Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.26

Charles Tesoriero (ed.), Lucan. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. x, 537.  ISBN 9780199277230.  $65.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Seán Easton, Gustavus Adolphus College (


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

It is difficult to imagine a more challenging editorial remit than that of the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series or a collection of Lucan scholarship better suited to it than the pieces chosen by the editor, the late Charles Tesoriero. Inclusion in an Oxford Readings volume acknowledges three primary qualities in an article or essay: enduring scholarly value; usefulness for students at a variety of levels, including those with minimal linguistic background; and a meaningful contribution to a synopsis of scholarship on the volume’s subject.

Susanna Braund’s comprehensive introduction traces Lucan’s journey as a canonical author from antiquity until, in Fraenkel’s phrase, “the educational disaster of the nineteenth century,” through the development of the field, its present state, and works in progress. While the very act of one scholar assessing all the others has an inevitably polemical dimension, Braund’s judicious discussion and circumspect presentation of the authors and issues that have animated scholarly debate gives the reader the closest thing to a consensus view of the scholarship on an author “that makes partisans of us.”

The chapters are not grouped into sections, but their sequence suggests an implicit order: the beginning of the poem (chapters 2-3: Conte; Grimal), declamatory and epic intertextuality (chapters 4-6: Bonner; Thompson and Bruère; Green), nature imagery (chapters 7-8: Rosner-Siegel; Leigh); the poet’s sense history, politics, and philosophy (chapters 9-11: Lintott; Martindale; Lapidge); and studies with a focus on one or more of the three main characters (chapters 12-16: Ormand; Feeney; Helzle; Friedrich; Zwierlein).

The choice of the first and last essays, Eduard Fraenkel’s “Lucan as the transmitter of ancient pathos” and John Henderson’s “Lucan/the word at war,” deserve particular comment. Fraenkel’s essay, one of five essays in the volume that I had the opportunity to appreciate in the translation of Leofranc Holford-Strevens, appealed to Tesoriero, as representing a moment when Lucan studies in the twentieth century ‘turned a corner’.1 Its combined focus on how Lucan engages the reader’s sensibilities and the influence of this technique on the broad sweep of European letters and politics offers a wonderful introduction to the poet, especially useful for students new to the author who would benefit from being both informed about how the poem works and impressed by the extent of its impact. Henderson’s essay (chapter 17) is the natural conclusion to the volume, though its original date of publication precedes that of four other essays. Its vast scope touches on the themes of every other article in the book, and, however one may regard the deconstructionist approach of “Lucan/the word at war”, the field of Lucan studies has not broken from its orbit. One effect of its concluding position, opposite to Fraenkel’s beginning piece, is to clarify anew its own capacity as a study in pathos technique. Henderson reenacts those features that Fraenkel, as an outside observer, describes:

“It is not enough for him to lead a willing and beauty-loving reader with him, he has in mind the indifferent and blasé reader, whom he whips forward, startles, and shocks, causes to shudder, puzzles with riddling expressions … in short, he attacks his understanding and imagination with all the means of refined arts” (24).

The editor, by bookending the volume with these very different explorations in Lucanian pathos, anchors it in the appreciation of this distinctive strength of the poet and draws attention to the rejuvenating effect its study has had on the field.

Conte and Grimal each find in an interpretive question rooted in the ancient and medieval commentary on Lucan the springboard to a dynamic new reading. Conte, in contesting the view that Lucan’s proem is the addition of another editor, articulates its close relationship to the proem of the Iliad , contextualizes Lucan’s poetic emulation of Homer in light of the norms of the Roman epic tradition, and in the process offers a brief introduction to the scholarly themes he has pursued throughout his career. Grimal’s attempt to rebut the notion that Lucan’s praise of Nero, seemingly so discordant with the rest of the poem, constitutes or contains a sarcastic jab at the emperor has not settled this particular issue. The bibliography on it has continued to grow and diversify. The value of its inclusion, however, lies in two areas: its intriguing introduction to the complexities of Nero’s projected apotheosis and its speculative exploration of the interpretive issues raised by the ancient claim that three books of the poem were published separately.

Bonner presents the case for the influence of declamatory education on Lucan’s poem, stressing several elements: sententiae, the civil war as a source of declamatory topics, historical exempla, stock characters, and the plenitude of rhetorical commonplaces shooting through the poem. Bonner’s article, richly detailed with declamatory parallels, illuminates for the reader the poetic potential in declamatory practice and the porous boundary between declamation and poetry. Thompson and Bruère perform a broad and thorough survey of Lucan’s pattern of allusion to the Aeneid, arguing that its purpose is to undermine Vergil’s Augustan myth. In a conscious progression from Conte’s piece, C. M. C. Green explores the deeper Homeric resonances active beneath the Roman historical terms of Lucan’s poem, illustrating how Agamemnon and Achilles are translated into Pompey and Caesar, Achilles’ request of Thetis to petition Zeus into Roma’s petition of Caesar who invokes Jupiter on his own behalf, and so on.

Judith Rosner-Siegel demonstrates both the marvelous elegance and programmatic significance of Lucan’s similes likening Pompey to an oak and Caesar to a lightning flash (1.135-57), tracking their influence through the poem. Matthew Leigh, in his fascinating and textually wide-ranging piece, puts Caesar’s act of cutting down the Massilian grove in context. Leigh finds that it represents a development in a traditional story pattern. Its tale of an impious figure punished for knowing violation of a sacred grove gradually evolves into a version in which a skeptical figure—such as Lucan’s Caesar—charismatically challenges divine power and prevails. Leigh’s daring scope and ability to put intertextuality in the service of the history of ideas make this a piece well worth revisiting.

Andrew Lintott contests earlier arguments that Lucan derives his historical vision from a lost source such as Livy’s civil war books and argues that, where it does not conflict with his poetic goal of calling the reader to resist Caesarism, Lucan demonstrates attention to historical sources and care in the representation of history. Lintott’s richly detailed commentary encourages readers to consider the broad range of historical sources that inform and clarify Lucan’s interpretation of the civil war. Charles Martindale expands on Lintott’s view of the poem as a call to resistance, challenging claims that Lucan’s political verse is empty of conviction. Observing that the notion of the poet’s life as separate from his writing only applied in erotic elegy and epigram, he further argues that Lucan’s politics must carry literary significance insofar as his success at transforming the topoi of the declaimers into an epic narrative is rooted in a political vision. Michael Lapidge makes the case that the poet deploys imagery drawn from the cosmological theory and vocabulary of Chrysippus, which would have been available to Lucan through Cicero, Manilius, Cornutus, and Seneca. The Stoic imagery of collapsing structures and loosened bonds recurs in a variety of images, from the first simile (1.72-80) onward. Lapidge suggests that, where Stoicism offers no agent for cosmic dissolution, Lucan supplies furor as its cause.

Kirk Ormand introduces a narratological perspective, finding Pompey an ineffective narrator whom Lucan makes iconic of the ineffectiveness of narrative generally, while Caesar is a incompetent reader whose handicap only helps him. Ormand’s introduction of the relevant terms and concepts is simple, effective, and would facilitate student acquaintance with narratological reading. Martin Helzle offers a particularly persuasive application of statistics, clarifying the poet’s description of Caesar in his meeting with the fisherman Amyclas as indocilis privata loqui, (‘untrained to speak like an ordinary man’, 5.539). Tabulating vocabulary from the categories of warfare, violence, and the military, as well as the use of imperatives, gerundives, and jussives among the three major characters, he argues that Caesar can only speak as a military commander, whatever the context. Denis Feeney explores the narrative and metaphorical extensions of Lucan’s characterization of Pompey as magni nominis umbra (1.135). Feeney has added an important footnote (354n16) in which he observes Lucan’s punning association between Pompey’s name and the Greek word pompe (‘triumph’), which should make this the definitive version of the article. Wolf Friedrich argues that fate and fortune are not distinguishable as separate entities, in contrast to the world of the Aeneid. Though Cato despises fortune, as defender of a losing cause, he necessarily resists fate, while Caesar, though devoted to fortune, is on the side of fate insofar as it allows his victory. Friedrich illuminates Lucan’s approach through juxtaposition with theodicy in Homer and Vergil. Zwierlein, tracing patterns of allusion to both the Alexander tradition and the Aeneid, argues that Lucan’s promise of eternal fame to Caesar in Book 9’s Troy episode is bitterly sarcastic and as such in no way contradicts the anti-Caesarian tone of the rest of the poem.

Tesoriero envisioned the collection as “an aid to students and teachers alike” and indeed the volume’s greatest contribution is pedagogical. This value is tremendously enhanced by the translation of five articles, and of previously untranslated Latin and Greek in the English language contributions. The articles in translation are particularly a boon to new graduate students in Lucan seminars who may not have all their secondary languages yet. Undergraduates will also benefit. It is as a teacher of an undergraduate capstone seminar on ancient epic that I am particularly excited by this volume. In addition to the increased accessibility that translation affords, students have the opportunity to see in a single volume scholarly conversation and debate arise as the various authors tackle different ends of the same issue and at times build on each other’s work. Even those contributions that lie at a greater remove from the present state of the field still offer excellent points of departure for student discussion which the instructor may easily supplement. The eloquence, variety, and now greater accessibility of its contributions make this collection a teaching resource of tremendous value.

The editing is excellent. One corrigendum: on p. 267, read “Arruns” for “Arrius.” (The error is in the original publication of Lintott’s article).

1. Introduction / Susanna Braund
2. Lucan as the transmitter of ancient pathos / Eduard Fraenkel
3. The proem of Pharsalia / Gian Biagio Conte
4. Is the eulogy of Nero at the beginning of the Pharsalia ironic? / Pierre Grimal
5. Lucan and the declamation schools / Stanley F. Bonner
6. Lucan’s use of Virgilian reminiscence / Lynette Thompson and R. T. Bruère
7. Stimulos dedit aemula virtus: Lucan and Homer reconsidered / C.M.C. Green
8. The oak and the lightning: Lucan, Bellum civile 1. 135-157 / Judith A. Rosner-Siegel
9. Lucan’s Caesar and the sacred grove: deforestation and enlightenment in Antiquity / Matthew Leigh
10. Lucan and the history of the civil war / A.W. Lintott
11. The politician Lucan / Charles Martindale
12. Lucan’s imagery of cosmic dissolution / Michael Lapidge
13. Lucan’s Auctor vix fidelis / Kirk Ormand
14. Stat magni nominis umbra: Lucan on the greatness of Pompeius Magnus / D.C. Feeney
15. Indocilis privata loqui: the characterization of Lucan’s Caesar / Martin Helzle
16. Cato, Caesar, and fortune in Lucan / Wolf H. Friedrich
17. Lucan’s Caesar at Troy / Otto Zwierlein
18. Lucan/the word at war / John Henderson


1.   Chapters 2-4 (Fraenkel, Conte, and Grimal) and 16-17 (Friedrich and Zwierlein) appear inEnglish translation for the first time.

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