Tom at Wuthering Expectations has read Lucan too, and remembers liking the scene of the battle for Marseilles, or as it is here, Massilia, from book III. I like that scene a lot too, but I like what leads up to it even better. Pompey has been going around rounding up allies from the lands he conquered in his heyday, and Caesar is looking to do the same, so he heads to Spain.
But the people of Massilia “dared to persevere…in faith to rights and duties, and to follow a cause instead of fate.” A delegate delivers a powerful speech to Caesar, arguing in favor of remaining a neutral party: “Permit us to welcome in Caesar and lock war out.”
[I]f you are preparing deadly contests of civil strife
and dreadful battles, we offer our tears for civil wars
and stand aside. No hand can treat accursed wounds.
And if Caesar intends to besiege them?
Our people are not afraid to suffer for liberty’s sake
what Saguntum endured when besieged by Carthage.
Torn from their mothers’ arms still clutching in vain
at breasts dry from hunger, babes will be thrown into fires.
Wives will implore their dear husbands to kill them.
Brothers will stab each other, preferring when forced
to wage this sort of civil war.
Caesar’s answer is swift: “[T]hough we are in a hurry to get out west,/there’s time to destroy Massilia.” And thus begins the siege. The land and sea battles are not to be missed.
As I mentioned, just before all this, Pompey was gathering his own troops together, and Lucan lists his allies in a long and beautiful list of 130-odd lines, culminating thus:
Fortune had called all these troops
together to send as companions into colossal downfall,
a funeral train worthy of the death of Magnus.
Troops were also dispatched by horned Ammon
straightaway from Marmarica for the battle—
whoever lives in dry Libya, from western Moors
to the Paraetonian Syrtes out on the eastern shores.
So that Caesar with his luck might take all at once,
to conquer in one shot, Pharsalia put up the world.*
It’s so fun when ancient metaphysics comes into things. Above, the people of Massilia were noted to resist “fate,” something that’s on the side of Caesar throughout (the first four books of) the poem. Caesar is in many ways vilified—his actions are described as criminal and immoral dozens of times—but he is also recognized as somehow in the right, because how could you not be if you are doing as fate says?
Magnus, meanwhile, has fortune—not to mention greatness. He is a very powerful man, but he’s also well recognized as past his prime and living on the reputation he built as a much younger man.
Lucan’s poem does much more than jump between Caesar and Pompey, rounding out their pictures by contrasting them with each other. There are many places and many voices in the first four books of Civl War: Etruscan augurs, regular women who live in Rome, soldiers desperate for water, Cato, “sad parents” who “detest the heavy fate of persisting old age/and their years, saving them for second civil wars.”
I’m sure David will have more and better examples of the polyphony of Lucan’s work, but it’s unmissable, and I think it builds dimension in the poem. And this is the kind of thing that made me unsure yesterday whether, for Lucan and his fellow Romans, “collective historical guilt has become a source of genuine pleasure” just because he says something positive about the war. He actually says quite a bit that’s positive about the war—sort of.
Title quote is from Pompey’s dream of Julia at the beginning of book III.
*Notably, this giant list of “cities/around the world—that would fall with him in battle” falls for two reasons (or with two effects?): as both a worthy tribute to a successful general and also so that his adversary—his successor, in a sense—could be as successful as possible in spite of his crimes.