Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.01

Paolo Esposito, Luciano Nicastri (ed.), Interpretare Lucano: Miscellanea di Studi. Università degli studi di Salerno, Quaderni del dipartimento di scienze dell' antichità.   Napoli:  Arte Tipographica, 1999.  Pp. 504.  Lire 70.000.  

Contributors: Paolo Esposito, Emanuele Narducci, Donato Gagliardi, Elaine Fantham, Elisabetta Peluzzi, Carmelo Salemme, Matthew Leigh, Carlo Santini, Sergio Casali, Gabriella Moretti, Renato Badalì, Andrea Cozzolino, Fabio Stok, Fabrizio Brena, Marco Fucecchi, Laura Micozzi, Edoardo D'Angelo, Marco Buonocore, Giorgio Brugnoli

Reviewed by Antonios Augoustakis, Department of Classics, Baylor University (
Word count: 1745 words

Interpretare Lucano is a collection of nineteen essays, divided in four parts, followed by two indexes: one of Lucanian passages discussed and one of modern authors. As a whole, this volume can be characterized as a good contribution to the study of the epicist, since while providing the reader with insightful interpretations and stimulating readings of the Pharsalia, it also offers signposts toward some of the as yet lightly trodden paths in Lucanian criticism.

The first section comprises of two essays on the history of scholarship. First, Esposito offers a detailed analysis of the contributions hitherto made to the study of the poem, discussing both commentaries and literary criticism, and rightly directs our attention to additional studies that still need to be done: certain books lack a full-scale commentary (for instance, the fourth book), not to mention the need for a thoroughgoing study of intertextuality between Lucan and Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, or the Flavian epicists. Moreover, other aspects of the poem, such as Lucan's language and philosophy, would merit further consideration (e.g. the use of hyperbole and paradox). Let me add to this list, however, that the role of women is another subject open to scrutiny. Esposito's rassegna could be of excellent use when deciding upon an area of research for a dissertation.

In the second, far more critical essay of this first part of the book, Narducci1 examines recent literary criticism on the Pharsalia in the light of the reader-response approach and deconstructionism. Narducci claims that recent literary studies of Lucan, such as those of Johnson, Henderson, Masters, and to a lesser degree Bartsch, in essence recycle the Harvard School tendencies of Virgilian scholarship and thus run the risk of obscuring the image of the Roman poet in a mist of modern and dangerously anachronistic projections. Narducci's polemic2 and highly judgmental thoughts are not always accompanied by firm arguments. Too frequently they take the form of personal attacks3 or simple quotations from the works of the critics under assault: for instance, it is not clear why the learned author claims that Henderson is gravely mistaken in supposing that the Cordus of the eighth book may call to mind Cremutius Cordus, the philo-Pompeian historian. Not every reader will find Narducci's disapproval of significant and acclaimed scholarship on Lucan such as that of Johnson, Masters, or Bartsch, con-structive and in-structive, especially when, his own reaction towards the works of others is often tied to their use of his own 1979 book on Lucan.4

The second part of the book (Tra lingua, storia e letteratura) comprises eight essays on various features of Lucanian poetics. For instance, Gagliardi's study of compound names in the Pharsalia (such as sonipes, soporiferus, aliger, and others) provides excellent insights into the poet's intentions, via a close examination of the careful and creative placing of these words into their context. Lucan's mastery of language finds here a sensitive and learned critic.5 In another erudite essay on Lucan, Fantham examines Lucan's representation of the Republican Senate as revisionist. More precisely, the poet's portrayal of the Senate may well, as Fantham claims, reflect a certain dissonance between the latter and the actual party fighting Caesar. Let me also in passing refer to Peluzzi's examination of the fashioning of the apparition Patria in the first book of the poem in terms of the visual representation of Rome as Cybele. As Peluzzi argues, this portrayal constitutes an anti-propagandistic element for the Caesarian reconstruction of the crossing of the Rubicon. This essay promotes a close reading of Lucretius and Lucan, another desideratum in Lucanian scholarship.

In one of the most remarkable essays of this section of the book, Leigh analyzes the episode of Caesar's deforestation of the Massilian grove in the third book of the Pharsalia. He argues that Lucan casts doubt on the presumption that crime against the sacred must inevitably be followed by divine retribution since the poet has already removed divine machinery from his poem. Thus, though frustrated at the failure of the gods to punish his impiety, Caesar casts a Lucretian doubt on mankind's system of beliefs. Both Lucan and Caesar strive for the demystification of human beliefs concerning divine power. The authoritative voice of the narrator adds strength to Caesar's conviction that mortals' theology is essentially futile and inane. Leigh proves his point clearly by comparing Lucan's Caesar to Ovid's Erysichthon and Cicero's Clodius among others: these paradigms confirm the strength of divine anger and constitute points of departure for Lucan's version. What is intriguing, as Leigh claims, is that the episode in Lucan vividly reminds the informed reader of Augustus' and Agrippa's deforestation of the woods at Avernus during its joining to the Lucrine lake, actions whose effect is to civilize a formerly sulphurous and uninhabitable pond. What Caesar and his descendant do is to shed light on something previously obscure and therefore relegated to the realms of the myth. The poet's innovative re-working of an otherwise traditional episode has impact on later authors such as Claudian but also relates to early Christian Europe where the cutting of a grove signals the destruction of old, pagan, beliefs and reflects the dissemination of a new religion. Superstition is followed by scepticism, then enlightenment supersedes scepticism. Leigh's suggestive reading here has many implications for the ideological scope of the poem as well; far from languishing as the anti-hero of the Pharsalia, Caesar now emerges heroically, leading the Romans toward enlightenment and a comfortable awareness of their own imperial superiority. While the existence of anti-Neronian and anti-Caesarian elements within the poem cannot be debated, the degree to which these elements dominate the narrative still remains an open and provocative question.

Among the remainder of the essays in this part of the book, Casali's and Moretti's studies will also prove useful for the student of Lucan inasmuch as they initiate intertextual discussion between Lucanian poetics and those of Virgil and Silius Italicus. Casali's study rightly connects the fourth book of the Aeneid with the fourth book of the Pharsalia, yet I believe that one ought to take into account also the intricate role of amor in Lucan's fraternization episode and how it plays off against the Dido books.

The third part of the book consists of four exegetical-textual notes on the poem. My main concern for this part of the volume was the inequality of the essays and their role in the framework of the book as a whole. The best essay of this part is Brena's; yet his observations on the ninth book, though very useful as exegetical notes on certain episodes of the book, constitute a commentary in progress (the appearance of which will certainly represent a major contribution to Lucanian scholarship).

Five essays on the Nachleben of the Pharsalia complete the volume. Fucecchi's study of the allusive relationship between Lucan and Silius Italicus is an excellent paradigm for future scholarship on the subject. The object of his analysis is the battle at Cannae in Silius and its association with Roman literary tradition concerning civil war conflicts. Fucecchi uses the episode in the ninth book of the Punica of a father, killed by his own son after having first stripped the armor from the body of his other son. This horrific episode opens Silius' account of the battle at Cannae, and serves a dual function: it foreshadows the Romans' defeat and also warns the consul Varro not to initiate battle (FUGE PROELIA VARRO, Pun. 9.176). The net of allusions to other Roman authors, such as two epigrams of Seneca and Lucan's poem, signals Silius' intentions. As Fucecchi claims, Silius' antiphrastic imitation of Lucan points to a rather optimistic reconstruction of early Republican history while at the same time it fosters Lucan's pessimistic construction of later Republican times, when the heroism and virtue displayed during the Second Punic War had faded irrevocably.

Micozzi's study on the influence of Lucan on Statius' Thebaid offers an exhaustive account of the allusive relationship between the two authors, yet does not take into account the larger scheme of the poem, its aims, and its place in Flavian Rome. First, she examines the influence on the level of the appropriation of episodes and characters. She then proceeds to the use of retardatio for suspense, such as the intervention of Jocasta in the seventh book of the Thebaid or the fraternization in the fourth book of the Pharsalia. This effectively accentuates the nefas of the civil war that follows. Her analyses of the themes of fratricide originating in Remus and Romulus and the contamination of the landscape and its recurrence throughout the poem are particularly successful. Finally, Micozzi focuses on Statius' use of destruction and the macabre in terms of his poetics.

In the longest and most rewarding essay of the volume, D'Angelo offers a detailed analysis of the reception of Lucan in medieval Latin epics. This informative and well-researched piece underscores the need for modern studies on this instructive and fruitful subject. The popularity of Lucan's poem around the ninth century and in following generations (Carolingian and post-Carolingian Europe) contrasts starkly with early twentieth-century criticism. D'Angelo examines the presence or absence of Lucanian influence in various epics from the sixth to the thirteenth century, categorizing the poems according to theme (biblical, historical, mythological, philosophical, and zoological epics). D'Angelo looks at the use of Lucan on various levels within these texts, examining the usage of language or borrowing of phraseology, and the contexts in which these occur. This approach permits him to draw certain conclusions with respect to the use or non-use of the poem in the middle ages and the possible reasons behind such choices. Clearly, the rediscovery of Lucan in the eleventh century can be directly attributed to the philosophical and socio-political issues reflected in the Pharsalia. Lucan's opus did not appeal to all the writers of late Latin epic because of the absence of gods within the narrative and the pessimistic and nihilistic tone of the poem as a whole. Gradually, however, the poem started to appeal to various authors, especially from the eleventh century on, when their own socio-political situations began to evince multiple similarities to that of their predecessors in the first century C.E. This is a study with much merit and exceptionally good and informative bibliography.6

A bibliography and information on the contributors would have been welcome additions.

In sum, the sheer diversity of this collection of essays will make it a valuable and intriguing addition to the library of any lover of Lucan's poem.


1.   Part of Narducci's discussion on Cato continues in his most recent article, "Catone in Lucano (e alcune interpretazioni recenti)," Athenaeum 89.1 (2001): 171-186.
2.   For instance consider the following remark in pages 44-45: "Quelle (sc. studies) che di volta in volta si presentano come novità sorprendenti e rivoluzionarie, generano rapidamente un atteggiamento conformistico Ab uno disce omnis."
3.   One wonders how relevant footnote 29 on page 55 is, which contains some biographical and financial information on J. Henderson!
4.   For instance in page 60 the author admits that: "Nell' esprimere all' amico Leigh la mia gratitudine per la considerazione in cui egli mostra di tenere quel mio vecchio lavoro, tengo a ribadire che a mio avviso lo studio più significativo scritto su Lucano è proprio il libro di Leigh!" Likewise in 66, Narducci offers Bartsch special thanks for having used his book!
5.   Gagliardi's essay is followed by a very useful table of composti nominali in the poem.
6.   Recently, we have also seen the work of Claudia Wiener on the Alexandreis (Proles vesana Philippi, totius malleus orbis: Die Alexandreis des Walter von Châtillon und ihre Neudeutung von Lucans Pharsalia im Sinne des typologischen Geschichtsverständnis. Munich and Leipzig: 2000).
7.   Many distracting typographical errors mar this volume. More careful editing might well have prevented such infelicities: poéthique instead of poétique (14); Caesar' instead of Caesar's (116); ideologically powerfully account instead of ideologically powerful account (122); aIltitudinem instead of altitudinem (167); in tum instead of in turn (167); bonghs instead of boughs (170); che instead of the (173); Lucans instead of Lucan's (177); Pbarsalia instead of Pharsalia (200); aque instead of atque (237).

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