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:
Lucan’s Civil War really does single-handedly destroy Bakhtin’s conception of monologic epic/poem vs. polyphonic novel. Counterexamples ftw.
— David Auerbach (@AuerbachKeller) March 6, 2012
Now I think of it, today’s post may have been somewhat inspired by that too.