You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Rushing to Ruin

THE POET LUCAN lived in interesting times. Born during the mercifully short reign of Caligula and reared while Claudius ruled, Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, 39-65 C.E.) was almost of an age with Nero and was, for the second half of his short life, in a position to observe that last link in the Julio-Claudian dynastic chain. Lucan’s uncle was Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who served first as Nero’s tutor and then as his prime minister before becoming, like his two brothers and like Lucan himself, the emperor’s victim.

As the grim fate of the Annaean clan clearly shows, life close to the imperial epicenter was subject to upheaval and destruction. If half of what we read in Tacitus and Suetonius about this quarter-century is true, the palace seethed with plots and counterplots, alliances, betrayals, incest, and murder: for those in power or hungry for power, a dish of mushrooms could prove fatal. In this seismic hot zone, Nero spent his formative years. Only sixteen when he ascended the throne in the year 54 C.E., he was little suited for the rigors of rule. Alternately ignored and indulged as a child, ever a pawn in his terrifying mother’s ambitious schemes, Nero was chiefly interested in chariot-racing, the Greek Crown Games, the theater, and the cultivation of his own very modest talents as a singer-songwriter.

It was in this milieu and under this arty emperor (remembered still as the one who fiddled while Rome burned) that Lucan was writing and giving highly popular readings, and producing the first three books of an epic poem laced with political satire, an epic poem devoid of divine machinery and high-minded heroes of the legendary past, an angry, despairing, often savagely humorous epic depicting the Neronian world as a land laid waste a century before, in the civil war won by Nero’s ancestor.

Lucan was writing of the violent beginnings, in 49-48 B.C.E., of Nero’s own Julio-Claudian dynasty, that is, of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. History, as we all know, is written by the victors; but Lucan’s historical poem challenges the victors’ history, which is to say it challenges imperial Rome’s version of history, Nero’s family history, and, as the emperor clearly understood, Nero himself. The emperor signaled his break with Lucan, his former schoolmate and favored friend, by suddenly rising to his feet, calling a meeting of the Senate (of which Lucan was a member), and walking out of one of the poet’s public readings.

There is, then, a complex interplay between the Neronian context in which Lucan lived and wrote and the late Republican civil war which is the subject of his poem. In addition, Lucan—a brilliant student of Greek and Latin literature in all genres—draws upon or inverts or pointedly rejects that literary heritage. And this is precisely why Matthew Fox’s new translation of Lucan’s poem, together with the introduction, notes, and glossary he co-­authored with Ethan Adams, is most welcome. His translation gives us a new look at the poem, and the ancillary materials provide a general audience with necessary social, historical, and literary information.

Great difficulties face a translator of Lucan. While the text is mostly sound, thanks to the popularity the poem enjoyed in post-Neronian Rome and, crucially, in the Middle Ages (more than four hundred manuscripts of part or all of the poem have come down to us), the Latin is rarely easy, or even as easy as it seems, and the tone, constantly shifting, can be especially hard to catch. In the passage known as the “Praise of Nero,” for example,Lucan substitutes an (apparent) encomium of Nero for the epic poet’s traditional invocation of a Muse. The address to Nero takes the form of polite speculation about what divine form the emperor will assume after death (this in an epic radically without divinities). Lucan makes veiled allusions to the emperor’s love of chariot-racing, his weak eyesight, his portly girth; the encomium is sandwiched between the opening declaration of the subject of the poem and the poet’s analysis of the causes of the civil war. The last line of the “praise passage” is wonderfully ambiguous: Nero, says Lucan, Tu satis ad vires Romana in carmina dandas: and Fox captures Lucan’s hiding-in-plain-sight brand of irony nicely: “you are enough to empower Roman poems.”

During the short time he lived in Rome, after Nero recalled him from his studies abroad in Athens and before his “suicide,” Lucan was a busy man. As augur, quaestor, and senator, he kept to a schedule crowded with ceremonial and official duties. In the last year of his life, he became deeply involved in a senatorial conspiracy headed by Calpurnius Piso to assassinate Nero (in his Life of the poet, Suetonius describes Lucan as paene signifer, the virtual standard-bearer of the group). And all the while he was writing.

Lucan’s ten-book epic is unfinished (though its uncanny agreement with Caesar’s similarly unfinished prose account of the civil war has led some to speculate that the poet deliberately broke off his work). It is variously called Bellum Civile (Civil War)—as was Caesar’s military commentary—or Pharsalia. Rough edges are everywhere. But the force of the poet’s passion drives the narrative forward. In particular, during the first eight books, he draws vivid portraits of the antagonists, Julius Caesar and Pompey, and he provides each man with a Jovian simile. Pompey is compared to an old and revered oak “spreading its naked branches through the air,/ its trunk and not its boughs now casting shadow:” Caesar is likened to a lightning bolt which “strikes, spreads wide its great/ mayhem, turns back, regroups its scattered fires.” (These fine effects in Fox’s translation are somewhat spoilt by a typo in the line following.)

Fox says that he aimed “to find [English] phrases and clauses to match those in the original, allowing … words and ideas to unfold in the same order as in the Latin.” He has also paid close attention to Lucan’s cohesive use of alliteration, and by settling on English equivalents for key Latin words, he has tried to reproduce the Lucanian leitmotifs. His lines—shorter and looser than Lucan’s dactylic hexameters—give us a sense of the forward momentum that is such a powerful feature of the original. Fox’s approach renders Lucan’s pithy aphorisms and paradoxes especially well: “Great things rush to ruin:” “Gods favored the victor, but Cato the lost cause;” of the knowledge that death is a blessing, “the gods hide this from survivors, to keep them alive:” “Nothing inures minds to crime like killing/ and dying:” Pharsalus after Pompey flees “will be the matched duel/ that we always have: Liberty versus Caesar;” of Troy in 48 B.C.E., “Even its ruins have perished.”

Fox and Adams wish to assist the general reader, and to this end they include such ancillary features as a map (though one wishes it had a key); an introduction in which Fox and Adams have given a clear and concise picture of Lucan’s life and times and of the literary tradition, content, themes, and influence of his poem; an appendix containing a translation of the Civil War found in Petronius’s Satyricon, supplied with its own introduction and notes; a glossary of proper nouns which also serves as an index of names, giving the location in the translation of each entry; and, especially helpful, the notes to the translation which explain Lucan’s allusions and his use of his literary predecessors, primarily Virgil and Ovid.

In addition, each book of Lucan’s poem is preceded by a synopsis, and the text of the translation is then broken up into (more or less) corresponding units with headings in full caps. I found this format distracting, but I must admit that, when I was searching for a particular passage, the headings were helpful, the more so since Fox’s line numbers do not match those of the original, nor do the Latin line numbers appear on the pages. (Despite its many merits, his approach to translating Lucan does mean that Fox has had to sacrifice line parity—noticeably so starting at Book Five, where he has 910 lines to Lucan’s 815. Overall, Fox’s Civil War is more than 1100 lines longer than the original.)

In the decades since the publication of Frederick M. Ahl’s Lucan: An Introduction, Civil War has increasingly received the attention it deserves. Familiar with Lucan’s poem or not, readers will find Fox’s spirited, fast-paced rendering a pleasure. His “more in less” approach serves Lucan’s Latin well in such gripping scenes as Caesar at the Rubicon, Caesar felling the Druids’ wood, the naval battle off Massilia, the battle of Pharsalus, the gruesome death of Pompey, Cato in the desert, and—my personal favorite—Sextus Pompey’s encounter with Erictho the necromantic witch. Despite occasional infelicities and typographical errors, Fox’s translation allows Lucan in all his moods to shine through:

O sacred mighty work of poet-seers,

you rescue everything from fate and grant

eternal life to mortal peoples. Caesar,

don’t be touched by envy of sacred glory.

For if Latin Muses have a right to make a promise,

as long as [Homer] endures in honor,

the future will read you and me: our Pharsalia

will live, not condemned to shadows in any age.

Jane Wilson Joyce is Luellen Professor of Literature and Chair of the Classical Studies Program at Centre College. She has translated the epics of Lucan and Statius and a selection of Catullan lyrics and has published two volumes of poetry. She lives in Danville, Kentucky.

*Addendum* Professor Fox has indicated to me that, due to a publishers error, uncorrected proofs of his translation were sent out for review.  I am glad to report that there WILL be Latin line numbers provided atop each page and further that he and co-author Ethan Adams have combed through and corrected the typographical errors, including the one I noted in the review above. --Jane Wilson Joyce