BMCR 2004.11.15

Lucans poetische Technik. Studien zum historischen Epos. Mnemosyne Supplement 249

, Lucans poetische Technik : Studien zum historischen Epos. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 1 online resource (xi, 586 pages).. ISBN 9789047413035 $106.00.

The present contribution to Lucanian studies is a revised version of Radicke’s (henceforth R.) Habilitationsschrift. As the author states in his preface, the book does not promise “spectacular new evaluations of Lucan’s work,” a poem which in recent years re-entered the modern Latin literary canon. The above statement, however, betrays the author’s humility rather than the content of the book, which is noteworthy for some of its analyses and several insightful discussions of Lucan’s epic. The present study is divided into five chapters, a bibliography, and two indexes (a. of Names and Things and b. of Passages discussed). The fourth chapter covers the biggest part of the book, as it offers detailed discussions on each of the ten books of the Pharsalia (the title for Lucan’s poem preferred by R.) and thus is subdivided into ten sections.

As R. explains in his introduction, the purpose of the book is to fill a significant gap in Lucanian scholarship: to examine how Lucan absorbs the historical tradition of the civil war (primarily Livy) and transforms it according to the dictates of epic poetry.1 R. recognizes that studies such as Morford’s, Lebek’s, or Narducci’s do not focus on these aspects of the Pharsalia, opting rather to talk about the rhetorical, epic, or politico-philosophical background of the poem.2 Therefore, R. clarifies that most of his work will contribute to Quellensforschung rather than side with the most recent attempts to “deconstruct” the Pharsalia.3

In the second chapter ( Der Historische Stoff), R. discusses Livy’s lost books 109-116 and the historian’s probable standpoint on the civil war. R. stresses the lack of attention to the Livian influence on Lucan in recent scholarship (e.g. Masters).4 The author examines the possibility of one or more sources as influence on Lucan’s poem and concludes that, like Silius Italicus, Lucan has used only one source, namely Livy. Writing between two different traditions, Caesar’s and Asinius Pollio’s, Livy influences Lucan, among others (Valerius Maximus, Velleius Paterculus, and Florus). R. maintains that, like Lucan, Dio uses Livy as his main source for the events of the 1st century BCE (R.’s examination is schematized in the stemma of p. 42). An interesting suggestion by R. here is that although Lucan draws his material mainly from an unabbreviated version of Livy’s account of the civil war, in some cases, such as the beginning of book 2 (in which an old man narrates the Marian and Sullan conflict from earlier times), he may have used an abbreviated version. This is possible but still it underestimates the poet’s ability to summarize, in a flashback narrative, the main events of the 90s and 80s BCE, a period that has shaped the outcome of the later civil wars.

R. insists that Livy’s account is more appropriate for an epic poem because of the affinities of Livian historiography to the epic tradition (what R. calls Nullfocalisierung, a feature of both historiography and epic poetry); in addition, use of Livy in rhetorical schools would have made the historian readily available and familiar to the poet. Caesar’s Commentarii, on the other hand, would have been deemed too partial ( interne Focalisierung) for the epic writer to use. The problem that arises here is that this becomes a hermetic approach, inasmuch as it is impossible to preclude the use of both accounts in Lucan’s poem. What if Lucan deviates consciously and intentionally from Caesar’s account? The careful discussion notwithstanding, the main problem remains that the analysis is built upon many suppositions, nor is it facilitated by the lack of the actual source itself, Livy’s own account, which as the author notes, would amount to approximately 900 Teubner pages.5 The lack of the supporting material from Livy impairs many aspects of this book in the subsequent chapters, where R. must resort to comparing Lucan’s account with Caesar’s.

Chapter 3 ( Die Poetische Umsetzung) treats the structure of the poem, how Lucan arranges the historical material and changes it into a historical epic. The first section of this chapter deals with the links between individual books, which form dyads, tetrads, or sextads accordingly.6 R. plausibly observes that Lucan emphasizes the role of tetrads in his poem, given the strong thematic affinities of books 1-4 and 5-8 (e.g., death of Curio, death of Pompey). The author sides with those critics who claim that the unfinished poem would end in the twelfth book with Cato’s death. In the second section, R. turns to those changes wrought on the historical events by Lucan to serve the poem’s scope, such as the abbreviation of certain episodes, the expansion of others, and even the alteration of the sequence of events. Sundry examples provide evidence for this technique, most of which are repeated in the fourth chapter, during the examination of individual books. The final segment of this chapter is dedicated to an overview of the “world of the epic,” which, as R. asserts, presents itself as an amalgam from Livy, Virgil, Ovid, and Seneca’s Stoic discourse.

The author also discusses certain driving forces of the plot (this part could have been combined with the discussion in the previous section, as it is largely repetitive) and the dramatis personae. R. goes through each of the principal three characters’ traits in detail by summarizing previous scholarship. For instance, Caesar is portrayed as the epic warrior, tyrant, and enemy of the Republic par excellence, as opposed to Cato. Pompey’s character is likewise static, holds R., as he is presented in dark colors, just like Caesar: he may be a Stoic proficiens but he is not without the faults of avaritia, ira, and lack of vigor. In listing all these qualities (see the schema on pp. 150-151), R. seems not to allow any space for the characters’ development in the poem. All of the above may be inherent qualities in the heroes’ personalities, but the poem is too complex to admit such black and white interpretations. For instance, R. observes that Caesar is most often associated with darkness (night) and land, whereas Pompey is paired with water and light. I find, however, that Lucan conveys more than this distinction: one need only remember Caesar’s “battle” with the waves in book 5 or Pompey’s characterization as magni nominis umbra. R. also neglects to discuss the historical background of such major figures as Caesar, Pompey or Cato, and how the poet alters them (or not).

The fourth chapter’s intention, according to R., is to document the conclusions of the previous chapters. His discussion of individual books is thorough, with support from other historians (Cassius Dio, Caesar, and others), resulting in more than 350 pages. I commend this chapter for its succinct analyses of several episodes in terms of a comparative examination with other historical sources. I believe that R.’s analysis of book 4 sheds light on many aspects of the interesting and complicated narrative of the events in Spain and Africa overlooked by many scholars in the past. This chapter, however, often repeats remarks and conclusions from chapters 1-3 without any added information. In the following three paragraphs, I focus on some remarks I deem open to further discussion.

In book 1, R. does not believe in any hidden criticism in the praise of Nero and asserts that the laudatory introduction may have had a precedent in Livy’s praise of Augustus in the civil war books, a similarity which cannot be proven. In book 3, R. rightly recognizes the differences between Lucan’s and Caesar’s topographical description of Massilia; without Livy’s account, however, it is difficult to ascribe Lucan’s alterations to the historian, his “source.” R. rejects any metapoetic connotations in Caesar’s cutting of the grove, without much explanation, although the word silva has long been recognized as a key term for a poet’s discussion of poetics. I am also not persuaded by R.’s interpretation of Appius’ visit to Phoemonoe in book 5. The author maintains that it betrays the increased interest of Lucan’s times in the occult and discards any metapoetical aspects.

In book 7, R. discusses one of the passages where we have direct evidence of Livy’s account from Plutarch. Before the battle at Pharsalus, Lucan goes through the omens and prodigia that occurred throughout the world, prefiguring the upcoming catastrophe. Plutarch ( Caes. 47.3-6) copies Livy’s report that a certain Gaius Cornelius, fellow-citizen of the historian himself, interpreted an omen as favorable to Caesar and with enthusiasm cried out, “Caesar, you win.” Lucan changes the story a little with a typical twist. He casts doubt on his source by saying si vera fides memorantibus (7.192) and then limits the anonymous augur’s pronouncement only to the importance of the day when the impia arma of both Caesar and Pompey meet. The augur says nothing about the upcoming victory of Caesar, thus undermining the importance of Caesar’s success. (According to Lucan, it does not matter who the ultimate winner may be, since the Republic will perish anyway.) I think that this is an indication of Lucan’s adaptation and alteration of the Livian account— and here we have the luxury of comparing the two passages.

For books 8 and 9, in the relevant episodes concerning Pompey’s death in Egypt, R. maintains that Lucan may have had in mind Germanicus’ death. To judge from the similarities between Tacitus and Lucan, it is uncertain whether Lucan has in mind a great episode of imperial history or whether Tacitus cast his description of Germanicus’ death and its aftermath in epic form (and Lucan seems to be much liked by the later historian).

The final, brief chapter ( Der Erzähler und der Autor) attempts an interpretation of the poem’s goal. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the study; had the author chosen to expand on the role of the narrator and the author earlier, the aim of the chapter might have been clearer. The problem of the author’s voice requires more analysis than is allowed in this small chapter, and more discussion of recent approaches (e.g. Henderson, Bartsch, Narducci). Notwithstanding the influence of the rhetorical schools, which is emphasized by R., I don’t see how Livy fits in this analysis. As it stands, R. maintains that the poem is divided into two parts: books 1-3 constitute the section of the poem where Lucan is not preoccupied with (imperial) politics, whereas the remaining are the so-called “political books” (4-10). Again, I believe that the poem does not fit the norm, nor can we say that all of a sudden in book 4 Lucan becomes involved in the political hic et nunc of his times.

In sum, the book’s strength lies in the close reading of the poem and its interesting insights on individual episodes, coupled with a well researched and detailed analysis. Though the biggest problem remains the lack of Livy’s account, I recommend this book as a good reference guide into Lucan’s historical sources, a valuable addition to the library of any lover of Lucan’s poem.7


1. German dissertations of the 19th century are often assumed to be the authoritative word on the subject, when, as is the case here, Baier’s De Livio Lucani in carmine de belli civili auctore needed to be re-examined.

2. M.P.O. Morford, The poet Lucan. Studies in Rhetorical Epic, Oxford 1967; W.D. Lebek, Lucans Pharsalia. Dichtungsstruktur und Zeitbezug, Göttingen 1976; E. Narducci, Lucano. Un’epica contro l’ impero, Florence 2002.

3. Among others, J. Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile, Cambridge 1992; S. Bartsch, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War, Harvard 1997; or J. Henderson’s article “The Word at War,” Ramus 16 (1987), 122-64.

4. Pace Masters, R. opposes the view that Lucan’s poem is set up as a counter-account to Caesar’s version. See lengthy note 3 on pp. 29-30.

5. Unfortunately the Periochae for these books are only a few lines long each.

6. R.’s division of odd numbered books into three units and of even numbered books into two units does not seem to work in all cases. In book 4, for instance, there is an obvious problem with R.’s division of the book into two major units consisting of the events related to the Pompeians and the defeat of the Caesarian forces. The book may as well be divided into three major parts: the events at Ilerda, in Illyria, and in Africa.

7. In many places, readers will feel the need to have Livy’s Periochae in front of them, and it would have been profitable if R. had provided these passages for comparison’s sake. I would like to observe that the Greek and Latin passages are overall free of typos, with a few exceptions. For instance, on p. 217 Σιμοέντι instead of Σιμόεντι, ἀύσας instead of ἀΰσας, and ἐμπίμπληθι instead of ἐμπίπληθι. On page 327 ἔφασκον has a final sigma in the middle of the word. Also, on p. 512 (line 7), in the German er instead of der. On p. 522, the title of Baier’s work is misspelled, belli instead of bello.