“on one side fear of tyranny, hope for it rouses the other…”

One thing that can be a bit puzzing in Civil War is why exactly everyone is fighting. The basics of this are easy: Caesar has crossed the Rubicon with a legion of troops, and you just don’t play like that. But when the fighting itself rolls around and officers must exhort their troops—and Lucan must exhort us—it becomes less clear. There is “liberty” on one side and “tyranny” on the other, but why?

The lack of any real explanation of why Caesar is a tyrant and Pompey a good guy, aside from the fact that Pompey is on the side of the Senate and Romans believe they are free because they are a republic, becomes especially tense just before and after Pompey reaches his ultimate fate at the hands of the child-king of Egypt. Shortly after Sextus visits Erictho in Thessaly, Pompey’s side loses the battle there and his troops, along with the Senate, are on the run. Pompey makes a stop at Lesbos to pick up his wife, whom he’s stashed there for safety, and then heads for Cilicia, followed by what’s left of the Senate. There, they debate the next move.

Pompey has already sent off Deiotarus, a king, to the east, asking him to look for help from the Parthians. Pompey tells him to tell “proud Arsacides”:

“‘If our original treaty holds, which I swore
by the Thunderer of Latium, and your Magi
bound in confirmation, then fill Armenia’s quivers,
stretch their bows, and add the Getae’s muscle—
if, when I was laying siege at the Caspian Gates
and hunting the Alans, tough from endless warfare,
I suffered you Parthians to range the open plains
of the Achaemenids and never drove you
frightened inside Babylon for safety.
Beyond the fields of Cyrus, out to the limits
of Chaldean realms, where the rapid Ganges
and Hydaspes of Nysa reach the sea, I went,
and was nearer to the rising fire of Phoebus
than Persia is—though conquering everywhere
I held back, and in my triumphs only you were missing.
Alone of all the kings over lands in the East
the Parthian approaches me on equal terms.
Nor was it only one act of kindness from Magnus
that keeps the Arsacidae standing. For after the trauma
of Assyrian defeat, who restrained the Latins,
justly angry as they were? So bound to me
by so many benefits, now let Parthia extend
her borders, break her bonds and cross the banks
at Alexander’s Zeugma, barred to her for ages.’
Tell the Parthians that if Pompey is conqueror,
Rome will want to be conquered.”

As Pompey is about to find out when he brings up this same idea among the Senate, Rome’s desire for conquest by Magnus-led Parthians is not exactly clear-cut. Though Pompey has good logical reasons to look to the Parthians rather than to Lybia or Pharos (Egypt), and some nice high-flown rhetoric. Let’s look at some of that, along with the speech above: Pompey says he is the one who swore the treaty with the Parthians; he is the one who “suffered” them to remain unmolested; he conquered and considers Parthia would have rightly been part of his own triumphs; it was an “act of kindness from Magnus” that kept the Parthian dynasty in power; Pompey alone was able to “restrain the Latins”; all this leaves Parthia “bound to [Pompey]“; and Rome itself will bow to any invader with Pompey in the lead. In his speech to the Senate he pledges to “uproot the peoples from this other land and pour them out,” and vows not to “beg from kingdoms that [he] made.” “I always remember how venerated I was/in that part of the world, how great I was/beyond Maeotis, how high I stood along the Tanaïs,” Pompey says, recalling days of former glory. It’s far from clear how different this makes him from Caesar, aside from his being more legally correct in the particular circumstances (but legalism is hardly liberty).

Lentulus smacks Pompey down, at least from his plans to ally with the Parthians. In one of my favorite speeches in the poem, full of awesome Latin xenophobia,* he also takes Pompey truly to task: “Was ‘love of liberty’ just a pretext for this war?/Why did you deceive the wretched world/if you’re so ready to be a slave?” To the Parthians, that is. The Senate decides instead that the best course of action is to go to Egypt. This is a bad choice for Pompey, who ends up beheaded just as he reaches Alexandria by minions of the faithless and wretched Ptolemy, and Lucan, in the bag for Pompey personally more clearly than for a true liberty, notes that the “last hope for the state,” that is, the Senate, “give[s] tongues too much liberty!” If only they hadn’t been able to debate—if only Pompey had been able to do just what he wanted without consulting anyone—things would have gone much better for Pompey’s side, the side of freedom. Hmm.

As things stand, they don’t go well at all for Pompey personally, and he puts his faith, his troops, and, according to Lucan even his spirit, in Cato, the new commander of the Senate’s forces. When Cato finds from his widow that Pompey has been killed, he gives a eulogy that, while full of praise for Magnus, does not do much to put at rest my misgivings about the whole freedom vs. tyranny frame:

“A citizen has passed,” he said, “who though no match
with our great ancestors in knowing the limits of law,
still, he was a benefit to this age, which showed
no reverence for justice. He asserted power
and liberty survived. He kept to private life
when the people were ready to be his slaves.
He was a guide to the Senate, but it still ruled.

Real belief in liberty, with the return of Sulla and Marius,
passed away long ago. With Pompey now removed,
even its figment is dead. Shameless kingship at last,
no pretense of sanction, no Senate as a screen!”

Cato admits that the “liberty” Pompey represented was only a “figment,” not the true freedom of earlier times (of course, that’s some pretty heavy nostalgia and no reason to think those earlier times were so free either). Here Pompey is clearly little more than the lesser of two evils—but as far as the Senate is concerned, it makes a big difference. Either they get to be the screen or they get nothing (although, of course, they will continue to be the same type of screen for Caesar when this war is over).

Meanwhile, Cato’s idea of liberty is similarly problematic. The Senate must “rule” in order for the people of Rome to be free! And keeping to “private life” involves being a consul (did Pompey ever truly retire to private life? Wikipedia suggests not). As Labienus will ask Cato later, coaxing his leader to go see an oracle, “will the people be free, with their rights and laws, or has civil war come to nothing?” [emphasis mine] Cato’s, Pompey’s, Lucan’s freedom—all are weak, weak sauce. We’ll tell you when you’re free, and it will be when the Senate is in charge of you all! Of course, the element of self-interest is hardly surprising for Cato or for Pompey, but why Lucan buys into it is the question for me. Throughout the poem he is clear about the Roman pride in being free as contrasted with all the people around them living under kings, so clearly the republic is the key. But it seems to be a rather broken one, that opens a door only onto another kind of tyranny, one that deserves but somehow doesn’t get the name of such.


*One of the best such parts:

“[D]on’t we know about that barbarous lust,
blind in the manner of beasts,
that corrupts the laws
and vows of marriage with countless consorts
and opens the solemn secrets of the bedroom
for a thousand young wives to share? Deranged with wine
and feasting, royalty tries out forms of sex
that aren’t spelled out in law codes. All night long
entwined with so many women, one man still
is not worn out. Sisters lie in the beds of kings
and mothers, violating hallowed bonds.”

Sex positions not legally prescribed, the horrors! So instead, they go to Egypt, where a boy-king rules with his sister and wife, Cleopatra. Ah, ancient decadence!

“Unlock the abodes of Elysium and call forth/Death herself, and force her to confess to me/which ones of us she’s hunting.”

I like to do requests when I can, and sadly I was not able to fulfill one last week about Erictho, the amazing witch who appears in Book VI of Civil War. Not only that, but David beat me to it with this excellent post, which you should absolutely read if a grisly witch “in touch with the genuine puppetmaster: not merely abstract Fortune, but the celestial watchmaker of the evil watch himself” sounds like fun to you. (It is.)

So instead of repeating much I’d want to from his post, I’ll use Erictho instead as another window into the discussion of Fortune and the idea that “knowledge is at best useless, and at worst a curse.” Over the course of Book VI, Caesar and Pompey end up in Thessaly, which an editor of my Penguin Classics edition helpfully summarizes as being “a cursed land, long fated and well prepared for this world cataclysm of Roman civil war” because of “geography, mythology, and history.” This is where Sextus consults Erictho. He does so “[s]purred by fear to foreknow the course of Fate”:

impatient with waiting, sick from everything coming,
he doesn’t consult Delos’ tripods, or Pythia’s caves,
nor is willing to find out what Dodona—who nursed us
with first fruits—would sound from Jupiter’s bronzes,
or who could discern fates in entrails, or read birds,
or watch the flashing sky and scrutinize the stars
with Assyrian worry, or any other kind of secret
that is permissible. He investigated things
the gods above detest, savage Magis’ arcane
lore and altars sad with funeral rites,
trusting in shades and Dis, and pitifully he
was certain the gods above know far too little.

Instead, he goes to see the wicked witch of eastern Greece, who deals not with the gods above but with nature itself—tearing flesh apart with her own teeth, gnawing on desiccated fingernails—and the brutal, repulsive things she does with “nature” (which has now been subverted) actually give her power over those gods. Lucan wonders why they “toil to follow, and fear/to spurn, magic chants and herbs?” but it’s clear that they do, “duty-bound” or otherwise. So Erictho is able to conduct her necromancy.

And Sextus is sure he wants to know his fate—unlike some other people in the poem.

My mind quakes, stricken by doubts; nonetheless,
I’m ready for definite horros. Take away from chance
the power to rush down blind and all of a sudden.

The absurdity of what Sextus is asking is immediately clear: you must tell me what really will happen, because I can’t handle the power of blind chance—because once you tell me, surely chance loses its very nature!

Still, they go through a whole macabre song and dance specially designed to get Sextus the most accurate answer possible. They pick a fresh corpse, so that its ghost won’t be too used to the underworld yet and will still be able to communicate intelligibly with those of us still around. Erictho invokes, maybe, the Demiurgis himself in a positive rage so that Sextus can get his answer. And the answer he gets is just right, in every sense.

Of course, even Sextus’s certainty that he wants to know his fate—that he can’t take the uncertainty anymore—doesn’t keep him from being afraid of certainty itself either. Or of the process of getting there. David quotes Erictho scolding him:

“If indeed I show you swamps of Styx and the shore
that roars with fire, if by my aid you’re able
to see the Eumenides and Cerberus, shaking
his necks that bristle with snakes, and the conquered backs
of Giants, why should you be scared, you cowards,
to meet with ghosts who are themselves afraid?”

Perhaps the ghosts are simply afraid to go out into the light again for a time, disoriented, not in the loop of Erictho’s apparently hyperactive life as a witch. But I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more than that, if they must continue to be afraid even though they have passed on to a place where they can know everything. Or perhaps they can’t—Erictho and Sextus’s friend says that even “[a] clearer seer” would “be unsure where to call you,/where to drive you from, which tracts or skies/of the world he should order you to shun.”

Nothing’s certain here, it seems, but uncertainty and fear.

“I myself have seen the Eumenides with firebrands goading both your armies.”

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.

“[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.

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!