Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (November 3, 39 C.E. – April 30, 65 C.E.), better known in English as Lucan, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba (present-day Córdoba, Spain), in the Hispania Baetica. Despite his short life, he is regarded one of the outstanding figures of the Silver Latin period, and he is often ranked alongside Ovid and Virgil as one of the major epic poets of his times.
Lucan's place in the history of Latin literature is somewhat unusual, because his only surviving work, the long poem Pharsalia (also known by the name Bellum Civile) is rather difficult to categorize. Although ostensibly an epic, Pharsalia is not a story of legendary heroes and mythological dieties like the epics of Homer and Virgil; rather, the subject of Lucan's great poem is the relatively recent history of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey that had enveloped the Roman Empire only a century prior. In addition to his strangely contemporary choice of subject-matter for an epic, Lucan is the only epic poet in Latin literature to make no references to the Roman and Greek gods, and indeed Pharsalia contains almost no allusions to the supernatural mythology of the ancient world. Lucan's epic almost reads like a work of journalism due to its strict adherence to historical facts, and Lucan has been praised as one of the clearest and most direct poets in Latin literature.
Although Pharsalia is Lucan's only surviving work, it is important to note that he was not trained as a poet. Lucan was trained as a rhetorician, and he first impressed the Roman literary public by his skill in argument and rhetoric. Lucan had received very little training as a poet, and it has been generally agreed upon by scholars that he was lacking in skill with regard to the more technical aspects of poetry such as meter and versification, but that he made up for it in the swiftness and eloquence of his character's dialogue. As a result of these qualities, Lucan would find more recognition among the medieval and Romantic poets of Europe than he ever would with his own Roman contemporaries. Certainly one of the more unique poets to write in the epic tradition, Lucan has been cited as a major influence by such varied figures as Samuel Johnson, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Pierre Corneille.
Lucan was born in present-day Spain, then a territory of the Roman Empire, near the city of Cordoba. He was the nephew of the philosopher and statesman, Lucius Anneaus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger. Seneca took the young Lucan under his wing, and helped to educate the boy by hiring the Stoic philosopher Cornutus to be his tutor. Later, with help once again of his uncle, Lucan was sent to Athens to complete his education as a student of philosophy and rhetoric. Thanks to his rigorous education and his attention to the nuances of philosophical argument Lucan, upon his return to Rome, began to make his mark as a renowned orator. During this time he also began to compose and recite poetry.
Lucan soon attracted the attention of the Roman emperor, Nero, and with the emperor's blessing he won a prize for poetry in 60 C.E. Nero, however, was a notoriously capricious ruler, and shortly after befriending Lucan he began to resent him. It is unclear what motivated Nero's resentment of Lucan, although it has been theorized that, since during this time Nero himself had been making middling attempts at writing poetry, he simply became jealous of Lucan's talent. Whatever the cause, Lucan soon found himself in a difficult position; Nero banned public recitations of the poet's works, and he suspended his patronage, effectively leaving the poet without a source of income.
In spite of these setbacks, Lucan continued to work on his epic Pharsalia, and it is clear as the poem progresses that the poet was taking a more and more cynical view of the Roman Empire and its rampant corruption. Pharsalia, which touched upon the difficult subject of the Roman Civil War and alluded to the contrast between the democratically-governed Roman Republic and the tyrannical Roman Empire, proved to be surprisingly popular among the Roman people, most likely because resentment towards Nero's tyranny was running quite high. The tense political situation in Rome came to a head when Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a popular statesman and orator, conspired to have Nero assassinated. Lucan himself had collaborated with Piso in this plot—some sources even suggest the poet may have been one of the primary masterminds of the conspiracy—and, when the conspiracy was discovered by Nero, Lucan, along with his fellow conspirators, was sentenced to death. Given the option to either commit suicide or face execution, Lucan chose to slit his own wrists; according to Tacitus, he died reciting one of his own poems on the death of a soldier.
Prior to his death, Lucan had incriminated friends and relatives, including his own mother, in the hope of receiving a pardon. These efforts, of course, proved fruitless; although his mother managed to escape Rome before being put on trial. Lucan's wife, Polla Argentaria, escaped as well, to live under the patronage of Statius. The birthday of Lucan was kept as a festival after his death, and a poem addressed to his widow upon one of these occasions and containing information on the poet's work and career is still extant (Statius's Silvae, ii.7, entitled Genethliacon Lucani).
As with Virgil's masterpiece The Aeneid, Lucan's epic poem Pharsalia was unfinished at the time of his death, and its untidy condition is reflected in its four hundred complete and partial copies. As A. E. Housman stated in the preface to his edition of 1926, "the manuscripts group themselves not in families but in factions; their dissidences and agreements are temporary and transient ... and the true line of division is between the variants themselves, not between the manuscripts which offer them."
The poem follows the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey, opening with Caesar's historic crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.E. and following the lengthy war between Caesar's powerful army of the north and the forces of the Roman Senate led by Pompey. Broken into ten books, the poem proceeds through the various major scenes of the civil war: it follows Caesar as he chases Pompey's scattered forces out of Spain, ultimately driving them to Greece, to the city of Pharsalus (the site of a battle for which the poem is named), where Pompey's forces would be decisively routed. The poem continues on to linger on Pompey's death and Caesar's life with Cleopatra in Egypt, where the poem abruptly ends. In the background of this epic story of war and triumph, Lucan addresses the underlying themes of tyranny and freedom. By recounting the Roman Civil War, Lucan was able to directly address and criticize the tyranny of the Roman emperors and contrast their dictatorship with the relative liberty and nobility of the lost republic. The political implications of the poem were not lost on Emperor Nero, and it is no doubt one of the reasons why the emperor refused to give Lucan a stay of execution.
Lucan’s work had tremendous influence in the poetry and drama of the seventeenth century, as it was praised for its social consciousness and remarkably astute critiques of political and historical mores. Moreover, Lucan was admired for his ability to retain the style of the ancient epic while avoiding the superstitious and supernatural mythology of his forbears, concentrating instead on human drama and human characters. Although Lucan died too young to produce a work that truly could have fulfilled his potential, his Pharsalia, rough around the edges though it may be, is one of the most moving works of poetry ever written in Latin, and it is a testament to Lucan's genius that he was able to write a poem of enduring quality despite his relative lack of skill in the technicalities of verse and meter. Shelley, Southey and Macaulay all praised his work, and Latin scholars today still hold Lucan in high esteem.
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