David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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.



  1. Cowards and heroes alike are reduced to ash or dust and feed the burgeoning shells that harbor new life. Nature depends upon this cycle while bereft of emotion. There is no conflict of man as a part of nature in conflict with nature itself.Man struggling with man does not diminish or define nature and human notions to the contrary reek of ill founded megalomania the odor of which from generations past and yet to come always delight the worms and provide continuous employment for the crematory stoker. The primacy of the warrior is not undone by Lucan’s argument as the warriors essence remains in the defining virtues of loyalty, wisdom, kindness and courage. These are not corporeal and therefore are immune to the serpent’s fang and venom be it from a figurative Caesar or a literal Asp.

  2. Interesting that you write Cato committed suicide with serious dignity: in Plutarch’s account, he called for his sword and when the slave didn’t bring it, he punched the slave in the mouth so hard that he injured his hand, he then broke down into recriminations and claimed everyone was against him. Hardly dignified i would think.

Leave a Reply

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑