Thursday, March 13, 2014


Martin T. Dinter, Anatomizing Civil War: Studies in Lucan's Epic Technique. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 186. ISBN 9780472118502. $65.00.

Reviewed by Annemarie Ambühl, Leiden University; Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz (

Version at BMCR home site

"Today a study of Lucan no longer needs apology, for what was once considered to be not much more than a pile of truncated textual limbs in an unfinished and therefore unpolished epic corpus has been rehabilitated." Thus begins the second paragraph of Dinter's Introduction (p. 1), and indeed there is no need to apologize for taking Lucan seriously and analyzing his work with the tools of contemporary literary criticism. Just the past five years have witnessed the publication of a wealth of commentaries, monographs, congress volumes, an Oxford Readings in Classical Studies volume (ed. C. Tesoriero, assisted by F. Muecke and T. Neal, Oxford 2010 [BMCR 2011.02.26]), and a Brill's Companion (ed. P. Asso, Leiden/Boston 2011 [BMCR 2012.10.52]) devoted to Lucan.1 The book under review stems from the author's PhD thesis from the University of Cambridge. As Lucan scholarship has long been divided into enemy camps, it is helpful that the author states his personal allegiances right at the beginning (p. 1, following up on the previous quote): "Morford, Ahl, Johnson, Henderson [Dinter's Doktorvater], Masters, Leigh, and Bartsch have all fought the good fight." Dinter's own approach is evident from the title as well as from the headings of individual chapters ('Lucan's Epic Body'; 'Embodiments'; Autarchic Limbs'; 'The Anatomy of Repetition'). The pervasive use of body imagery in the Bellum Civile is interpreted as a metaliterary trope, which then is expanded into a study of various poetic devices that lend a sense of unity to the seemingly fragmented epic. This fits squarely into recent scholarship that explores the interconnections between civil war, the textual reenactment of violence and Lucan's poetics (note Henderson's famous slogan 'The Word at War', referred to by Dinter on p. 27).

As is to be expected, metonymies and metaphors deriving from body parts are a recurrent feature of Dinter's study, including occasional puns, from "Let us mop up the blood […]" as an appropriate starter (p. 1), via "[…] an open body, a vivisection of the Roman Republic […]" (p. 3) to "Lucan's episodic style has shaped his textual body as an epic with many capita (sections); at the same time, however, the author initiates its decomposition by leaving it in the form of a headless trunk" (p. 27), and in a footnote (p. 49 n. 171), even the "handy" butler from The Addams Family films makes his appearance. So it would be tempting to apply anatomical metaphors not only to Lucan's but also to Dinter's own text, and the present reviewer has not been able to resist this temptation. As the author states in his preface (p. viii), the first chapter reworks material from previously published essays;2 however, also chapter 3 on sententiae in Lucan partly builds on earlier work.3 Dinter has done his best to fit the individual chapters into a coherent argument (as emphasized in the introduction and by transitional passages between chapters),4 but in parts the book still reads more like an assembly of separate limbs than an organic body (not so much simplex dumtaxat et unum but rather disiecti membra poetae, to speak with Horace).5 But the same thing could be said about Lucan's aesthetics as well (according to Dinter), so that the manner of presentation in a way mirrors its own subject matter.

After the Introduction (pp. 1-4), there follows a brief summary of the epic's plot ('Aide-Mémoire', p. 5-8), presented as a guide for the reader, but also an interesting exercise in comparison with the medieval argumenta Lucani quoted and discussed in the last chapter (p. 144-147).

The aim of the first chapter ('Lucan's Epic Body: Anatomizing Civil War', pp. 9-49) is to show that Lucan binds together his epic corpus through imagery derived from representations of the body, which is demonstrated by his use of body vocabulary from five different fields: the cosmic body (gigantomachy and personifications of heavenly or geographical objects), the Roman state body (e.g. the semantic range of caput), the military corps and the human body (the double meanings of arma and manus), and finally the textual body (a preview of the metaliterary reading in chapter 2), followed by a synoptic overview of the use of these concepts in the battle scenes in BC 7. The remainder of the chapter reviews the hyperrealistic depictions of violence, reading the automatisms of cut-off body parts in Ovid (twitching fingers, talking heads and Philomela's tongue) as vehicles for metapoetics leading on to the notorious scenes of mutilations and the severed heads of Medusa and Pompey in Lucan, and finally managing the transition to the poet's own envisaged afterlife.

Chapter 2 ('Embodiments: Lucan and Fama', pp. 50-88) explores the metaliterary potential of the various references to fama as rumor, as tradition, and as renown, using a method of semantic analysis similar to that in the first chapter. Dinter identifies in fama, too, a unifying concept that brings together the many perspectives of Lucan's epic, replacing the gods in their traditional role, and concludes that the Bellum Civile is an epic directed by Fame rather than Fate (unlike the Aeneid). Fama is embodied in landscapes (Thessaly, Libya, Troy) and personifications, with Erictho (not only a poet figure but also a power figure) as the successor of Ovid's Fama.6 The chapter goes on to examine some of the "further voices" summoned by Lucan (e.g. the role of rumor in BC 1) and appropriately ends with epitaphic gestures within and beyond the epic, feeding (or bleeding) into the legend of Lucan's own biography.

Chapter 3 ('Autarchic Limbs: Sententiae in Lucan', pp. 89-118) moves from imagery and metaphor to syntax and analyzes one of the characteristic devices of Lucan's rhetoric, which paradoxically is said to contribute to the thematic unity of his epic precisely through its epigrammatic force or 'excerptability'. After reviewing the role of gnomai or sententiae in the rhetorical tradition, Dinter groups Lucan's sententiae according to key themes of civil war (flight, no winners, fear, and death). Special attention is paid to the ways in which Lucan deconstructs and inverts the traditional function of proverbs while at the same time asserting his auctorial authority and leaving a legacy in the form of "the epic's readers' digest, the best of BC, essential Lucan" (p. 92). This hypothesis is then illustrated by the reading practice of a particular historical reader from seventeenth-century Germany, Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff, and his collection of edifying sententiae from Lucan.

The fourth chapter ('The Anatomy of Repetition', pp. 119-154) looks at verbal repetition and the repetition of events and patterns. Here themes from earlier chapters reappear in connection with a major episode, the Raft of Vulteius (BC 4.402-581), which is read metapoetically against the background of Caesar's own Bellum Civile and his preoccupation with spectacle and fame. The final part of the chapter and the book deals with reiteration in connection with the ending of Lucan's epic and looks at the various responses its open-endedness has provoked from its medieval and Renaissance readers (including Thomas May), who sought for closure or continuation. In line with the somewhat episodic nature of Dinter's book, there is no overall conclusion.

The Bibliography (pp. 155-172) manages to keep a fine balance between older and more recent titles as well as between theoretical approaches and more traditional philological studies, and in almost evenly considering Anglophone, German, French and Italian works reflects well the various international communities of Lucan scholarship (a quality that unfortunately cannot be taken for granted any more). The book concludes with an Index Locorum (pp. 173-184) and a General Index (p. 185f.). The statistical record confirms the general impression that Ovid is at least as prominent an intertext as Virgil, which also reflects the shifting paradigms of scholarship away from the narrow view of Lucan as an anti-Virgil (or an ultra-Virgil, cf. p. 63 n. 53 and p. 120). The present reviewer would have liked to see a bit more of Seneca tragicus – only the Thyestes is taken into account – and perhaps also some comparisons with Lucan's fellow imperial epicists Statius, Valerius Flaccus or Silius Italicus, who do not figure at all.

The overall layout is reader-friendly.7 All Latin is translated, including the shorter quotations within the body of the text.8 Latin key-words are printed in bold so that they jump off the page and catch the readers' eyes (it has to be noted, though, that this device is not used consistently throughout and thus leaves a somewhat random impression).

In sum, Dinter's study contains a stimulating reading of Lucan's epic with many noteworthy individual points, even if the overall argument sometimes disappears from sight, and opens up promising perspectives for future work, not least on the reception of Lucan's epic.9 Even if not all readers will be convinced by his overtly metaliterary approach, it offers a welcome antidote to ideological biases (p. 119): "Lucan's epic does not serve any ideology but […] functions rather as a vessel for Lucan's fame."


1.  To mention only a few key publications illustrating the broad range of recent approaches: C. Walde (ed.), Lucans Bellum Civile: Studien zum Spektrum seiner Rezeption von der Antike bis ins 19. Jahrhundert, Trier 2009 (BMCR 2013.05.13); O. Devillers, S. Franchet d'Espèrey (eds.), Lucain en débat: Rhétorique, poétique et histoire, Paris/Bordeaux 2010; N. Hömke, C. Reitz (eds.), Lucan's Bellum Civile: Between Epic Tradition and Aesthetic Innovation, Berlin/New York 2010 (BMCR 2011.05.13); T. Baier (ed.), Götter und menschliche Willensfreiheit: Von Lucan bis Silius Italicus, München 2012. The commentaries by P. Roche (Oxford 2009) on BC 1 and by P. Esposito (Napoli 2009) and P. Asso (Berlin/New York 2010) on BC 4 obviously appeared too late to be taken into account by Dinter.
2.   Chapter 1 reuses material from his contributions to C. Walde (ed.), Lucan im 21. Jahrhundert – Lucan in the 21st Century – Lucano nei primi del XXI secolo, München/Leipzig 2005, 295-312 (BMCR 2006.08.18), and to Hömke/Reitz 2010, 175-190 (note 1 above).
3.   Some of the introductory passages of chapter 3 (pp. 89-100) as well as the sections on Fuga (pp. 105-107) and on the speech of Pothinus (p. 110f.) are paralleled by Dinter's contribution (in French) to Devillers/Franchet d'Espèrey 2010, 55-62 (quoted in note 1 above).
4.   See e.g. p. 9: "My principal aim in this chapter is to show how Lucan binds together his epic corpus by putting emphasis on the concept of the body, and then to show in subsequent chapters how Lucan's epic exploits this contextualization and binds Lucan's epic body together through the use of Fama, sententiae, and internal repetition."
5.   Cf. G.W. Most, "Disiecti membra poetae: The Rhetoric of Dismemberment in Neronian Poetry," in: R. Hexter/D. Selden (eds.), Innovations of Antiquity, New York 1992, 391-41 ( referred to e.g. on p. 27 n. 70).
6.   For this section, Dinter has been able to preview excerpts from Philip Hardie's Rumour and Renown: Representations of Fama in Western Literature, Cambridge 2012 (BMCR 2013.02.13) (cf. p. viif. and p. 74 n. 110).
7.   I noticed only a few typographical errors: p. vii: Franchet d'Esperéy for d'Espèrey; p. 146 (translation of the argument of BC 8): I am for Iam; p. 127: favouable for favorable; p. and 138f. with n. 72 and p. 160: Goreman for Gorman (no pun intended?); p. 157 (Clark): missing space between Routledge, 1998; p. 169: Schmitt/Schmidt in the wrong alphabetical order; p. 171 (Wheeler): Classica Monacensiam for Monacensia; p. 172 (Zeller): Corneills for Corneilles.
8.   As stated in the preface (p. viii; cf. p. 11 n. 6), the translations from the Bellum Civile are based on Susanna Morton Braund's (Lucan: Civil War, Oxford World's Classics, Oxford 1992). On p. 34f., Dinter has apparently taken over an inconsistency present already in Braund (ibid. p. lv vs. p. 146), when he prints Shackleton Bailey's conjecture sua corpora fusa (BC 7.652) but translates the transmitted tot corpora fusa "so many bodies laid low".
9.   The recently published study by Edward Paleit (War, Liberty, and Caesar: Responses to Lucan's Bellum Ciuile, ca. 1580 – 1650, Classical Presences, Oxford 2013) covers some of this ground.

No comments:

Post a Comment