BMCR 2005.09.71

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, Bellum Civile, liber IX. I: Einleitung, Text und Übersetzung; II: Kommentar

, , Bellum civile. Liber IX. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 201-202. München-Leipzig: Saur, 2004. 2 volumes : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3598778139. €96.00 (vol. II).

Despite the publicity Lucan has enjoyed recently which has produced a revival in current studies, a commentary on book nine was long overdue and many questions were still far from being resolved. Lucan’s poetry, so modern in its exaggeration, so talented in its superabundance, still questions and fascinates its readers. In particular, Cato, who is one of the three main characters of the Bellum Civile and plays quite a predominant role in this book, had been the object of different and often divergent interpretations. Has he to be considered the true embodiment of the Stoic sage or a mere figure of ridicule? And how should the long baroque passage in which Lucan displays his skill dealing with the ‘meridian daemon’ of the desert, sand storms, venomous snakes, poisonous monsters, and atrocious sufferings be interpreted?

Scholars have already shown their concerns for individual passages in book nine, and in 2001 Christian Ratschle published a partial commentary on the snakes’ episode (Frankfurt am Main). Wick’s two-volumes work represents now a fundamental advance and fills in a gap in Lucan studies. It offers a complete German translation, followed by an extensive commentary and meticulous indices, of Lucan’s book nine. A thorough introduction is provided as well. The author is acquainted with both bibliographical sources and primary literature: moreover, her experience as a researcher at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae in Munich is evidenced by the extensive use of comparable parallel passages and by the numerous notes concerning lexical and grammatical peculiarities. Wick’s commentary is full of details and erudition. Here and there it contains superabundant comments, and in some points can be blamed for pedantry (for example, was it really necessary to quote at length and almost verbatim substantial parts of Housman’s astrological appendix concerning lines 531 ff., instead of a simple reference to it?). However, this book is a solid work, focused and coherent, and, therefore, deserves our praise. Its structure is strictly traditional and, for this reason, may not suit the tastes of some recent Lucanian scholarship. In fact, modern abstruse readings of Lucan are here ignored: they are mentioned in the bibliographical section, but only occasionally discussed in the commentary.

Notwithstanding her main interest in primary sources (which should be praised, for nowadays it remains too often a desideratum among classicists), Wick provides also a critical discussion of recent — and less recent — bibliography, including the old editions and commentaries from the seventeenth century onwards. I would like to add just a brief remark about two entries in Italian secondary literature, which is otherwise extensively cited: Gian Biagio Conte’s commentary on the episode of Scaeva in book six is still cited according to the first edition (Pisa 1974), even though there is a second enlarged one (Urbino 1988), with an introductory section reprinting some Lucanian articles by Conte himself, and some changes in the commentary. It seems strange that Wick does not mention either Emanuele Narducci’s book La provvidenza crudele (Pisa 1979), which, at least in Italy, had a certain fame and in some respects moulded Italian scholarship on the Cordovan poet, or his more recent one Lucano. Un’epica contro l’impero, Rome and Bari 2002 (but perhaps Wick had not the time to insert it in her final manuscript). It is a pity that Wick does not know this book, because her interpretation is often coincident (see for example the passage when Cato firmly refuses to drink [lines 498 ff.]; on the other hand, for the philosophical digression at the beginning she makes extensively use of a paper by Narducci [MH 2001], afterwards reprinted in his book).

In fact, Wick cautiously rejects any recent hazardous interpretations according to which Cato is a grotesque or caricatured character. She also denies any allegorical or even ‘poetological’ sense in her reading of the snakes’ episode, even though her criticism of Morford, whom she charges with being the initiator of this scholarly trend, seems too severe (see p. 315, but also, in a different context, 169). On the contrary, the only concession made to a more modern approach is in dealing with the myth of Medusa, for whose interpretation Wick relies on a well known article by Elaine Fantham (MD 1992), even though with some nuances. Generally speaking, I’m inclined to agree with Wick’s analysis, which is perceptive and insightful (besides her global evaluation of the snakes’ episode, see e.g. her exegesis of l. 817, in opposition to a questionable one by Hunink).

The introductory section deals with the contents of book nine, which are illuminated and discussed by constant reference to historical sources (Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio), according to a profitable tendency which has been developed by another German scholar in a recent meticulous monograph about Lucan’s poem and the historical background of the Civil War (J. Radicke, Lucans poetische Technik. Studien zum historischen Epos, Leiden 2004). Furthermore, it provides an articulated examination of the narrative structure of the book, outlining its various constitutive nuclei and sequences: they are well individuated and clearly evidenced already in the general index of the two volumes. The final part of the introduction takes into account Lucan’s literary models or poetical sources of inspiration, ranging from epic to didascalic poetry and in some passages recalling elegy as well. Besides this introduction, volume one contains the translation (which, as far as I can judge the German style, is precise and accurate), a selected bibliography, and a series of valuable indices. These are helpful for readers interested in particular questions, because they permit a swift consultation of the commentary.

The commentary, contained in volume two, is quite rich and exhaustive (sometimes, however, far too detailed). All the questions arising from a difficult or obscure text are always extensively discussed. Particular attention is paid to the skilful versification by outlining its rhetorical features or lexical nuances. Furthermore, Wick is at ease in dealing with textual problems. She is very clear and honest in her exposition, so that, if, as sometimes happens, one cannot agree with her choices, nevertheless one is forced to reflect and reconsider the status quaestionis : see for example at l. 454. While at l. 402 (passed over silence in the commentary) I think that the reading ardor harenae (nom. + genit.), already accepted by Housman and other scholars, is better than Wick’s suggestion, ardor, harenae (two nominatives). Some of her readings are clear and convincing (see ll. 777-780).

I also appreciated her presentation of Lucan’s imitators: not only the larger sections in which entire passages are object of comparison, but also minor suggestions scattered here and there in the notes. In particular, I found useful the references to Statius (in his homage to Lucan [p. 8]), Silius (mainly due to the African background), Tacitus (the storm [p. 119] or Lucan’s last words [p. 345]), and also to some late antique authors (Claudian [see p. 384], Dracontius, and Corippus). A deeper inquiry into Lucan’s Nachleben in the imperial age and late antiquity is still badly needed and therefore Wick’s evidence is welcome. As far as Corippus is concerned, however, Wick’s suggestion that the salient episodes of the Trojan war recalled at the beginning of the Iohannis were based on the famous passage of Ceasar visiting the ruins of Troy (see p. 406), is tempting, but, ultimately, not entirely convincing. I think more probable that Corippus drew on the Aeneid itself or on a sort of geographic itinerary or a handbook, because the final aim of this Trojan section is indeed very different from Lucan’s. Of course, there is no doubt that Corippus knew and imitated Lucan in his epic/historical poem. Other passages from book nine can be added to the one recorded by Wick, namely, the description of the Syrtes, or the desert storm (in book one and six of the Iohannis respectively), not to mention the opening scene in book seven, which is based on Cornelia’s mourning for Pompey.

Besides the lemmas themselves, I found quite useful the introductions to each passage: in particular, the opening section dealing with the death and ‘apotheosis’ of Pompey, followed by Cato’s poignant tribute to his memory, a complex passage, which can be in some respects paralleled to Cicero’s Dream of Scipio or to Vergil’s philosophical account in Aeneid six about death and metempsychosis. The erudite digression on the Syrtes is carefully discussed as well, by outlining its Greek sources or the numerous echoes from both Ovid and Manilius (pp. 111 ff.), and by considering the ‘spectacular’ patterns in Cato’s march through the desert (pp. 143 ff.). Wick follows here a seminal paper by R. Thomas, in order to elucidate a sort of ‘allegorical’ reading of Lucan’s wasteland. Furthermore, the digression functions as a frame in which it is possible to encapsulate Cato’s portrait. Our understanding of Cato is illuminated by Lucan’s implicit synkrisis between him and Alexander the Great in their African voyage, ethnographic curiosity and consultation of Ammon’s temple: Wick is very attentive in evaluating all these features. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning here her discussion at pp. 119 ff. and 362 ff., which offers a comparison between the desert storm in Lucan and a famous passage in Tacitus dealing with a tempest in the North Sea ( Ann. 2,23). Wick is well aware of how the storm was a rhetorical locus, but she profitably links this passage to the imperial ‘rhetoric of conquests’ and, so to speak, to the hybris implied in surpassing a delimited boundary, by recalling a famous fragment of Albinovanus Pedo that probably inspired Lucan.

But the section in which Wick displays herself best is the famous and portentous passage of the snakes, where Realien and poetic licence often combine. From p. 277 onwards we are introduced to the weird secrets of many poisonous snakes, “l’aspide l’idra, il basilisco e quanto i libici deserti han di più fiero” (according to Da Ponte’s libretto for Così fan tutte, which was perhaps reminiscent of Lucan). Wick seems fascinated by this episode as well, and her discussion is extremely detailed. She constantly relies on ancient technical writers, like Nicander, Aelian or the less known Aelius Promotus, and Pliny, in order to suggest possible identifications of the different snakes. In addition, she produces a lot of scientific details and acknowledges her debt to an expert in herpetology. Nor is the lavish literary texture of this passage left aside: though Wick (in my opinion convincingly) rejects any over-interpretation of this passage, she offers very perceptive explanations, by highlighting mainly reminiscences of Ovid or Vergil, without forgetting the neoteric epyllion (in the Medusa scene). In particular, I would like to mention her note at p. 326, in which she underscores Lucan’s confrontation with Ovid in describing powerful metamorphoses — a perspective which reminded me of the visionary and grotesque episode in Dante’s Inferno, when the poet proudly rivals Ovid and Lucan in describing himself a metamorphosis into snakes (see at the beginning of canto 25: “Henceforth be silent Lucan, where he mentions / Wretched Sabellus and Nassidius, / And wait to hear what now shall be shot forth. / Be silent Ovid, of Cadmus and Arethusa; / For if him to a snake, her to fountain, / Converts he fabling, that I grudge him not; / Because two natures never front to front / Has he transmuted, so that both the forms / To interchange their matter ready were” — transl. Longfellow).

Among the exegetical notes, I limit myself to pointing out her persuasive elucidation of l. 714, according to which the obscure expression Thebanus ophites has to be understood as a kind of marble (‘serpentine’) rather than another snake. The erudite passage on the healer tribe of Psylli is object of a sensitive discussion too. The most influential suggestions on this passage, however, were recently put forward by O. Phillips, whom Wick follows for the most part.

Conversely, the final section (Caesar in Troy, or Caesar in Alexandria) looks weaker and less original, though some good hints are not lacking, such as the discussion of the very last lines, when Caesar is offered the head of Pompey and bursts into (simulated) tears. Wick convincingly underlines a sort of theatrical grandeur in this Alexandrian passage, which, of course, can be linked to declamatory praxis and to rhetorical influence, so prominent elsewhere in Lucan’s talented poetry. On the contrary, her discussion of the Trojan passage seems somehow a compilation, albeit she underlines well the two motifs of ruin-poetry and the suggestions inspired by the landscape of Troy. At the same time she is very conservative in her global interpretation of this passage (see p. 404: I’m not entirely convinced by her objections against Andreola Rossi) and of the ‘metadiegetic’ intervention of the poet. As far as the vexatissima quaestio of the title is concerned, Wick sharply rejects the hypothesis that Pharsalia can be considered as an alternative title. Nonetheless, I think that her criticism ought to be nuanced (for example attaching more importance to the European intellectual tradition of Dante and Scaliger among others).

As I already said, the commentary is very rich and needs perhaps to be shortened rather than increased with further hints. However, if some criticism can be made, the historical notes sometimes disclose a certain neglect for such problems, despite the constant reference to ancient sources. For example, at l. 85, when mentioning Sextus, the young and degenerate son of Pompey, Wick should perhaps have mentioned the classic works by R. Syme or M. Hadas, or more recent approaches such as those by M. H. Dettenhofer, ( Perdita iuventus, München 1992), and A. Powell and K. Welch. The same can be said for king Iuba and African tribes like the Nasamones and Garamantes: Wick’s notes ought to be supplemented with secondary literature, such as the Catalogue of African tribes by J. Desanges (Dakar 1962) and now by A. Luisi ( Popoli dell’Africa mediterranea in età romana, Bari 1994). Finally, book nine offers an interesting religio-historical perspective as well, insofar as the poet deals at length with the shrine and the worship of Ammon and mentions also Isis and other Egyptian gods. In her notes (pp. 58 ff., or p. 199), Wick is perhaps less interested in drawing attention to this aspect, for she omits to mention some basic inquiries on so important a god (e.g. those by A.B. Cook and H.W. Parke, or more recent works by E. Lipinski or A.M. Bisi).

Finally, in the following I add some brief remarks about single passages which I did not find entirely convincing, though they do not in any way impugn my general appraisal of the work. At times, Wick’s interpretation sounds sometimes far-fetched: see, e.g., lines 51 ( frustra), 86 ( condita cura), 268 ( Ptolemaei munus et arma), 474, 639 (it is not necessary to recall the Stoic idea of death as a separation between soul and body); 819 ( veloci … leto); 907 (the prophecy of Isaiah 11,8 has a rather different meaning, as Wick herself states, so it seems unnecessary to quote it). The opposition gener / socer in order to describe the relationship between Pompey and Caesar (cf. l. 135), regularly employed by Lucan, is already in Catullus ( carm. 29): it is strange that Wick does not mention this passage, which is a very famous one indeed. In discussing the laudatio funebris and its rhetoric background (see p. 67), Vergil’s eulogy of Marcellus with the seminal notes by Norden in his still outstanding commentary are worth being cited. A last comment: the Acts of the Apostles cannot be counted among the Septuaginta, as it is in l. 337.