Most of us, when we think of the classics, think of Homer — the Iliad and they Odyssey — and sometimes of the Aeneid. Greek and Latin literature aren’t as important nowadays as they used to be, when during e.g. John Milton’s time they formed as core a part of the curriculum as the Bible. Even Aristophanes — without a doubt, the funniest man on Earth — is half forgotten. Which is a shame, because not only was the literature of the Greeks and Romans fundamental to the whole of Western culture, but it’s pretty darn good as well.
Take this Lucan guy. Here was a poet who loved the Stoic ideal yet was rashly ruled by his own intemperate emotions. An early friendship with Nero burned out for Reasons and Lucan ultimately championed a conspiracy to depose him. Something which ended, unsurprisingly, in his arrest. Suddenly realizing the consequences of his rashness, Lucan begged for a pardon, but Nero allowed him only the choice of his death. He was just 25.
Which is a pity, because the half-finished epic he left behind — what is known today as the Pharsalia and in the Roman world most likely as De Bello Civile (“On the Civil War”) — is absolutely wonderful. Did Lucan have the technical mastery of a mature Virgil? Of course not! But instead Lucan’s work is charged with an absolutely frenetic pace, a sense of gloomy realism yet with an almost Lovecraftian supernatural lurking in the shadows, and an almost addictive affection for lost causes.
Pharsalia endeavors to tell the tale of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar (the first phase of a series of civil wars that would only end with the deaths of Cleopatra and Marc Antony), with the text breaking off abruptly after Cato’s march through treacherous Libya to reach Leptis (Magna?) and Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar. It builds on a pair of epic similes — Pompey compared to a dying oak tree, and Caesar to a bolt of lightning — turning them into conceits he draws entire characterizations from. Pompey’s ill-fated wife stands with Virgil’s Dido as one of the most richly-drawn-out characters of the Roman period, and under Lucan’s hands the setting develops a raw, emotionally-charged energy.
Even Cato — the closest thing this epic seems to have to a hero — has his tragic flaw; he is strict and wooden beyond all reason, a character trait we see from him early on. Pharsalia is rather like Madame Bovary in this respect: a great tale woven wholly from unsavory heroes, and proof against the idea that you need personable characters to weave a great story, as long as the story itself offers that dramatic power, that emotional charge, all good narratives need to run. Indeed, both Pharsalia and Madame Bovary seem to be using their characters’ unsavoriness as a theme, making a point: Flaubert about bourgeoisie ennui; Lucan about Nero’s infamous den of iniquity.
For this is really the epic’s beating heart: it is one extended, sustained invective against Nero, an allegory clothed in a historical novel’s garb. And what a heart! We’re more than willing to excuse the weaknesses of our tragic heroes, Pompey and Cato, for in them we see our own weaknesses, especially against somebody like Caesar (or Nero) who seems to think — and have confirmed for them either by the world itself or sycophants — that they’re well and truly beyond anybody else.
One can just as easily read the Czech intellectual into our heroes, or Reinhold Niebuhr, and in Lucan’s
Nero Caesar we can see too well the Francisco Francos, Pol Pots, Benito Mussolinis, and other orange-skinned dictatorial assholes of our day … and see ourselves as La résistance, partisans, the gallant opposition. Truly does Lucan speak when he says
Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni
“The conquering cause pleased the gods; the conquered’s, Cato.”
Is it any wonder, then, that when times get tough and we find ourselves implacably opposed to our fellow countryman, Pharsalia always seems to wax in importance?
If you read: Pharsalia badly needs a new verse translation, one fit for our times. The most current verse translation seems to be Susanna Braund’s 1992 effort, whose free verse frankly rather spoils the effect of Lucan’s almost monotonous hexameter; beyond that, Sir Edward Ridley’s 1896 blank verse effort is the easiest to obtain (being the one in the Gutenberg database), while a 1718 effort by one Nicholas Rowe into heroic couplets most accurately matches the original’s sense of overweening regularity, although at the cost of losing much of its emotive charge.
As far as prose translations go, if you have to read them, Riley’s Bohn’s and Duff’s Loeb editions are decent enough (Riley offers a literal translation of the Latin). Avoid, however, at all costs, Robert Grave’s 1957 prose translation: Graves is as giddy in denigrating Lucan and absolutely destroying his ornament and anything remotely resembling poetic character as Lucan himself is in denigrating Nero, yielding a first three books so poorly translated as to be almost unreadable. (His notes, as insufferable and tone-deaf as they are, are, however, occasionally useful.)
A hypothesis: Much Lucan scholarship rages around the question of how he wanted Pharsalia to end, with one side arguing that its natural end would come with Caesar’s death, and the other, Cato’s. I tend to side with the Catonists here, because this is clearly a tale that grew in the telling, and I want to add an extra idea: Sulpicia’s vision at the end of Book I clearly extends well beyond the events of Pharsalia proper and suggests enough material for a trilogy, to match the three phases of the Civil War, one which a less outspoken and more dedicated Lucan would have likely been finishing up in his early 30s.