David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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….

1 Comment

  1. This is a wonderful contrast of the two men, but I like this even better:

    (For anyone who dares romanticize a reenchantment of nature, this is what a reenchanted nature promises you: indifferent and malevolent forces beyond control.)

    I was completely fascinated by these natural forces as portrayed in the poem. You wrote earlier as well about how the usual “those gods are absent, and when invoked are useless. …The superhuman forces at work are natural, not supernatural.” I doubt I would have “gotten” this completely on my own, although I do think I would have noticed the prominence of things like the wind and the water at some point, since Lucan really harps on these. And I love connecting the portrayal of Caesar to this as well. Great!

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