BMCR 2007.08.44

Feeling History. Lucan, Stoicism, and the Poetics of Passion

, Feeling history : Lucan, stoicism, and the poetics of passion. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2007. xii, 259 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780814210437 $59.95.

Table of Contents

Francesca D’Alessandro Behr [D.] has produced an excellent and thought-provoking study of the figure of apostrophe and its many implications in Lucan’s De Bello Civili. New scholarship on the poem will now need to take account of D.’s examination of the narrator’s voice in Lucan. Her basic thesis is that Lucan’s narrator intervenes in his own narrative, at the expense of the reader’s immersion, in order to guide his audience’s interpretation of the events he is recounting. D.’s book culminates in the example of Cato and so, she argues, does Lucan’s own narrative project: he is the positive embodiment of Lucan’s lessons. In many respects, Feeling History marks a further movement away from the deconstructionist conception of Lucan’s poetic project.1 Indeed, a fundamental assumption underlying the study is Lucan’s sincerity and didacticism. That is, he is writing to improve his audience. This may not convince all readers of the poem; indeed, her Lucan seems at times uncomfortably earnest, but D. makes a case that is well-supported by an equally admirable command of the philosophical, rhetorical, and poetic material relevant to her thesis. She confines her discussion to the apostrophe of characters in the narrative, and this is understandable; but there are significant and relatively frequent apostrophes addressed to abstractions and cities (as she notes at p. 179 n. 2) that may have been difficult to fit into the parameters of her argument. Perhaps the most significant apostrophe of all in the poem, that of the narrator to Nero at BC 1.45-66, remains undiscussed: how does this passage operate within the thesis of D.’s book?

Early in the book, D. lines up Lucan’s participation in the Pisonian conspiracy with the message he is imparting in De Bello Civili (p. 14-5),2 which can be reduced to an unending fight against tyranny at any cost and regardless of fate (p. 163). This message in ideological terms leaves for dead the practical intentions of the Pisonian conspirators themselves, who aimed merely to replace one autocrat with another of their own choosing. It would seem, then, that “Lucan’s resistance to political and spiritual enslavement” (p. 170) was predicated upon who was doing the enslaving. Also, Lucan’s narrator allows only one interpretation of the events he describes. This forceful imposition of his own point of view upon his readers seems to me to be something different to the celebration of independent critical evaluation that D. frequently attributes to Lucan (e.g. p. 45, 53, 60, 68 etc). If given the choice, it seems likely that D.’s Lucan would prefer anti-Caesarians (however we take Lucan’s conception of this term) who have appropriated his own point of view to even independent thinkers who may wind up on the wrong side of his preferred ideology.

The introduction clearly marks the parameters of the study and promises “. . . an inquiry into the ethical implications of Lucan’s adoption of a persuasively eloquent persona” (p. 3). Chapter 1 examines the figure of apostrophe in Vergil’s Aeneid. D. commences with preliminary observations on its use in Vergil, who deploys it to establish sympathy with his characters. His use of apostrophe is broadly divisible into “providential” and “dissenting” apostrophes. In the former mode his narrator apostrophises certain characters (e.g. Nisus and Euryalus, Pallas, and Turnus) as though cognisant of the future, and he contextualises individual suffering against the long historical view of imperium. In the latter mode he addresses others (e.g., Icarus, Juturna, and Dido) as though ignorant of the divine teleology of his plot and the foundational significance of his narrative, and he questions the workings of fate from the same point of view as the characters he addresses. Neutrality is largely observed in Vergil through his sparing use of apostrophe. The contrast in Lucan is promised through the “unusual” task he takes on of “giving voice to the defeated” (p. 31) and in his rejection of closure in the kind of beautification of death found in the Augustan epic. This chapter will form the comparandum for the chapters that follow and as such it succeeds in offering one context for understanding what is happening in De Bello Civili. The absence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a point of comparison here or anywhere in the book is to be lamented sorely. The task of giving voice to the defeated is only unusual (in the sense that D. suggests) against the fragmentary backdrop of pre-Vergilian epic. Also, I missed Jonathan Culler’s work on apostrophe here and throughout. There are nuances in his analysis that could have contributed significant dimensions to D.’s thesis. Consider, for example, Culler’s definition of the figure itself:

. . . to apostrophize is to will a state of affairs, to attempt to call it into being by asking inanimate objects to bend themselves to your desire. In these terms the function of the apostrophe would be to make the objects of the universe potentially responsive forces: forces which can be asked to act or refrain from acting . . . 3

Chapter 2 looks at how Lucan’s narrator addresses characters with whom he disagrees. The fundamental dynamic at work here is the semantic reclamation of the politically-charged vocabulary (e.g. virtus, pietas, and clementia) deployed by Caesarians, such as Vulteius, Scaeva, Crastinus, Petreius, and Caesar himself. Lucan’s narrator intervenes to guide the audience’s reception to the illusion of fiction and asserts a corrected point of view. This is a strong chapter in her argument, and D. is excellent on Caesar’s claim upon clemency ( BC 9.1097-1102); especially so on the varying nuances of complexus, which could almost be emblematic of the nefarious loosening-up of signifiers and their signifieds under empire. Similarly effective is her discussion of Caesar’s soldiers’ internal reaction to his crocodile tears at BC 9.1104-8.

Chapter 3 provides the philosophical and theoretical scaffolding for D.’s reading of the poem. She promotes BC 7.210-13 as expressive of a fundamental goal of the poem: Lucan commits to evoking spes and metus in his readers through phantasia and enargeia. Pompey is promoted in Aristotelian terms (p. 82) as a tragic character for whom Lucan expresses benevolence and enthusiasm. However, Lucan breaks from Aristotelian tragic parameters in his commitment to interpret the significance of his narrative for his audience. In this he enacts a kind of Stoic poetics in which ethical judgement is to the fore, and in which the reader’s detached spectatorship and sympathy is sought rather than total immersion in the narrative. The formal means of achieving this goal are to be found in Lucan’s use of apostrophe: he “. . . destroys the illusion of the spectacle formally through his narrator and especially in his narrator’s use of apostrophe whose content . . . betrays an external frame of reference [sc. by which his readers might critically evaluate the ethical implications of his narrative]” (p. 104). This chapter succeeds well in contextualising the Stoic dimension of Lucan’s narrative techniques. However, to me, the section entitled SPES (p. 79-80) could have been omitted without loss. The analogy between Aen. 1.450-52 and Lucan’s poetic project seems superficial, not least because Aeneas is deluded in his interpretation of the images on the Temple of Juno, clearly a model D.’s Lucan would hope to avoid in his readers’ estimation of his text. Also, in this chapter I would have liked to have seen greater critical engagement with Marti’s notion of Pompey as a Stoic proficiens (p. 82, 87),4 which I think is much more problematic than presented here; it seems predetermined to a certain extent by the Stoic lens through which D. views the poem.

The last and longest of the four chapters deals with the figure of Cato. Here D. departs from the caricature of Johnson, the cold and passionless symbol of Marti and Hemmen, the overly rigid stoic of Leigh, and the boundary observer of Bartsch to promote an unambiguously positive characterisation:5 a Stoic sage and a counterpart to the narrator himself, since both wish to persuade their audiences to a better path through similar rhetorical strategies. The central paradox of D.’s Cato, her approach, and Lucan’s poem, is that the path to virtue equals the will to resist the fates. D.’s Cato has many nuances: a kind of Hercules Invictus; a kind of Scaevola; a sincere human being unwilling to hide the grim truth from his companions (unlike Vergil’s Aeneas); a personification of Stoic and republican conscience. For D., Lucan connects Cato’s sublimity to his humanity: he does not abandon the people for whom he feels affection; he is a sage who mourns, who does not reject the emotions, only the passions. This characterization stretches the usual conception of the sage in orthodox Stoicism, but D. insists that Cato’s emotions are both praiseworthy and reconcilable to Stoic thought. In a separate appendix she contextualises her argument against the backdrop of Roman philosophical eclecticism and middle stoicism as represented by Posidonius and Paenetius. Not all will warm to the notion of Lucan’s Cato as the poem’s ultimate rebel (p. 138), or a kind of good shepherd (p. 147); to me the marriage ceremony between Cato and Marcia at BC 2.350-91 seems to strike a discordant note amid this new humanity ascribed to Cato. The discussion of Cato’s mourning is outstanding.

I would recommend D.’s study to anyone interested in Lucan, epic poetry, or narrative studies in Classical literature. For students it is going to form a natural complement to Leigh’s study on spectacle and engagement in the poem, but also clearly to Sklenár’s book on ethics and uirtus in Lucan, despite the fact that these two books ultimately work towards radically different conclusions.6 D.’s book is a revised version of her doctoral thesis and some remnants from this species of writing remain, especially in its excessive, direct quotation of secondary literature. Quibbles at the level of the manuscript are minor and very few (on p. 47, “H.” is not an abbreviation for “Horatius”; on p. 65, “2.602-4” = “7.602-4”). Overall the presentation is clean and carefully executed.


1. As represented in e.g. J. Henderson, ‘Lucan/The Word at War’, Ramus 16 (1988) 122-64; J. Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile. (Cambridge, 1992).

2. Most prominently pursued at F. M. Ahl, Lucan: An Introduction (Ithaca, 1976) 44-5, 178 n. 48, 226, 306, 352-3.

3. J. Culler The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (London 1981; repr. 2001) 149-71.

4. B. Marti, ‘The Meaning of the Pharsalia,’ AJPh 66 (1945) 367-73.

5. R. W. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and his Heroes (Ithaca, 1987); Marti op. cit.; W. Hemmen, ‘Das Bild des M. Porcius Cato in der antiken Literatur’ (Diss. Göttingen, 1954); M. Leigh, Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement (Oxford, 1997); S. Bartsch, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War. (Harvard, 1997).

6. R. Sklenár, The Taste for Nothingness: A Study of Virtus and Related Themes in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (Ann Arbor, 2003).