Thursday, May 5, 2011


Nicola Hömke, Christiane Reitz (ed.), Lucan's Bellum civile: Between Epic Tradition and Aesthetic Innovation. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Bd. 282. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010. Pp. xii, 240. ISBN 9783110229479. $112.00.

Reviewed by Paul Roche, University of Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site


Hömke and Reitz offer an edited volume of eleven new studies on Lucan's epic. The subtitle 'epic tradition and aesthetic innovation' is loosely applied throughout. The collection has its origin in a 2007 conference; the chapters do not intersect or build upon each other beyond cross-referencing, and the book does not in practice pursue a unified end or approach. The volume's overall quality naturally stems from its individual chapters and on average these are very good; I treat them separately below.

Ahl (1–15) examines why Quintilian recommends Lucan but names him only once and does not cite his work, and why Lucan comes last (before Domitian) in his catalogue of epic poets. This chapter self-consciously revisits one of Ahl's most influential papers1: particularly prominent is writing palam versus aperte (reformulated for critics' assumptions about particular epic style). This is a more suggestive piece than its seminal predecessor: partly appropriate for a trope whose deniability Quintilian had foregrounded. There are here some misprisions about political engagement and reality. Ahl suggests ('arguably') that Lucan's rhetoric of liberty and his political activities led to the civil war of 68–69 (p. 4). The Pisonian Conspiracy had nothing to do with "liberty" in any sense bigger than "liberty from Nero". Ahl is suggestive on the juxtapositioning of Lucan and Domitian (Inst. 10.1), but I don't see how the opposition has the teeth he attributes to it: even if we press it for political point, the Flavian habit of identifying with Neronian victims muddies the water (cf. e.g. Domitian's own wife, daughter of Corbulo).

Ambühl (17–38) looks at Ilioupersic patterns—particularly those of the Aeneid and Greek tragedy—within the speech of the senex at 2.68–232. She attends especially to the aesthetic currency of Ilioupersis and the narrative arrangement Lucan imparts to it. She argues for Lucan's direct engagement with Greek tragedy (Euripides' Troades and Hecuba), as well as its mediation through Latin texts (Aeneid 2; Seneca's Agamemnon and Troades). Ambühl argues that the old man's speech combines elements of the tragic messenger speech and rhesis: that he is a kind of a Roman Hecuba, re-gendered to reflect Roman political culture, and expanded in scope to encompass the whole city. This is a standout chapter to me: an excellent close reading and a stimulating study, with a number of revealing glimpses of Lucan's epic technique. Marius Gratidianus as Polyxena at the grave of Achilles and Scaevola as Priam are particularly arresting.

Sannicandro (39¬–52) considers Lucan's Julia. She rightly emphasizes the inherently public and active role of many of Lucan's women (an upshot of many of them being historical, aristocratic, Roman women) and the centrality of dissolving kinship relations (p. 40) in the epic. These dual roles, public and private, and their fusion, offer a platform for her chapter. Sannicandro first takes up the explicit comparison of Julia at 1.118 as a Sabine woman, wherein her thwarted potential for mediation and conflict resolution is tragically pre-empted by her death. Livy's foedus faciendum (1.13.4) is nicely co-opted into Lucan's programmatic rupto foedere regni (1.4). She then briefly considers Julia as a Jocasta figure: this seems strained (Sannicandro writes of the triple role of the historical Julia, as daughter, wife, and mother (p. 48): this last item seems somewhat of a technicality to accommodate Jocasta). She finally offers a perceptive reading of Julia's dream apparition to Pompey in book three, and draws out Lucan's shifting intertextuality (Julia as Creusa, as Dido, as Propertius' Cynthia), as well as Julia's own participation in the normative rhetoric of guilt and blame monopolized by Caesar and Pompey in the opening books.

Fantham (53¬–70) examines various contexts of rhetorical exchange involving Caesar. She prefaces her discussion with the Panaetian theory of the four personae (as represented in Cicero's De Officiis), and the absence of meaningful rhetorical interaction in epic, as anticipated in the work of Heinz and Feeney.2 I would have liked these prefatory elements (especially Panaetius) integrated more explicitly throughout the paper. This too is a suggestive piece and I felt throughout that I needed to be steered towards more explicit conclusions. However, there are incisive and thought-provoking observations along the way: on Afranius' and Petreius' historical continuing opposition versus their Spanish retirement in Lucan; on Caesar's new level of arrogance emerging by book three; on Caesar sans soldiers post-Pharsalus.

Rolim De Moura (71–90) looks at responsion both between individual characters' speeches, and between internal speeches and the narrator's own contributions. His case study is book seven, and contributes to the meaning of structural and thematic echoes in Lucan, and to Lucan's narrative strategies. Of Rolim De Moura's two final conclusions, the first—that this responsion is akin to 'the dialogic angling of virtually any speech toward potential interlocutors within the same semiotic and ideological universe'—has horizons which are too broad for me to apply. The second, which casts it as a species of metalepsis, is very interesting, and the final words gesturing towards investigating this narrative metalepsis within the overall epic tradition suggest a potentially valuable project.

Hömke (91–104) presents a poetological and aesthetic reading of Scaeva's aristeia. The preliminary treatment of uirtus in the Scaeva scene (93–8) does not advance the discussion significantly from Sklenář3; for this, I thought more was needed on the metapoetic / poetological content of the scene. The account of Lucan's aestheticisation of death (98–102) is more successful, particularly the focus on the apparent expansion of the interval between life and death. Engagement with Bartsch on the abject4 or Most on dismemberment might have offered useful analogies on this phenomenon.5 Scaeva's aristeia is acutely juxtaposed in this context with the torture and killing of Marius Gratidianus.

Wick (105–117) offers a rewarding piece on the tendency in Lucan's descriptions to move beyond objective outward form, to suggestive inner subjectivity. She focuses on Lucan's Africa in book nine, but the broader relevance of her reading easily makes itself felt beyond that one region and book. She begins with paradox and hyperbole, whereby Lucan pushes beyond what is concrete and conceivable into the merely intellectually comprehensible. She then outlines the problems facing Lucan's description of Africa as an unknown world of the type encountered in declamations on Alexander. Her reading of his Africa as a mixture of topography and topothesia (cf. Serv. A. 1.159), could easily provide fine returns on an investment elsewhere in the poem. Wick is especially good on Africa's physical ambiguity, its varying instability and permeability; so too on the varying subjectivities informing the understanding of interior characters of their physical surroundings: a topographical counterpart to Pitcher's recent observation of a similar political dynamic in the poem.6

Lowe (119–34) argues for a Libya that embodies the threatening behaviour of Caesar, and as a place where the mythological and supernatural are established in opposition to the historicity of Lucan's narrative. Lucan's Medusa excursus is presented as a major contributor to Cato's stoic characterisation, and a locus of scepticism regarding myth; Lowe argues for Medusa as a symbol of the republic under threat and the ethical challenges this prompts. He offers a stimulating comparison of Lucan's two Libyas (in books four and nine) and their relationship to the mythological and historical narratives contained in them. The final suggestion of the piece, that Caesar in Africa has passed from being an outsider threatening Rome to an insider, Roman, under threat is neat, but hangs to a considerable degree upon the current narrative ending of the poem, minus its historical outcome.

Bexley (135–53) also considers the Medusa excursus as a template for understanding Cato. Medusa's decapitated head is read as emblematic of the republican cause, while her gaze is mapped onto the motif of Cato as witness to suffering. The core of her paper builds on aspects of Narducci (2001)7 to offer a reading of Cato as incarnate Senecan philosophical witness. If in this section Bexley accepts imagery from the games (p. 144), I would have liked more on its function. I thought section three of this chapter was problematic, partly because it had so much to cover (recuperating Cato, his political engagement, his uirtus, Lucan's overall politics) in a fairly restricted space. I also disagree with the notion that Lucan cannot be undermining Cato by placing him as true believer in a dysfunctional universe because this strategy is somehow alien to the ancient mind: it is not exclusively post-modern (p. 150), but finds plenty of parallels in 'the period's rhetoricized mentality'8, most obviously in Senecan drama.

Wiener (155–73) offers an examination of various stoic elements at work within Lucan. She positions the negative teleology of the civil war against epic theodicy, and the competing claims of the individual against the eternal laws of nature. She offers a defence of genuine stoicism in Lucan; treated here are Lucan's causae versus his displaced gods; the epic as a praemeditatio malorum; the image of god as spectator in Senecan philosophy and Lucan. Lucan's epic as a performed praemeditatio malorum is especially interesting. But one is struck by how many individual problems need solving in order to recuperate sincerity or positivism for Lucan and stoicism. Regeneration after ekpyrosis, for example, is offered as a way out of cataclysm, but its conspicuous absence in Lucan's ekpyrotic imagery seems to me to be its most arresting feature:9 he certainly had the opportunity to foreground this aspect of the concept more. A Cato in tune with the workings of his universe needs to be weighed against e.g. Sklenář's Cato10. Pompey is another matter altogether: his bathetic nadir in book eight is to me at least a long way from hard won knowledge.

Dinter (175–90) finishes with a fine chapter aiming to rehabilitate imperial epic's autonomous amputated limbs: an affront to classical decorum if ever there was one (the limbs, not the chapter). He sidelines the aesthetic currency of dismemberment narratives to concentrate on their various metapoetic, ideological, and historical nuances. Dinter advances Lucretius as the transformative influence upon epic's pre-existing amputations; the motif's first full flowering is in the Metamorphoses. Philomela's tongue is read as the key note in a subtext of irrumatio; while the notion of uneasily stifled speech is sharply mapped against poet figures and Ovid's claims to immortality. Dinter approaches Lucan's limbs via Most, Bartsch, and hypallage, before offering readings of Medusa, Marius Gratidianus, Massilia, and Pompey. Pompey's head is certainly an indispensible climax in this context, but I thought not enough further content really emerged beyond its obvious symbolism; the Medusa discussion too seemed less satisfactory: neither hair as amputated limb, nor its resonances with the lock of Berenice fully convinced. These reservations by no means vitiate the overall discussion.

In sum this is a useful resource on Lucan's epic. Those interested in Lucan's rhetoric, his Africa, or his Cato in particular will find a lot to think over here.


1.   F. Ahl AJPh 105 (1984) 174–208.
2.   R. Heinze, Virgil's Epic Technique tr. Harvey, Harvey and Robinson. (Berkeley 1993 repr. [orig. 1903]); D. C. Feeney CQ 33 (1983) 204-19.
3.   R. Sklenář AJPh 120 (1999) 281–96 and in The Taste for Nothingness: a Study of Virtus and Related Themes in Lucan's Bellum Civile (Michigan 2003) 45–58.
4.   S. Bartsch, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan's Civil War (Cambridge, MA 1997) 10–47.
5.   G. W. Most, 'Disiecti Membra Poetae: the Rhetoric of Dismemberment in Neronian Poetry', in Innovations in Antiquity ed. R. Selden and D. Hexter (New York 1992) 391–419.
6.   L. Pitcher CQ 58 (2008) 243–9.
7.   E. Narducci Athenaeum 89 (2001) 171–86.
8.   V. Rudich Dissidence and Literature under Nero: the price of Rhetoricization (London 1997) 108 (quoted on p. 150).
9.   I make the case more fully at Scholia 14 (2005) 52¬–71.
10.   As at note 3.

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