Lucan’s Pharsalia in the English Renaissance


The Leveller John Lilburne did Lucan – Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39-65 AD) – less than justice when he wrote that ‘I should have doted on the Roman poet of the Civil Wars, had I not found him blessing his fates for bring forth a Nero through those bitter Pangs and Throws’.[1] As a member of one of the more radical groups opposing Charles I, Lilburne may have felt that that the intense, dramatic De Bello Civile Sive Pharsalia ends up endorsing the tyrant that it apparently attacks. Lilburne could have doted on Seneca’s nephew with a clean conscience though, because if anything, the seventeenth century republican found himself in a situation rather similar than that of his political counterpart of the first century: between the ‘Scyllae’ (I.583) of tyranny and the ‘blacke Charibdis’ (I.584) of civil war. Not only that, but his poem played a significant part in fixing the Caesarian tyrannos and the Catonian parrheiastes in the English literary imagination between the mid-sixteenth century up until the end of the English republic in 1660.

 Like the English republican authors that drew upon him, the Stoically brought up Lucan’s loyalty is ultimately towards ideals not persons or offices. The Stoicism espoused by the upper-class Roman of Lucan’s time was defined by the ideal of leading a virtuous life in accordance with the natural cosmic order, and a key element part of this was the cultivation of indifference towards the caprice of Fortune. Importantly, there was a renewed interest in Stoicism during the late Renaissance. Its popularity was such that John Calvin – who coined the word novi Stoici (neo-Stoicism) in his Institutio Religionis Christianae (‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’) of 1536 –

 even saw a problematic return of a neo-pagan attitude. Instead of heroically enduring suffering sent by God (Inst. 3.8.9), the Stoic ideal of impassivity (apatheia) denied that such suffering was suffering. Despite Calvin’s objections, neo-Stoicism held a distinct appeal for many a Republican intellectual, especially since its soberness provided an alternative to what was perceived as the excesses of monarchy.

 In contrast to the custom of building an epic poem around the endeavours of a virtuous hero (Aeneas, Odysseus), De Bellum Civile was constructed for the contemporary republican reader: Lucan refused to invest too much in a single individual, even if the virtuous Cato represents his ideal of the good political life (vita activa).  As is the case with Milton’s Paradise Lost, the most obvious ‘hero’ also happens to be the ‘villain’. Caesar single-mindedly subordinates the interests of Rome to his personal ambition (III, 109; 168). Although Lucan appears to side with Pompey as he at least represents the Senate, rather than his personal desires, there is the suggestion that he too, may succumb to tyranny if he should win the war (IX, 257).

It could be that Lucan’s appeal for his Renaissance readers lay in his paradoxical nature. He is at once youthful (he was forced to commit suicide at the age of 26 by Nero) and cynical, melancholic yet idealistic, a member of Rome’s ruling circle yet an outsider, subversive yet traditional. A contemporary edition of the Pharsalia, in the Loeb Classics series is less than enthusiastic about its textual object. The dust jacket still contains the 1928 description of Lucan’s poetry as ‘weighty verse, powerful rhetoric, sour satire, pungent sayings, and belief in a Cause [that] have led readers from the Middle Ages to quite modern times to over-estimate him’.[2] The list of early modern ‘over-estimators’ is however quite remarkable: aside from Shakespeare, writers like Christopher Marlowe, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, Abraham Cowley, and Thomas May all drew upon his unconventional approach to authority, and importantly, his ‘Satanic’ Caesar can be read as a prototype of Milton’s Satan: both figures are frequently presented as powerful orators and ambitious climbers that stand in ambiguous relationships with power and truth. Lucan the author, one might say, practiced a parrhesia of nostalgia: he constantly reminds his imperial audience of the better, nobler world that existed before the ascent of the Empire.

Gerald M. MacClean usefully distinguishes between two periods in the reception of Lucan’s Pharsalia. The first is couched in mainly aesthetic terms, with authors like Boccaccio, Scaliger, Signio, Ronsard and Tasso debating whether Lucan was a poet, or merely a very eloquent historian. The second phase, which concerns us here, is largely political, occurring largely in sixteenth- and seventeenth century England, and saw the discussion whether Lucan was royalist or republican, with the slant of the debate tending towards favouring the latter: ‘In seventeenth-century Britain, discussion of the Pharsalia was explicitly bound up with political discourse, in particular with critique of arbitrary or tyrannical power’.[3] At the same time, it must be added that Lucan alone did not serve as a clearly defined focus point for writers opposing the monarchy as he was a canonical writer, never really ‘lost’ since antiquity, and widely studied. Furthermore, republican ideas were not limited to Lucan, but commonly available in the works of writers like Polybius, Tacitus, Livy, Cicero and Sallust. In the centuries before Christian humanist republicanism became a real option, Lucan tended to be read mainly as a warning against the horrors of civil war and the sinfulness of rising against a divinely appointed monarch. However, unlike the work by historians and rhetoricians, the dramatic character of the De Bello Civile Sive Pharsalia served as a fount of inspiration for a significant number of early modern playwrights (see below).

Philip Hardie describes the early modern English imagination in terms of two perspectives, one gesturing towards ancient liberty and the other towards eternity and a divinely given order of things.[4] When the Romans withdrew from England around 410 AD they left behind both their republic and their empire. Henceforth their conflicts would be played out between English monarchs and their subjects; or rather: between monarchs and subjects that struggled to be seen as citizens. Aside from the various dramatizations on stage, this battle would also be voiced in the form of epic and answering counter-epic.

David Quint writes that ‘Lucan traces the foundation of the imperial ascendancy of Augustus and the Julio-Claudians back not to a hoary, Homeric past, but merely to one generation earlier, to the civil strife between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus that had destroyed the republic’.[5] If not exactly a poem of political nihilism, it is strongly ironic, looking for crumbs of republican hope in an era of despair. It is the most anti-classical of classical texts, anti-realist in narrating style and as full of paradox and hyperbole as befits a poem that that seeks to condemn tyranny and civil war alike. Important for our purpose, it allows itself to be read in parrheiastic terms, reminding the readers of its own era of higher, nobler republican ideals that have been obscured by years of corrupt Imperial rule. If Nero’s displeasure with Lucan is anything to go by, De Bellum Civile spoke far too much truth to power to be freely tolerated. It subverts the power claims of the Julio-Augustan imperial dynasty, and as will be shown, the character of Cato in particular, appears almost as a ‘living ghost’: not merely a manifestation of a guilty conscience like Caesar at Philippi, but the personification of a lost liberty, and a higher, nobler way of life.

While it would be short-sighted to reduce Lucan to an anti-Virgilian author, there is little doubt that Lucan’s political and poetic project was understood as antithetical to Virgil’s during the English Renaissance. Despite this, De Bellum Civile was such a central text in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that a recent study of its reception enquires whether the years 1589-1650 at least, should not be considered the ‘age of Lucan’.[6] Andrew Hadfield speculates upon the possibilities offered by reading ‘Spenser as the English Virgil, and Marlowe the English Ovid’ and ‘the early Shakespeare as the English Lucan, a republican poet who could write about troubled times that had a bearing on current political issues and which also represented one nightmarish vision of the future’.[7] It might be useful, however, to add that it is important to distinguish between the admittedly Ovidian Marlowe of the Passionate Shepherd and Hero and Leander, and the translator of Lucan’s First Booke, a darker, more tragic and worldly writer. One is inclined to agree with Harry Levin’s old description of Marlowe as ‘alloy’ of Ovidian copper and Lucanic iron[8]: Lucan’s irony and headstrong ambitious characters are reflected in his amoral Machiavel and ambitious Scythian shepherd. In the Prologue to The Jew of Malta, he has Machiavel explicitly pointing towards the lack of justification for Caesar becoming dictator:

Many will talk of title to a crown:

What right had Caesar to the empery?

Might first made right, and laws were then most sure

When, like the Draco’s, they were writ in blood.

It would be possible to make a careful and preliminary distinction between Virgil as representing a discourse of establishment, as he both described the foundation of Rome and wrote during the establishment of the Augustan dynasty, and Lucan as representing the spirit of republican Rome, the parrheiastes to the tyrannos (king or emperor). For all their subtlety, Lucan’s antecedents Virgil and Horace ultimately celebrated the reign of Augustus. The more conventional Renaissance intellectual may have been more comfortable with them, especially the courtly Virgil’s grave melodious lines in which the foundation of Rome appears as part of a divinely ordained plan. By contrast, Lucan appears sceptical with respect to such comfortable metaphysical schema, even expressing scepticism about the existence of the gods, and stating that they had chosen the wrong side: the hubristic Caesar over the virtuous Cato. (I, 128; ix 572-603).

Purely stylistically, this is by no means a rigid dichotomy though: Lucan’s account of Cornelia, Pompey’s wife, for example, resembles the most pathetic scenes from the fourth book of the Aeneid, where Aeneas, having been ordered by Mercury to leave Carthage, postpones telling Dido. Lucan’s Pompey too, delays, morosely enjoying the last moments with his wife, fearing the future. Lucan, the silver age poet, inverts much of what he appropriates from the golden age Virgil: Virgilian patterns left intact ‘would have elevated where Lucan wants despair.’[9]  The poem develops as a process of pattern-negation, creating an antithesis of Virgil’s foundational epic of the city at the centre of the world, an anti-Aeneid that recounts not the founding but the collapse of the Roman world. It is generally Pompey who serves as the ‘correlation’ of Aeneas, a profugus dux (fleeing leader) driven, like his prototype, by destiny – but towards the east in his case, not the west. His retreats reverse Aeneas’s advances; his inaction Aeneas’s action. He ends up like a decapitated Priam at the edge of his world with his killer not far behind in meeting his own fate.[10]

VVas it too great a trouble to haue kept

The carcasse whole for Caesar? this sad date

Did fortune giue to Pompey’s prosperous state;

By such a death as this to pull him downe

From such an height: heaping all plagues in one

Sad day, which he so many yeares had bin

Free from: nor yet had Pompey ever seene

Ioy mixt with woe: no god his prosperous state

Did ere disturbe, none helpt his wretched fate;

But once for all with a differring hand

Did fortune pay him; torne vpon the sand,

Salt water playing in his wounds, the mocke

Of seas he lyes, and beat ‘gainst every rocke:

No figure left of him, tis note enoug

To know great Pompey, that his head is off. (May, Book VIII, 624-635).

The significance of Lucan lies in the fact that he established Caesar as the archetypical tyrant, a type that reverberates throughout much of early modern English literature that has politics as topic. With his exaggerated rhetoric, he fixed Caesar as a more than life-size[11] monster of impiety, impatience and tyrannical ambition. He became the tyrant that every parrheiastes addresses, whether identified as Julius Caesar, or carrying the name of Sejanus or Richard III.

The historic Caesar was certainly more prosaic than most of his fictional representations. Plutarch writes that

At all events, the man who is thought to have been the first to see beneath

the surface of Caesar’s public policy and to fear it, as one might fear the

smiling surface of the sea, and who comprehended the powerful character

hidden beneath his kindly and cheerful exterior, namely Cicero, said that in

most of Caesar’s political plans and projects he saw a tyrannical purpose;

‘on the other hand,’ said he, ‘when I look at his hair, which is arranged

with so much nicety, and see him scratching his head with one finger, I cannot

think that this man would ever conceive of so great a crime as the overthrow

of the Roman constitution’.[12]

However, he shares with his Lucanian representations a certain impiety. Suetonius wrote ‘No regard for religion ever turned him from any undertaking or even delayed him’.[13] Lucan depicts it as follows:

Th’amazement of his men when Caesar found,

In his bold hand himselfe an hatchet tooke,

And first of all assaults a lofty oake,

And having wounded the religious tree,

Let no man feare to fell this wood (quoth he)

The guilt of this offence let Caesar beare.

The souldiers all obey, not voide of feare,

But ballancing the gods, and Caesars frowne. (III.433).

Caesar, like the classic transgressor that he is, places himself above Roman pietas (standards of piety), refusing to submit even to the gods. In the Graeco-Roman world, this is of course less of a transgression than blasphemy in the Christian world – even Zeus has a sneaking admiration for Odysseus’s audacity towards Poseidon in the Odyssey (Odyssey, Book V). Caesar took it too far however, establishing a long-lasting association with worldly egotism. As we will see, it is the perception of this arrogance in Charles that led to the republicans viewing him as a tyrant. From the Christian[14] perspective in the first few centuries A.D, the name ‘Caesar’ called up associations of Roman arrogance, an association that Milton no doubt wanted to exploit in Paradise Regain’d when he has Satan reminding Christ of the worldly of allure of glory:

glory the reward

That sole excites to high attempts the flame

Of most erected Spirits, most temper’d pure

Aetherial . . .


and climaxes a list of such spirits thus:

Great Julius, whom now all the world admires, (my emphasis).

The more he grew in years, the more inflam’d

With glory, wept that he had liv’d so long

Inglorious (III, 25-8) and (39-42).

It must be mentioned though that Caesar, in whatever guise he is portrayed, was not – at least not during the Elizabethan period – seen as an Antichrist figure. His lack of piety is a characteristic only and has no theological significance. Besides, he has his defenders: Dante placed his assassins in the deepest circle of hell, Thomas Elyot often speaks of Caesar as ‘the first emperor, a noble example of virtue’[15] who pride is redeemed by the greatness of the empire that follows in his wake. For Sir Philip Sidney, Caesar’s lack of virtue was more ambiguous – yet he still considered Caesar a figure worthy of remembrance – writing that ‘See wee not vertuous Cato driuen to kyll himselfe? and rebell Caesar so aduanced that his name yet, after 1600 yeares, lasteth in the highest honor’.[16]

Robert Bolgar claims that Lucan was the first Roman poet to receive an editio princeps[17] in its entirety in 1469, along with the more philosophical texts of Cicero, Caesar himself, Gellius, Lactanius, Augustine and the elder Pliny. Before this, he had already been translated into Gaelic, Old Norse and French. The first English translation is Christopher Marlowe’s translation of Book I, entered in the Stationer’s Register in 1593.

For Gerald McClean, ‘aesthetics typically disguises and replaces politics by elevating poetry beyond the political conditions of its production and reception…Yet this hedging seldom hides the knowledge that poets, like Lucan, who write on historical themes are engaged in fundamental political activity.’[18] Marlowe’s Lucan’s First Booke is not a staunch republican text, but an originary story of the fall of the Roman Republic and the death of a certain ideal of liberty, the depiction of which would make a re-appearance in later republican literature.

Marlowe has long been associated with a high degree of intellectual independence, and it is no surprise that he is drawn to one of the most audacious, sceptical authors of antiquity who had no qualms about confronting his people with their darkest side.

Wars worse than civil on Thessalian plains,

And outrage strangling law, and people strong

We sing, whose conquering swords their own breasts launched,

 Armies allied, the kingdom’s league uprooted,

T’affrighted world’s force bent on public spoil

Trumpets and drums like deadly threat’ning other,

Eagles alike displaide, darts answering darts.

Romans, what madness, what huge lust of warre

Hath made Barbarians drunk with Latin bloud? (Lucan’s First Book, i-ix).

Although Marlowe remained close to the original, he gave a unique Elizabethan stamp to his text, inserting for example, for the Latin signis (standard) ‘trumpets and drums’. He may have encountered difficulties with his endeavour, as English iambic pentameter contains fewer syllables than the Latin dactylic hexameter. Lilburne, the literal-minded Leveller mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, should have paid closer attention to the irony in the lines that follow Lucan was challenging Nero, subtly alluding to the chaos bad leadership may visit upon a state.

Thou Caesar, at this instant art my god:

Thee if I invocate, I shall not need

To crave Apollo’s aid or Bacchus’ help,

Thy power inspires the Muse that sings this war.

The text appears to praise Nero as a god, yet by the use of the word ‘this instant’ already hinting at the occasional nature of his leadership. Nero is no Muse: his ‘inspiration’ is limited to a mere ‘instant’, making him very human indeed. It is a supremely ironic panegyric, showing that the reign of Nero is disastrous enough to inspire a poem depicting carnage: no divine aid is needed.

The speaker continues in the first person, presenting himself as the impersonal observer of first causes. In this section, Lucan is particularly parrheiastic, confronting the Romans with the most unpleasant truth of all: that their own thoughtlessness lay at the root of the carnage depicted in the poem. All Romans irrespective of class, are too blame for ‘sha[king] off peace’.

The causes first I propose to unfold

Of these garboils, whence springs a long discourse,

And what made madding people shake off peace.

Writing within the security of the Elizabethan world, it is possible that Marlowe exploited Lucan more for dramatic than political purposes. As mentioned in the introduction, one has to distinguish between parrheiastic texts, directed at particular instances of unjust authority, and parrheiastic characters. Lucan’s text is parrheiastic in general – it ultimately confronts Nero with the disastrous consequences of political egoism. By contrast, Marlowe’s translation appears not to be: there is no evidence that his translation was aimed as comment upon Elizabeth. It is likely that Marlowe was drawn towards Lucan’s scepticism rather than his politics. The situation, as we will see below, will be quite different with the republican Thomas May.

In the text cited, the Roman people themselves are called to responsibility for the mindless bloodbath that follows: they are ‘madding people’, joining sides only to ‘shake off peace’, Lucan accuses the cosmos at large, and even Rome itself is indicted as ‘the cause of all these evils’. The text is critiquing more than just a long-dead decadent emperor.

When fortune made us lords of all, wealth flowed,

 And then we grew licencious and rude,

 The soldiours pray, and rapine brought in ryot,

 Men tooke delight in Jewels, houses, plate,

 And scorn’d old sparing diet, and ware robes

 Too light for women; Poverty (who hatcht

 Rome’s greatest wittes) was loath’d, and al the world

 Ransackt for golde, which breeds the world decay[…]

Rome was so great it could not bear itself.

So when this world’s compounded union breaks,

Time ends, and to old Chaos all things turn,

Confused stars will meet, celestial fire

Fleet on the floods, the earth shoulder the sea

Affording it no shore, and Phoebe’s wain

Chase Phoebus, and enraged affect his place,

And strive to shine by day and full of strife

Dissolve the engines of a broken world.

All great things crush themselves….

Oh Rome, thyself art cause of all these evils.

Aside from its apocalyptic imagery of sublime dissolution, it is also an indictment: the chaos depicted was not simply engineered by the gods (as was the case with the Homeric wars, for example). That said, neither Marlowe nor Lucan are engaging in narrow moral judgment. Caesar may lack virtue, transgress the boundaries of the space allotted to him by fate, but he is strictly speaking not sinful – there is still a large metaphysical and ethical gap between Lucan’s Roman Caesar and a character like Milton’s Satan, appearing in an explicitly Christian context. Marlowe and Lucan share a genuine tragic awareness of the complexity of the network of human relationships and the fickleness of fate: neither the Roman people alone nor Caesar nor Pompey are held to be solely responsible for the bloody state of the human condition. Lucan and Marlowe hold up a mirror to the human condition – a mirror that turns into a glass darkly. Unlike the renewal of the landscape that is associated with the arrival of Aeneas on the Italian coast, Caesar disrupts the natural order. According to Lucan, the attempt by Caesar, Crassus and Pompey was doomed to failure, because as long as ‘the sun goes round in its course’, those who claim to share power are bound to attempt to seize all of it for themselves. The ensuing chaos enrages Nature herself, pointing to the ‘unnatural’ state of civil war:

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 152-8).

[1] John Lilburne, The Afflicted Man’s Outcry. Quoted in David Norbrook. Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics, 1627-1660. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 27.

[2] Lucan, The Civil War (Pharsalia). Translated by J. D. Duff. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1928).

[3] Gerald M. McClean, ‘The Debate Over Lucan’s Pharsalia’ in Time’s Witness: Historical Representation in English Poetry 1603-1660. (Madison: University of Wisconson Press, 1990) p. 37.

[4] Philip Hardie, ‘Lucan in the English Renaissance’ in Brill’s Companion to Lucan, ed. by Paolo Asso. (Leiden: Brill, 2011), p.492.

[5] David Quint, Epic and Empire. Politics in Generic Form From Virgil to Milton. (Princeton: Princeton University Press) p.36.

[6] Edward Paleit, War, Liberty and Caesar: Responses to Lucan’s Belum Civile: 1580-1650. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.10.

[7] Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Republicanism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 106.

[8] Harry Levin, The Overreacher. (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1952), p.10.

[9] John Bramble, ‘Lucan’ in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature II: Latin Literature. 533-57. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988).

[10] This was the end of Priam’s fortunes, this the destruction that by chance

took him—who was once the lofty ruler over so many peoples in the lands

of Asia—and made him see Troy put to the flames and the Pergamene

citadel collapsed in ruin. A great truncus lies upon the shore, its head

plucked from its shoulders, a corpse without a name. (Aeneid 2.554–558).

[11] The immediate association that comes to mind is of course Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Act I.ii:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

Men at some time are masters of their fates.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

[12] Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, ed. by B. Perrin. (Harvard: Loeb Classical Library 1919), p. 449.

[13] J. C. Rolfe, edited and translated; Suetonius (Harvard: Loeb Classical Library, 1935), I, p.81.

[14] Tertullian for example, though freely admitting the divine institution of civil power, writes specifically about Julius Caesar, ‘Regnum Caesar is regnum diaboli’ – The reign of Caesar was the reign of evil. Charles Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), p.113.

[15]Thomas Elyot, The Gouvenour. F. Watson ed. (London: Everyman, 1937), p.105.

[16] Sir Philip Sidney, ‘An Apology for Poetry’, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, G. G. Smith, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1974), I, p.170.

[17] The term refer to (first printed edition of a text that had previously been available only in manuscript form. Susanna Braund questions this, writing that the year 1469 also saw the editions princips of Virgil and Juvenal, which may well have predated Lucan. Susanna Braund, ‘Violence in Translation’ in War, ed. by Edward Paleit, War, Liberty and Caesar: Responses to Lucan’s Belum Civile: 1580-1650. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) pp. 510-521.

[18] Gerald McClean, ‘The Debate Over Lucan’s Pharsalia’, Time’s Witness: Historical Representation in English Poetry, 1603-1660. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1990), p. 26-44.


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