Epic Trouble: Lucan Blunders in “Civil War”

civil war lucan penguinYou know you’re in trouble when you start laughing at the epic poem you’ve decided is your winter reading project.

I love epic:  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Keats’s Hyperion, Derek Walcott’s Omeros… 

But I have gone astray with my choice here.  The other day I began reading Lucan’s Bellum Civile (Civil War), an epic poem about the power struggles and the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey.  What a fascinating subject, I thought.  Historical rather than mythic.  

a lucan readerYou can imagine my horror when I realized this poem is not only dull but deplorablly written.

Vae miserae mihi! (Woe is me!) Don’t pretend you’ve read it. Nobody has.  You’ve never heard of Lucan unless you’re a classics nerd, and that is a good thing, because he is low on anybody’s list. He was a minor Roman poet, a nephew of Seneca, and a frenemy of Nero (who eventually ordered him to commit suicide).  

But I’ve got an adorable Lucan Reader. It was on a syllabus. That’s why I’m reading it.  

lucanLucan attempts to imitate Virgil, but his writing is so labored,  his vocabulary so limited and repetitious,  and his metrical effects so clumsy that you’ll want to cover your eyes.

Here is my literal prose translation of the opening lines:

We sing of wars worse than civil on the Emathian fields, and of the law given over to crime, and a powerful people turned against their own hearts (viscera) with their conquering hand.  

And here is Matthew Fox’s excellent translation in the Penguin, which fascinatingly reflects the actual Latin word order, and I cannot stress how difficult that it is to do.

Of civil wars and worse waged on Emathian fields,/of crime made law we sing, how a powerful people turned on its own heart its conquering hand…

Perhaps the best is Sir Edward Ridley’s translation (late nineteenth century or early 20th).

WARS worse than civil on Emathian  plains,
And crime let loose we sing: how Rome‘s high race
Plunged in her vitals her victorious sword;

Susanna Braund says in the introduction to A Lucan Reader:  “After a protracted lack of appreciation of Lucan’s achievements and years of scholarly neglect, happily there is now an abundance of excellent scholarship to enhance our reading of Lucan. ‘ 

Pity the poor scholar!

I plan to gallop through Lucan and move on.  Any suggestions for alternative epics?

6 thoughts on “Epic Trouble: Lucan Blunders in “Civil War””

    1. I’ve done “Gone.” 🙂 . Am looking for poetry here.

      On Sun, Dec 15, 2019 at 7:07 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


  1. Sometimes you can think a book will be marvelous and it turns out to be ever so dull. I know you’ve read War and Peace many times. If it’s war that you use to define epic how about Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy? I just embarked on that and there’s a wonderful TV series.

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