BMCR 2020.05.19

Lucan. De Bello Civili. Book VII

P. A. Roche, Lucan. De Bello Civili. Book VII. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. viii, 284 p.. ISBN 9781107614451 $31.99 (pb).


It has been nearly a century since J. D. Duff wrote in the introduction to his 1928 Loeb edition of the Pharsalia that “[n]o reasonable judgment can rank Lucan among the world’s great epic poets. He does not tell his story well: the successive episodes are neither skillfully connected nor well proportioned.”[1] Duff’s translation remains in print and still stands as the entry point into this epic for many readers. But appreciation for Lucan as one of “the world’s great epic poets” has shifted dramatically in the past few decades, with the number of monographs, commentaries, journal articles, and edited volumes on Lucan growing steadily since the 1970s. We might optimistically say that now, some 300 years after the Pharsalia’s last major spike in popularity, we have entered a new aetas lucanea.[2]

Duff’s critique of Lucan’s storytelling abilities has aged particularly poorly, and one element of the Pharsalia that recent scholars have emphasized is the centrality in its design of the Battle of Pharsalus, and thus the centrality of Book 7, which narrates the day of the battle and aims to convey the consequences of Caesar’s victory there. And so it is most welcome and indeed important that Paul Roche has produced this commentary on the book including what he calls the “central extravaganza” (16) of the work. Given that the most recent commentary in English on Book 7 was published in 1960,[3]there was a great need for this book. The commentary is thorough and measured, offering assistance and insight to readers with a variety of backgrounds and interests, and taking into account much of the scholarship on the poem that has blossomed of late. Many will be familiar with Roche’s 2009 commentary on Book 1, published by Oxford University Press. This “sequel” is a fitting companion to the earlier commentary and will prove to be just as useful for readers of Lucan and of Latin literature.

Roche’s rich but not unwieldy Introduction (pp. 1–30) offers perceptive treatments of the content of Book 7 and of many of its most common stylistic features. Here Roche is particularly strong on Lucan’s characterizations of Pompey and Caesar, his deployment of delay and spectacle, and his distinctive uses of paradox, hyperbole, apostrophe, and extraordinary diction. The discussion of these and other matters in the Introduction prepares the reader for Roche’s recurrent attention to them in the commentary that follows. The section on “Sources, Models, Intertexts” is made up of subsections on Caesar, Livy, Virgil (including some consideration of Homeric models), and the younger Seneca. These authors, to be sure, are of great importance to Lucan; but it is worth emphasizing how broad and varied an intertextual palette the poet had to hand. As Roche’s commentary indeed shows in numerous spots, the language and themes of authors such as Ennius, Lucretius, Horace, and Ovid also come to bear in significant ways on Lucan’s crafting of his epic.

A brief consideration of the range of discussions and insights in the commentary on 7.385–459, the narrator’s extended reflection on the consequences of the Battle of Pharsalus, will serve here to demonstrate Roche’s skill and balance as a commentator, and in turn the usefulness of this commentary to a wide range of readers. For example, in his overview of the passage (pp. 159–60), Roche addresses the poet’s use of narrative delay in Book 7 (an element of the poem that Jamie Masters influentially emphasized) and is also sensitive to the multiple temporal viewpoints offered on the battle and its consequences (a feature underscored by Matthew Leigh).[4] Later (p. 163, on 7.395–6), Roche includes a detailed but concise historical note on the Feriae Latinae, the festival held at the sanctuary of Jupiter Latiaris, whose fall into idleness Lucan comes back to several times in the poem; soon afterwards Roche turns to offer a deft reading of the Horatian and Ovidian language that Lucan employs at 7.397–8. At the end of the passage (p. 175, on 7.459), Roche makes the astute note that in Lucan’s poem the noun umbra “frequently denotes empty forms,” an observation that is characteristic of his attentiveness to Lucan’s jarring dictional moves (see also, e.g., p. 25 on his use of the prosaic noun cadauer “for shock-value”; and p. 129 on the poet’s unique use in 7.249 of the verb prosilire, meaning “to leap forward,” of one’s state of mind). Alongside such comments on narrative strategy, historical matters, and stylistics, Roche is also excellent at the not easy task of helping the reader sort through Lucan’s often sticky grammar and syntax. In 7.385–459 I note, for example, how he unpacks the concision in 7.386 (p. 160), tips the reader off to the use of a concessive ut in 7.389 (p. 161), and cogently outlines the elaborate use of clauses in 7.412–19 (p. 166).

This commentary, then, will serve well those coming to Lucan at a number of stages of training, and with a wide range of interests. And it is worth emphasizing again the value of an expert commentary such as Roche’s for this particular book of the Pharsalia. Book 7, the main event of the poem, shows us Pompey in all his pitifulness, Caesar in all his rashness, the narrator in all his umbrage at Rome’s fall, and Lucan in all the fire and passion that Quintilian memorably attributed to him (Inst. 10.1.90: Lucanus ardens et concitatus). And just as Book 7 makes for must reading for those interested in entering the world of the Pharsalia, Roche’s commentary is essential accompaniment for readers heading on that venture.


[1] J. D. Duff, Lucan, The Civil War (Harvard University Press, 1928), xii.

[2] On the aetas lucanea of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, see Y. Maes, “Haec monstra Edidit: Translating Lucan in the Early Seventeenth Century,” in E. Buckley and M. Dinter, eds., A Companion to the Neronian Age (Wiley-Blackwell,2013), 405–24.

[3] O. A. W Dilke, Lucan De Bello Civili VII (Cambridge University Press, 1960), itself a revision of J. P. Postgate’s 1917 commentary, also published by Cambridge University Press. We are also now fortunate to have the commentary on Book VII in Italian by Nicola Lanzarone (Florence, 2016), which is much longer than Roche’s (running over 600 pages) and offers extensive discussions of literary and historical matters and of interpretive quandaries.

[4] J. Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s ‘Bellum Civile’ (Cambridge University Press, 1992); M. Leigh, Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement (Oxford University Press, 1997).