Monday, March 9, 2015


Lisa Sannicandro, I personaggi femminili del Bellum civile di Lucano. Litora classica, 1. Rahden, Westfalia: VML Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2010. Pp. viii, 298. ISBN 9783867574716. €34.80 (pb).

Reviewed by Katherine De Boer Simons, The University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill (

Version at BMCR home site

Lisa Sannicandro's laudable goal in this study is to fill "a lacuna in Lucan studies" (1): a comprehensive treatment of the female characters of the Bellum Civile. As Sannicandro rightly remarks, Lucan's women are often viewed as "mere ornaments" (1) for the male characters, although recent work (such as Batinski 1993, Keith 2000, Finiello 2005, and Chiu 2010) has challenged this trend.1 Yet, as Sannicandro notes, many of these studies focus on a single character, so a thorough study of Lucan's women is a welcome and timely contribution.

Sannicandro begins by outlining her methodology, focusing especially on her avoidance of "so-called gender studies" as not suited to her approach because it is not founded upon "concrete, objective elements" such as intertextual and linguistic analysis. This dismissal of gender theory unfortunately cuts the author off from some thought-provoking recent scholarship on epic women and also demonstrates a misunderstanding of the field of gender studies, which is by no means unengaged with philological material. Further, Sannicandro seldom engages in in-depth intertextual analysis, in the sense of demonstrating close textual relationships with other authors. Her approach is, rather, categorical: she divides the women of the Bellum Civile into (1) historical characters, (2) invented characters, (3) mythological characters, (4) women in groups, and (5) the personification of Rome that appears at the Rubicon. While this system may be a helpful starting point, its rigidity is ultimately frustrating, as Sannicandro does not consider points of comparison between women of separate groups or draw any general conclusions about Lucan's portrayal of women.

The first five chapters treat Lucan's historical women. Each chapter provides some bibliographical and historical details and then delves into particulars. The citation of historical material is somewhat misleading—Sannicandro views these sources as "the starting point" (25) for the creation of Lucan's female characters, but frequently cites both Plutarch and Florus, never acknowledging that Lucan could not have known their work. She is attempting to recover Livy's lost work on the period by means of these later writers, but student readers would benefit from clear distinctions between pre- and post-Lucanian sources. Nor does Sannicandro seem to consider the possibility that later historians may have been influenced by Lucan himself.

Chapter One focuses on Julia's function as a bond between Caesar and Pompey and on her death as a casus belli, arguing that Julia's appearances throughout the poem are characterized by "the semantics of blood"— language intended to reinforce "the so-called 'connective' function of blood" (25–26). Yet many of the passages cited contain no explicit language of blood, and the idea that Julia links the two duces seems self-evident. Sannicandro also discusses the relationship between Julia and the Sabines (building on Brown 1995) and between Julia and Jocasta (building on Ambühl 2005). She concludes with Pompey's dire dream-vision of Julia in Book 3, focusing on elegiac models for the scene, particularly Propertius 4.7 (cf. Hübner 1984; Batinski 1993). The many important Vergilian parallels for Lucan's Julia (e.g. Ahl 1976; Keith 2000) are omitted or relegated to footnotes. Most interesting is Sannicandro's conclusion that Julia succeeds in establishing herself as Pompey's only legitimate wife, as Caesar and Pompey are called socer and gener long after Julia's death and Pompey's remarriage (39–40).

The chapter on Cornelia is the longest and again focuses on her elegiac antecedents. Sannicandro links Cornelia both to Propertius' Arethusa and to what she describes as "the world of the Heroides" (45). The Ovidian link, however, is vague—Sannicandro's examples include Cornelia's dramatic gestures, such as fainting, stretching out her arms, and gazing out to sea, and the "coastal setting" of various events (45). There are few direct quotations from the Heroides and all are relegated to footnotes, with the result that the intertextual link is not completely convincing. Nor does Sannicandro discuss the epic models for Cornelia's behavior, such as Andromache and the mother of Euryalus (Keith 2008). The chapter chiefly focuses on Pompey's character and his inability to reconcile his affection for his wife with his military responsibilities. Unfortunately, Sannicandro falls into the trap that she repudiates in the introduction, of treating a female character as a "mere ornament" to her male counterpart.

Sannicandro then moves to Marcia Catonis and her much-discussed remarriage to the man who divorced her in order to marry her to someone else. Again, she focuses mainly on the male characters—in this case, Cato and Brutus. The emphasis on Cato is perhaps not surprising, given that Sannicandro believes that "[Marcia's] existence is, finally, subordinate to that of her husband and of the state" (99). Sannicandro's most interesting insight is that Marcia, whose purpose in her second marriage was to produce children and bind two families together through new kinship ties, functions in opposition to the forces of civil war, which divide Roman families and shed Roman blood (92). Here Sannicandro's tendency to focus on a single character is particularly frustrating, as Marcia's function as a link between Cato and Hortensius evokes Julia's as a link between Caesar and Pompey. Likewise, Marcia's desire to preserve her original marriage, to be known as Marcia Catonis forever (2.343–345), recalls Julia's desire to preserve her bond with Pompey even beyond the grave (3.31–34).

The chapter on Cleopatra focuses on her negative influence on Caesar. Sannicandro argues that Lucan portrays Caesar as corrupted and debilitated by his relationship with Cleopatra—his military and political duties take a backseat to their idyll. Here again Sannicandro misses an opportunity to draw some larger conclusions about the role of women in the poem—her language in describing Caesar's weakness toward Cleopatra is remarkably similar to that describing Pompey's weakness toward Cornelia (e.g. 63; 120) but Sannicandro does not raise the comparison. Cleopatra's sister Arsinoe receives barely more than a page, with Sannicandro focusing on Caesar's portrait of her in De Bello Civile as a young woman "determined and ambitious" (130). Although Arsinoe is certainly a marginal character in Lucan's poem, one cannot help feeling that more discussion is warranted.

From the historical women, Sannicandro turns to the female prophets and visionaries of the Bellum Civile. The first two chapters of this section discuss the matrona possessed by Apollo in Book 1 and the Pythia of Book 5. Both chapters consist largely of summary of their respective prophecies, with comparison to other important prophecies in the poem. In her discussion of the matrona, Sannicandro points out that she is portrayed as a "wholly passive" (138) victim of Apollo (as is emphasized by the repetition of passive verbs) yet concludes that she proves that Lucan's women are "far from being extraneous to the action" (139). The chapter on the Pythia focuses on her carefree innocence, shattered by the boorish Appius Claudius. Sannicandro concludes with a comparison between the interaction between Appius and Pythia and that between Caesar and Amyclas later in Book 5.

Sannicandro ends the section on prophetic women with effera Erictho, the horrific witch of Book 6. She begins the chapter with a detailed review of Erictho's literary antecedents and of modern scholarship on her role in the poem, in which she strongly disputes metaliterary interpretations of Erictho as an alter ego of Lucan. The rest of the chapter examines Erictho's portrayal in the Bellum Civile with Sannicandro's usual thoroughness. She ends with an analysis of Erictho's role as a personification of the reversal of values inherent in civil war; in fact, as an incarnation of civil war itself (184). She concludes that Erictho is the true "vincitrice" of the civil war, since her only desire is to acquire more corpses for her rituals.

In the third section of the book, Sannicandro discusses the mythological women who appear in similes and excurses: Medusa, Agave, and Medea (Tellus, who appears in an excursus on Hercules and Antaeus in Book 5, is omitted without comment). She begins with Medusa, who appears in a digression on the origin of serpents in Libya. Sannicandro argues that the story functions to glorify Cato (190), who overcomes many obstacles, including serpents, in his durum iter. Sannicandro, following Berthi 2000, views the march as an ascent to wisdom (201). Sannicandro finds proof of the excursus' laudatory function through a comparison with Odyssey 11.628-640, in which Odysseus, the exemplar of the sapiens, is put to flight by fear of the Gorgon. Sannicandro argues that Cato surpasses the model of Odysseus and proves himself an even greater sapiens through his ability to face down the serpents, Medusa's offspring (203). This argument is weak —Perseus, who appears in the excursus, is a more direct comparandus, and Lucan, like Ovid, portrays him as an uninspiring heros (9.675). Sannicandro does not address this difficulty, concluding merely that Medusa constitutes "a sort of symbol of everything that can unexpectedly obstruct the process of the elevation of man" (204).

The brief chapter on Agave and Medea lists the appearances of these characters at several points in the Bellum Civile and concludes with the interesting observation that both women are linked to Caesar—a comparison that, she notes, is appropriate since both characters commit kin murders (211). Unfortunately, this rather short chapter does not pursue some interesting ambiguities, such as the fact that Caesar is compared both to Pentheus and to Agave (7.780).

The final, somewhat grab-bag, section on "other female figures" treats the personification of the Patria that appears to Caesar at the Rubicon and the group of mourning women in Book 2. The chapter on the Patria focuses on her literary relationships, comparing her to imagines in the Aeneid and various apparitions in historical narratives. Sannicandro concludes with the episode of Coriolanus in Livy's Book 2 and suggests that the encounter with the Patria characterizes Caesar as a son attacking his mother.

The analysis of the chapter on women and lament comes closest to gender studies and is the most interesting of the book. Sannicandro compares the women in Book 2 to several Livian depictions of mourning women, but concludes that Lucan's characters show greater "independence and organizational ability" (227) in their systematic attention to each god (2.34–36). She further points out that the women of the city articulate a previously voiceless grief (magnus…sine voce dolor, 2.21) and that they demonstrate an acute awareness of the political consequences of this latest civil war (2.40–42). Sannicandro concludes that this scene constitutes "proof of women's shared engagement in history" (229). More discussion along these lines would have been valuable, especially a closing chapter tying together the previous treatments and drawing some conclusions about Lucan's view of women and their role in the Bellum Civile, particularly in comparison with other Latin epics. Instead, the final chapter offers an appendix on the reception of Lucan's women in later literature. This material is interesting, but the somewhat abrupt ending and the absence of any summation or general conclusion are surprising.

Overall, this book offers a detailed general introduction to the women of Lucan. Sannicandro treats the material thoroughly and includes quotation and summary of almost every passage in which female characters appear. Her rigid system of classification and her practice of treating each woman separately impose conceptual limitations on the material, but also make this book very workable as a reference. Unfortunately, the preference for summary over analysis and the absence of any theoretical framework limit the work's significance. In the end, Sannicandro stops short of opening new lines of interpretation, and her avoidance of the flourishing field of gender studies hampers her repeatedly. Yet this book provides a helpful groundwork for more in-depth studies and certainly deserves praise for its insistence that the women of Lucan deserve far more attention than they have received.2


1.   E. Batinski, "Julia in Lucan's Tripartite Vision of the Dead Republic," in de Forest, ed., Woman's Power, Man's Game, Wauconda 1993: 264-278; A. Keith, Engendering Rome, Cambridge 2000; C. Finiello, Der Bürgerkrieg: Reine Männersache? Keine Männersache! Erichto und die Frauengestalten im Bellum Civile Lucans, in Walde, ed., Lucan im 21. Jarhundert, München –Leipzig 2005: 155-185; A. Chiu, "The Importance of Being Julia: Historical Revision and the Mutable Past in Lucan's Pharsalia," CJ 105.4: 343-360.
2.   Purchasers may wish to know that the book is poorly bound and liable to fall apart. A library binding is recommended.

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