@degruyter_TRS Review: Paolo Asso’s A Commentary on Lucan, “De bello civili” IV

The study of Lucan, the great and relatively unknown poet who wrote Rome into another civil war, is one worth the Classicist’s time. Paolo Asso, in the first English commentary of any magnitude on Lucan’s work, focuses on Book IV, providing an in-depth commentary and not an obese but less substantial view of the entire poem. Other recent authors (]], for instance) have begun to focus on small segments or scenes but Asso is the first to investigate fully an entire book of Pharsalia, and he has chosen perhaps one of the most illusive books to begin. Book IV, the author contends, expresses much of the greatness of Lucan, along with acting as a middle ground for the book. Asso also believes that this book is the first to show a rift with Nero. Thus, it allows for a natural starting point in examining many facets of Pharsalia otherwise muted if, for instance, one starts at Book I.

The Introduction lays down much of the foundation for the book. Asso not only introduces Lucan to us (vitally important for those who simply do not know much about the Poet), but so too the context of the poem’s genesis. From here, the author introduces us to the reason Book IV’s is under examination. Asso tackles well in a few short pages issues in modern Lucan scholarship including the ending of the work. While I do not agree with his position on the Lucian ending, his maintains his points by comparing the poem to the intertextual sources (his only real engagement with intertextuality). Further, what are commonly thought of as faults of the Poet — allegory, use of an abbreviated historical event in an epic, and various forms of mutilated syntax — Asso assures us are traits and trademarks of Lucan meant to enjoin his audience to the poem and the intended meaning of the poem. Some of his conclusions are beyond reproach, although in slim cases, such as meter, there is room for exploration. As a novice Lucan scholar, I was happy to discover this section quickly condenses much of the growing number of books on Lucan, showing the trend in Lucan scholarship as flowing neatly together. After the introduction, Asso gives us a Latin text of Book IV as well as his translation.

English: Bust of the Roman poet Lucan, Córdoba...
English: Bust of the Roman poet Lucan, Córdoba, Spain Italiano: Busto del poeta latino Lucano, Cordova, Spagna Español: Busto del poeta romano Lucano, Córdoba, España (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following three chapters of the book are the commentary proper. Asso devotes these chapters to the commentary on Book IV, a book containing of the more poignant scenes of Pharsalia, such the Battle of Ilerda (4.1-401; Part I of the commentary). Beginning with the Latin line, Asso examines in this part various lexical difficulties as well as some minor interpretative elements. For instance, on pages 135-6, Asso is examining line 110-120 of Book IV. He takes the time to discuss the prayer in recent scholarship, offering several divergent views. He also uses this point to launch into discussing, briefly, Lucan’s apostrophe. Throughout the commentary, we are given more than textual commentary, but so too contextual information, although sparingly. This is not simply a textual commentary; it is a commentary from the Poet’s world as well.

In Part II, the author discusses Lucan’s intention in describing the mutual suicide of Volteius and the Opitergians (4.402-581) while Part II covers the annihilation of Curio’s legions in Africa (Lines 581-824). These two sections, I would gather, are placed by Asso in their own parts due to a natural break in the poem itself based on sudden shifts in the imagery and syntax. Further, Part III is Asso’s doctoral dissertation slightly modified. Part II deals with a scene thought lost from Caesar’s own account, but covered by Livy, while Part III covers the rather poetic rhetoric of Lucan who ends this book with an apostrophe. This final apostrophe (4.799-824, covered on pages 284-93) is a complex one according to Asso. As noted in his introduction, this Book is the draw for Asso, and the more so this apostrophe. It seems as well a foreshadowing of other eulogies the author exhibits in later books.

The only real substantial complaint I have with this work is that it does not cover the intertextuality of Lucan’s work. While we are told Ilerda is likely lost from Caesar’s account but retained in Livy, no further points of comparison are made. Lucan writes in these subtle metaphors of allusion, meant to drive some sort of emotional attachment in his audience; however, this rather important and looming aspect of Lucan is almost completely foreign to this commentary. Instead of fighting to interpret Lucan’s allusive meaning, Asso surrenders to paraphrases, offering little help in connecting Lucan to his audience, or his predecessors.

This is a must have for Lucian scholars, as well as those who study Latin textual criticism. Line by line Asso takes the reader through an involved discussion of Book IV, displaying current scholarship on the dead poet. It is not for the faint of heart, but any valid reading of Lucan’s work must now include something from Paulo Asso.

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