The Pharsalia of Lucan


The poet Lucan was born in a.d. 39 at Corduba (Cordova), which was then the capital of the Roman province of Baetica or Southern Spain. He was of a distinguished family, and one of his uncles was Seneca the philosopher. In the year after his birth his father migrated to Rome with his family, and there the young Lucan, as he grew up, received his education. Comutus, a Stoic, was one of his teachers; and the doctrines of that school are strongly marked in the work of the poet. Very early in life Lucan began to write poems, which he declaimed to the applause of his listeners; and when Nero ascended the throne in 54 a.d. he and the poet were on friendly terms. The Emperor, however, was also a composer of verse, and the two having been rivals at a public contest, the prize was adjudged to Lucan, the result of which was that he was forbidden to publish or recite any more of his compositions. This seems to have happened about 64 a.d.; and shortly afterwards the conspiracy of Piso was formed, in which Lucan took part. The plot was discovered, and the poet begged for his life, but received the order to die. After the fashion of the times, he opened his veins and expired in a hot bath, a.d. 65, at the early age of twenty-six, ‘inheritor of unfulfilled renown.’ For in these years he had written the ‘Pharsalia;’ and it seems probable that he composed the whole of it between his twenty-first and twenty-sixth year.

The poem comprises the events of about two years, from the beginning of 49 B.C. to near the close of 48 B.C., and therefore describes a historic action which took place rather more than a hundred years before the time at which it was written. The struggle between Caesar and Pompeius for the rule of Some was then entering into its final phase. Crassus, the third of the Triumvirs, had been defeated and slain by the Parthians about four years before; Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompeius’ wife, had died in 54 B.C.; Caesar had completed his conquest of Gaul; and the two great rivals were face to face.

The events of the two years in question may be shortly stated thus:

The poem, as is well known, ends abruptly, and is unfinished. To what point in the civil war Lucan proposed to carry it, must be a matter of conjecture only. It might have ended either with the murder of Caesar, or, possibly, with the battle of Philippi: but there are also indications in the existing poem which point to the battle of Actium as the intended closing scene. This was the battle which left Octavius sole victor; and from some passages which need not be particularly mentioned, it might be inferred that the poet would not have been content until he had depicted the whole of the struggle which left Caesar’s house in possession of the Empire.

On the other hand, in the first book, Munda is called the final battle (line 47), by which must be meant the battle which terminated the conflict between the forces of Pompeius and Caesar: and in a similar way, at line 766 of the same book, the murder of Caesar is treated as the close of the war.

Pompeius is in a sense its hero. He was, to Lucan, the champion of liberty and the Senate; of that Senate which had conquered Italy and triumphed over Hannibal, and which to the poet represented the force whereby the old republican order might have been preserved, with its Consuls, its Tribunes, its suffrages, and all the institutions that to his mind were the tokens and fortresses of freedom. It escaped him that the power which had in the past achieved these triumphs failed, when the moment came, to define the wider boundaries required by the increased strength and population of the Roman dominion. Opposed to the Senate stood Caesar, who despised the ancient forms and offices which were no longer the symbols of living force. In him Lucan saw only the upstart, who wished to cast aside the forms of law because, and only because, they obstructed his path to empire. He did not see, and perhaps in his day it was not possible to see, that in Cesar’s time the old order of Rome had become powerless, and that in Caesar only and in the party which he led was to be found a renewal of life such as could resist the vigour of the barbarian nations. Lucan was a patriot, and the baseness of the age in which he lived inflamed his imagination the more by its contrast with the historic liberties of his country. These were represented (as he thought) in the Senate and Consuls; and Pompeius, their general, was to that extent his hero.

And yet he knew the superiority of Caesar. Even in the characters given in the First Book this appears. What can the mind that finds a dreamy enjoyment in the triumphs of the past, or in popular applause, avail against the impetuous, insatiable energy of its rival? We know before the struggle begins that Caesar must be the conqueror. But throughout the poem Lucan appeals to his reader on behalf of Pompeius: when he leaves Italy for the last time; on the morning of the fatal battle; at its close; in the flight to Egypt, and at the last moment he calls for our sympathy for him. But while we grant it, our reason speaks for Caesar. In a similar way Lucan frequently pictures Caesar as a despoiler of Italian cities, nay, as the would-be despoiler of Rome herself; and he is not ashamed to put this accusation in the mouth of Pompeius (Book II. line 600). But the sentence quoted from Cicero at Book I. line 164, which describes the great general as moderate in victory, is in accordance with history. Nor had the brutality ascribed by the poet to Caesar in his description of the battle of Pharsalia any foundation in fact.

It is in the speeches, which form the main feature of the poem, that we find the difference between the champions most strikingly accentuated. On these Lucan has expended all his eloquence, all his pungency and epigrammatic power. Of one of them (the character of Pompeius spoken by Cato in Book IX.) Lord Macaulay said, ‘It is a pure gem of rhetoric without one flaw,’ and there are many others which nearly reach the same standard. Caesar’s speeches to his troops (Book I. 340, Book VII. 292) are, for example, full of conscious power. They are the words of a victorious general who claims victory as his right; who speaks to his soldiers as comrades, and demands of them the defence of their common country. Chivalrous to a Roman foe, he despises all else and calls upon his army to do the same. Pompeius’ first speech, on the other hand (Book II. 597), is boastful and pretentious; and that in Book VII. 407, though in much better strain than the former one, fails to convince or persuade. When in Book VIII. he advocates an alliance with Parthia, the badness of his cause is not compensated by the logic with which he supports it.

Next in importance to the two opposing champions is Cato. Introduced to us in Book II. as the stem and rigid patriot, in Book IX. he embodies his principles in action. He is at once the unflinching commander, the philosopher who in peril and temptation loftily proclaims the tenets of his school, the inspired leader who some day shall receive divine honours, the captain who shares the lot of the meanest soldier, the statesman who upholds, amid disaster and defeat, the cause of public freedom.

The poem has, of course, all the blemishes that might be expected from the youth of its author. There are passages which offend against our sense of justice; we are asked to admire what is morally not admirable. There are many mistakes, specially in geography; there is obscurity, specially in astronomical matters; there are ghastly details of horrors, lengthy episodes not connected with the plot, and frequent exaggerations, as in the description of Caesar’s exploits. There are also details of which the reader wearies, as in the sea fight in Book III. But a spirited and patriotic apostrophe, or the vigorous eloquence of Cato or Caesar, or a powerful and dramatic description combine to give the poem force, and to maintain its power and interest; and impart to it a fascination under the glamour of which its faults are forgotten.

Very contrary opinions have been expressed as to the merits of the poem as a whole. Niebuhr (‘Lectures on the History of Rome,’ iii. 193) says, ‘Lucan belongs to the time of Nero, and his poetry proceeded from the school of Seneca. His example shows us how much more intolerable its tendency is in poetry than in prose. Bemardin de St. Pierre and Chateaubriand are the offspring of a similar school. . . . It would be more bearable if it did not venture upon anything but sentimental moralising, as in the case of the former; but Chateaubriand is a perfect pendant to the bad poet Lucan. This is not yet generally recognised, indeed, but the opinion which now prevails in regard to his merits cannot continue.’

Here we have an unfair and incomplete criticism, and an unfulfilled prophecy. In spite of what Niebuhr says, the ‘Pharsalia’ has qualities which must always continue to excite the interest of mankind.

To turn to the opposite extreme, Shelley, in a letter dated September 1815, says, ‘I have also read the four first books of Lucan’s “Pharsalia,” a poem, as it appears to me, of wonderful genius and transcending Virgil.’ [Forman’s Edition, vol. vii. p. 3i8.]

I should have supposed that no admirer of Lucan would care to rest his reputation on Books II., III., or IV., and it would be interesting to know whether Shelley retained the opinion he expressed in his letter.

Lord Macaulay (Trevelyan’s ‘Life and Letters,’ i. 462) calls Lucan an excellent writer. I have already mentioned his opinion of the speech of Cato in Book IX. He also selected for special praise the dream of Pompey in Book VII., and the enumeration of his exploits in Book VIII. ‘When I consider,’ he says, ‘that Lucan died at twenty-six, I cannot help ranking him among the most extraordinary men that ever lived.’ But before the days of Macaulay, Dante gave a place to Lucan along with Homer, Horace, and Ovid, ‘foin — mighty spirits.’ Virgil appears as the fifth, and Dante adds:

Greater honour still

They gave me, for they made me of their tribe,

And I was sixth among so learned a band.

Inferno, iv. 95 (Carey’s translation).

Probably the criticisms of Dean Merivale are founded on a more intimate knowledge of the ‘Pharsalia’ than are those of any other writer. The historian returned again and again to his favourite author, and constantly quoted him in illustration of his own subject. He points, however, to the want of imagination which, in his opinion, was one of Lucan’s characteristics, and says, with some justice, that he had not really pictured to himself the scene of the great battle which was the centrepiece of his poem; he criticises truly the vague and uncertain philosophy of the poet, strongly stoical and yet undefined, and the frequent errors in his encyclopedic knowledge. One sentence may be quoted in which he says: ‘His wit and cleverness, considering his years, are preternatural: the trumpet tones of his scorn or admiration, after more than thirty years’ familiarity, still thunder in my ears with startling intensity.’ For the rest I must content myself with referring to the close of the fifty-sixth and the opening of the sixty-fourth chapters of his ‘History of the Romans during the Empire.’

A few words are necessary with regard to the translation of this great poem which I have been bold enough to offer to the public. And, first, the great difficulty of the task makes me hope for an indulgent criticism. Mr. Heitland, indeed, says in his introduction to the Cambridge edition that a Dryden is required to give us in English an idea of the strength and vigour of the original poem. I am fully conscious of the truth of this, although I may be allowed to think that Ben Jonson’s powerful blank verse might possibly have given us a more adequate rendering of the terse and pointed style of Lucan than even Dryden’s heroics. But the fact remains that there is no good English version of the work.

Marlowe’s translation of Book I. has dignity and force; but the movement is slow, and it wants dash. The Elizabethan poet seems to have thought it necessary to limit the number of his lines by those of the original; the result is that some of the ideas are not reproduced. Among many powerful lines there are weak ones, and he does not always rise to the level of the stronger passages. The famous line

Victrix causa Deis plaouit, sed victa Catoni,

has not yet been well translated, and perhaps never will be; but when Marlowe wrote

Caesar’s cause

The gods abetted, Cato liked the other,

he was hardly equal either to Lucan or himself. I quote a short passage as a fair specimen of the whole:

So thunder, which the wind tears from the clouds,

With crack of riven air and hideous sound,

Filling the world, leaps out and throws forth fire,

Affrights poor fearful men, and blasts their eyes

With overthwarting flames, and raging shoots

Alongst the air, and not resisting it

Falls and returns and shivers where it lights.

Lines 151–157.

Sir Thomas May’s translation (published about 1631) is in the heroic metre. It contains passages of some merit but it is extremely unequal and is disfigured by diction frequently obscure, and by a fashion of rhyming which to modem readers is uncouth and almost repulsive. He keeps, generally speaking, fairly close to the original, yet shrinks from some of the passages, particularly from those which are harder and more abstruse. I will give some short extracts illustrative of my meaning:

There filled with true light, with wond’ring eyes

The wand’ring planets and first stars he sees.

He sees our day involv’d in midst of night,

And laughs at his tome trunk’s ridiculous plight.

Book IX. line 12.

The ponderous earth out of her center tost.

Her middle place in the world’s orbe has lost;

So great a weight strooke by that voice was stirr’d

And on both sides the face of heaven appeared.

Book VI. line 481.

But his version of Cato’s speech at the oracle of Hammon, Book IX. lines 566–584 (659–684 in this translation), will probably find admirers, and is as follows:

What, Labienus, should I seeke to know?

If I had rather dye in armes, than bow

Unto a Lord? if life be nought at all?

No difference betwixt long life and small?

If any force can hurt men vertuous?

If fortune loose, when vertue doth oppose

Her threats, if good desires be happinesse

And vertue grow not greater by successe?

Thus much we know, nor deeper can the skill

Of Ammon teach. The gods are with us still;

And though their oracles should silent be,

Nought can we doe without the gods decree;

Nor needs he voices; what was fit to know

The great Creator at our births did show.

Nor did he choose these barren sands to shew

(Hiding it heere) his trueth but to a few.

Is there a seate of God, save earth, and sea,

Aire, heaven, and vertue? Why for God should we

Seeke further 1 What ere moves, what ere is scene

Is Jove. For oracles let doubtful! men

Fearef ull of future chances troubled be;

Sure death, not oracles, ascertaine me.

The coward and the valiant man must fall,

This is enough for Jove to speake to all.

Nicholas Rowe’s translation is referred to in terms of praise by Pope, in a letter written by him to H. Cromwell (see the edition of Pope by Courthope and Elwin, vi. 110). But it has this defect, which must outbalance all the merits which it may possess as a poem, that it does not in style or manner reproduce the ‘Pharsalia.’

In modern times we have had from Professor Goldwin Smith, in his ‘Bay Leaves,’ renderings of some chosen passages. But these give no idea of the poem. Also the late Professor Proude published in his article entitled ‘Divus Caesar’ a blank verse version of the apotheosis of Nero in Book I.

I have endeavoured to write a translation which shall reproduce the spirit of the original, and at the same time shall be fairly acceptable to English readers. Without pretending to have rendered every phrase precisely, I have striven to give the meaning of each passage. Other duties have prevented me from giving all the time to this object which would be required to satisfy the critical scholar who has made a study of the difficulties which abound in the ‘Pharsalia;’ but I have consulted the notes of Mr. Haskins in the Cambridge edition of 1887; the text of Hosius; and the text and notes of Prancken on the first five books, published at Leyden early in the present year; and, where authorities differ, 1 hope that in each case some may be found to favour the rendering which has been adopted. I have not shrunk from translating directly extravagant epithets, similes, or descriptions; and I have, with few exceptions, followed the details without abbreviating the text. The particulars of the Marian and SuUan massacres, however, have been to some extent shortened, and the catalogue in Book I. has been lightly passed over. But the description of the serpents in Book IX. has been rendered at full length. The speeches especially have been carefully studied, with a view of giving its full weight to each expression. They form, as has been said, one of the chief features in the poem. With regard to proper names, I have in some instances, as in the Gallic catalogue, given the modern equivalent, but in most cases I have adhered to the ancient word; preferring Pompeius to Pompey, Ptolemasus to Ptolemy, Britannia to Britain, Athena or Athenee to Athens. Similarly I have written Gaul or Gallia, and not France, though Marlowe spoke of the Rubicon as

Dividing just

The bounds of Italy from Cisalpine France.

Book I, line 218.

But if he had written Gaul it would have been better. After all, it is the Roman who speaks. I hope I may at all events successfully contend that no precise or definite rule exists upon this subject; and that, within limits, a discretion is allowed to the translator.

There are some Latin words which I have not always translated, such as Quirites, Im/pemtor, rostra, fasces, plebs, the meaning of which no English word exactly conveys. But, despite the authority of Lord Macaulay, pilum has been rendered as ‘spear.’

With reference to the notes, they are intended to assist, but do not aim at explaining everything.

I have, finally, to acknowledge the assistance of many friends: especially that of the Rev. Henry Furneaux, of Corpus Christi College, Oxford; and of my old schoolfellow W. J. Courthope, Esq., O.B., Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford, to whom I am deeply indebted for his most valuable and weighty aid and criticism.

I have to thank Miss Christabel Marshall, of 21 Great College Street, Westminster, for the preparation of the Index.

In conclusion, I shall be more than satisfied if I am found by this translation to have done anything to render the ‘Pharsalia’ in language, manner, and thought more accessible than it has hitherto been to English readers.

E. R.

October 1896.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:36