DR. Sansfin and the early-middle Donald Duck. She is something fairly rare outside, say, the dark farces of Ben Jonson or the savage and surreal animated cartoons of the 1930s and early 1940s: a living caricature of wickedness, a pure distillation of frenetic immorality.

W.R. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes

Two points he makes bear repeating. The first is that Erictho has no particular ulterior motive, but is more just a animistic force, so much like the universe. The second is that where other seers and pythia claim to have power and knowledge but can’t make good on it, Erictho occupies a place above the gods and even above Caesar, blithely in control of the forces of the universe. Not that Erictho does all that much with her power. Indeed, we hear more about Erictho than we see her doing anything.. She’s not an influential force on the poem’s plot per se, just a envoy of the horrific universe surveying the action.

See here for some fascinating background on the myths behind Erictho. It also appears that Neil Gaiman appropriated Erictho’s techniques in the Sandman’s A Game of You serial.

Pompey’s undercharacterized son Sextus goes to Erictho in Thessaly in the hopes of finding out the future. A long and very theatrical setting of the scene occurs:

Whenever black storm clouds conceal the stars,
Thessaly’s witch emerges from her empty tombs
and hunts down the nightly bolts of lightning.
Her tread has burned up seeds of fertile grain
and her breath alone has turned fresh air deadly.
She doesn’t pray to gods above, or call on powers
for aid with suppliant song, or know the ways
to offer entrails and receive auspicious omens.
She loves to light altars with funereal flames
and burn incense she’s snatched from blazing pyres.
At the merest hint of her praying voice, the gods grant her
any outrage, afraid to hear her second song.

She has buried souls alive, still in control
of their bodies, against their will death comes
with fate still owing them years. In a backward march
she has brought the dead back from the grave
and lifeless corpses have fled death. The smoking cinders
and burning bones of youths she’ll take straight from the pyre,
along with the torch, ripped from their parents’ grip,
and the fragments of the funeral couch with smoke
still wafting black, and the robes turning to ashes
and the coals that reek of his limbs. But when dead bodies
are preserved in stone, which absorbs their inner moisture,
and they stiffen as the decaying marrow is drawn off,
then she hungrily ravages every single joint,
sinks her fingers in the eyes and relishes it
as she digs the frozen orbs out, and she gnaws
the pallid, wasting nails from desiccated hands.

Civil War VI.579-606

Sextus flatters her, and she eats it up, happily resurrecting a corpse to report the news of the future. We are far from what the scene’s obvious antecedents, the underworld scenes in Book VI of the Aeneid and Book XI of the Odyssey, both of which come just before the midpoint of each epic and both of which result in auspicious findings for the heroes. (It’s not certain that the Civil War was to be twelve books long, but Books VI and VII feel very much like the heart of the poem, and general consensus has it at twelve.)

Here the underworld is not so mysterious or helpful. Erictho overshadows it completely. Erictho even tells Sextus that there’s nothing scary about her necromancy.

“If indeed I show you swamps of Styx and the shore
that roars with fire, if by my aid you’re able
to see the Eumenides and Cerberus, shaking
his necks that bristle with snakes, and the conquered backs
of Giants, why should you be scared, you cowards,
to meet with ghosts who are themselves afraid?”

When the corpse fails to resurrect, though, she throws a tantrum, and threatens the entire heavans and underworld at length. For me this is her greatest moment:

“And against you,
worst of the world’s rulers, I’ll send the Titan Sun,
bursting your caverns open and striking with sudden daylight. 830
Will you obey? Or must I address by name
that one at whose call the earth never fails to shudder
and quake, who openly looks on the Gorgon’s face,
who tortures the trembling Erinys with her own scourge
and dwells in a Tartarus whose depths your eye can’t plumb?
To him, you are the gods above; he swears, and breaks,
his oaths by waters of Styx.”

So who is this evil beyond evil whom Erictho has on quick-dial? Braund translates “that one” as “Him” (the Latin is just ille) and suggests as possibilities Demiurgus/Creator, Hermes Trismegistus, or Osiris or Typhon/Seti. I would love to know more about this when time permits, but it’s worth noting that, as explained in this old 1907 definition, Demiurgus was to become the evil Gnostic god himself in early Christianity:

Demiurgus, a name employed by Plato to denote the world-soul, the medium by which the idea is made real, the spiritual made material, the many made one, and it was adopted by the Gnostics to denote the world-maker as a being derived from God, but estranged from God, being environed in matter, which they regarded as evil, and so incapable as such of redeeming the soul from matter, from evil, such as the God of the Jews, and the Son of that God, conceived of as manifest in flesh.

I digress. Erictho is in touch with the genuine puppetmaster: not merely abstract Fortune, but the celestial watchmaker of the evil watch himself. She is unique in this regard.

Needless to say, the gods accede to Erictho’s threats and the corpse reanimates, but his report to Sextus is not especially helpful, hinting at the future but giving, ultimately, a shrug:

Don’t let the glory of this brief life disturb you.
The hour comes that will level all the leaders.
Rush into death and go down below with pride,
magnanimous, even if from lowly tombs,
and trample on the shades of the gods of Rome.
Which tomb the Nile’s waves will wash and which
the Tiber’s is the only question—for the leaders,
this fight is only about a funeral.

Fortune is doling out tombs upon your triumphs.
O pitiful house, you will look on nothing
in all the world safer than Emathia.”

Civil War VI.898-915

The future, then: you and your father and Caesar and everyone else will die. The Book ends without Sextus so much as responding. The corpse goes to rest, as promised by Erictho. So all the pageantry and drama, only to find out what we have known from the beginning, which is that all rulers and empires fall and die. In se magna ruunt: all great things crush themselves.

Erictho’s wickedness, in tandem with her lack of agency, make her a peculiar figure, simply because she is one of the very few characters in the book without much of an agenda in any direction. Even when she rails against heaven and hell, it’s on account of a “favor” she’s doing for Sextus, not any particular wish of her own.

It fits with the poem that the one character who may actually have some influence over the world’s events would be the character who never exercises that control in any meaningful way. (Her favor doesn’t amount to much, and she does explicitly say that she can only tell the future, not alter it.) Erictho is diabolical, but also oddly innocuous, at least within the poem. Stay far away from her, and she won’t cause you much trouble. Far less than the world, and Fortune, and Demiurgus will.

And as for the corpse’s predictions, I think not of Donald Duck, but of the Simpsons:

Psychic: [phone rings] Hello, "Radio Psychic"!  You will die a terrible, terrible
  Marge: [on the phone] [gasps]
Psychic: Ooh, I'm sorry!  That was our last caller.  OK, I'm getting
         something now.  Hmm.  OK: you will die a terrible, terrible
  Marge: But I --
     DJ: Thank you for calling "Radio Psychic".  Do you have a song

Lucan’s Civil War: Rhetoric and Power, Murder and Suicide

The Civil War is an epic steeped in rhetoric, or more precisely, birthed from the font of rhetoric. Rhetoric and rhetorical training was crucially important to writers of Lucan’s era in particular, but the entire classical world had an art and science of rhetoric that often gets short-changed because Plato, who opposed and distrusted the art of rhetorical persuasion (all the while using it), has won the battle of posterity in recent centuries.

But while speeches play a significant persuasive role in much Greek and Roman literature, Lucan’s epic takes a vastly more ironic stance toward the role of rhetoric. So often in Lucan, words are merely a form of force, their meaning purely relative to the situation in which they are employed, bereft of further significance. The first analogue that comes to mind is the proto-Machiavelli Chinese Legalist Han Fei (280-233 BC), who offers the following advice:

The important thing in persuasion is to learn how to play up the aspects that the person you are talking to is proud of, and play down the aspects he is ashamed of. Thus, if the person has some urgent personal desire, you should show him that it is his public duty to carry it out and urge him not to delay. If he has some mean objective in mind and yet cannot restrain himself, you should do your best to point out to him whatever admirable aspects it may have and to minimize the reprehensible ones…. This is the way to gain the confidence and intimacy of the person you are addressing and to make sure that you are able to say all you have to say without incurring his suspicion.

Han Fei (tr. Burton Watson), quoted in George Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric

It’s hard to say if Lucan is quite so cynical about the use of language, because Lucan is so fevered that his commitment to any principle, even that of ironic relativism of meaning, is difficult to assess. Nonetheless, there are many speeches in Civil War where it is clear that the import of their words is tailored to the situation and not meant to hold any greater meaning beyond it. Yet for those situations, when rhetoric serves as a spur to action, rhetoric is more powerful than any other instrument.

There is a very clever scene in Book III when Caesar tries to inspire his men to further bloody battle, but the weary and nervous troops are still hesitant to invade their homeland.

So [Caesar] spoke, but the doubtful crowd grumbled
hushed and unsure murmurs. However fierce their minds
and spirits swelling for slaughter, their fathers’
household gods, and piety, break them. But grim
love of steel and fear of their leader recall them.

Civil War III.382-7

In what seems to be a parodic reversal of the Iliad’s infamous scene with Thersites, where a low-ranking soldier speaks out against the Trojan War and gets humiliated and beaten by the aristocratic officer corps, Lucan has a high-ranking officer, Laelius, speak up and say exactly what Caesar wants to hear.

“If I may, O greatest governor of the Roman name,
and if it is right to confess true words—that you
have held in check your strength with long endurance
is our complaint. Have you lost your trust in us?
As long as warm blood moves our breathing bodies
and strength of arm remains to spin these long spears,
will you suffer the toga’s disgrace and the Senate to reign?
And is it really so dreadful to win a civil war?….

“Whatever walls you wish to throw down, level flat,
these arms will drive the ram to strew their stones.
You just name the city and I will utterly raze it,
even if it is Rome.” All at once the cohorts
gave their assent and made known with high hands
their pledge to take part in any war he charged them.

This is Laelius’ only appearance in the entire poem. Taking Han Fei’s advice to the hilt, Laelius reverses Caesar’s speech, telling Caesar that it is not they who have lost trust in Caesar but Caesar who has lost trust in them: of course they are loyal to him and will follow him in anything! But this bit of brown-nosing is not aimed at Caesar but at the rank and file. The issue becomes one of pride: surely Caesar’s worries about his men’s loss of faith can’t be true, can they?

Caesar’s rhetoric later becomes an explicit means to drive the men out of their right minds, to keep them in the fighting spirit. When they rebel, he demeans them while putting himself above the gods and embracing the Great Man theory of history:

“You really think
your efforts for me have ever carried weight?
The gods don’t care, they’d never stoop so low,
the Fates don’t give a damn about your life or death.
Everything follows the whims of men of action.
Humankind lives for the few.”…

They trembled at his savage threatening voice,
a helpless mob afraid of a single man whom they,
so many strong young men, could have turned
back to private life—as if his orders
could wield against their will the very iron
of their swords. And Caesar himself was worried
that they might refuse their weapons for this crime.
But they submit to cruelty easier than he hoped:
not only a sword but throats came forward, too.
Nothing inures minds to crime like killing
and dying. So a grim pact was struck, restoring order;
the troops scattered, appeased by punishments.

Civil War V.356-391

He orders other soldiers to execute the deserters, and they do. The executions reinforce their support of Caesar—or else why would they have assented? Caesar once more grows closer to his army, and his crimes are identified with their crimes. Rhetoric binds them together and drives them into an irrational, almost dissociated state of mind, the sort the Greeks termed ἄτη (Atë).

A great deal of the rhetoric revolves around freedom and liberty, and while Lucan sometimes extols the cause of liberty, he and his characters often question the use of the term in the cause of war. When the tribune Metellus begins to take up arms to stop Caesar from raiding Rome’s treasury, a citizen named Cotta convinces him otherwise with some exceedingly twisty logic:

“The people’s liberty, when tyranny constrains it,
perishes through liberty. But you preserve her shadow
if you willingly do what you’re ordered. Being conquered,
we’ve submitted to so much unfairness. Our only excuse
for disgrace and baseborn fear is that we could not resist.
Just let him pilfer quickly the evil seeds of dreadful war.
Such losses affect peoples who still maintain their rights.
Poverty falls heaviest not on slaves but on their masters.”

Civil War III.153-160

The arguments are highly debatable, especially given the outcome of the war,  but the speech works. Metellus doesn’t even respond.

One climax of rhetorical power comes at the end of Book IV, where a number of Caesar’s men are surrounded and attempt to escape by sea on rafts. One raft is surrounded by Pompey’s forces, and the commander of the doomed raft, Vulteius, urges his men to mass suicide with a lengthy, hyperbolic speech:

“I do not know what example you’re planning, Fortune,
by our great and memorable fates. But in all of history,
whatever annals record as monuments to loyalty
in service to the sword, of military duty,
our company would surpass them. For we know, Caesar,
falling on our swords for you is not enough.
But nothing greater remains, hard-pressed as we are,
than for us to offer great pledges of devotion.
Envious Fortune has cut off much of our glory,
since we are not captives with our sons and fathers….

“I have deserted life, my comrades, and wholly live
by my impulse for coming death! It is a frenzy!
Only those who are touched by the nearness of death
are permitted to realize what a blessing it is—
the gods hide this from survivors, to keep them alive.”

Civil War IV.521-548

Note that Vulteius invokes Fortune as “jealous,” a trait normally applied to the old Greek/Roman gods (the Greek word is φθόνος phthonos). This is a sign that Vulteius does not know what he is talking about, since Fortune is implacable and capricious, obeying no predictable laws. And the actual death reads as black comedy:

First the ship’s captain,
Vulteius, bares his neck and begs to meet fate:
“Is there any at all whose right hand is worthy
to spill my blood? Who will attest his faith,
seal his vow to die by stabbing me?”
He can say no more, for right then many a sword
drives his vitals through. Praising them all, he bestows
his grateful dying blow on the one who stabbed him first.
They fall on one and all, a single faction
committing every unspeakable act of war….

So the young men fall, sworn to share one fate,
and amid such manly deaths, to die takes little valor….

Now the half-dead drag their sprawling guts across
the deck and flood the sea with bloody gore;
ecstatic with the sight of the light they’ve spurned,
they behold their victors with proud faces
as death comes down.

Perhaps something has been lost or gained in translation, but this hardly reads as a dignified treatment of the mass suicide. It’s more of a burlesque, with the men in some kind of ritualistic trance from the violence.

Yet Lucan uses rhetoric as much as he depicts its power. The endless apostrophes and rhetorical questions in Civil War give it a far more demonstrative feel than the Aeneid, and according to Mark P.O. Morford in his short but very helpful The Poet Lucan: Studies in Rhetorical Epic, there are entire passages that follow classical rhetorical rules of organization.

Keeping that in mind, Lucan’s sincerity comes into question when, at the end of the suicide scene, Lucan appears to be praising Vulteius and his men:

But cowardly nations will still not understand
these men’s example: how a simple feat of bravery
frees you from slavery. Instead, kings use iron
to terrify, liberty is branded by savage armies,
to keep us ignorant that swords are for setting free!
Death, why not force cowards to stay in life,
and come to only those with valor?

This seems to argue that cowards should remain alive as punishment for cowardice, and a love of death is a better guarantor of freedom than anything else. If this is sincere, it has little to do with the particular cause. There is enough in Vulteius’ speech to mark him as a deluded warrior following an undeserving leader (Caesar), but perhaps Lucan is also emphasizing that death is preferable in any event to capture and enslavement?

If so, it’s a nihilistic message, since it implies that death is a boon regardless of the wrongness of cause or the comical grotesqueness of method. But there is enough elsewhere in the poem to make one wonder if this message is sincere even at all. So it’s on that note of uncertainty that I leave off on the first four books.

Lucan’s Civil War: Dissolution of the Body at Massilia

One of the most frequently discussed motifs in Civil War is how Lucan pays very little respect to the integrity and unity of the human body. Partly this is because a good chunk of the poem consists of bodies being dismembered and desecrated, but it goes much deeper than that. Multiple bodies are assimilated into one. Individual bodies are broken down into pieces. And the individual soldiers, even when they are named, are almost completely anonymous, no more than cells in a larger body.

Roman literature had a tendency toward the gory, even in high-minded verse like the Aeneid, but Lucan is unprecedented in my knowledge for the extremes to which he took the focus on the viscera. I give interesting but overrated theorist Mikhail Bakhtin flak for his distinction between the monovocal epic and the polyvocal novel, because Lucan does with his epic pretty much everything which Bakhtin claims only the novel can do. But this remark of Bakhtin’s, quoted by Shadi Bartsch in her Lucan study Ideology in Cold Blood, is dead accurate:

The grotesque image displays not only the outward but also the inner features of the body: blood, bowels, heart and other organs. The outward and inward features are often merged into one.

Mikhail Bakhtin

The merging, the confusion, the atomization: Lucan has it all. At the end of Book III, he tells of the treatment of the bodies after the battle of Massilia:

Oh, how parents wept
back in the city! Loud laments of mothers on the shore!
Many wives embraced an enemy soldier’s corpse,
mistaking the face defaced by the force of the sea.
Over burning pyres miserable fathers fought
over headless bodies. But Brutus, victor at sea,
conferred on Caesar’s army its first naval glory.

Civil War III.783-9

Faces, those identifying characteristics, are the first things to go. Contrast this with Euripides’ far more humanistic Bacchae, in which Agave’s mother returns from her Dionysian revels with her son’s head, so that she can recognize him as her victim.

In Book II, Lucan goes back decades to tell of the death of Roman warlord Marius, after he had been murdered by supporters of his long-time enemy Sulla:

“Why did it please them
to mutilate Marius’ face as if it were worthless,
and destroy their advantage? For, to please Sulla
with their bloody misdeed, he’d have to have been
still recognizable.

Civil War II.201-205

In a spot of irony, Lucan puts these words in the mouth of an unnamed Roman elder, recounting the tale from someone without an identity in the first place. This annihilation of identity against reason seems to be the natural endpoint for all forces. The human identity is a ruse put upon the action of natural bodily forces.

When he speaks of the death of Carus, it’s the blood that becomes the active force, not metaphorically but in place of any human agency:

From the upper deck fights Catus,
who boldly holds a Greek ship’s painted sternpost
when from both sides two spears pierce his chest and back—
deep inside his body the steel meets and clashes,
and the blood is unsure from which wound to flow
until a mighty surge of blood casts both spears out
and divvies up his soul between the deadly wounds.

Civil War III.611-617

That’s Fox’s Penguin translation, which I’ve been using primarily because it is a bit easier reading than Braund’s. She renders the last three lines:

and the blood stood stilll, unsure from which wound to flow,
until at one moment a flood of gore drove out both spears,
split his life, and dispersed death into the wounds.

Et stetit incertus, flueret quo volnere, sanguis,
Donee utrasque simul largus cruor expulit hastas
Divisitque animam sparsitque in volnera letum.

Life is split up and his blood escapes his body, replaced by death.

Immediately after, we hear the tale of two unnamed twins, treated as a united pair:

There were twin brothers, a fertile mother’s glory,
born from the same womb for different fates.
Cruel death parted the men, and their poor parents
no longer mistook them but recognized the one
who had survived—a cause of endless tears.
Ever after he caused them pain and moaning
because he looked like his lost brother.

Even their parents mistook them for one another; only one’s death allowed them to be distinguished. Of the lost brother we hear:

That one had dared
to grab hold of a Roman ship from his Greek deck
when the oars of both were tangled like a comb,
but from above a heavy blow cut off his hand,
yet it clung where he grabbed, on account of his grip,
and stiffened there, holding on, the sinews tense in death.
His virtue surged in misfortune. His wrath grows heroic
now that he is maimed. He renews the fight with his left hand
and leans down to the water to snatch up his right hand—
this hand, too, with the whole arm is sheared off.
Now without sword or shield he does not hide
down in the ship, but stands there and bares his breast
to protect his brother’s armor, he endures the points
of many weapons that would have killed many others,
and though long since earning death, he still holds on.
Then, with his life escaping through numerous wounds,
he gathers what’s left in his limbs and strains with all his blood
to jump on the enemy ship—but the sap in his nerves is gone
and only his body’s dead weight is left to do damage.

There’s definite comedy here of the Monty Python Black Knight variety: the soldier that persists in fighting even after losing his arms. The mutilation makes the twin more valorous, more heroic, and less human. The reversal in the bolded lines has his naked body becoming his brother’s armor. (Braund points this out as a reversal; thanks to Gabriella Gruder-Poni for helping me out with the ambiguous Latin arma tegens here.) He becomes a shield, and then a dead weight cannonball, his nerves having given out before that. What remains of his blood is enough to get his body onto the enemy ship.

Blood as a life force is not an unusual trope, but Lucan constructs an exceptionally material universe for it to inhabit, in which psychology and emotion (those things held in the face) are ephemeral manifestations of a more permanent organic scheme in which life is a very temporary and very particular arrangement, subject to dispersal. Moreover, what we call “life” and “human” is pure convention.

We (or parts of us) just as easily become  weapons or armor. Or even love objects. In a very brief moment of harmony in Book IV, soldiers on either side of the war recognize each other and celebrate together (before one side then goes and brutally murders the other later that night):

One calls a friend by name, one greets a relative, 190
others recall youth shared in childhood pursuits.
Any who did not know a foe, was not a Roman.
Weapons run with tears, kisses break into sobs,
and though not stained with blood one soldier fears
what he could have done….

Come now, Concord, unite all in an eternal bond
of embrace, this diverse universe’s salve
unto wholeness, along with holy World Love….

Oh Fate, you are a sinister power! That brief respite
only making the slaughter worse. There was peace.

Civil War IV.190-210

Even here, individual identity is dispersed. It’s the weapons that cry, individual gestures separated from the individuals who made them. The universe briefly alights on an image of love, complete with seemingly fatuous hymn from Lucan, only to reorder itself back into the far more usual brutality a few lines later. The omnipresent anonymity, the consequence of the dissolution of identity, is frightening.


Lucan’s Civil War: Fortune, Fate, and Caesar

Tezcatlipoca, "Enemy of Both Sides"

Down to the real business of the poem. Nicole made a great post about fate and fortune, and Lucan misses no opportunity to tell us how Fortune is the supreme god at work here, having completely supplanted the less fickle Greek and Roman gods of old. Though plenty fickle themselves, they could be addressed. They could be appeased. They had reasonably clear motivations. Fortune is opaque, implacable, and plausibly malevolent. Lucan invokes Fortune constantly as the ultimate force behind everything.

Though Lucan does not personify Fortune in any meaningful way, the closest analogue I know for Fortune would be Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”), the supreme god of the Aztecs (Mexica), also known by the epithets “Enemy of Both Sides” and “He Whose Slaves We Are.”

Inga Clendinnen memorably describes Tezcatlipoca in her interpretation:

Tezcatlipoca, unlike other Mesoamerican deities, did not represent a particular complex of natural forces. Nor did he provide an emblem of tribal identity. He was the deity associated with the vagaries of this world, of ‘the Here and Now’, as ubiquitous and ungraspable as the Night Wind: fickleness personified.

‘He only mocketh. Of no-one can he be a friend, to no-one true.’

Tezcatlipoca in the Mexica imagining of him was the epitome of the great lorrd: superb; indifferent to homage, with its implication of legitimate dependence; all bounty in his hand; and altogether too often not in the giving vein.

Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation

So it is with Fortune.

At the start of the poem, Caesar is Fortune’s favored child, and he knows it. He has the upper hand against the aging general Pompey (aka Magnus), who is formidable but unfavored. Anyone reading the poem will know that Caesar will win the war but soon be assassinated, Fortune having abandoned him, so it is temporary. Yet even Caesar seems to realize this, and plunges headlong as long as Fortune is at his back. With Fortune on his side, Caesar is portrayed as possessing strength and will beyond that of the old gods.

A striking scene appears in Book I, when Caesar is about to cross the Rubicon and meets a tearful apparition of Rome:

Now the cold Alps were past on Caesar’s course,
and in his mind the great revolts and coming war
had been conceived. At the waters of narrow Rubicon
the leader saw the mighty image of his fatherland
full of sorrow, trembling clearly in night’s darkness,
white hair disheveled on her head crowned with towers,
locks shorn and arms laid bare she stood before them;
choked by sobs she spoke: “How far will you go?
Where do you bear my standards, men? If you come
as lawful citizens, you must stop here.” Cold dread
seized their leader’s limbs. His hair stood high on end,
and faintness checked his footsteps at the river’s edge.

Soon he spoke: “You who overlook the city’s walls
from Tarpeia’s rock, Thunderer, you Phrygian housegods
of Iulus’ clan, and secrets of Quirinus who disappeared,
and residing on high Alba, Jupiter of Latium,
and Vestal fires and you, O godly apparition,
Rome—favor my endeavors. No furious arms
attack you. See me, victor on land and sea,
Caesar, always and even now your soldier.
He will be guilty who made me your enemy.”

Civil War I.200-220

Caesar hesitates briefly on seeing the ghost. He is not inhuman. But he responds with a skillfully rhetorical argument. (Rhetoric is very important at every level of Civil War.) He tells her that she should favor him, and that he is on her side. And he is on Rome’s side because Fortune is on his side. He will win, and so therefore he will be the protector of Rome. And thus he is already the protector of Rome; it’s just that a lot of people, including Pompey, don’t yet understand that.

This is hardly a valid argument, but the apparition does not have a chance to respond. The argument is enough to convince Caesar, and so he marches onward toward Rome. A running motif will be the power of speech to compel people to do almost anything, including die. Having crossed the Rubicon river, Caesar declaims to no one in particular how Fortune has put him above the law and above the gods:

 “Here, right here, I shed peace and our defiled laws.
Fortune, I follow you. Faith can go to the winds—
I’ve put my trust in the Fates. Let war decide!”

Civil War I.244-7

Caesar is conscious of his role as an agent of Fortune. He is certainly a power-hungry monster, but he also recognizes that he is rolling with the flow of fate, almost possessed by it. His men grumble and don’t particularly want to fight, but they don’t dare voice their fears, and when the venal Curio eggs Caesar on, it’s as though he were stoking a white hot furnace:

So [Curio] spoke, and though hell-bent on war already,
the speech adds rage and ignites the leader, as much
as clamor aids the Olympic stallion—though pent in
behind starting bars, he’s straining over the gates
and now leans hard to burst free from the bolts.

Civil War I.317-21

Again, the language is that of surrendering to instinct and fate. By Book III, Caesar is openly proclaiming himself the chosen one to his troops:

 These Greeks trust in vain the haste of my course!
For though we are in a hurry to get out west,
there’s time to destroy Massilia. Be glad, my cohorts!
Fate offers us spoils of wars along the way.
As a wind loses power—unless it runs up against
strong dense forests, it dissipates into empty space—
and as a great fire dies down when nothing obstructs it,
so not having enemies harms me. I think it a waste
of armed force if those I can conquer don’t fight back.

Civil War III.373-382

I think this is more than mere simile. The Greek and Roman gods were notable in displacing gods of nature; relative to most cultures’ mythologies, there are far fewer nature gods, and by the time of the Iliad they have receded into the background, a point Moses Finley makes in his wonderful The World of Odysseus. Finley points out that sun god Helios is portrayed as mostly impotent and harvest/fertility goddess Demeter is just plain ignored. He attributes this to the Greek warrior culture enabling the elevation of the aristocratic Olympian gods.

But in Lucan, those gods are absent, and when invoked are useless. Mars is mentioned, but more as a metaphor rather than as any actual deity. The superhuman forces at work are natural, not supernatural. Wind, fire, and all the other elements of the celestial clock trump any action. And those elements are all components of Fortune and Fate. Wind and fire obey the laws of physics and nature; so Caesar obeys his laws of nature, which drive him to endless violence. In the case of Massilia, the village declares itself neutral and though Caesar could simply go on, he takes the time to destroy them. Because it’s his nature.

In such a world, knowledge is at best useless, and at worst a curse. Omens and forecasts only make you more aware of what you can’t control:

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

Whether the world is order or chaos, we have no control over it. (I’m not sure why Lucan chooses to ask the Ruler of Olympus, however.)

Lucan’s Civil War: About That Dedication to Nero

Nero: Still more handsome than Galba

Nicole talked about the opening of Civil War and the peculiar dedication to Nero.

Lucan apparently wrote the first three books of his epic before he fell out of favor with Nero, and so there’s been a lot of dispute over whether the praise of Nero at the beginning of the poem is sincere.

Even as the poem bemoans the awfulness of the Roman Civil War, Lucan says that still, the reward of Nero made all that horror worthwhile.

This is certainly bombastic praise, and conceivably sincere, but what about the next passage?

When your watch is through
and you seek the stars at last, your chosen court
of heaven will welcome you, delighting the pole.
You could hold the scepter, or you may like to mount
Phoebus’ flame-bearing chariot, range the earth—
unfazed by the change of sun—with roving fire;
whatever you please: each god will cede to you,
and nature will relinquish her right to you
to be what god you will, install your world throne.
But do not choose your seat in Arctic regions,
nor in warm skies inclined to adverse south winds:
from these your gaze on Rome would be aslant.
If you weigh on any one part of boundless space
the axle will feel the load. Keep your weight
to the middle: balance heaven.

Civil War I.48-62 (tr. Matthew Fox)

Let’s look at Susanna Braund’s translation of the bolded lines:

If you press on either side of the boundless ether,
the sky will feel the weight.

[Aetheris inmensi partem si presseris unam,
Sentiet axis onus.]

Even allowing for cultural differences, this line seems awfully suspicious. Lucan says that Nero is so heavy that he must be careful not to sit too far to one side in heaven or else he’ll crush the sky. Of all the possible metaphors Lucan could have used, this one seems rather inopportune. He had not fallen from favor with Nero yet, but wouldn’t it have been exactly these sorts of antics that alienated Nero in the first place?

In his essay “Is the Eulogy of Nero Ironic?” Pierre Grimal disagrees and insists this is sincere praise. He makes a weak case: he simply ignores the boldface lines above, and he quotes Tacitus as saying that Nero was young and handsome. Unfortunately, Tacitus doesn’t say this; he only says that Nero was younger and less ugly than the bald, arthritic 72 year old emperor Galba. That’s a low bar.

If Grimal has to reach that much for evidence, I distrust his thesis, and so I will stick to believing that Lucan was mocking Nero from the start. The sinister ambiguity of the final lines of the eulogy certainly leave room for interpretation:

But you’re a god to me now: and if as seer
my heart is seized by you, I’d have no need
to rouse the god who stirs up Delphi’s secrets
or to bother Bacchus to abandon Nysa—
you are enough to empower Roman poems.

Civil War I.68-72 (tr. Matthew Fox)

And what a poem Nero empowers. On to more weighty (ho ho) matters next!

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