“[O]f crime made law we sing,” and we sing to Nero’s health

As I mentioned yesterday, Lucan was friends with Nero, until he wasn’t, and when he wasn’t, he was a traitor who was forced to commit suicide for his crimes. But before all that last bit, when they were on good terms and Lucan was composing the earlier books of Civil War, he dedicated the first one to the arts-loving emperor.

I took yesterday’s quote from the second stanza of the poem; the first section, including that, focuses (as much of the poem does) on the immorality of civil war—its criminality, even. It’s an unnecessary spillage of Latin blood, after which “walls are teetering under roolfs half ruined…and from crumbled structures massive stones lie idle.” The farms lie idle too, “now that Hesperia’s thorny and year after year lies fallow, and plowlands lack the hands they call for..”

But even all this horror—which really is horror, Lucan is quite clear about this—proves worth it:

But if the Fates could find, to bring forth Nero,
no other way, and eternal kingdoms cost
gods dearly, nor heaven be slave to its Thunderer
unless the savage Giants had lost the wars—
by god, we don’t complain; those crimes, the guilt,
are pleasing at this price; let Pharsalia’s fields
swell with curses, Hannibal’s shade glut on blood—
let fatal Munda’s final battles begin!
To these fates, Caesar, add Perusia’s famine,
the labors of Mutina and those fleets that sank
at cruel Leucas, the slave wars under fiery Etna;
still Rome owes a lot to her civil war armies—
for it was done for you.

[Y]ou’re a god to me now: and if as seer
my heart is seized by you, I’d have no need
to rouse the god who stirs up Delphi’s secrets
or to bother Bacchus to abandon Nysa—
you are enough to empower Roman poets.

The sincerity or irony here is disputed. Ethan Adams and translator Matthew Fox note in the introduction to my edition that one implication is that “Neronian Rome is a world so corrupt that collective historical guilt has become a source of genuine pleasure.” That gloss seems off to me. “Virgil and Horace had of course praised Augustus while shedding tears of regret for civil violence; but no Augustan poet had ever so brazenly collapsed his pathos for civil wars into glorification of Augustus’ peace.” This seems better, and more interesting. Ultimately, I’m not convinced that there is much “genuine pleasure” here; it seemed to me a rather formalistic and stylized dedication, both “out of place” (by modern sensibilities) and completely appropriate.

Tomorrow: something more interesting, inspired by this tweet of David’s:

Now I think of it, today’s post may have been somewhat inspired by that too.

9 comments to “[O]f crime made law we sing,” and we sing to Nero’s health

  • I almost took a course on Neronian era literature once–your Lucan posts are helping me get over my bad decision. However, that first line of yours made me laugh at what I take to be an unintended conclusion to what you wrote: Nero, the ultimate critic!

  • Oh, we are on the same track! Excellent post; I will follow up with a very closely related topic later today!

    Don’t you wish Marlowe had managed to translate the whole poem?

  • What an embarrassing comment this will be, but I’ll certainly add this work to my to-be-read list in part thanks to your selections so far but also because “Rome” is one of the few television series I watched in its entirety (I’m not proud). Now if I can only identify the Lucan for “Breaking Bad”…

  • I seem to remember studying this once as a classical scholar.

    One of the things about the silver Latin poetry is its tendency towards rhetoric over sincerity.

  • Scott, I admit to enjoying Rome myself. It wasn’t I, Claudius, but I thought Ciaran Hinds made an amazing Caesar, and Lyndsey Marshal impressed me as Cleopatra. (She recently did an awesome comedic turn in Peter Capaldi’s The Cricklewood Greats.) The rest was a, er, mixed bag.

    obooki, is there such a definite contrast? I mean, Horace wrote satires, and Statius and Silius seem reasonably sincere to me.

  • Well, it’s a long time since I read any of this; it is only a matter of what I vaguely remember.

    Here is a quote from the first book I picked up which might have something on the subject (ET Salmon, A History of the Roman World 30BC-AD138), about silver Latin: “on the whole this literature is shallow, and its practitioners, finding their intellectual horizon circumscribed, aim at brilliance rather than excellence … In general the poetry of this age … is brillant but superficial … [Lucan's] whole composition is overstrained and intolerably repetitious. The metallic clangour … impresses for fifty lines but becomes wearisome when kept up unremittingly throughout ten books.”

    This is pretty much what I remember about the standard view of silver Latin literature. Maybe it’s not true, I don’t know (what I was taught doesn’t always turn out to be true). Certainly my recollections of Lucan seem to bear it out: endless repetitious rhetorical exercises carried out mechanically until they are devoid of meaning. (Scholars try to link it with the increasingly autocratic state, but I don’t know. As if Virgil wasn’t similarly circumscribed). Latin literature was destroyed by rhetorical training, in much the same way English literature is being destroyed by creative writing classes.

  • I am not a student of Latin, unfortunately, so the actual qualities of the prose are beyond me to debate. But at least in translation, I love Lucan, so I will defend him, and substantively, I think the airy poetics of a Callimachus are no less empty than Lucan, and I would argue considerably more so.

    That said, it seems like the Golden/Silver distinction has fallen out of favor since Salmon’s era, and Lucan has been rehabilitated from the reputation Salmon ascribes to him. Dante esteemed Lucan and Statius almost as highly as Virgil, and they were hugely influential on Renaissance Tragedy (I talk about this over at my site), so I’m hesitant to accept such a sweeping judgment about the period. Every period of literature ever consists mostly of garbage and occasional genius.

  • I’m so pleasantly surprised to see so much excitement about Lucan! Who would have guessed.

    Richard—Yes, that is a ridiculous line. Oh, Nero, empower me!

    David—The Marlowe is wonderful, but I’m not so sure I would actually want to read the whole thing. Exhausting!

    Scott—I don’t know if “Rome” got worse in its second season or what, I didn’t see much of it, but I really liked the first. As David says, Ciaran Hinds was a great Caesar, among other things.

    obooki—I’m not surprised people would think that about Silver Age–poetry and “rhetoric”—though certainly you and David are both more informed about it than I am—but I am too much of an Appreciationist not to appreciate brilliance, though I may or may not also criticize it as superficial.

    Like David, I am not a student of Latin, and I am surely worse-read in the classics than anyone here, so I don’t feel I have much “right” to weigh in on the subject. But the poem is great fun, and lovely.

  • Are we sure that obooki values sincerity over rhetoric? I know I don’t. I am also pro-airy poetics.

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