Thoughts on Lucan

Lucan is the herald of a new age of Roman Rhetoric. No longer does he just use imitation as a forum for ethical teaching (Plato), tragedy and art (Aristotle, Ovid), but now he introduces to the Roman stage the art of political rhetoric in a way which challenges the Empire. The study of Lucan’s use of Seneca, Virgil, and Ovid’s epics in a political way is enlightening. First, it was a common (allowable) practice to use, to mimic, another’s work. In doing so, I believe it is logical to have the assumption that mimesis for mimesis sake alone would accomplish nothing (Narducci refers to Ovid’s playful use of Virgil), but if mimicry is used, then the audience must have recognized it and would have been able to pin it to their current situation. Without such mnemonic transference, the trajectory of Lucan would have fizzled and, as we see today by those who read it, the polemical undertones would have been missed.  Second, there is clearly the political tension in Lucan’s work, which is missed by modern readers. In exploring the political causes of composition, I believe it is helpful to first know the context of composition.

Lucan was born in the reign of Caligula, living through Claudius, and died at the suggestion of his former friend Nero. It was in the midst of the moral decay of the Roman Empire, and perhaps the nostalgia of the Roman Republic, that Lucan was able to turn Virgil’s poem of the ascendency of Rome on its head and give to the Roman people a direct confrontation to the Imperial Throne. In doing so, he used his uncle Seneca’s work as well as Virgil, imitating them to a point. He takes from works which have previously glorified Rome, setting it as a city on a hill which is ordained by the gods, and instead purposely attacks, pushing for the days when Roman officials were at the mercy of the Republic and not the other way around.

Narducci notes that the proem of Lucan’s work is similar to that of Seneca’s style (Narducci:387), in that there is the same continuous repetition. The modern commentator dismisses the ignorance which prevents one from noting the “expressive tension” and the “complexity of intertextual negotiations that these verses present.” Narducci calls attention to the images on Emathia which was imitated by Ovid but first found light in Virgil’s earlier work, Georgics, which is found to be more within Lucan’s mindset than the later propaganda piece, Aenied. The modern author goes on to name other instances where Lucan can be found to use images and phrases from Virgil and the style of Seneca. It is not that Lucan is unoriginal or suffers from a deficit in artistic ability; the opposite is true. Lucan is the master craftsman. He takes from pre-existing matter and creates something which is both recognizable and new.

In one example which I believe is important, Lucan is able to take the unus homo of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and transport that concept into realm beyond that of the imitated. In Ovid, the “one man” is Romulus who becomes the first King of Rome, albeit by virtue of a few ‘civil wars’, notably that with his brother Remus and with the Sabines. Romulus becomes the “one man” of Rome. Lucan is able to take this concept of the “one man” and use it in his work for both Caesar and Pompey. For Pompey, he is seen as the hero because he refuses to allow Caesar to become Emperor. While Pompey is decapitated, Lucan is able to symbolize all of Rome who is no longer “head of the world (9.123-5).” Further, he is the “one man” who abdicates his status to protect Rome from the Imperial threat. Caesar by contrast, becomes the “one man” to whom all the new State flows. “Caesar was everything,” including the Senate and all forms of Republican representatives. Hardie notes that this concept is best explained in “one against all” and “one for many.” The one for many, Pompey, is the real hero, as opposed to Caesar, the “one against all,” who while he had achieved great military and political success, destroyed the Roman Republic.

Narducci notes that Lucan brings his audience along, in that he allows them the comfort of enjoying the show, so to speak, but at that right moment in the story, perhaps utilizing Aristotle’s notion of recognition, the audience realizes something not only about the story’s characters, but is forced to look at themselves (Narducci:390). Quoting Mordford, Lucan is seen as a Republican, waging a war against Virgil’s revisionist history which allowed the Roman populace a sort of political complacency in seeing the Republic fall and replaced by the Emperors that he had seen in his life time. I note that the Emperors he had lived with and under were far from the heroic Julius Caesar, or his nephew, the august Emperor, the former Gaius Octavius, but the cruel (Caligula), the weak (Claudius), and the insane (Nero). As Narducci writes, “His systematic overturning of the Aeneid almost seems to have the purpose of exposing a deception.” That deception, of course, was the ‘glory’ of Rome.

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