Reading Lucan’s Civil War

Even War and Peace couldn’t scare me away from the great bibliographing Reading Challenge, and the latest challenger is the far-too-worth David of waggish. We are reading Civil War, also known as Pharsalia, an epic poem in ten books written by Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (aka Lucan), a Cordoban poet contemporary with Nero who took his own life for treason at age 25.

Is it interesting enough yet? I haven’t told what it’s about, and in this case it’s actually easy to do, especially if you watched the HBO/BBC series “Rome.” Lucan’s Civil War tells the story of that particular civil war between Caesar and Pompey, begun (roughly) when Caesar famously crosses the Rubicon. And thanks to “Rome,” this is one of the only parts of classical history I know anything at all about!

The poem was written about a hundred years after the events it describes, and according to the introduction by Matthew Fox and Ethan Adams in my Penguin Classics edition, “transmutes history into myth.” If Lucan had lived longer, “it probably would have stretched to twelve or fifteen books, following one or the other of his dominant Latin epic models, Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (though longer arrangements are also conceivable).”

Following in part from that, we’re going to divide up posting in thirds, looking at the first four, then the second four, then the last two books of the poem over the next three weeks. Tomorrow, a post actually about the poem! Okay, I’ll tease you with just a little bit—it’s awfully good, after all.

What fury, citizens, what anarchy of iron?
Did it seem good to display Latin carnage
before hateful nations—when proud Babylon
should have been spoiled of its Italian trophies
and Crassus’ ghost still wandered unavenged—
good to wage wars that held no hope for triumphs?

What fury, indeed!

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