Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.36

Emanuele Narducci, Lucano: un'epica contro l'impero.   Roma-Bari:  Laterza, 2002.  Pp. xviii, 524.  ISBN 88-420-6602-8.  EUR 36.00.  

Reviewed by Paolo Asso, Swarthmore College (
Word count: 2145 words

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.08.14.]]

Emanuele N(arducci) published his first book on Lucan more than twenty years ago1 and between 1979 and 2001, he has published numerous articles and notes on various aspects of Lucan's poem.2 None of N.'s previous publications on the Pharsalia, as he likes to call the poem (ix n. 1), matches the breadth and scale of the present book, which could perhaps be considered N.'s 'last word' on the subject.

In this single volume, N. collects and expands on his previous work on Lucan, providing a valuable guide to the reading of Lucan's Bellum Ciuile. The book is engaging albeit tiresome at times because of N.'s overt polemic against many English-language readers of Lucan. His frequent ad hominem arguments often obscure his line of reasoning.

In the "Premessa," N. presents his book as "un libro di studio, di ricerca, di scavo nei testi" (xii). The archeological metaphor (scavo = 'dig'), as we soon discover, stands for a kind of intertextual reading long practiced among scholars of classical literature, even 'before it was invented.' With this paradox, N. intends to distance himself from a kind of approach that he calls 'textualism' (in opposition to 'historicism', which N. seems to find less unsatisfactory): "... un tipo di approccio che va sotto il nome anglizzante di testualismo, e che abbastanza spesso viene contrapposto (quasi si trattasse della materia e dell'antimateria) a un approccio diversamente orientato, e definito 'storicistico'" (xiii). Readers of N.'s survey of recent scholarship on Lucan -- printed twice in the same year3 -- are familiar with N.'s polemic against Ralph Johnson, John Henderson, Jamie Masters, Shadi Bartsch, Don Fowler, and other scholars.

N.'s polemic looms large in both text and footnotes (e.g. 15 n. 15; 16 n. 26; 48 n. 6; 70-1 n. 13; 150 n. 128; 147 n. 82; 154; 164 n. 9; etc.). For instance, one wonders why N. lingers on apologetics of views he expressed in his own earlier book on Lucan (166 n. 25). Also, it is not clear how N.'s generalizing remarks on the ways historians and interpreters of Latin literature ignore one another contribute to his treatment of the crisis of Stoicism in the Neronian age.

N.'s book is a composite work. Many difficult problems of exegesis are discussed at varying levels of detail and require attentive reading. But N. does a good job of relating the minute details of his philological analysis to the larger picture. The book falls into two parts. In the first, N. expresses his general interpretation of the poem through a detailed intertextual analysis. In the second, N. discusses the three most important characters: Caesar, Pompey, and Cato.

The first nine chapters (5-186) form the first part: La distruzione dei miti augustei. Chapter 1, "Lucano e il suo principe" (5-17), provides the historical context. Chapter 2, "Il progetto di Lucano" (18-41), analyzes the proem with the praise of Nero and introduces the problem of Lucan's poetic program. Chapter 3, "Lo sfondo cosmico" (42-50), shows how Lucan locates the Civil War against the background of the Stoic doctrine of cosmic destruction, with the important difference that in Lucan's universe the catastrophe does not lead to regeneration.

These first three chapters serve as an introduction to the main issues raised in Lucan's proem by the eulogy to Nero. The first chapter discusses the complex problem of the troubled relationship between poet and prince. N. closely follows the evidence of the Vitae in reporting how Nero must have resented the critique to the Principate implied in a poem on the very war that brought the end of the Republic (11). This straightforward reading of the Vitae is complicated in the second chapter by N.'s discussion of Lucan's poetics (13-14 and 18-36). N. proposes that the eulogy to Nero in the proem suggests that Lucan and the emperor initially agreed on an innovative poetic program that would dispense with the lofty conformism in vogue, criticized e.g. by Lucan's friend Persius in his satires (14). The eulogy to Nero must therefore be read as a sincere praise because it contains a 'precise formulation of Lucan's poetic program' (26-7 on 1.63-6). For the uates Lucan (1.63-4, sed mihi iam numen; nec, si te pectore uates / accipio ...), Nero embodies the inspiring function of Apollo and Bacchus (1.64-5, Cirrhaea uelim secreta mouentem / sollicitare deum Bacchumque auertere Nysa: / tu satis ad uires Romana in carmina dandas). The concluding section of this important chapter shows that Lucan's Romana carmina sing the destruction of the Roman republic. The poem is therefore in strident contrast with the practice of the epic genre. This leads to N.'s third chapter, which elaborates on the notion of Lucan's poem as 'anti-Aeneid'. N. successfully shows the peculiarities of Lucan's pessimistic Stoicism as well as the formative role played by Seneca's philosophical treatises on the development of Lucan's poetics. In building his dark universe, Lucan shows his debt to the Stoic science of Seneca's Naturales Quaestiones. However, as N. is right to point out, Lucan also profited from reading his uncle's tragedies.

Chapter 4 "La fuga del sole" (51-74) studies the famous motif, familiar from the Theban myth, of the sun refusing to shine. The use of the motif reveals the importance of Seneca's tragedies in Lucan's anti-theism (esp. 58-70). N.'s method is heavily 'intertextual', and rightly so, for the verbal parallelisms he detects incontrovertibly demonstrate how the denial of theodicy in Senecan drama is congenial to Lucan (70).

Chapter 5 "L' 'anti-Virgilio'. Allusione e ideologia" (75-87) revisits N.'s own definition of Lucan's poem as an 'anti-Aeneid'. Chapter 6 "Narrator in fabula" (88-106; the title adapts that of Umberto Eco's famous essay "Lector in fabula," translated as "The Role of the Reader") focuses on those passages where Lucan breaks into his own narrative. Chapter 7 "La catastrofe annunciata" (107-51; the title echoes that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's famous novel) studies omens and prodigies in which the outcome of the war is announced. Chapter 8 "La provvidenza crudele" (152-66; the title is identical to N.'s 1979 book on Lucan) discusses chance and necessity in the context of the Roman historiography on the Civil War. Chapter 9 "Il tempo e la memoria" (167-86) closes the first part of the book inviting the reader to notice the obsessive presence in the poem of the imagery of ruin and its relation to memory and the task of the poet.

The highlight of this rich section is N.'s discussion of the narrator's voices. N. hears at least three. The omniscient narrator, traditional for the epic genre, competes with the 'empirical' narrator of the Neronian age (94). The Neronian voice is fundamental for providing the link between the past, i.e. the Civil War, and the author's Neronian present (95-8). Equally important for N. is the further voice of the spectator of the events as they unfold in the poem (99). This is the voice of a narrator contemporary with the Civil War and unaware of the future developments resulting from the conflict. Although the distinction of these three voices might seem arbitrary, N.'s articulate argument shows that the distinction is useful in studying the phenomenology of the narrator. The voice of the anonymous spectator contemporary to the events narrated, for instance, very well renders the intensity of the drama and its display of apparent incoherence: the apostrophe to Concordia at Ilerda (4.190) is matched by the spectator's invocation to Discord in the anonymous apostrophe to Caesar (5.299, finem ciuili faciat discordia bello).

I must however state the obvious and remind the reader that the voice in the poem is ultimately only one -- i.e. Lucan's -- albeit fractured and sometimes even contradictory. N. is right to conclude his discussion of the narrator by reminding us about the influence of diatribe and suasoria as practised in the declamation schools in Lucan's time. For N., then, the counterfactual views evoked by Lucan's 'third voice' might indicate the reactions of an ideal reader, who must reenact the events and side with Pompey's cause in formulating peritura uota (100). Whether or not N. is right in distinguishing among different voices in the poem, his conclusion that the pervasive subjectivity of the poet suffocates the narration remains valid (104).

The roles of the narrator's voice relate to the role of poetry as guarantor of immortality. Relying on his careful analysis of the Virgilian intertexts, N. shows how Lucan entrusts the memory of Rome's destruction (as a result of the Civil War) to the eternalizing function of his Romana carmina (esp. 178-80). Republican Rome survives in Lucan's poem in the same way as Troy survives in Homeric poetry (cf. 80-5).

The second part of N.'s book could have been a monograph in its own right. N. devotes a chapter to each of the three major characters in the poem: Caesar (187-278), Pompey (279-367), and Cato (368-432). In discussing these three important figures, N. offers an extremely useful overview of twentieth century scholarship on Lucan.4 The chapter on Caesar is the most remarkable in bringing together the result of the analysis accomplished in the first part of the book.

One of the highlights is N.'s discussion of the lion simile at 1.205-12 (200-3). Expanding on the interpretation he offered in his previous book on Lucan (see n. 1 above), N. shows how in using the stylistic motif of the lion as a signifier of instinctual, irrational, and animal-like furor, Lucan adds meaning to his description of Caesar's astonishment and hesitation in replying to the figure of Patria at the crossing of the Rubicon. The fact that Caesar's hair is described in the same terms as the lion's mane (1.193, riguere comae -- 209 erexit ... iubam) authorizes us to interpret Caesar's hesitation at the Rubicon as analogous to that of a lion before attacking the enemy. The lion only appears to hesitate; in fact, he is 'gathering his wrath' (1.207, colligit iram). The lion simile, then, reveals that Caesar's hesitation before the Rubicon is not due to his sense of pietas, but rather to his need to collect his fury before launching his attack against his homeland.

In contrast with the relatively unproblematic portrayal of Caesar as the negative energy that spurs the action on, N. reveals two opposing tendencies in Lucan's characterization of Pompey. According to N., Lucan follows the historiographical tradition in depicting the attitude of Pompey facing defeat, his resulting lack of decision, and his proneness to delay. This aspect of Pompey's figure, N. speculates, does not cohere with Lucan's project of transfiguring Pompey's figure in a philosophical sense. Lucan's attempt to provide a positive view of Pompey would be in line with a tendency to build some sort of 'myth' that would serve as counterpoise to the winning imperial ideology of the gens Iulia. Although such a thesis is attractive, N. admits its speculative nature (331).

In his last chapter, N. notes how the figure of Cato has not attracted as much attention as Caesar and Pompey. In particular, N. draws attention to the importance of Cato's figure in the rhetorical schools of the empire and shows how under Nero the exaltation of Cato could be interpreted as subversive. According to N., Lucan's Cato is far from Seneca's own picture of the man as a wise saint. Building on Fred Ahl's analysis of Cato (Lucan [Ithaca, 1976] 240), N. shows how Lucan's Cato embodies the tension in Stoic ethics between following one's destiny willingly and being dragged into it unwillingly (at 385 N. quotes Sen. Ep. 107.11, ducunt uolentem fata, nolentem trahunt).5

Before concluding, I must disagree with N. on one point. N. denies that Lucan had a precise poetic program (331; a statement that seems partially at odds with what he has argued in his second chapter [esp. 26-7], see above), and seems to think that the Bellum Ciuile was composed in too much of a hurry to be at all coherent. The failure of the modern critic to reconstruct Lucan's poetic program might well reveal that Lucan did not have one, though N. is far from showing so. In my view, it is not convincing to say that Lucan composed in a hurry. The Bellum Ciuile certainly is unfinished and obviously lacks its final polish, but Lucan's poetry is informed and allusive, as N.'s own intertextual readings throughout his book repeatedly show. N.'s hurry to deny that Lucan had any coherent program is perhaps fueled by his polemic against deconstructionist readings of the poem, which, while pointing to the internal fractures, nonetheless seem to privilege a view of the literary text as a compact entity (331).

N.'s overwhelmingly polemical attitude should not, however, provoke an unfair evaluation of his extremely valuable contribution to the scholarship on Lucan. Anyone interested in Lucan should read this book and learn from N.'s vast erudition and rigorous philological method.


1.   La provvidenza crudele. Lucano e la distruzione dei miti augustei (Pisa, 1979). This book collects and expands studies previously published as articles and/or short notes in two Italian journals: "Il tronco di Pompeo (Troia e Roma nella Pharsalia), Maia 25 (1973) 317-25; "Sconvolgimenti naturali e profezia delle guerre civili: Phars. I 512-695," Maia 26 (1974) 97-110; "Lucano e l'anti-mito di Roma, I," Dialoghi di Archeologia 8 (1974-5) 438-74; "Allusività e autodemistificazione. Lucano VII 254-263," Maia 28 (1976) 127-8; "Lucano e l'anti-mito di Roma, II," Dialoghi di Archeologia 9-10 (1976-7) 449-96.
2.   "Cicerone poeta in Lucano," MD 7 (1982) 177-84; "Pauper Amyclas. Modelli etici e poetici di un episodio della Pharsalia," Maia 35 (1983) 183-94; "Ideologia e tecnica allusiva nella Pharsalia," ANRW II.32.3 (1985) 1538-64; "Deconstructing Lucan, ovvero Le nozze (coi fichi secchi) di Ermete Trismegisto e di Filologia," in L. Nicastri/P. Esposito (eds.), Interpretare Lucano. Miscellanea di studi, (Naples, 1999: BMCR 2002.02.01 [Augoustakis]) 37-81 [= Maia 51 (1999) 349-87]; "Il 'corruccio verso gli dèi' (e il 'titanismo' di Lucano). Nota a Cicerone, In Pisonem 68; Lucano Pharsalia VIII 665; Foscolo Dei Sepolcri 190 ss.," Maia 52 (2000) 259-70; "Pompeo in cielo (Pharsalia IX 1-24; 186-217), un verso di Dante (Parad. XXII 135) e il senso delle allusioni a Lucano in due epigrammi di Marziale (IX 34; XI 5)" MH 57 (2001) 191-213; "Catone in Lucano (e alcune interpretazioni recenti)," Athenaeum 89 (2001) 171-86.
3.   "Deconstructing Lucan," see n. 2 above.
4.   Some of the most rewarding studies on Lucan from the twentieth century come in the form of German dissertations, published in not easily accessible formats. To offer but a few examples from N.'s copious bibliography: W. Rutz, Studien zur Kompositionskunst und zur epischer Technik Lucans (Diss. Kiel, 1950; reprint Frankfurt am Main, 1989); H.P. Syndicus, Lucans Gedicht vom Bürgerkrieg. Untersuchungen zur epischen Technik zu der Grundlagen des Werkes (Diss. Munich, 1958); O. Schönberger, Untersuchungen zur Wiederholungstechnik Lucans (Diss. Heidelberg, 1961); H.A. Schotes, Stoische Physik, Psychologie und Theologie bei Lucan (Diss. Bonn, 1969).
5.   There are also three appendices that conveniently collect some of N.'s previously published notes of exegesis on particular passages from the Bellum Ciuile and on Lucan's Fortleben in both Latin and Italian literature. The bibliography is necessarily selective (485-512). Perhaps N.'s treatment of memory and the poet could have benefited from D. Feeney's article on "History and Revelation in Virgil's Underworld," PCPhS 32 (1986) 1-24, which among other things also discusses (on p. 8) the very passage (Lucan 7.391-5) with which N. begins his Chapter 9 (167). In his treatment of the problem of the poem's 'hero' (186), N. neglects D. Feeney, "Epic Hero and Epic Fable," Comparative Literature 38 (1986) 137-58, a study that could have been useful to N.'s argument. The general index (513-16) could have been fuller, but the detailed table of contents and the selective index locorum (517-19) are sufficient to orient the reader.

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