How mighty, how sacred is the poet’s task! He snatches all things from destruction and gives to mortal men immortality. Be not jealous, Caesar, of those whom fame has consecrated; for, if it is permissible for the Latin Muses to promise aught, then, as long as the fame of Smyrna’s bard endures, posterity shall read my verse and your deeds; our Pharsalia shall live on, and no age will ever doom us to oblivion. – Lucan, De Pharsalia (Book IX)
With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound He pulls the spitting high tension wires down - Blue Oyster Cult, “Godzilla”
As we saw with Callirhoe, the ancient world was no stranger to historical fiction, even if it wasn’t exactly what we’d today identify as the genre. Ancient historical fiction tended to straddle the divide between “pure” historical fiction and what we’d more likely call historical fantasy, depending on how much deus ex machina is present. In Homer and Virgil, the gods are moving actors in the plot, and while that would continue to be popular through antiquity all the way to the mythological revival ongoing in contemporary fiction, that doesn’t mean that ancient writers weren’t critically engaging with the mechanics of fiction at the same time. Someone writing on that uneasy fault line was the poet Lucan (39-65 CE), especially in what would be his magnum opus, sometimes more correctly referred to as De Bello Civili (On the Civil War), but more popularly known as De Pharsalia, an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey at the end of the 1st century BCE.
The title gymnastics are no doubt in part a later attempt to distinguish Lucan’s poem from Caesar’s own commentaries (also called De Bello Civili), but also from a mistranslation in Book IX of the poem where Lucan says “Pharsalia nostra” (IX, line 985), which is sometimes wrongly glossed as “my poem, the Pharsalia,” but the closer meaning in context is “our Pharsalia,” which Lucan, addressing Caesar in the scene, means to encompass the latter’s fighting of the battle and the poet’s writing of it, not necessarily the poem as a whole. But to avoid confusion, I’m going to continue to use the traditional Pharsalia title. Because the difference between Caesar’s commentary and Lucan’s poem is important, as the two works have exactly the opposite narrative aim. Julius wrote De Bello Civili for exactly the same reason he wrote De Bello Gallico: to explain his actions in the best possible light for posterity. While nothing could be further from Lucan’s mind as he sat down to write the Pharsalia.
Like most Romans by the 1st century CE, Lucan had largely reconciled himself to the inevitability of the Empire, but he (like many) didn’t feel they necessarily had to happy about it. Particularly among the Roman elite, there is a distinctly dissociative way in which they talk about the imperial system, itself likely a result of Rome’s equally schizophrenic attitude toward Julius Caesar himself (another thing we inherited from them). In the Roman aristocracy, the man Julius Caesar was an arrogant tyrant who got what was coming to him, but the Divus Julius was a good god who protected the imperial family and by extension, the Empire. Roman writers could safely criticize mortal Julius (within reason) as long as they left the god out of it—which might explain the general lacuna the Divus Julius lives in the literature of the period. A literal example of the adage “if you can’t say anything nice…” Likewise, the end of the Roman Republic brought about by the civil wars was a tragedy and the rise of the imperial system the death of “true” Roman life, but of course the current emperor was worthy of the title and was making the best of a bad situation. These rationalizations are the typical stance in most of Roman literature, but they take on truly monumental levels of incredulity when one realizes that for Lucan this meant his position in Pharsalia amounts to: good gravy was Julius just the worst, but it’s okay because now we have… Nero.
But don’t worry, Lucan figured out his mistake in the end. Like the later books of the Aeneid, there is a palpable anti-imperial streak in a lot of the Pharsalia; to such an extent that one is left to wonder if even the lines in Book I of the poem where he makes the usual caveats to the emperor aren’t meant to be read as sarcastic (“Still, if Fate could find no other way for the advent of Nero; if an everlasting kingdom costs the gods dear and heaven could not be ruled by its sovereign, the Thunderer [Jupiter], before the battle with the fierce Giants,—the we complain no more against the gods: even such crimes and such guilt are not too high a price to pay.” (I, lines 33-38)). As benefiting the nephew of Nero’s tutor, Seneca the Younger (4 BCE-65 CE), Lucan was well-versed in Stoic philosophy and that is in part why Pharsalia takes the epic style of Homer and Virgil and excises many of its more fantastical elements. Stoicism believes in the gods, but also believes that they are above the petty meddling they engage in within older literature. The gods can use the haruspices and oracles to tell of the future, but in keeping with the Stoic view of the universe, they don’t do anything to manifest that future. The only deity capable of influencing human affairs in Lucan is Fortuna (Fate), and even she is merely a nebulous force. She protects her favorite, Caesar, but you never see her interact directly with him as you would have seen in the Iliad or the Aeneid. Abandoned by the gods to Fortuna’s whims, Lucan’s real heroes of his Pharsalia are Cato the Younger and Brutus, even as he has to spill the most ink on making Pompey’s many self-serving choices in the civil wars look like selfless devotion to republican principles. However, the continuing Roman belief in sacred omens leaves a place for the supernatural in the Pharsalia, which Lucan uses to uncanny effect in some of the most vivid scenes in the entire poem. But we’ll get to that in a minute…
Although born to Italian emigrants in Corduba (modern Córdoba), Roman Spain, as I mentioned, Lucan’s wealthy family was spectacularly well-connected in the capital and after likely being schooled in Athens, Lucan spent most of his short adulthood in Rome as an intimate member of Nero’s circle. Well, like his Uncle Seneca, he was until he wasn’t. What exactly happened between Nero and Lucan is lost to history, but Tacitus and Suetonius give us two versions of their falling out, both of which center on Lucan as a poet. Tacitus says Nero, himself an aspiring artist of almost every possible stripe, grew increasingly jealous of Lucan’s growing literary reputation and forbade him from publishing his poems (Annals, XV, 49). Conversely, Suetonius says that Nero interrupted a poetry reading of Lucan’s by calling the Senate into session and the poet retaliated by writing insulting verse aimed at the emperor (Life of Lucan). Certainly after whatever drove them apart, Lucan wasn’t shy about lobbing bombs at Nero; the contemporary poet Statius (c. 45-96 CE) reports that in Lucan’s poem about the great fire of 64 CE, De Incendio Urbis (On the Burning of the City), he described how the “unspeakable flames of the criminal tyrant roamed the heights of Remus” (Statius, Silvae II.7), making it possible that Lucan is one of the original sources for the claim that Nero was somehow responsible for the conflagration. Amazingly enough though, it wasn’t these accusations of imperial arson that would seal Lucan’s fate. Rather, the poet was caught as a member of the Pisonian conspiracy to depose Nero of the following year (65 CE) and, as an aristocrat, he was given the dubious choice to end his life rather than being publicly executed. Like Seneca, he would do this in the traditional patrician method of opening a major vein and bleeding out. But unlike his Stoical uncle, Lucan would reveal his youthful attachment to his life (he was no more than twenty-six at the time) by desperately throwing everyone he could get his hands on under the proverbial bus, including his own mother, in an unsuccessful bid for a pardon. Nero wasn’t convinced and Lucan eventually killed himself as bidden, with an unfinished ten books of his Pharsalia as his legacy. His mother survived the proscriptions.
In some ways, Lucan’s ignoble end mirrors his reputation as a poet. Loeb’s translator J.D. Duff (which is the edition I read) remarks drily that “[n]o reasonable judgment can rank Lucan among the world’s great epic poets” (Introduction, p. xii) and the British historian and statesman Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) somewhat sheepishly excuses many of what he views as Lucan’s literary excesses because of the poet’s age and lack of time to artistically mature. They have aren’t wrong: reading Lucan is not the poetic equivalent of reading Homer, Virgil, or Ovid. He is more than capable of turning an excellent phrase, as I hope to show you, and there is some really good stuff in parts, but Pharsalia is not exactly a work of sustained genius. And it is excessive: the lurid stuff is lurid, many of the setting descriptions go on way too long to be meaningful, and it is incredibly, grotesquely partisan to the point of parody. Caesar is a hyperbolic, Richard III-level supervillain, cackling while he stomps across the globe glorying in death and destruction (Macaulay calls the Pharsalia Julius a “bloodthirsty ogre”); while Pompey is a virtuous sad sack forced to fight for pure love of country. And ho boy, just wait until the Ptolemies show up… What I’m saying is that this is the black and white writing of, appropriately, Senecan tragedy. Good is good, bad is bad, and everything happens on the most dramatic scale imaginable while still keeping the gods (mostly) out of it.
But rather than doing the usual thing and pointing out all of Lucan’s failings as a writer of nuance, I thought it’d be more fun to just go with it as we turn to the poem itself. Because I had fun reading Pharsalia—it’s way too over the top to not have fun with it. I was guarded going in because, as I’m sure you’ve all realized, blog and books noted, I do (overall) stan Julius and I knew that Lucan did not share my general indulgence of his antics. But the sheer full-court press of Lucan’s Caesar’s villainy puts aside whatever factual disagreements we might have and just makes the reading pure entertainment. Pharsalia’s Caesar is a toga-wearing kaiju and we’re going to gleefully treat him as such as I walk you through the poem’s action.
Book I: Rubicon or Bust
We join the action with Caesar leading his troops toward Rome, refusing to disband his legions as the law requires. When they reach the fabled Rubicon River, Roma, the personification of the city tries to turn him back, and showing the first and last instance of hesitation Lucan permits him, Caesar wavers for half a second before loudly proclaiming he doesn’t care and will go through with his plan to occupy Rome. His men also have second thoughts briefly, but Caesar persuades them to hold the line and they’ll follow him anywhere.
After one of the aforementioned way-too-long descriptions of other Italian rivers, we go to Rome, where everyone’s running around like the Visigoths are coming and Lucan tries to frame Pompey’s immediate retreat from the city as noble and heroic. While Pompey’s on the run, the Senate consults the various omens to determine the fate of the city. In the first of a series of intense oracular consultations that escalate through the poem, the haruspex Arruns sacrifices an animal, but the creature’s neck refuses to bleed and when its organs are removed for inspection, they are flat-out gross and diseased (I, p. 45-9). Increasingly panicked, the astrologer Nigidius Figulus (c. 98 – 45 BC) is consulted next and predicts a long war and “when peace comes, a tyrant will come with it” (I, p. 49). And before anyone has time to process this, a god-struck maenad runs out of the forests beyond the city and through her, Apollo predicts Pompey’s death: “You [Apollo] take me to the far East, where the waters of Egyptian Nile stain the sea: him [Pompey] I recognize, that headless corpse lying on the river sands.” (I, p. 53). Like most classical literature, there is no attempt at dénouement and Lucan will have Pompey’s death stalk him by allusion throughout the poem.
Book II: The Waiting is the Hardest Part
While everyone in Rome falls into a kind of stupor waiting for the inevitable (Lucan finds it cruel of the gods to have warned them ahead of time; better to have blind hope than expectant dread), the poet takes a break to lay out some of his Stoic view of the universe. As we talked about earlier, he acknowledges the gods, recognizing their control of Fate and the universe, but they are not moving actors in the Homeric/Virgilian tradition. This doesn’t mean much to us as a modern audience, but divorcing an epic poem from the direct intervention of the gods was a bold literary innovation at the time and one Lucan should be recognized for.
While everyone is freaking out, Lucan’s super-virtuous Brutus pays a visit to the even-more-virtuous Cato, where the former asks the latter what the right course of action is. Cato admits that as awful as the civil will be (cf. the bonkers auspices), it is better to take a side than to do nothing. They both decide Pompey is the lesser of two evils—I do give credit to Cato for having a much clearer view of Pompey than Lucan does—and Brutus runs off to join Pompey’s forces. After he leaves, Cato’s ex-wife Marcia shows up on his doorstep after burying her most recent husband Hortensius, asking for him to take her back, if only so they can suffer the horrors to come together. Cato stoically agrees.
[Okay, before we move on, I know that last part needs a little more explanation. Cato and Marcia were married happily enough and Hortensius was a good friend of Cato’s. One day, Hortensius laments to Cato that he has no heirs and proposes that Cato divorce Marcia, who is virtuous and has already given Cato several children, and let Hortensius marry her so he can get some of the same. Cato actually agrees to this and Marcia is sent off to marry Hortensius. When he dies, she comes back to Cato just like Lucan says. As Lucan is pro-Cato, he’s going to pretend this whole thing isn’t weird. Cato fans will say this is a mark of the statesman’s generous spirit and commitment to virtue—on the other hand, Caesar was quick to point out that Hortensius made Marcia his sole heir and she came back to Cato with a lot more money than when she left. Though Julius was probably mad he didn’t think of that scam first…]
Back at the frontlines, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (dies 31 BCE) gets some shoutouts from Lucan for heroically standing up to Caesar because he’s Nero’s paternal great-grandfather. But Julius gets the last laugh as Ahenobarbus is captured and forced to endure the SHAME of the clementia Caesaris, which every red-blooded Roman republican in the poem will react to as if Caesar is physically burning them with forgiveness. Admittedly, Lucan obviously portrays Caesar as being really smug about it, too.
Book III: It’s Caesars All the Way Down
The third book opens with Pompey being visited by his late previous wife Julia Caesaris’ ghost, and the daughter of Caesar has come to THROW DOWN. The kind girl whose premature death is generally lamented in Roman literature as the reason the civil war even moved forward is gone and replaced by a Oresteia-style Fury who is pissed off that she’s been replaced by Pompey’s current wife Cornelia. She promises to haunt the ever-living fuck out of Pompey. “Caesar takes up your days and Julia your nights” (III, line 27), she screeches.
While his opponent is wrestling with his undead daughter, Caesar makes a pit stop in Rome, where everyone immediately caves to anything he wants and possibly more, as Lucan is forced to admit that the Romans seem to deal with their new “slavery” pretty easily. “Fortunately there were more things that he [Caesar] was ashamed to decree than Romans were ashamed to allow.” (III, line 111-2) After tidying things up in the capital, he marches to Massalia (modern Marseilles, France), where he absolutely lays waste to the town after they stand by Pompey. Lucan gives us our first taste of his drawn-out battle descriptions of brother impaling brother in pools of blood while Caesar gleefully cuts down Massalia’s sacred grove for siege weaponry and the gods seem to give him a pass for this villainous blasphemy. Lucan shrugs and remarks “But Fortune often guards the guilty, and the gods must reserve their wrath for the unlucky.” (III, lines 448-9)
Book IV: The Republican Reign in Spain Falls Mostly on the Plain, but Lives to Bless Itself in Africa
The fourth book is fairly straightforward from a plot perspective, as it is neatly divided into two major war theaters: Spain and Roman Africa. The downside of this is that Lucan’s battle descriptions are long-winded and not particularly interesting. After the fall of Massalia, we follow Caesar to Hispania, which Spanish native-Roman snob Lucan habitually calls “the outermost region of earth” (IV, line 1). After a close contest with Pompey’s local legions, Caesar emerges victorious and disbands Pompey’s surviving troops and spares their lives in exchange for them sitting out the rest of the war. Lucan laments this loss of manpower for the Good Guys before switching the setting to Africa, where Caesar partisan (and rumored boy-toy of Mark Antony) Gaius Scribonius Curio (c. 84–49 BCE) is fighting Pompey’s ally, Juba I of Numidia. The Numidians emerge victorious, Curio is killed, and a book that started out on a Caesarian high note lands with a sobering, Lucan-fuel thud.
Book V: The Pythia Speaks and Julius Goes Full Captain Ahab
We catch up with the rump of the Senate in exile, and spend some time with them moping about their fate and contemplating what a bastard Julius is and praying that Pompey can set things right as they declare him the true leader of Rome. In a triumphant return to oracular weirdness, Appius Claudius Pulcher (97–49 BC) goes to the defunct oracle at Delphi for a prophecy concerning his future and that of Rome. Lucan describes how the oracle had slowly faded from relevance as the age of kings declined, and how it was actually kind of a relief to the priestesses not to have to endure the psychotropic god possession the Pythia’s art required. With a Claudian arrogance that jives with Cicero’s assessment of him, Appius is having none of that and threatens the current Pythia, Phemonoe, until she agrees to descend into Apollo’s cave and receive a prophecy from the god. In one of the most arresting scenes in the entire poem, Lucan describes the visceral physical and psychological experience of the Pythias prophesying. We tend to picture the whole process as clean and orderly, but Phemonoe exudes terror and distress as she runs about the cave trying to escape as Apollo takes over her body. But she gets the job done and tells Appius he’ll die in peace in Euboea, but Apollo refuses to let her speak more about the fate of Rome. Appius goes away satisfied that he’s not going to die horrifically, but the twist is that he won’t be able to enjoy much of anything because he’ll be dead within the year. (V, p. 243-53)
While Appius is harassing priestesses, Julius is trying to rally his troops and sail east after Pompey, but the weather’s getting in the way and Mark Antony is dawdling. Lucan treats the latter as evidence that Antony was always secretly disloyal to Caesar, and that’s why he betrayed Octavius later, but this is just Lucan making things up to explain future events. But as a result, Lucan’s Caesar does get to be the first to fire off the perennial Antony accusation: “I complain that you [Antony] waste the hours granted by destiny” (V, line 490-1), the thing everyone will complain of him once he sets down in Egypt. Fed up with Antony’s shilly-shallying, Julius makes the incredibly dumb decision to sail back to his lieutenant in the middle of a storm and in the middle of the damn night to rouse his absent troops himself. We are then treated to a delightfully histrionic scene of Julius daring the gods to drown him as the ship threatens to sink in the middle of the Mediterranean. Truly, “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee” stuff. Despite Julius’ best efforts at hubris, Fortuna protects her boy, and the young sailor he conned into this suicide mission, Amyclas, manages to get them back to the shore they started from in one piece.
Book VI: So You’ve Decided to Raise the Dead
Caesar and Pompey finally get on the same continent and skirmish a bit around Thessaly, but Lucan realizes he was on to something with the Pythia scene in the last book and clearly sat around thinking of what could up the ante from that. So he decides that Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompeius (c. 67-35 BCE), needs to go on a side quest for a prophecy of his own. Lucan calls Sextus “the unworthy son” (VI, line 419-23) of his father because the future “Son of Neptune” becomes a pirate during the civil war’s Phase Two, and Pompey was famous for ridding the Mediterranean of piracy in his day. But Sextus’ dubious reputation makes him the right man for the job here, which is to seek out the witch Erictho, the most powerful sorceress in Thessaly. Erictho isn’t interested in giving over her consciousness to a god, though—her method of fortune telling involves contacting the dead. But we also don’t mean some nice seance, either; Erictho takes a dead soldier from the latest battle and reanimates the corpse. Lucan describes this in as hair-raising detail as he does for the Pythia scene, including the ingenious idea that to raise someone from the dead, you basically have to reverse their death. That is, the zombie soldier is a corpse, then he goes through dying again on his way to being alive, and considering his violent death in battle, we watch him relive that terror and then the awful realization that he is alive again, but only partly, in real time.
Having created this abomination, Erictho commands the zombie soldier to tell Sextus about the future and in exchange she promises when she unanimates him again, she’ll cast a spell so this kind of thing doesn’t keep happening to disturb his eternal sleep. Which is a nice touch, because “oh, crap” the reader realizes, this could keep happening to you in this universe. The zombie talks of the Pompeii (the family, not the town) “trampl[ing] on the ghosts of the gods of Rome” (the later defied emperors) and also of the two leaders of the current war—the one “By whose grave shall flow the Nile, and by whose the Tiber” (Pompey and Caesar) (line 810), and how “the battle of the rivals settles nothing but their place of burial” (line 811). After saying this, Sextus and Erictho are done with their meat puppet, but because the soldier has already died, Death can’t simply claim him. Therefore Erictho has to cast a spell with herbs and burn the body to return it to the underworld. Science!
Book VII: It All Comes Down to Pharsalus
It’s finally time for the main event of Lucan’s poem, the Battle of Pharsalus (August, 48 BCE). Pompey is hesitant to press for battle, but his soldiers are eager and luckily for them, Lucan fictionally places Cicero in Pompey’s camp to make their case. Fictional Cicero is tired of serving in the military and wants to be back in Rome, which checks out, and he wins Pompey over to attacking with what would have been, had he actually said it, the shortest speech he ever made. This also helps Lucan get Pompey out of any culpability for the disaster to come by making him super reluctant to fight at all. Brutus pops up briefly, disguised as a common soldier in an abortive attempt to assassinate Caesar on the field, but this is mainly a literary device to foreshadow his much more successful stabbing four years later.
As said above, Pharsalus is a disaster for Pompey and the republican forces as Caesar scores a shattering victory that leaves his rival little choice but to flee into the Greek hills while his army is routed, which Lucan treats like a noble expression of sorrow and not a desperate attempt to escape capture. But unlike some of the other battles in the poem, Pharsalus itself isn’t really the point; this book is mainly a long lament by Lucan for everything that was a result of Pharsalus. He knows that “[t]his battle will destroy nations yet unborn; it will deprive of their birthtime and sweep away the men of the generation coming into the world” (p. 398-9). The balance of power in the Mediterranean would fundamentally change because of its outcome and he argues that Rome would suffer a missing generation of men akin to what Europe experienced after World War I. Lucan sees Rome’s liberty lost on the plains of Pharsalus and, in words that perhaps reverberate ominously in our current times, remarks that, “[o]f all the nations that endure tyranny our lot is the worst, because we blush for our slavery” (VII, line 444-5). That is, the slavery the Romans endure under the imperial system is worse than the slavery of people who have always lived under tyranny because Romans can remember the freedom they once had.
Lucan returns to the Stoic idea of the aloof gods in this book, and while he doesn’t blame the gods for the fate thrust on his people at Pharsalus, he notes that the gods suffered for their indifference as well. Because they didn’t intervene to save Rome from Caesar, the punishment Rome inflicted on the gods was to so lose their faith in the Jovian pantheon that they raised “dead Caesars” (Julius and the emperors) to the level of the gods: “Yet for this disaster we have revenge, so far as gods may give satisfaction to mortals: civil war shall make dead Caesars the peers of the gods above; and Rome shall deck out dead men with thunderbolts and haloes and constellations, and in the temples of the gods shall swear by ghosts” (VII, line 455-9), which I think is a really insightful sociological statement.
Book VIII: Egyptian Beach Party Bingo!
Pompey regroups on the island of Lesbos, where he’d put his wife Cornelia for safekeeping. The Lesbians loyally offer to let him stay there in exile, but he insists on rallying the remaining East against Caesar. He has three remaining options open to him: going to Juba in Numidia, Ptolemy (XIII) in Egypt, or trying to make an alliance with arch-nemesis Orodes II and Parthia. Pompey chooses Parthia because he thinks Orodes is a safer bet than “the youth of the Egyptian king” (Ptolemy—who thinks he’s Alexander) or “the two-faced cunning of the fickle Moor” (Juba—who thinks he’s Hannibal). Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Crus (c. 97-48 BCE) and his horrified staff talk him out of this; they remind Pompey that the Parthians killed fellow triumvir Crassus and if something happens to him, Cornelia will be stranded in lustful Ctesiphon where virtuous Roman womanhood will undoubtedly be at risk. Lentulus argues for Egypt as being the least risky choice, as Ptolemy owes his throne to Pompey and is “a mere empty name” in “the age of innocence” (p. 471). Pompey concedes and everybody heads for Egypt, because unlike Lucan and my readers, they do not know what’s about to happen next…
Because unfortunately for Pompey, the only person who’s twirling their metaphorical mustache harder in this poem than Caesar is Ptolemy’s eunuch-advisor extraordinaire Pothinus, who cuts about the same figure as he does in my book. He convinces Ptolemy that Pompey’s only coming to him because he thinks he can push the young pharaoh around, basically saying in so many words, “He thinks you’re a little bitch, my boy—you’re not such a little bitch that you can’t drive a beaten man off your shores, right???” Ptolemy agrees that he is not a little bitch and arranges to have his best mates Achillas, Salvius, and Lucius Septimius ready at Pelusium when Pompey’s ship hits the horizon. Pompey and Cornelia have presentiments of doom, but Pompey rows to shore full of Stoic poise and the pharaoh’s lackeys cut off his head and fling his body into the sea. Whomp whomp. But Lucan gives Pompey a lovely send off about how despite his humble burial, he should be among Rome’s most exalted sons.
Book IX: Cato Heard We Were All Having Too Much Fun and Decided to Put a Stop to That
One of the hardest parts of writing is knowing when to end things, and honestly Lucan should have closed things out with the last book—Pompey’s death and paean made a great last scene. However, he probably meant this poem to encompass the Ides of March, and possibly even Actium, a plan that Nero interrupted, so instead we’re still going.
An understandably upset Cornelia (who saw the whole Egyptian welcoming committee thing, and as now the widow of both Crassus and Pompey, has dead, unburied husbands all over the place) returns to Rome and city mourns its fallen hero. Cato gets off his ass and delivers a classic Catonian backhanded eulogy—“Pompey sucked, but not as hard as Caesar, so we mourn him” (IX, p. 519) and packs up to fight Caesar in Africa. Because somebody’s got to clean up this mess and apparently that’s going to have to be Cato. He then proceeds to lead his troops on a Bataan death march through Libya where he spends a lot more time teaching them Stoic virtues than making sure they don’t die of thirst or from the twenty venomous snake species Lucan excitedly delineates then shows killing off legionaries in every possible manner. The worst example of this is when the army is lost in the desert and literally dying of thirst, a soldier manages to catch some water in his helmet and offers it to his general. Cato screams at him for daring to treat him like he’s an effeminate fancy boy and dumps the water on the ground in front of everyone. I get that it would have probably been bad for morale to drink it, but he didn’t need to be such a dick about it. (XI, p. 543) They end up at the god Ammon’s oracle at Siwa, and Cato’s officers are interested in some more cool foreign prophecies. Obviously Cato saw that all of the previous oracular scenes are the most interesting set pieces in the poem, and being the spoilsport that he is, he puts the kibosh on this, saying it’s pointless so they move on. (IX, p. 545-7). Behold Lucan’s Cato: the true Pater Patriae of Rome, god of delayed gratification and libertarian edgelords.
While Cato is making everyone miserable in Africa, Caesar is sightseeing in Troy before he jets over to Egypt looking for Pompey. Ptolemy et al give him what’s left of his rival and Lucan makes sure we know that the tears Caesar sheds for Pompey’s fate are of the crocodile variety. He’s over the moon that Pompey is dead and only a little pissy that Ptolemy beat him to the punch. But he doesn’t have to stew on that for too long because his sexy, sexy consolation prize has just sashayed into the room…
Book X: An Unexpected Ending
Lucan’s Cleopatra is very much of the Roman post-Actium mold, “the shame of Egypt, the fatal Fury of Latium, whose unchastity cost Rome dear” (X, line 59-60). Lucan is grossed out that Caesar got involved with her, but at the same time admits that if Julius fell for her act, Antony didn’t stand a chance: “Who can refuse pardon to the infatuation of Antony, when even the stubborn heart of Caesar took fire?” (X, line 70-2) But Lucan’s ire for the mad Ptolemies extends to their once and future lord Alexander the Great, who, perhaps unusually for the age, the poet holds in contempt. In his digressions on the treacheries of Egypt, he calls Alex “the mad son of Macedonian Philip, that fortunate free-booter” (X, line 20-22) and “a pestilence to earth, a thunderbolt that struck all people alike, a comet of disaster to mankind” (X, line 34-6). But as Alexander checks a lot of the same boxes as Julius, this makes sense in hindsight—particularly if you recall the famous comet that appeared over Rome after Caesar’s assassination, which makes Lucan’s turn of phrase all the more meaningful.
Lucan, not realizing he will not be granted the time to finish his epic, get lost in a long digression on the Egyptian/Julian calendar and the source of the Nile. While Julius and Cleopatra are lounging about with the digression, Pothinus and Achillas plan to kill them in bed together, but they chicken out at the last minute. But this matters not, because then the anti-Caesarian Egyptian army arrives and the Alexandrian War begins anyway. My sweet girl gets more than she does in Caesar’s own book as Lucan gives her a shout-out by name (Caesar merely calls her “the younger daughter of Ptolemy [XII]” (De Bello Civili, 112.30)) as the poem hurtles toward its abrupt conclusion: “Moreover, Arsinoë was carried off secretly by a trick of Ganymede, her chamberlain, and conveyed to Caesar’s enemies. There, as a daughter of Lagus [an epithet of Ptolemy I Soter], she ruled the army in the absence of the king and pierced with righteous sword Achillas, the dreadful instrument of Ptolemy” (X, line 519-23)
And this is where Lucan’s poem breaks off, with a “perplexed” Caesar pinned on the mole of Pharos by Arsinoë and Ganymede, wondering what Fortuna has in store for him. The great irony is that this is exactly where Caesar’s own De Bello Civili ends, something that probably makes Lucan spin in his grave but makes me cackle like his villainous version of the general-turned-dictator-turned-god. It’s hard for me not to see cosmic approval of my own poetic excesses in the fact that everyone else keeps getting stuck on the scene of my Arsinoë regnant. Isn’t that right, Set? 🙃