BMCR 2015.01.19

War, Liberty, and Caesar: Responses to Lucan’s ‘Bellum Ciuile’, ca. 1580-1650. Classical presences

, War, Liberty, and Caesar: Responses to Lucan’s 'Bellum Ciuile', ca. 1580-1650. Classical presences. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xii, 338. ISBN 9780199602988. $150.00.


This book is about the uses of Lucan in English political culture between (roughly) 1580 and 1650. Paleit’s understanding of ‘political culture’ is a broad one: it encompasses the writing of poems and plays alongside other kinds of historical event, such as wars, trials, and parliamentary debates. Literary sources include works by canonical authors such as Marlowe, Jonson and Samuel Daniel, as well as lesser-known figures who are nonetheless central to the reception of Lucan, such as Thomas May and Arthur Gorges. Such texts receive most of Paleit’s attention, but they are treated as political speech-acts or narratives, not as self-sufficient works of art or repositories of timeless values.

The horizon for his study is around 1650, when a rigid neoclassicism, eventually joined by Restoration moves to establish political uniformity and quiescence, begins to charge Lucan with stylistic excess and political subversion. This neoclassicism displaces the ‘humanist’ outlook of the earlier period, in which a variety of approaches to Lucan were available to readers and authors, and the Bellum Civile was widely read and esteemed. Keeping within this seventy-year moment, Paleit does observe a rough chronology, but he does not offer a sequential narrative that connects all of his texts, authors and events together, or explain in detail why neoclassicism displaced humanism. Nor does he quarantine his sources according to genre, author, or medium. The results of this miscegenation are largely positive, especially since it encourages readers to pay close attention to Paleit’s overarching arguments. This review continues in the same vein, discussing each of those arguments in turn, rather than dismembering them artificially by taking individual chapters or sources in isolation. I take Paleit to advance two particularly important theses. The first is about the range of political ideas which were read into Lucan’s poem. The second is about the importance to politics not of ideas, but of experience and emotions.

Firstly, Paleit decouples the author from the republican paradigm that has preoccupied some scholars. Thus Paleit circumscribes Patrick Collinson’s influential formulation of the Elizabethan ‘monarchical republic’ by showing that many readers of Lucan failed to conceive of his Romans, or themselves, as ‘citizens’ as well as ‘subjects’ (p. 181). Equally, neither parliamentarians in the 1620s nor more dedicated students of Lucan, such as Thomas May, articulated any notion of liberty as an abstract good, defined by opposition to slavery: Quentin Skinner’s ‘neo-Roman’ or ‘republican’ liberty will not explain such figures’ interest in the poet (p. 226).

Paleit is also able to show where ‘republican’ readings of Lucan’s influence are constructs of the later seventeenth century, as well as modern scholarship. Andrew Marvell’s poem on ‘Tom May’s Death’ retrojected contemporary republicanism onto May’s early work in order to discredit him (p. 223). The same goes for more favourable or non-committal accounts of May’s alleged ‘republicanism’, such as those of Marchamont Nedham and John Aubrey (p. 253): such readings cannot help us to map the political terrain of the decades before 1640.

The effect is not to depoliticise Lucan, but to recover alternative political models from the text’s reception. Perhaps most originally, Paleit identifies a ‘Caesarist’ reception of Lucan, in which readers were captivated above all by ‘the appealing energy of Lucan’s Caesar’ (p. 95). Among them was Christopher Marlowe: in Marlowe’s version of Lucan’s first book, the love of Caesar’s followers for their charismatic leader trumps their obligations to the Roman state or to any abstract rule of law (pp. 102-3). Paleit here lends his voice, and Marlowe’s, to a debate about Lucan’s characterisation of Caesar and the political outlook it implies, seeking to provoke classical scholars of Lucan as well as early modernists (pp. 94-5, n. 8).

Paleit juxtaposes the ‘Caesarist’ reading with another model which will be familiar to students of seventeenth-century English political thought: the ‘ancient-constitutionalist’ Lucan. The ancient constitution of the Romans and English alike consists of specific individual liberties and the laws that underwrite them, rather than of a single, abstract ideal of republican liberty; and it ‘compels obedience by the authority of its ancient mystique’ (p. 176). These two models are joined by various others that often mingle in a single author or text: a ‘martialist’ reading influenced by Renaissance commentators on Roman history such as Machiavelli and Lipsius, and concerned principally with the amoral pursuit of political and military supremacy; an aristocratic reading, in which Roman senators embody neo-Spenserian chivalry and a robust independence from their head of state—or tyrant; a critique of courtly politicking and subterfuge; and a providential or fatalist model, bearing the influence of Protestantism and Stoicism.

In stressing the variety of responses to Lucan, Paleit thwarts attempts to yoke the Bellum Civile to any single early modern tradition of political thought. Renaissance habits of using ancient texts were too open-ended, bold, inconsistent or arbitrary to produce a monolithic reading of the poem, and it was too widely read to become associated with a particular faction, coterie, or type of reader. Here, Paleit makes common cause with other studies in the history of reading.1 Unfortunately, Paleit’s two opening chapters on ‘Contexts of Reading’ suffer from their overlap with such studies, repeating points about humanist pedagogy and scholarship which other scholars have made in greater detail.

This should not detract from the work Paleit has done in uncovering the variety of early modern Lucans that existed within the domain of political thought. However, Paleit is reluctant to present his reception history as one of ‘thought’ alone, and this is where he makes his most important contribution, beginning to identify what was distinctively Lucanic in early modern literary and political culture.

Lucan mattered to early modern readers and authors because of what he had to say about imagination, the passions, and the felt experience of politics, not because he articulated a crystallised political agenda based on a systematic, consistent interpretation of Roman history. He recounted the events of Roman history, and the ideals of Roman politics, in an ‘affective and experiential, rather than determinate or definitional’ way (p. 23). His work dealt in ‘political experience’ (p. 22) and lent itself to ‘structures of feeling’ (p. 23), involving ‘nostalgia’, ‘grief’, or ‘rapture’.

This perspective makes Paleit’s study impressively flexible. He is able to show how readers could use Lucan to produce a specific political-theoretical synthesis, whether republican or not; but also to show where theory was displaced by circumstance and affect, or reinvented by imaginative speculation. This is embodied by the charisma of Lucan’s Caesar, which manifests itself at a famous moment in English political history: the Essex rebellion. A scholar serving as Essex’s secretary, Henry Cuffe, had allegedly tried to enlist Sir Henry Neville as a conspirator by quoting to him the famous lines of Caesar ( Bellum Civile 1.349-50): arma tenenti/omnia dat qui iusta negat. Reading this citation alongside Marlowe and others’ treatments of Caesar as ‘a focus for frustration, fear, and fantasy’ who ‘tried to take control of his own and his country’s destiny by a deliberately transgressive, and inspiring, appeal to violence’ (pp. 126-7), Paleit is able to bring out the affective dimension of the rebellion: it was an impassioned leap of military-political faith, rather than the implementation of a high-minded notion of liberty.

However, the only witness for Henry Cuffe’s citation of Lucan was Henry Neville himself, an Essex sympathiser who had tried to flee to France after the events of February 8, 1601. Neville had a clear interest in blaming Cuffe, and more evidence is needed to show that this anecdote is a fair historical report of Essex’s or Cuffe’s intentions, rather than a retrospective, tendentious colouring of the so-called ‘rebellion’. This is not to disagree with Paleit’s claim that the basis for political action or discourse can be emotional as well as intellectual. It is simply to warn that modern scholars generally have to content themselves with representations of emotions, rather than the real thing.

Nonetheless, Paleit has shown us that Lucan’s poem played a part in a highly politicised language game of passion, imagination, and transgression. He has gone some distance towards uncovering the rules of that game, its players, and its various outcomes in early modern political culture. Readers will wish that he had spent more time doing so, and less time rehearsing commonplaces about humanism and the classics. Admittedly, these commonplaces are accompanied by important new accounts of neglected or maligned figures in Lucan’s reception, such as Thomas Farnaby; but the author’s care in tracing Lucan’s dissemination sometimes inhibits him from making more substantial methodological contributions.

For instance, the ideas of ‘political experience’ and ‘structures of feeling’ are inherited from Michael Oakeshott and Raymond Williams, respectively: two thinkers one hardly expects to find on the same side of an argument. This incongruity ought to be addressed. Moreover, Williams’ ‘structures of feeling’ seem to resist easy accommodation to the category of emotion. The question of how far Paleit is following or departing from Williams needs to be treated more explicitly, and Paleit’s own theories deserve more space to breathe. This is equally true of his engagement with the work of David Norbrook on literary republicanism. Although Paleit successfully nuances some of Norbrook’s more problematic associations of Lucan with a republican politics, he might have concentrated more on developing the broader argument which he shares with Norbrook: that histories of political thought should make more room both for the affective and the imaginative or creative aspects of seventeenth-century political language, especially in moments of crisis or uncertainty when ‘the political horizon was bafflingly open’.2

This reflects a general problem with classical reception as a framework for understanding a given post-classical phenomenon, or for promoting grander historiographical interventions across more than one discipline. It is as if a splendid book about the affective aspects of political theory and rhetoric were doing battle with a thorough, accurate and judicious survey of the early modern English Lucan: nec quemquam iam ferre potest Caesarve priorem/Pompeiusve parem. In any case, readers will enjoy watching this internal conflict play out both in this book and, hopefully, in future work by its author.

The book is generally accurate and well presented, with few slips or errors. Famae ( Bellum Civile 3.300) is surely better translated as ‘[Caesar’s] reputation’ than ‘rumour’ (p. 116); libertas at 2.145-6, Tunc data libertas odiis, resolutaque legum/Frenis ira ruit probably confounds the assertion that for Lucan, ‘liberty is…never undesirable’ — Duff’s Loeb translation reads ‘licence was granted then to private hatred’, more persuasively than Paleit’s ‘liberty was surrendered to hatreds’ (p. 183); the famous lines cited as 8.207-13 are actually 7.207-13 (p. 193, n. 139); pronieris (p. 202, n. 181) should surely read pronioris; and Camerarius’s dissertation on Lucan is cited in the bibliography as his προλεγόμηνα [ sic ] διδασκλικά [ sic ] (p. 314, though the title is transliterated correctly on p. 46).


1. Freyja Cox Jensen, Reading the Roman Republic in Early Modern England (Leiden: Brill, 2012), esp. p. 12: ‘the reception of Roman history cannot easily be systematised’.

2. David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics, 1627-1660 (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 15.