Tag Archives: Caesar

Review of CIVIL WAR – Lucan (translated Matthew Fox)

Penguin, 2012, 537 pages, translated by Matthew Fox

Has there ever been a better time to read Lucan’s Civil War? It’s the story of the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Principate. It’s the story of a world gone mad where a young and brash Caesar takes on Pompey the Great, the grizzled war hero. One leader takes too many risks, the other, too few. One leader has the gods on his side, the other has Cato on his side. The world hangs in balance. No one knows who Fate and Fortune will favour. Though the outcome is uncertain, all the participants in this game of death wager all-in. This is Lucan’s Bellum Civile or Civil War, sometimes also called The Pharsalia, after the famous battle at Pharsalus where, under divided standards, Roman slew Roman.

The Good

The first century critic Quintilian hits the nail on the head when he writes: “Lucan is fiery and excited and most illustrious for his clever phrases [sententiae].” Lucan was Twitter before there was Twitter. Today, he would have broken the internet with his wit on fire:

Caesar could bear none better, Pompey no equal.
Which one took up arms more justly? Knowing that
is not allowed–a high judge acquits each one:
Gods favored the victor, but Cato the lost cause.

The unspoken thought here is that senator and stoic philosopher Cato is equal to the gods. Daring. The image of mortals rising up to challenge the heavens occurs in many of Lucan’s memorable images. Here, for example, he contrasts Caesar to Liberty personified. Guess what?–they are evenly matched:

Flee dire battles
and call the gods to witness that who persists in arms
no longer dies for you, Magnus. Like the losses
in woeful Africa, like ruinous Munda, and the defeat
by the bay of Pharos, so the greater part
of Thessaly’s conflict after your departure
is no longer for Pompey’s world-famous name
nor zeal for war, but it will be the matched duel
that we always have: Liberty versus Caesar.

And here Lucan warns the Emperor Nero (who, ironically, he is planning to assassinate in the Pisonian conspiracy) to be mindful where he sets up his heavenly throne: if Nero sets it in the wrong spot, he would unbalance the cosmos:

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.

There’s no need for gods in Civil War because mortals can take the immortals’ places.

The Bad

Lucan’s Civil War is full of gladiatorial spectacle. In this regard, it’s similar to other Silver Age Latin works. The tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, are also full of macabre scenes befitting of B-movie horror films. Maybe in some future age these scenes will come back into vogue. Here’s one of many such passages from Civil War:

That day offered
many marvelous forms of death upon the sea.
An iron claw swings quickly up onto a ship
and hooks Lycidas. He would have sunk in the deep,
but his comrades grab and hold him by the shins.
He is ripped to pieces, and his blood does not flow slowly
as from a wound, but floods everywhere from open veins,
and his soul that circulated through his various limbs
is absorbed by water. Nobody’s life has ever fled
through so large a passageway. His bottom half
took to death the limbs that had no seat of life.
But where the heaving lungs lay and the guts glistened,
there his fate was stalled; this half of the man
struggled a long time, till finally death got him all.

The Ugly

The speeches by the leading characters all seem to be spoken by the same voice: Lucan’s. They are all manic caricatures of their character types. Erictho, in conjuring the nether powers, becomes, not a witch, but the caricature of evil:

“If I call on you with a mouth that’s sinful
and polluted enough, if I never sing these songs
while still famishing for human entrails,
if I’ve often bathed a hacked-up breast
still full of soul divine and brains still warm,
if any infant whose insides and head I’ve laid
upon your platters would have lived if I had not–
obey me as I pray!”

Who talks like that? Or take the nihilistic Pompey. On the morning of the Battle of Pharsalus, he exhorts his troops thus:

“If all agree with this,” he said,
“and if the time needs Magnus as a soldier,
not as leader, I won’t transgress the Fates by stalling.
Let Fortune envelop the nations in one downfall,
let this day’s light be the last for a large portion
of humankind. But I call you to witness, Rome!
Magnus welcomes this day when all will perish.”

Who exhorts troops like that? Magnus becomes a caricature of fate. So too, the do-gooding Cato, exhorting the troops after the grievous loss at Pharsalus, becomes a caricature of virtue:

“You who have chosen to follow my standards
as the one safe thing, with unconquered necks
and unto death–train your minds on our great task,
the utmost toils of virtue. We are heading
for barren plains, the world’s burned-out wastes,
where Sun is too hot, water rare in the springs,
and dry fields crawl with deadly serpents.
The path to law and order is hard, and so is
the love of our fatherland, now falling to ruin.”

Some say that Cato and Pompey are the heroes of Civil War. I’m not so sure. They have become such concentrated versions of themselves that it’s hard to take them seriously. Caesar too is a caricature, but he is a caricature of action. He is Goethe’s Faust before there was Faust and Nietzsche’s will to power before there was a will to power. For example, when under siege and about to perish, Lucan’s Caesar is still acting and planning as though he was the besieger going forth conquering, and a conqueror. There is something attractive in his never say die mentality. The same cannot be said about the cardboard cutout characters Pompey and Lucan.

Fate and Fortune

A primary consideration in epic poetry from Homer to Milton is the antinomy between fate and free will. I published an article on fate and free will in the journal Antichthon. If you’re interested, it’s available here. In the Iliad, Zeus hold the scales of fate. If he holds the scales of fate, it would seem that fate bends to Zeus’ will. But it’s not so clear: when the scales of fate doom his mortal son Sarpedon, all Zeus can do is watch. Even though he holds the scales, the scales seem to operate on a higher level of agency. So too the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost can be seen continuing the discussion Homer began so long ago in the Iliad:

Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.

Unsurprisingly, Lucan also explores the generic convention of fate and free will in Civil War. Instead of fate and free will, however, in Lucan it becomes the antinomy between fate and fortune.

In Lucan, certain events are fated. Roman civil war itself is fated. Rome had become too great. Civil war is the mechanism for nations to return to nature’s mean:

Great things rush to ruin: the powers that give bounty
have set this limit on increase. Not to any foreign
nations did Fortune lend her envy to use
against the people ruling on land and sea.
Made slaves of three masters, you caused the damage,
Rome, with fatal bonds of tyranny never before
loosed against the crowd. Foul concord! Blinded
by depths of greed! What use to unite your strength
to hold the world in common? As long as earth
shall light on sea and air on earth, and labors
keep the Sun revolving, night following day
through the same sum of signs, no pledge to reign
as peers will hold. All power is impatient of equals.

Unlike in Homer and Milton where fate is fate and free will is free will, Lucan’s fate is more like Virgil’s fate where–though it is true that certain events are fated to happen (such as founding Rome)–the actions of mortals and immortals can precipitate or delay fate. So, Virgil’s Juno says:

But I, great wife of Jove–who left no thing
undared, who tried all ways in wretchedness–
am beaten by Aeneas. If my power
is not enough, I shall not hesitate
to plead for more, from anywhere; if I
cannot bend High Ones, then I shall move hell.
I cannot keep him from the Latin kingdoms:
so be it, let Lavinia be his wife,
as fates have fixed. But I can still hold off
that moment and delay these great events.

There’s an echo of Juno in Lucan, through the mouth of Erictho:

The evil Thessalian, thrilled to hear her name
was famous and well known, responded, “If you’d asked
of lesser fates, young man, it would have been easy
to rouse unwilling gods and attain your wish.
My art can cause delay when the rays of stars
have marked one death, or even if all constellations
would grant one an old age, we can cut his years
in half with magic herbs. But once a series of causes
has descended from the world’s first origin
and all fates struggle if you want to change anything,
when the human race is subject to a single blow,
then Thessaly’s ilk admits it–Fortune is stronger.

Fate, in Lucan’s Civil War, is like fate in Virgil’s Aeneid: you can speed it up or put it off a few years, but the hour of doom comes sooner or later. But notice a strange tilt in Lucan. Whereas fate and free will are at odds in Homer, Virgil, and Milton, Lucan uses fate and fortune interchangeably: fortune is stronger than Erictho’s resources when fate decrees it must be so. This deserves attention.

Some of you may know about my theory of tragedy based on risk. I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. It is also profitable to analyze risk in Civil War. The world of Civil War is one that rewards risk takers. Two characters in Lucan’s epic get things done: Caesar becomes top dog and Cleopatra wrestles her kingdom back from her brother. What do they have in common?–both Caesar and Cleopatra throw risk to the winds. Lucan’s Caesar and Cleopatra are both daring, both reckless. They are risk takers, natural-born gamblers.

Cleopatra, for her part, sneaks into the palace to seduce Caesar:

Such a daring spirit she got from that first night
when our own generals lay wrapped up in bed
with Ptolemy’s incestuous daughter. Who
will not forgive your raving love for her, Antony,
when fire even consumed the hard heart of Caesar?

Caesar, for his part, also does what needs to be done, risk be damned:

But Caesar, reckless in everything,
thinks nothing is done if anything’s left to be done.

While the narrator in Civil War pays homage to Cato and Pompey, the gamblers come out ahead. In a way, Civil War says one thing, but does another. It keeps the reader guessing what the actual message is, if there is any message.

Skin in the Game

A few years ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a fantastic book: Skin in the Game. Success, he argued, happens when you have skin in the game, when you have a stake in the outcome. Caesar and Pompey’s speech to the troops illustrates the importance of having skin in the game. Compare how they address their troops:

Pompey: If all agree with this
and the time needs Magnus as a soldier,
not as leader, I won’t transgress the Fates by stalling.
Let Fortune envelop the nations in one downfall,
let this day’s light be the last for a large portion
of humankind. But I call you to witness, Rome!
Magnus welcomes this day when all will perish.
. . .
I’d wish the first lance of this deadly war
would pierce this head, if it could fall without
upsetting the balance, or destroying our party.
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.

Caesar: Breaker of the world, in all my affairs the fortune,
soldier, the riches of battle so often longed for
lie at hand. There’s no more need for prayers.
Summon fate now with your sword! In your hands
you hold the greatness of Caesar! Today is the day
I remember was promised me at the Rubicon’s waves,
and looking forward to this we took up arms,
postponing our return for triumphs denied us
until today, which will prove, with Fate as witness,
who took up arms more justly. This engagement
will render the loser guilty. If for me you’ve assaulted
your fatherland with fire and iron, fight now
all the more savagely and with your sword
free yourselves from guilt. 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.

Pompey asks the senate troops to fight for God knows what. Caesar, on the other hand, gives his troops skin in the game. The troops, he tells them, fight for Caesar’s greatness. Not only that, they fight for the triumphs the senate denied them. And, on top of that, they fight for their freedom: if they lose, they will be punished as traitors. They fight for their lives and win. This is the power of skin in the game. Caesar knows the power of skin in the game. Pompey doesn’t. To me, this is one of the mysteries of Lucan’s Civil War: for all the narrator extols Pompey, Pompey is sure dense. With that sort of exhortation, of course he gets routed at Pharsalus.

A Note on the Translator’s Introduction

I was surprised to see this passage in the translator’s introduction:

Alexander was a notorious admirer of Homer and Achilles: Caesar, too, is possessed by the glorious myths of Troy. If history-as-narrative had derived from the deep stream of Homeric epic, history-as-action was also always driven by men who were avid readers of epic, fired by its prize of immortal glory for heroic exploits. But it is possible these great men are simply, but tragically, poor readers of epic, deriving from it the wrong lessons, deluded by false notions of the heroic. After all, Achilles’ rage was “destructive” and for himself it results only in grief and the noble gesture of pity for his fallen enemy, the fatherly king Priam. [emphasis added]

If Alexander and Caesar are poor readers of epic, then who is the good reader of epic, the one who can derive from epic the correct lesson?

In all likelihood, many readings of poetry, epic, and literature are possible. For those seeking immortal glory, the myths of Troy have their allure. And that is all. There is no lesson. I don’t think Homer was meaning to say: “Look, I said Achilles’ rage was “destructive,” look what it did to poor Priam. Please don’t be like Achilles. He’s not a good role model.” That’s what the translator’s introduction seems to say to me, that the translators are good readers of epic, and, as good readers, have correctly derived the lesson Homer was trying to teach readers, that attaining immortal glory for heroic exploits is wrong because of all the suffering it involves.

Epic is life transformed into immortal glory. Sure, there’s suffering and destruction, but that’s the price. Don’t believe me? Then take Helen’s words in Homer’s Iliad to heart (Helen to Hector):

But come now, come in and rest on this chair, my brother,
since it is on your heart beyond all that the hard work has fallen
for the sake of dishonoured me and the blind act of Alexandros,
us two, on whom Zeus has set a vile destiny so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.

Suffering is justified, says Helen, so that we can be remembered forever. So too the destructive civil war allows Lucan to make Caesar and Pompey into a song for the men of the future (narrator speaking):

O sacred mighty work of poet-seers,
you rescue everything from fate and grant
eternal life to mortal peoples. Caesar,
don’t be touched by envy of sacred glory.
For if Latin Muses have a right to make a promise,
as long as Smyrna’s singer endures in honor,
the future will read you and me: our Pharsalia
will live, not condemned to shadows in any age.

For so much destruction, we have Lucan’s Pharsalia, otherwise called Civil War. In future ages, those who seek eternal renown will add the name of Caesar to the roll-call of heroes who achieved immortality. And also in future ages, someone too will tell these glory seekers that they are poor readers of epic. But who will be remembered–the glory seekers or their critics? Would you rather be a good reader who is forgotten soon or a poor reader who is remembered forever?

I wanted to like Lucan’s Civil War more than I did. Lucan, if Fortune had vouchsafed you to write Civil War in your seventies, you would have outshone Virgil and rivalled Milton and Homer. But as it was, fate cut you down at age 25. Those whom the gods love die young.

Book Blurb

Lucan lived from AD 39-65 at a time of great turbulence in Rome. His Civil War portrays two of the most colorful and powerful figures of the age–Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, enemies in a bloody and convulsive struggle for power that severed bloodlines and began the transformation of Roman civilization. As law and order broke down, the anarchy that resulted left its mark on the Roman people forever, paving the way for the imperial monarchy. Matthew Fox’s verse translation brings Civil War to life for a new generation of readers while retaining the rhetorical brilliance of the original, creating a new definitive edition of this classic.

Author Blurb

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (A.D. 39-65) was the nephew of the philosopher Seneca and close friend of the young emperor Nero, until a poetic rivalry and possibly political differences led to their falling out and Lucan being banned from both reciting his poetry in public and pleading in the law courts. He was a prolific and popular poet, but his only work to survive is his Civil War, a trenchantly anti-Caesarean epic about the fateful struggle between the rival leaders Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, which ended in disaster for the Roman Senate at Pharsalus in 48 B.C., the battle which forms the poem’s dramatic climax. In A.D. 65, after the great fire had ravaged Rome and with much discontent against Nero simmering across the empire, Lucan joined the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor, which failed and resulted in the execution by forced suicide of many of those involved. Along with his uncle, the author Petronius, and many other prominent Romans, Lucan took his own life, reputedly dying while reciting defiant verses from his epic. Since antiquity Lucan’s poem has been read as part of the classical canon, alongside the works of Virgil and Ovid. Its influence on the literary tradition from medieval to modern times is considerable, while Lucan’s death created a legacy of literary-political martyrdom that fired the imagination of revolutionary thinkers from the Renaissance to the many revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Translator Blurb

Matthew Fox studied Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oregon and earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Classics at Princeton. He has taught classics, anthropology, humanities, and writing at Princeton, St. Peter’s College (NJ), Deep Springs College (CA), where he held the Robert B. Aird Chair in Humanities, and Rutgers University, and now teaches at Whitman College (WA). His research focuses on the classical epic tradition and ancient cultures of poetic and musical performance.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.