Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.04.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.04.18

Jonathan Tracy, Lucan’s Egyptian Civil War.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. viii, 296.  ISBN 9781316129234.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Annemarie Ambühl, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz (


Tracy’s book, a revised version of his doctoral dissertation from the University of Toronto, revolves around Lucan’s “sadly neglected book 10” (p. 273), which he reads against the background of Greco-Roman stereotypes about Egypt and which he sets firmly in the context of the life and works of Lucan and his contemporaries (especially Seneca the Younger). Although the statement that Lucan’s Egyptian book has been neglected so far is not strictly true (as Tracy’s own ample doxography demonstrates), it has indeed often been studied in isolation from the rest of the epic, for scholars have mainly concentrated on single episodes such as Caesar’s scandalous affair with Cleopatra or the excursus on the Nile, as well as on its ending in connection with the still hotly-debated issue of the epic’s (in)completeness.1 In contrast, Tracy makes a strong case for embedding the book along with book 8 (and book 9) in Lucan’s literary and political agenda. However the more speculative biographical ramifications of his argument are to be judged (see below), it is certainly one of the book’s merits to have re-focused attention on Lucan’s ‘last’ books.

The Introduction (p. 1–12) gives a brief overview of the attitudes toward Egypt in Greco-Roman authors, identifying two opposing stereotypes: on the one hand an idealized Egypt in the sense of an utopian bastion of traditional values and potential refuge from global catastrophe, and on the other hand a vilified, xenophobic image of Egypt as an inferior, decadent ‘other’, against both of which Lucan’s approach is then tested.2 The main body of the book is divided into two parts, the first (p. 13–96: chapters 1–3) dealing with Pompey in Egypt (book 8), and the second, longer one (p. 97–273: chapters 4–7) with Caesar in Egypt (book 10). ‘Pompey in Egypt’ is preceded by a discussion of Pompey’s devious, delusional and finally aborted plan to seek help from Parthia. Subsequently, in Lentulus’ speech Pompey’s escapist fantasies are redirected towards a utopian, optimistic view of Egypt as symbol of a (nostalgic as well as Neronian) Golden Age, but brutally thwarted by the boy-king Ptolemy XIII and his (Greek) advisors, who embody the utterly corrupt Egyptian present. They are opposed by the lonely, positive, but powerless figure of the indigenous priest Acoreus, who according to Tracy represents the traditions of ‘old’ Pharaonic Memphis versus ‘modern’ Ptolemaic Alexandria. The ‘Egyptian civil war’ thus not only constitutes a literal war between the royal siblings into which Caesar is drawn (not without an imperialist agenda of his own), but also a metaphorical clash of values, as the ‘Pompeian’ Acoreus confronts the ‘Caesarian’ Pothinus and finally, in book 10, Caesar himself. In the wake of Cleopatra’s sumptuous banquet, Caesar’s inquiry about the sources of the Nile is answered by the priest’s long excursus that dismisses various hypotheses in favor of their fundamental unknowability. Acoreus’ speech is interpreted by Tracy as a moral lesson that values Egyptian conservative wisdom above Greek competitive science and tries to put Caesar, who in Lucan always transgresses boundaries and particularly rivers, in his place by demonstrating the vanity of all human attempts to conquer the Nile and the world. According to Tracy, Acoreus’ lecture has a profound psychological impact on Caesar, for in contrast to the historical record he temporarily experiences panic and self-doubt in the Alexandrian war and comes close to re-enacting Pompey’s fate as a victim of Greco-Egyptian treachery (underlined by allusions to the Ides of March), before he recovers and pursues his historical mission beyond the end of Lucan’s epic.

So far, Tracy’s argument has mainly been based on close readings of the relevant passages; he often proposes convincing solutions to textual or interpretive problems and time and again points out Lucan’s fictional transformation of his historical subject matter (cf., e.g., p. 225 on the Nile dialogue as “one of the poem’s many potential turning points, which offer a tantalizing window into an alternative history of the civil war”). In accordance with the predominantly scientific content of book 10, Tracy concentrates on prose intertexts from historiography, ethnography, and philosophy (especially the Nile book 4A from Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones) and has little concern for generic issues within the poetic tradition.3 He develops his arguments in an ongoing dialogue with scholarship, both in the main text and in the footnotes, so that the building of his hypotheses can be followed step by step. Often he anticipates potential points of criticism himself.4 The bibliography (p. 280–287) is well-documented, commendably international and up-to-date.5

The last part of the book (p. 245–273), however, departs from this practice, as it launches into a biographical reading which is more speculative (as Tracy himself admits): “Lucan has configured the interaction between Acoreus and Caesar to reflect the real-life relationship of Lucan’s uncle Seneca with the latter’s notorious pupil, the emperor Nero” (p. 246).6 The complex relations among Lucan, Seneca and Nero have long intrigued scholarship and have been read in different ways (cf. now James Romm, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, New York 2014). Ultimately, Tracy needs Seneca’s flattering remarks to Nero in his Naturales Quaestiones (esp. 6.8.3 on Nero’s Nile expedition) to be sincere in order to construe Lucan’s response in his Nile digression as a subversive political-ethical message directed against Nero and in a more oblique manner also as a criticism of Seneca, who still tries to morally improve his former pupil, now via his scientific enthusiasm. In Tracy’s view, by on the one hand connecting Seneca’s hostile image of Alexander via Caesar to Nero and on the other hand omitting any, even indirect, reference to Nero’s Nile expedition that could be read as a compliment, Lucan tries to teach Nero a lesson in humility and in this way like his character Acoreus explores a (failed?) peaceful way of resistance to tyranny. So it may be tempting to read Lucan’s last book as a direct prequel to his involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy (p. 272f.), but here I missed explicit references to the debate on Lucan’s political stance (e.g., Shadi Bartsch, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War, Cambridge, MA 1997) as well as a critical review of the ancient sources for Lucan’s biography (cf. p. 270f. with n. 87, 88, and 90).

Apart from the controversial biographical reading, I would like to address briefly two related issues: Tracy is careful to distinguish the historical Caesar (and Caesar as presented by himself in his Commentaries) from the rather idiosyncratic character Caesar in Lucan’s epic, but notwithstanding his recourse to Stoic psychology, his hyperbolic use of terms such as ‘egotism’, ‘narcissism’ and ‘megalomania’ (culminating in “megalomaniacal psychopath” on p. 260) tends to melt down the various facets of Lucan’s fascinating Caesar (and his reception) into the simplistic image of a monstrous tyrant as an analogue to Alexander the Great and Nero (as they are in turn construed by Tracy from ‘Lucan’s own authorial voice’).7 What happened to the “rationalist, polymath Caesar” to whom Acoreus addresses his cosmopolitan lessons (p. 218), even if this is regarded as a persona adopted by Caesar in order to mask his hubristic ambitions?

Another slightly disturbing feature is Tracy’s use of apparently anachronistic political concepts. Hereby I mean not so much a passing dig at “Augustus’ cheerleader-poets” and his “grand crusade” against Cleopatra (p. 10), but on a much more fundamental level the ascription to Lucan of concepts like ‘nationalism’, ‘globalization’, ‘Republicanism’ and ‘Caesarism’ or ‘totalitarianism’, the justification and meaning of which are seemingly considered as self-evident.8 In a way, Lucan’s civil war epic can indeed be read as proposing a revolutionary utopia of world peace, but such passages should perhaps rather be read as hyperbolically expressed criticisms of civil war and not as personal statements reflecting the author’s evolution from a Roman imperialist into a champion of “cultural diversity within the increasingly monocultural environment of the Roman Mediterranean” (quote from the dust-jacket and p. i, not literally repeated in the body of the text, but cf. the related ideas proposed on p. 214 and in the ‘Conclusion: From seclusion to solidarity’, p. 274-279).9

That being said, Tracy’s book makes presents highly engaging reading that constantly forces the reader to take sides and make his or her own choices concerning the challenging issues of Lucan’s civil war epic and Roman world views in general.

The book’s overall layout is reader-friendly, although a few more specific cross-references between chapters would have been helpful. All Greek and Latin quotations are accompanied by translations; there are indexes of names and passages (p. 288-296). I spotted only a few minor typographical errors (p. 171: propehcy; p. 202: egomanianac; p. 277 n. 9: Nisbett; p. 281: Espèry [note the correct form Espèrey on p. 282]; a handful of missing slashes or indentations in Latin quotes on p. 19, 72f., 209, 276).


1.   The last issue is touched upon only briefly (p. 12, 245, 275); it has been discussed more extensively by Tracy himself in his contribution to the Brill’s Companion to Lucan, ed. P. Asso, Leiden 2011, 33-53 (BMCR 2012.10.52).
2.   For a fuller treatment, the reader is referred to a forthcoming second book by Tracy (p. i). See also the Leiden research project Egypt in the Roman World directed by Miguel John Versluys and the related publications (M.J. Versluys, Aegyptiaca Romana: Nilotic Scenes and the Roman Views of Egypt, Leiden 2002; L. Bricault, M.J. Versluys, P.G.P. Meyboom (eds.), Nile into Tiber: Egypt in the Roman World, Leiden 2006).
3.   Cf. p. 124f. on the tension between martial epic and love elegy; p. 127 n. 72 on scholarly preoccupation with Dido’s banquet and the song of Iopas in Virgil’s Aeneid 1 as the prime model. The present reviewer was happy to find that the familiarity of Lucan and his readers with a wide range of Greek and Latin texts is taken for granted (cf. esp. p. 10), but it is a pity that political and metapoetic readings still do not seem to go together easily (in my own recent monograph, I propose a reading of book 10 against the background of Alexandrian poetry as another alternative to civil war epic: Krieg und Bürgerkrieg bei Lucan und in der griechischen Literatur: Studien zur Rezeption der attischen Tragödie und der hellenistischen Dichtung im Bellum civile, Berlin 2015, 369–396).
4.   E.g., p. 11 n. 32 and p. 78f. n. 54 on the issue whether Lucan and his audience would have been familiar with the native Egyptian traditions associated with Memphis.
5.   Eleni Manolaraki, Noscendi Nilum Cupido: Imagining Egypt from Lucan to Philostratus, Berlin 2013 (BMCR 2013.08.05) has been fully worked into the argument; her main theses on Lucan had been anticipated in her contribution to the Brill’s Companion to Lucan, 153–182 (see note 1 above).
6.   In this respect Tracy basically agrees with Manolaraki (see the preceding note), but diverges from her interpretation in contrasting Lucan’s approach to scientific didacticism with Seneca’s.
7.   For a more balanced analysis of the polarized aspects of Caesar’s sublimity in Lucan see H.J.M. Day, Lucan and the Sublime: Power, Representation and Aesthetic Experience, Cambridge 2013 (esp. p. 162–164 on his connection with the Nile; acknowledged by Tracy on p. 115 n. 43 and p. 235 n. 16), and generally on Caesar and his modern reception, e.g., M. Wyke (ed.), Julius Caesar in Western Culture, Malden, MA 2006.
8.   See however E. Paleit, War, Liberty, and Caesar: Responses to Lucan’s Bellum Ciuile, ca. 1580 – 1650, Oxford 2013 (BMCR 2015.01.19), who shows how the divergent political readings of Lucan’s epic can be seen as constructs of his (early) modern reception.
9.   Cf. p. 277 n. 10: “[…] by the time of writing of his final books, he had acquired a newfound respect and appreciation for indigenous, non-Roman national traditions; that he resented the attempt to impose a single, corrupt culture on the world’s varied peoples by a single, corrupt autocrat; and that he now welcomed the prospect of international cooperation against such globalizing tyranny”, preceded by the telling disclaimer “I do not here suggest that Lucan (or any other Roman author) would ever have seriously proposed dismantling the Roman Empire”.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010