Thursday, March 31, 2016


Brian Walters (trans.), Lucan: Civil War. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2015. Pp. xlviii, 266. ISBN 9781603849968. $17.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Neil W. Bernstein, Ohio University (

Version at BMCR home site


This new Lucan appears in Hackett's series of translations of ancient epic, characterized by Lombardo's appealing versions of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Statius. Walters takes these volumes as his self-avowed models and imagines "a Lucan who can sit—with some slight unease—beside" (xii) Lombardo's works. There are many good choices in this translation. Walters has a fine ear for the range and rhythm of American demotic and often creates excellent turns and images. He makes judicious dictional choices, such as "winter had amped [the] strength" (1.242) of the tiny river Rubicon (BC 1.217 vires praebebat hiemps), or "scrambled feedback / Utterly unlike human speech" (6.721-2; BC 6.687 humanae multum discordia linguae). The Fury's stridentis… comas (BC 1.574) become "cobra-dreadlocks" (1.614-15), a fine phrase that enables the modern reader to envision both the visual image of the hair and its dangers. The appeal of the visual similarly motivates the translator's addition of "like cheesecloth" to Lucan's description of "wounds admitting water" (1.698) through a sailor's perforated body at Massilia (perfosso pectore corpus / volneribus transmisit aquas, BC 3.660-1). Poor Aulus, the first victim of the African snakes on Cato's doomed march, finds that "scorching venom… / makes his tongue bake in a sweltering mouth-oven" (9.757-9; BC 9.744 in sicco linguam torrere palato). Rhythm, off-rhyme, and an unexpected coinage contribute effectively to the power of the ecphrasis.

When Marius captures Rome, "Death walked through the city / With giant strides and killed nobodies and nobles / Indiscriminately!", (2.114-16), an excellent combination of rhythm, echo, and enjambement (BC 2.100-1 quantoque gradu mors saeua cucurrit! / nobilitas cum plebe perit). Walters' whiny Cornelia well represents Lucan's humor, as when she promises her husband: "I'll haunt the cliffs, a nervous wreck" (5.859; BC 5.780 sollicitam rupes… tenebunt). Braund's "anxiously shall I frequent the cliffs" and Fox's "I'll cling to the crags, afflicted" lack the same impact.1 In the account of the minor skirmishing around Dyrrachium, "many unspeakable acts were chalked up / to target practice" (6.85-6) effectively communicates Lucan's cynicism about the cheapness of human life in civil war (BC6.79 et fit saepe nefas iaculum temptante lacerto).

The translation's shortcomings, however, make this volume a much less attractive choice for instructors who want to introduce the Bellum Civile to Latinless undergraduates than Fox's 2012 Penguin. Walters's syntax is often difficult for a modern reader: there are too many passive verbs, hyperbaton can often separate a "not" two lines from its referent, and the translator sometimes leaves it to the reader to figure out whether a genitive is subjective or objective. Other weaknesses involve problems of tone, theme, and accuracy that go well beyond the translator's freedom to omit, condense, or silently gloss. I give a few examples:

BC 1.164-5 cultus gestare decoros / uix nuribus rapuere mares. The decadent Roman nobles are imagined to wear clothing barely acceptable for young women of marriageable age. English is more definite than Latin in its use of terminology that distinguishes age groupings. Walters's "unfit for little girls" (1.185) gives the image of grown men prancing around in elementary-school children's garments, not the transparent gowns and other sexually alluring articles of clothing praised by the elegists.

BC 2.303-4 tuumque / nomen, Libertas, et inanem persequar umbram. Cato's famous address to Liberty reaches a high point in his resolve to follow its mere name and empty shadow. Walters's "And, Liberty, I'll follow even your empty shade" omits the crucial phrase tuumque nomen. This is a particularly unfortunate omission in a poem so concerned with the contrast between appearance and reality, that makes first Pompey's great name and then the gods themselves empty shadows.

A less severe, but still noticeable problem appears to be the translator's distrust in the original poem's appeal. Walters announces his intention to celebrate Lucan's "rhetorical excesses that are... the real meat and bone of the Civil War" (xii). This barb is presumably aimed not at contemporaries but at Graves' efforts in the 1950s to curtail such unmodern offenses against taste. Fox's Penguin and Braund's World's Classics view preserving Lucan's rhetoric as their mission as well, and Fox's introduction offers a detailed reception history of the negative use of the term "rhetorical". The epic catalog, for instance, is one of Lucan's rhetorical pleasures that does not often appeal to the modern reader. Thus BC 1.392-465, for example, lists the various Gallic peoples left ungarrisoned by Caesar's departure from Gaul. Lucan creates effective variation in this catalog by emphasizing the atypical: picturesque Gallic weapons and dress, unusual tides, gods with bizarre rituals. After BC 1.447, Walters contributes variation of his own invention, a five-fold repetition of the same word ("Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice," 1.485). Fronto may have condemned Lucan for his repetitiveness, but no ancient poet would go one better than Shakespeare's Lear ("Howl, howl, howl, howl"). Walters has made a strange decision to contribute some additional excess at one of the catalog's most extreme moments, a reference to human sacrifice.

W. R. Johnson's illuminating introduction discusses the poet's attitude toward Nero, his abandonment of epic's traditional divine machinery, the epic's jaundiced attitude toward heroism, and its variety of narrative styles. Walters includes plot synopses and a glossary in an effort to make the translation more student-friendly. The volume still lacks explanatory notes, often employs challenging syntax, and does not gloss enough of the kennings that make the student's life difficult. On the first page of Walters's translation, the reader encounters Ausonia and the Seres; Fox speaks of a more recognizable Italy and the Chinese. Thanks to its clear translation and hundred-plus pages of intelligent and economical notes, Fox's Penguin remains the instructor's first choice.


1.   Susan H.Braund, Lucan. Civil War. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992; Matthew Fox and Ethan Adams, Lucan. Civil War. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Worth remembering that Lear gets up to five 'never's, a little later!