BMCR 1998.01.12

98.1.12, Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement. Oxford Classical Monographs

, Lucan : spectacle and engagement. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. ix, 366 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780198150671.

Matthew Leigh’s book dissects the amphitheatrical elements in Lucan’s epic to argue that the poet deliberately opposes those who would engage with the poem’s issues against those who would merely watch the action develop in front of their eyes—the “spectacle” and “engagement” of his title. Part and parcel of this analysis is an attempt to uncover the political tenor of the epic, for, L. claims, “when a sea battle is like a naumachia or a soldier like a gladiator, the reader as spectator is transported to one of the institutions on which the power and hegemony of the emperor rests” (p. 4). The book consists of an introduction, seven more-or-less “case studies” of episodes in the poem, an epilogue and three appendices detailing particular grammatical arguments upon which L. relies. L.’s contention that the poem is political in nature is perhaps his most important contribution; the complexity of the poem’s politics will, I think, be subject to more debate in the future.

The book has its fair share of problems, however; the lack of any critical framework for articulating the ideological connection between entertainment and politics which L. assumes is among them. It is unfortunate that L.’s efforts to extricate ideological meaning from spectacle and the meaning of spectating in the poem are swamped by the comparative material he brings to bear. More importantly, L. more often than not leaves the implications of his interpretations unaddressed and does not attempt to answer many of the questions he raises. These problems make for a frustrating read.

Chapter one is a study of Gaius Cornelius, who appears briefly at 7.192-200. A composite view of Cornelius based on ancient sources leads to a comparison of this prophet with Lucan as Caesarian vates : just as Cornelius brings the battle of Pharsalus to his audience by means of rhetorical enargeia, so Lucan will “generate in his readers the very emotional response” which will render his readers present as spectators at the battle (p. 13). As will become clear in later chapters, L. is interested in contrasting the passionate engagement of Lucan-as-narrator with the apathetic and disengaged spectatorship of alternative perspectives in the poem—though it is never entirely clear whether “apathetic” is equal to “acquiescence to imperial ideology” in L.’s reading.

This first chapter raises both questions L. addresses in later chapters and problems with his arguments and the structure of the book itself. Here, for instance, L.’s thesis on Gaius Cornelius rests on lines in Lucan’s text which refer only obliquely to the augur Cornelius (he is never mentioned by name). Lucan does not know how or why Cornelius predicts the coming war, and these lines do not (as L. seems to indicate) establish the outcome of the civil war. L.’s thesis rests on contemporary accounts of this augur, and thus in order to reach his conclusion, L. imports a great deal of material from outside the poem. To characterize Lucan as vates in opposition to (or, indeed, parallel to) prophets in his own poem would be better based on the use of that term since Vergil’s Eclogues and the clear parallels between Lucan’s work and the work of other prophets (such as the Delphic oracle) in his poem, as Masters has done. 1 Furthermore, though it would appear from L.’s argument in this first section of the book that he will continue to develop Lucan’s use of enargeia to bring the civil wars to his readers as a spectacle, this is precisely what L. does not do. This neglect of apparently essential points of L.’s purported inquiry and a change of subject for the next chapter are central weaknesses of the book.

Chapter two addresses the notion of Caesar’s clementia in IV.337-401, in comparison with contemporary definitions of clementia in Seneca and others. The chapter is a careful unpacking of the term in this episode pointing ultimately to a clementia which “depends on the emperor’s whim and mood” (p. 68). Questions of spectacle and spectatorship get lost in this chapter, however; if there is a connection between Caesar’s clementia and issues of spectacle or engagement, that connection is not made clear.

Chapter three discusses the merging of temporal perspectives in the poem (the then of the civil war and the now of the Neronian age) by means of Lucan’s variation of tense and voice. This variety of perspectives, L. argues, serves to “evoke significance for Lucan’s Rome of the coming battle” (p. 93). Part of this chapter concerns apostrophe in the Pharsalus narrative; an analysis of the apostrophe to Brutus uncovers “troubling implications … the suggestion of want of spirit and desertion” (p. 109). Those implications prove to be a stumbling block, for L. does not argue through them: what are the implications for the poem, or for the politics in the poem, of assigning to Brutus even the suggestion of a want of spirit and desertion? With the exception of a dubious argument defining Jupiter as apathetic because of his spectatorship of the battle (which ignores the anger of Lucan’s gods at 2.1), this chapter seems to have little or nothing to do with its title, “Wishing and Watching.”

Chapter four focuses on Pompey as a spectator, specifically of the battle of Pharsalus. This chapter begins a series of chapters which explore more fully the ideological significance of spectacle, especially as demonstrated by the tendency of Caesar’s army to act as if performing an ampitheatrical show for their audience.

Chapters five and six explore on a large scale the theme of “reversal of convention” to portray the perversity of civil war. Chapter five analyzes the figure of Scaeva as exemplum in the tradition of Valerius. But this exemplum, L. argues, does not incite virtus or valour in those watching; Scaeva as (traditional) exemplum thus falls flat, since his followers are amazed but only watch, and not participate in, the bloodbath which follows. Chapter six addresses Caesar’s centurions and the deliberate spectacle they make of themselves, arguing that the “amphitheatricality” of these deaths reflects the perverted virtus of civil war and arena combats which can only be watched by passive spectators. These two chapters together present some of the most interesting material in L.’s book, in arguments which fully incorporate the thesis of spectating vs. engaging or participating.

The final chapter tries to pull together the various themes in the previous six by reading certain episodes of the poem as specific types of arena spectacle and exploring their underlying ideologies. Here L. carries to its logical conclusion much of the previous scholarship on the Scaeva and Vulteius episodes, arguing that Scaeva represents a gladiatorial combat and Vulteius a naumachia. Throughout, L. stresses the use of mirari and spectare, verbs which in his words connote (and at times denote) the “experience of amphitheatrical spectatorship” (p. 236). New is L.’s suggestion that Cato’s aristeia against the snakes be read as a venatio. His conclusion that Cato’s journey through the desert may be understood as a demonstration of Stoicism debunked and thrown off course by the references to the arena, however, leaves the ideological implications of Cato as a spectator unmined while returning to the vein of previous interpretations of amphitheatrical elements in the poem which say those elements exist only to undermine traditional motifs and expectations.

Finally, an epilogue examines the mentality of the “kingly visions” of Sulla at 2.207-8 (after the Marian-Sullan civil war) and Caesar at 7.786-99 (after the battle of Pharsalus), each “feasting their eyes on the spectacle of Rome’s transformation” (p. 292). After the expected lengthy comparison with contemporary sources, L. concludes that both Caesar and Sulla experience a “profoundly aesthetic satisfaction in … [rearranging] the body of the State” (p. 304). A slight digression on the cyclical nature of civil war in Rome raises a most interesting question which regretfully L. does not attempt to answer, of why that cyclical nature in Lucan is always represented as something seen, a vision or view from a height (p. 299f).

Unfortunately the fascinating possibilities of L.’s contentions that Lucan’s narrative may be treated “not so much as something to be read, but as something to be watched” (p. 4) and that “to watch is to be complicit, and the dissenter must fully engage” (p. 157) are frequently lost in the painstaking crawl through ancient sources; the sheer volume often overwhelms his argument, and his interpretation is picked up only in the succinct summaries at the beginning and end of each section into which he divides each chapter. Chapter four, on Pompey, is perhaps the illustration par excellence of this structural problem, as the following summary will make amply clear: a recap of the scene of Pompey’s defeat at 7.647-711 leads to a comparison of those ancient sources which treat the death of Pompey as a paradigm for fortune’s mutability; this comparison leads to a discussion of the sources’ suspicion of a general who survives a defeat; then to an examination of motifs common to heroic generals, which establishes their relation to the myth of the devotio; a brief excursus on the reception of the devotio precedes a rejection of the counter-deformation reading of Pompey’s flight from Pharsalus and an analysis of the deaths of Crastinus and Domitius; L. then offers a portrait of Pompey as a king-like figure drawn from contemporary sources, in order to discuss the political meaning of fighting for Pompey (that is, monarchical vs. Republican ideologies), which in turn leads to an analysis of Pompey’s “botched”devotio, deformed because of Pompey’s own “inversion of the heroic” (p.154). While all very interesting in their own rights, these discussions have little or nothing to do with what is the ostensible aim of the chapter: “that which is deemed inadequate in Pompey can be connected directly to his role as a spectator” (p. 115). The connections between the chapter’s main thesis and the component parts of the discussion are obscure at best. The book conforms to this pattern in greater or lesser degrees; it reads almost as if L. wrote studies of seven different episodes and grouped them together under the umbrella of “spectacle and/or engagement.”

Even this umbrella suffers from a structural problem, as L.’s focus flips back and forth between the reader as spectator and the character as spectator; it’s often not clear of which L. is thinking. How, for instance, does Cato-as-spectator relate to the reader-as-spectator? If we are meant to see in the character of the narrator Lucan an involved or engaged presence, then we should also ask: in what way does Lucan involve or engage himself? Could it be as a spectator? If so, this would chip away at the strict dichotomy L. has drawn between those who watch and those who engage (unless we are to see in Lucan the perfect meld of the two, which L. does not appear to argue). Much more worrisome is the inescapable paradox L. seems to set up for the reader: to be reading Lucan, since reading is a form of spectating, is to be only complicit and non-engaged. L. does not really solve this problem in the course of the book. On the last page of the last chapter L. offers the suggestion that Lucan’s poem offers not simply the two choices—to watch or to engage—but also a third: “…you can think through what is wrong with the empire, you can assert that there are other political values on which to found the State” (p. 305). Are we to read Lucan’s poem as a manifesto of those “other political values”? (What are they?) If this “third choice” is the way out of the reader’s paradox, what might it involve except (dispassionate) “thinking”—perhaps, writing a poem?

Often L. makes his arguments based upon the contrast between the expectations created by the use of tropes and the perverse, un-traditional way Lucan makes use of, or distorts, these tropes. This is a tried and true approach to the epic (e.g., Bramble 2), but L. has introduced new elements into this kind of interpretation—most successfully in chapters five and six. The main thrust of the book teeters on the brink of this kind of reader-response criticism, but L.’s attempt to contextualize the reader-response of Lucan’s Roman audience falters, not only under structural problems but also because of L.’s seeming reluctance to pursue the implications of his own arguments. The fascinating suggestion that Lucan’s use of amphitheatrical terms “suggest a reading and writing strategy in which civil war is … as enjoyable to watch as the slaughter of the amphitheatre” (p. 235) remains unexplored. Similarly, L. leaves dangling his contention that the “political dynamic” of Lucan’s epic forces a choice on the reader of whether the battle she sees/reads “is truly dira, and not a source of spectacle and pleasure” (p. 291). Is L. arguing that making that choice is a central concern of the epic? Given L.’s assertion that the amphitheatricality of the epic is a major element in reconstructing the political tenor of the poem, is Lucan offering only one “correct” choice: to engage? Regardless of L.’s claim that it is only the introspection of our own age which sees in Lucan’s use of the spectator “a mirror for the problem of writing, or reading something as woeful as civil war” (p. 305; this, I think, is a not-so-subtle shot at the work of Henderson and Masters), as readers we must ask what part the act of writing the poem plays in Lucan’s dynamic of spectacle-vs.-engagement: are we to perceive writing as engagement? as spectacle?

This is a difficult book to read; in fact, interest will be restricted to trained classicists. Citations within the text are translated, but footnotes remain in the original, rendering the often valuable information contained therein useless to anyone not reading those languages. The depth of L.’s knowledge of the ancient sources is admirable, and this book should prove popular for its in-depth inquiry into the literary background of Lucan’s episodes. The book will not, however, attract those scholars who are interested in contemporary critical approaches to spectating and spectacle. Bibliography is limited to classical scholarship, with the exception of four older texts on narrative and semiotics. L.’s work might have benefitted from, for instance, Elaine Scarry on the relationship of pain, ideology and the body, 3 Bakhtin (and Bakhtinian readings) on the role of festivals and spectacles in maintaining social order, 4 Mulvey 5 or de Lauretiis 6 on the power relations inherent in the act of looking, or any of the psychoanalytic-inspired work on the “gaze”. 7

A related bibliographical shortcoming is L.’s complete disregard of Henderson’s seminal article “Lucan/The Word at War”. 8 Although Henderson is not even listed in the bibliography, there is no question that L. frequently alludes to (and often makes use of) interpretations and theories proposed by Henderson, especially the theme of the complicity of the reader and the poet with the Caesarian project simply by the act of reading or writing the poem, and the struggle against that complicity (Henderson, p. 122-124; 133-6; 143; 149; 155-6, for which see L. passim, especially pp. 234-5; 243; 250; 256-8; 290f; 305-6). L.’s own interpretations could have benefitted from an explicit dialogue with Henderson; incorporating Henderson’s comments on the personification of weapons in the Vulteius episode (Henderson, 140f) into his own argument would have pushed L. beyond a reliance upon the distortions and perversions of civil war to explain this particular element of certain scenes in the poem (p. 221f). This explanation is wholly unsatisfactory given L.’s stated purpose of uncovering the political tenor of the epic. How, for instance, might this confusion of person, wound and weapon relate to the political ideologies of Lucan’s Caesar?

Despite the shortcomings of the book, L. has done Lucanian studies a great service by writing it. Instead of dismissing Lucan’s amphitheatrical elements as reflections of the poet’s rhetorical excesses, or as instances of contamination from the cultural monolith of the Games, L. takes these elements seriously and attempts to find the themes underlying their use. Lucan scholars will find much in L.’s book to stir their interest. It is disappointing that L. does not try to answer the questions he raises, but the significance of inquiring seriously into the ideological significance of spectacle and spectators to Lucan’s poem should not be underestimated. His book rings hollow in part because it does not, ultimately, interrogate that significance, nor does it engage with critical practices outside classical scholarship which inquire into those very connections.

1. Masters, J. (1992), Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (Cambridge), 138-9; 205-6; esp. chs. 4, 6.

2. Bramble, J.C. (1982), “Lucan,” in Cambridge History of Classical Literature vol. ii (Cambridge), 533-57.

3. Scarry, E. (1985), The Body in Pain (Oxford).

4. Bakhtin, M.M. (1984), trans. Iswolsky, H., Rabelais and His World (Bloomington).

5. Mulvey, L. (1975), “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”Screen 16.3: 6-18.

6. de Lauretiis, T. (1984), Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington); ibid (1987), Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction, (Bloomington).

7. See, for example, Rose, J. (1986) Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London) or Zizek, S. and Salecl, R (eds.) (1996) Gaze and Voice and Love Objects (Durham, London); here too Freud on perverse forms of viewing and Lacan on the gaze are crucial.

8. Henderson, J. (1988), “Lucan/The Word at War, in The Imperial Muse: Ramus Essays on Roman Literature of the Empire (ed. Boyle, A.J.), 122-164.