David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: classics (page 3 of 4)

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….

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.

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