BMCR 2013.03.23

Madness Triumphant: a Reading of Lucan’s Pharsalia

Lee Fratantuono, Madness Triumphant: a Reading of Lucan's Pharsalia. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. xxvii, 464. ISBN 9780739173145 $90.00.


This book is the final installment of Fratantuono’s trilogy of studies in Latin epic, which began with Madness Unchained. A Reading of Vergil’s Aeneid, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007) and continued with Madness Transformed: A Reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011). The format is the same in all three books: an introduction followed by a chapter on each individual book of the epic in question, in such a way that the whole epic is treated to the kind of explication de texte normally reserved for short lyric poems. All of these texts are rich enough to lend themselves to such an approach; in Fratantuono’s hands, this technique often yields striking insights, but at some cost to coherence.

The most prominent of these costs is the lack of a central argument, which makes it impossible to summarize the book’s chapters; this review will therefore confine itself to observations on salient features. In the first chapter, Fratantuono is excellent on the background to Lucan’s long proem, paying much more attention to Lucretius and Manilius than previous commentators have done. In chapter two, Fratantuono’s interpretation of the Cato-Brutus scene is unaccountably silent on Cato’s crucial line crimen erit superis et me fecisse nocentem (2.288). Chapter three convincingly presents the third book of the Bellum Civile as a systematic response to the third book of the Aeneid. In chapter four, Fratantuono notes that “Vulteius is mad, but he recognizes the insanity…the Stoic Vulteius, who admits he is insane as he counsels mass suicide” (158). This statement is unexceptionable, but one would have liked Fratantuono to pursue further the theme of the Stoic in an anti-Stoic universe: Vulteius’s insanity results from the observance of the Stoic maxim naturam sequi in an insane cosmos. Quite astute is Fratantuono’s comparison of the corpse of Curio (4.809-810) to that of Vergil’s Priam, and by extension to Pompey. His treatment of books 5 and 6 aligns Phemonoe with Vergil’s Sibyl and Erictho with Vergil’s Allecto in support of the thesis that Lucan intended the Bellum Civile to be in ten books; under this reading, Lucan’s fifth and sixth books correspond respectively to the sixth and seventh Aeneid, with the end of BC 5 marking the midpoint. Most of what Fratantuono has to say about the political, theological, and aesthetic implications of Lucan’s depiction of the battle of Pharsalia in book 7 has been said elsewhere, but his synthesis is useful. The most valuable contribution of chapter 8 is Fratantuono’s treatment of the contrasting depictions of the Lesbians and the Egyptians—the former exhibiting traditional xenia in their treatment of Pompey, the latter going to the opposite extreme by treacherously murdering him—as a structuring principle of book 8. Chapter nine interestingly suggests that the famous snakes are “an explosion of hyper libertas —these snakes have no king save their individual selves” (376), and compares it to Lucan’s apostrophe o bona libertas in the final line of book 9 (1108), which with Lucan’s characteristically bitter irony designates the “freedom” of Caesar’s men to share his feigned grief at the death and mutilation of Pompey. The final chapter is notable for a fine interpretation of the discourse of Acoreus (10.194-331) as “a challenge to Caesar, but also…a revelation of his failure” (416), and concludes with the observation that, at the end of book 10, Scaeva embodies the furor that is a defining feature of Roman identity (437).

For all the merits of its individual insights, the book is not free from perversity and carelessness. Fratantuono advances the provocative thesis that Lucan’s ten books are a conscious doubling of the five books of Manilius (x, xix), and further asserts that “Manilius is everywhere” (1). The scholarship on Lucan has thus far not made nearly enough of the Bellum Civile as a response to the Astronomica, and this reviewer must candidly acknowledge his own complicity in the neglect of Manilius, for surely the poet of anti-Stoic chaos employs Stoic language and argumentative structures in order to refute the poet of Stoic cosmological order. But if in fact Manilius influences Lucan to the degree that Fratantuono assumes, then the Bellum Civile is the culmination not of a trilogy, but of a tetralogy, and at the very least problematizes the “Madness” template which Fratantuono imposes upon Vergil, Ovid, and Lucan. As to carelessness: Fratantuono states that “the first word of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was innova, ‘make new’” (1). This reading would yield, for the opening of the Metamorphoses, the unmetrical innova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora, with innova as the singular imperative of innovare. In sum, this book contains both gold and pyrite in such measures that it excessively presumes upon its intended audience to distinguish one from the other.