Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.25


Jamie Masters, Poetry and civil war in Lucan's Bellum Civile. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. xiv + 271. ISBN 0-521-41460-1.


Reviewed by Martha Davis, Temple University.

Before reading this book for review, I returned to the text of Lucan. It was even better than I remembered. If Masters's book did nothing else, prompting scholars to read or re-read the epic would be cause to thank its author. Masters devotes the opening paragraphs of his preface to acknowledgment of two important works on the epic: Frederick Ahl's Lucan: An Introduction (1976) and W.R. Johnson's Momentary Monsters (1987). This sent me back to the bookshelf again, and more hours of delightful re-reading followed. I suggest that potential readers of Poetry and civil war consult the work of Ahl and Johnson first. This reading will be something else to thank Masters for, and is essential for understanding how he views his own place in Lucan criticism.

Even this preparation for reading Poetry and civil war is not enough if you wish to fully appreciate Masters's (somewhat) revised Cambridge dissertation. Significant work has been done on Latin literature recently by scholars from the United Kingdom (among others, Feeney, Fowler, Hardie, Henderson, Hinds and Martindale will come to mind). Reading some of this work first helps in the approach to Poetry and civil war. Masters indicates passim that he has enjoyed discussion viva voce or in written form with this group of scholars, and has profited from it. The relationship of his scholarship with that of his dissertation advisor John Henderson is particularly close, and I found it impossible to read this book without frequent reference to the latter's "Lucan/The Word at War" in The Imperial Muse: Ramus Essays on Roman Literature of the Empire (ed. Boyle, 1988).

Section 2.19 in the Henderson essay, for instance, is good preparation for reading Masters's Chapter One. In it Henderson discusses the way in which Lucan's narrative style connects the reality of civil war with the reality of epic composition by setting up impediments to progress. For the poet as well as for his protagonists, impediments reflect sometimes reluctance to proceed, and sometimes efforts to check narrative progress or the progress of events. "This narrator [Lucan] loathes," writes Henderson, "the progress of the story of Caesarian triumph, loves mora, delay, obstruction, diversion".

This is an interesting way of reading the epic. When we turn to the opening chapter of Poetry and civil war, we find Masters reminding us that Lucan has placed a lengthy introduction at the beginning of the poem, so that when Caesar finally appears, it is as though the poet had delayed him. The rivers and other boundaries Caesar crosses are described as impediments to his lightning-like progress. The word mora that Henderson used to describe this narrative delay first appears on page three in Poetry and civil war: "Mora itself is a boundary that Caesar is trying to break through: Lucan's account sets up a series of narrative devices that obstruct Caesar's progress, that impose boundaries he must cross."

Masters goes on to assert that Lucan is identifying himself in his role as poet with his epic protagonists in their roles in the poem. He begins with citations of Cairns (1972) and Lieberg (1982), who explored the "standard convention whereby the author of a poem can describe himself as doing what he is writing about," but states that they did not go far enough, because they dealt only with instances of poets discussing poetry within their poems (p. 6). "To some extent," he writes, "the poem is its own commentary: the actions performed within it (the subject-matter), and the struggles of its creator to narrate those actions (the 'composition myth'), run in symbolic parallel" (p.7). For Masters, Lucan moves beyond open references to poetry to a re-shaping of the Vergilian convention of epic (the same re-shaping we may have noted in Ovid's Metamorphoses).

Because Masters considers that Lucan's interpretation of his role as poet leads him to identify with both Caesar and Pompey, he sees for Lucan a "schizophrenic poetic persona" (p. 9), as does Henderson passim. (Both men labor the word 'schizophrenic.' I suspect that in current psychotherapy the condition that they are describing would be referred to as 'dual personality' or 'multiple personality'). 'Schizophrenic' here usually refers to the opposition between the aggressive and determined action of Caesar and the delaying tactics and reluctance of Pompey, with corresponding reflection in Lucan's narrative style. The binary opposition that develops in these readings of the epic creates an exciting dynamic, but neglects the 'lesser figures,' unless like Erichtho they can be considered parts of the Caesar-figure (as in Masters's Chapter 6), to the extent that Cato all but disappears in Poetry and civil war and gets short though effective shrift in 'The Word at War' (e.g. the very end of Section 4.14).

Masters may have been led to neglect Cato -- Lucan certainly doesn't -- by his attempt to fulfill a requirement of the Classics dissertation: showing knowledge of one's predecessors in the reading and criticism of ancient authors, and refuting or correcting them as much as possible. The question of Cato's importance is stressed in Chapter 3 where Masters wishes to correct Ahl: "Ahl's republican (and pro-Catonian) reading of the poem has compelled him to read Cato's words [in Pharsalia 2] as a statement of 'Lucan's own avowed position', and, perhaps absurdly, he continues to privilege this Catonian position over the position that the author himself actually does avow, here [in Book 4]" (p.82). Masters descends into the jejune as he moves from "Ahl is forced to admit an inconsistency" to "Ahl is tying himself up in knots." More disconcerting is the effort to challenge Statius on his interpretation of the importance of Cato in Lucan's epic. Masters writes: "In the first place, Statius' poem [Genethliacon Lucani] gives more emphasis to the figure of Cato than is justified by his importance in the Bellum Civile: when describing the contents of the poem he gives one line each to Caesar, Cato and Pompey, in that order (67-9)" (p. 232). When we look at Silvae 2.7, we see that Statius does indeed give importance to Cato, listing him by name, Pompey by title, and Caesar by description (dux divus) in that passage. At 111 ff. he goes further and places Pompei and Catones in Elysium with Lucan, Nero in Tartarus. This simply does not fit with Masters's own emphasis on Caesar, so he must take issue with a Roman poet who was Lucan's contemporary.

Giving more importance to the figure of Cato might have prevented Masters from such surprising assumptions as that the prophecy of the Delphic priestess Phemonoe in Book 5 is "three lines of exquisite irrelevance" (p. 147). Masters's choice of words seems a reaction to Ahl's statement that this passage in the epic "is not an irrelevant digression" (1976, p. 128). Masters continues: "Her prophecy is precisely not about civil war, it is about how a single character will have nothing to do with the civil war. The Delphic tripod does not speak; the poet falls silent, the vast possibilities of his poem unrealised, unwritten." I agree with Ahl. While the prophecy may be "exquisite," it is not irrelevant (Cf. Makowski, CP 72.3, 1977, p. 193-202). The sibyl reluctantly reveals that Appius, who has requested the prophecy, alone will avoid the troubles of war and find rest in Euboea. The destiny of Appius is the destiny of all Romans: the only warriors or civilians who will not have to experience civil war are the dead, wherever their place of burial. No one will be able to remain detached from the action. Lucan's Cato thinks no one should.

Lucan has told us in Book 2 that Cato will not consult an oracle. He relies on his ability to predict his own future and the future of Rome on the basis of his long observation of human nature, politics and power. Cato is well aware that there are two courses open in civil war, to fight and die, or to die, and that we choose only the way in which we meet our inevitable destiny. He wishes that he may become the scapegoat, the one who gives his life to prolong the lives of his fellows and his state (2.306-19). When we see Lucan's Appius at Delphi, we have been prepared to compare his reliance on forces outside himself for wisdom with Cato's self-confidence, and his self-centered desire to know the future with Cato's selfless sacrifice. Cato's attitude toward death is linked to the prophecy of the Sibyl. Both are fraught with the delicious irony Lucan finds in a situation where virtue can partake of vice and one is equally damned if he does or doesn't. (A good discussion of Cato's role, and of his desire to sacrifice his life for the life of the many has since appeared in Hardie's The Epic Successors of Virgil, 1993, especially p. 31ff).

In Section 2.20 of his essay, Henderson narrows the definition of the 'schizo': "Between the language of Triumph and the triumph of Language there appears a narrative which convincingly links in narration, language-as-triumph, the 'diagnosed schizo' as one "who 'refuses to speak the word "I", and prefers to refer to himself in the third person,' and the mythic Caesar who transgresses all conventional codes, social boundaries, linguistic categories, who re-deploys around his name all meanings, fixes a new centre from which all discourse is oriented and enforces his signs absolutely...." Masters develops similar ideas into a discussion in Chapter 2 of Caesar's Bellum Civile as the direct source for Lucan, or as Masters puts it, the "point of departure" (p.17). This eliminates the mediation of Livy and serves as an argument for the title Bellum Civile. Even more interestingly, when Masters has affirmed the position of Griset, Haffter and Rambaud, "that Lucan's Bellum Civile is a deliberate counterpoise to Caesar's commentary of the same name; that, in short, just as Lucan opposes and confronts Virgil in the domain of literary epic, so does he oppose and confront Caesar in the domain of history" (pp. 17-18), he is adding to his own contention about the close patterning of the poetic persona after the personae of the main characters in the narrative. As Lucan patterns his persona after that of Caesar -- the Caesar he himself shapes in narrative -- he becomes an expert in the breaking of boundaries and the destruction of traditions, in his case literary ones: "The new poet standing at the end of a tradition must be a Caesar" (p. 10). Hesitating to break boundaries and destroy traditions apparently would make the poet a Pompey. Masters does discuss this possibility in Chapter 6, but does not entertain the idea of a persona modeled after Cato.

Masters and Henderson make good cases for Lucan or Caesar or Lucan/Caesar having decentered and recentered the universe. As mentioned, Henderson makes one claim on linguistic grounds (Section 2.20). Masters shows us the idea at work in the use of geography and cultural myth in the epic. He shows us first that the center of the world at Delphi is really "no one centre, a single omphalos, but two centres, a doubled, split Parnassus" (p.108). (A 'schizo' center!) Then he shows us that Delphi has yielded to Thessaly as a site for prophecy, i.e. the necromancy of the witch Erichtho, and for geographic importance: the place where the pivotal battle of the war will take place. In Chapter 5 he has ingenious examples of Lucan's indications that all myth, history and geography are grounded in Thessaly. Pharsalia will take place at a new center: "Thessaly, as the place where nearly everything has happened, and where portentous geography is awesomely massed" (p. 178, see also p. 95). Henderson had already gone one better, geographically speaking. He had established that "All battlefields in the Bellum Civile, however 'Emathian' at the concrete level, will take place on, on a displacement of, the Campus Martius. This is the focal theatre, wherever the war merely happens to be decided, because this is the 'centre'" (Section 2.12; compare Masters 98-99).

Reading Poetry and civil war and "Lucan/The Word at War" together introduces you to an exciting way of reading Lucan's epic. It is not completely satisfactory -- no reading is -- but it can enrich our appreciation of what Lucan accomplished. Masters's lengthier treatment of some of the material is far more irritating in its own way than Henderson's brief treatment in chaotic style. There are many minor irritations. In a style too breezy for my taste, he inserts himself too much into his text, refers to Michael von Albrecht as "Albrecht," and becomes carried away in his challenge of predecessors. He accuses Johnson of refusing to grapple with the text of Lucan, when it is clear that Johnson's treatment of the timbre and tenor of the text could not have been achieved without thorough understanding of the Latin from grammar to semantics. He did not eliminate enough of the signs of the dissertation, such as excessive documentation and failure to translate quotations in foreign languages into English. Nor did he submit the book to proper proofreading, leaving us with such annoyances as the footnoting of the term 'Titanomachy' on page 176: 'Titanomachy' is not in the index, but the page appears under 'Gigantomachy,' an apter term in this instance, anyway.

There are major irritations. One is the tendency to prove by assertion, and to build "inevitabilities" on conditionals (as at the top of page 205). Another is the fascination with the triplicity that issues from duality, an idea that has stimulated us from its handling by Nicholas Cusanus to its handling by Joyce in Finnegans Wake. Masters describes it impressively on page 65, but it lead him to ignore other elements. So he makes much of the portrait of civil war factions that results from the fusion of the Caesar-like with the Pompey-like, but will not discuss Cato at length. The contents of Books 1 through 6 receive detailed examination, but we look in vain for the same treatment of Books 7-10. The idea of the endlessness of civil war, real and symbolic, into which the abrupt conclusion of Book 10 is figured, appears in the last chapter of the book, but we find no discussion of the trek through Africa.

There may be an explanation of such omission. Masters discusses in Chapter 7 the way Lucan's poem seems to change, as though we can discern in the narrative the point at which Nero's ban took effect, or at which he joined the Pisonian conspiracy, and time began to run out on his work. Masters may have been observing that change, so that in the first five chapters of Poetry and civil war, we get intense treatment of parts of the epic up through Book 6; discussion peaks on the "Thessalian Excursus" and begins to accelerate in descent in Chapters 6 and 7.

I was struck by the sudden abandonment in Chapter 5 of the term 'ekphrasis' -- which had been overworked more unmercifully than 'schizophrenic' -- in favor of a variety of terms for description from 'excursus' to 'digression.' Was this a clue? Had Masters finally identified himself completely with Lucan? There was that strange note: "It may interest the reader to know that this, my final chapter, was composed when I was one month before the age (25 years and nearly 6 months) at which Lucan killed himself. Coincidence!" (p. 246, n.68). Was his own book to reflect his concept of Lucan's, and his life to observe the same rhythms?

It has been a long time since any work has so provoked my thoughts on Latin epic -- both to irritation and enjoyment. I agree that in the Pharsalia "Matter and manner are inseparable, as the poet finds himself embroiled in the very madness he is describing" (p. 143). I hope this is not the last published work of Jamie Masters.