3 - 30 CE

Lucan – Marcus Annaeus Lucanus – was born in Spain of a wealthy Roman family. Two ancient lives survive, and Tacitus describes his fall and death in the Annales. His uncle, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, was first Nero’s tutor, and then his principal adviser after he came to power.

Lucan was a prolific and popular poet. Most of his work does not survive, but we have his long but incomplete poem “De Bello Civile” (“On the Civil War”). It begins as Caesar is about to declare war on his rival, Pompey the Great, by leading his troops across the Rubicon into Italy proper in 49 BCE. Following the defeat and death of Pompey, it ends with Caesar fighting in Egypt at the end of the following year.

The poem is written in the epic hexameter metre used by Homer and Virgil, but contains none of the involvement of Gods and the supernatural that we find in the Aeneid and Homeric epic. Lucan’s style is vivid and highly rhetorical, and he describes the battles of the war in gory detail. He sides strongly against the Emperor Nero’s forebear, Caesar, and idolises his republican opponents and their opposition to autocratic rule.

At Rome, Lucan at first found favour with the Emperor Nero, but things quickly turned sour. Nero banned him from performing and publishing his work, jealousy of his talent supposedly playing a part. Lucan was forced to commit suicide in 30 CE, accused with his uncle, Seneca, of involvement in a plot against Nero’s life.

“De Bello Civile” has had a mixed critical reception. In antiquity, the first-century poets Statius and Martial admired Lucan’s work, but their contemporary the rhetorician Quintilian regarded him more as a model for rhetoric than for poetry. Before the later twentieth century, most more modern scholarship did not rate him highly either as a historian, writing as he did with an extremely partisan agenda, or as an epic poet. Indeed it is surprising that his translator for the Loeb Classical Library, JC Duff, writing in the 1920s, managed to stay the course:

“ … He does not tell his story well: the successive episodes are neither skilfully connected nor well proportioned. His frequent digressions are often irrelevant and much too long. His geographical descriptions are obscure and wearisome. His account of military operations is hard to follow: he is concise where detail is needed and dwells at length on trivial or irrelevant matters. …….. It appears that his purpose is less to charm his readers than to startle them and make their flesh creep; and with this object he has constant recourse to extravagant exaggeration or repulsive detail.”

Some critics now reject this dismissive view, giving more weight to Lucan’s rhetorical skill and the pungency and epigrammatic quality that it gives to his poetry, and worrying less about his lack of Virgilian charm, which might, given Lucan’s subject matter, have seemed rather out of place anyway. We of the 2020s are far more familiar with and tolerant of horror as a genre than our predecessors of the 1920s, and it is much easier for us to accept horror as an appropriate style in which to write about a terrible civil war of which the Roman state and society still bore the scars.

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