Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus)

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus) (A.D. 39-65)

Roman poet

An indiscreet patriot during a perilous period in the Roman Empire, Lucan contributed insights into royal decadence. Born in Corduba (modern-day Cordoba) in a Roman province in Hispania (modern Iberia), he was the grandson of the rhetorician Seneca the Elder and nephew of the Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca the Younger. At Rome, Lucan entered the school of the Stoic philosopher Cornutus before traveling to Athens to study rhetoric. At age 21, Lucan gained the approval of the 23-year-old emperor Nero, who appointed him magistrate and augur, the interpreter of natural omens. In the words of the Roman historian SUETONIUS’S De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars, ca. A.D. 121), “He made his first appearance as a poet with a ’Eulogy of Nero’ at the emperor’s Quinquennial Contests [festivals of poetry and oratory] and then gave a public reading of his poem on the Civil War waged between Pompey and Caesar” (Suetonius 1920, 501). In the middle of the silver age of Roman literature, Lucan thrived as a court poet until the temperamental emperor became jealous of his facile verse. Forbidden to publish or recite his poetry, Lucan pursued the reckless course of insulting Nero in saucy lines. One notorious ode, De incendio urbis (On the burning of the city, A.D. 64), leveled a charge of arson at the emperor that generated the legend “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Lucan defamed the imperial family more pointedly in book 9 of Pharsalia (A.D. 63), also called Bellum civile (The Civil War), his only surviving work.

Lucan chose history rather than mythology as the basis for epic and preferred grotesque and gory poetics over the classical style of VIRGIL, Rome’s premier epic poet. He issued Pharsalia, a 10-book chronicle of the civil war a century earlier, in serial installments. The text covers the conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, whom Lucan lionizes as the true defender of republican values. The epic poem reaches its height with the battle at Pharsalus, Greece, on August 9, 48 B.C., when Caesar overwhelmed Pompey, forcing him to take refuge at the court of the Egyptian pharaoh, Ptolemy XIII.

Nero took offense at Lucan’s attack on his ancestor. After the poet moved from mere literary taunts into Senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s coterie of anti-Nero conspirators, the emperor issued treason charges against Lucan on April 19, A.D. 65. Suetonius was aghast at Lucan’s folly “making great talk about the glory of tyrannicides and full of threats, even going to the length of offering Caesar’s head to all his friends” (Suetonius 1920, 503). At age 25, Lucan took the aristocratic Roman’s way out of an execution order by slitting his arteries. He recited original verse while bleeding to death. His mother Acilia and wife, Polla Argentaria, escaped the proscription, which doomed the poet’s father, two uncles, and 16 confederates. AS the emperor intended, Pharsalia remained incomplete.

Lucan's Anti-Imperialism

Written in Homeric hexameters, Lucan’s political epic proposed to reverse history. He seethes with hostility at the founders of the Julio-Claudian imperial line, who promoted civic chaos as a means of expunging the Roman Republic, and opens immediately on censure: “Wars worse than civil we sing … justice given over to crime” (Lucan 1993, 3). He decries nature “gone awry” and openly castigates the imperialists as “an everlasting dynasty [that] costs the gods dear” (24, 4). Lucan’s explicit diction bristles with phrases stating disapproval— “crimes and evil,” “glutted with blood, clash … at these massacres,” “slave wars,” “frenzied nation,” “the whole discordant,” “running head-on,” “pact of tyranny,” “Rome grown top-heavy.” Foolhardy and yet admirable, the epic left little doubt of the poet’s hatred of Nero and the whole concept of a Roman Empire.

Lapsing into the drama of Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 850 B.C.), Lucan orchestrated an expose of sources of public panic. His narrative summons metaphysical monsters: “Black Charybdis churned up blood- red brine from the sea-floor; Scylla’s curs howled” (22). The text recalls the shield of Mars falling from the sky into the hands of King Numa and affirms a chosen spot in heaven for perfect men. For effect, Lucan juxtaposes necromancy and superstitions alongside realistic reportage about the embalming of Alexander the Great, the Egyptian lighthouse at Pharos in Alexandria, and Julius Caesar’s redesign of the Roman calendar in 45 B.C. In company with soldiers and statesmen, Lucan placed the allegorical figures of Death, Fortune, Freedom, Liberty, and the towering phantasm of Roma. The latter, a colossal female, confronts Julius Caesar before he crosses the Rubicon River, an illegal entry of a standing army into city precincts. Roma reminds him of the city’s sanctity and bids him rethink the transgression of sacred boundaries. At a peak of arrogance, Caesar exults to his foes, “You’ll pay for your peaceseeking and learn there’s nothing safer while I’m alive than war under my command!” (70).

In the opening lines, Lucan predicts that Caesar’s effrontery to Roman law and custom will lead to the nation’s suicide by a “sword-hand turned to strike its own vitals,” a dramatic action known as “the Roman way of death” (1). In book 9, the poet returns to Caesar in Egypt when the commander in chief confronts Pompey's severed head and views him less as an enemy than as a sonin-law, the widower who was married to Caesar's daughter Julia. The image of Death delighting in carnage overdramatizes Lucan's bitterness toward the Republic's demise: “She gleans the things that fly up in the pitchy smoke—woodchips from the funeral bier, scraps of graveclothes crumbling to ash, cinders that stink of charred flesh” (158). A lengthy hyperbole depicts the female figure of Death waiting for corruption to eat into cadavers before she harvests icy eyeballs and gnaws yellow nails from hands.

The epic satirizes Cleopatra's exoticism and the luxuries and sexual extremes of the Egyptian court, striking close to public impressions of Nero's household. The 10th book pictures chiffon drapes, Tyrian purple, marble, onyx slabs, and veneer of agate and porphyry. Amid throngs of house slaves, Cleopatra poses in glory: “Red Sea spoils at her throat, a fortune adorning her—[trembling] beneath the weight of her ornaments” (274). Lucan predicts the collapse of the Roman Empire and the death of a “maniacal king” (271) who so ravages the citizenry that he leaves no survivors. A subsequent passage returns to Caesar's folly: “Such ambition! gift of the night that first bedded, first coupled the child of the Ptolemies' incest with a captain of ours” (272). For its vivid gothicism, Pharsalia appealed to Dante, who imitated in the Inferno (1321) snatches of Lucan's verbal mayhem in a literary descent into hell. Christopher Marlowe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, and Thomas Babington Macaulay all praised Lucan's skill at apostrophe, epigram, and dramatic spectacle.


Lucan. Pharsalia. Translated by Jane Wilson Joyce. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Masters, Jamie. Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum

Civile. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Suetonius. Suetonius. 2 vols. Translated by J. C. Rolfe. London: Heinemann, 1920.