1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lucan
LUCAN [Marcus Annaeus Lucanus], (A.D. 39–65), Roman poet of the Silver Age, grandson of the rhetorician Seneca and nephew of the philosopher, was born at Corduba. His mother was Acilia; his father, Marcus Annaeus Mela, had amassed great wealth as imperial procurator for the provinces. From a memoir which is generally attributed to Suetonius we learn that Lucan was taken to Rome at the age of eight months and displayed remarkable precocity. One of his instructors was the Stoic philosopher, Cornutus, the friend and teacher of Persius. He was studying at Athens when Nero recalled him to Rome and made him quaestor. These friendly relations did not last long. Lucan is said to have defeated Nero in a public poetical contest; Nero forbade him to recite in public, and the poet’s indignation made him an accomplice in the conspiracy of Piso. Upon the discovery of the plot he is said to have been tempted by the hope of pardon to denounce his own mother. Failing to obtain a reprieve, he caused his veins to be opened, and expired repeating a passage from one of his poems descriptive of the death of a wounded soldier. His father was involved in the prescription, his mother escaped, and his widow Polla Argentaria survived to receive the homage of Statius under Domitian. 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).
Besides his principal performance, Lucan’s works included poems on the ransom of Hector, the nether world, the fate of Orpheus, a eulogy of Nero, the burning of Rome, and one in honour of his wife (all mentioned by Statius), letters, epigrams, an unfinished tragedy on the subject of Medea and numerous miscellaneous pieces. His minor works have perished except for a few fragments, but all that the author wrote of the Pharsalia has come down to us. It would probably have concluded with the battle of Philippi, but breaks off abruptly as Caesar is about to plunge into the harbour of Alexandria. The Pharsalia opens with a panegyric of Nero, sketches the causes of the war and the characters of Caesar and Pompey, the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar, the flight of the tribunes to his camp, and the panic and confusion in Rome, which Pompey has abandoned. The second book describes the visit of Brutus to Cato, who is persuaded to join the side of the senate, and his marriage a second time to his former wife Marcia, Ahenobarbus’s capitulation at Corfinium and the retirement of Pompey to Greece. In the third book Caesar, after settling affairs in Rome, crosses the Alps for Spain. Massilia is besieged and falls. The fourth book describes the victories of Caesar in Spain over Afranius and Petreius, and the defeat of Curio by Juba in Africa. In the fifth Caesar and Antony land in Greece, and Pompey’s wife Cornelia is placed in security at Lesbos. The sixth book describes the repulses of Caesar round Dyrrhachium, the seventh the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalia, the eighth his flight and assassination in Egypt, the ninth the operations of Cato in Africa and his march through the desert, and the landing of Caesar in Egypt, the tenth the opening incidents of the Alexandrian war. The incompleteness of the work should not be left out of account in the estimate of its merits, for, with two capital exceptions, the faults of the Pharsalia are such as revision might have mitigated or rendered. No such pains, certainly, could have amended the deficiency of unity of action, or supplied the want of a legitimate protagonist. The Pharsalia is not true to history, but it cannot shake off its shackles, and is rather a metrical chronicle than a true epic. If it had been completed according to the author’s design, Pompey, Cato and Brutus must have successively enacted the part of nominal hero, while the real hero is the arch-enemy of liberty and Lucan, Caesar. Yet these defects, though glaring, are not fatal or peculiar to Lucan. The false taste, the strained rhetoric, the ostentatious erudition, the tedious harangues and far-fetched or commonplace reflections so frequent in this singularly unequal poem, are faults much more irritating, but they are also faults capable of amendment, which the writer might not improbably have removed. Great allowance should also be made in the case of one who is emulating predecessors who have already carried art to its last perfection. Lucan’s temper could never have brooked mere imitation; his versification, no less than his subject, is entirely his own; he avoids the appearance of outward resemblance to his great predecessor with a persistency which can only have resulted from deliberate purpose, but he is largely influenced by the declamatory school of his grandfather and uncle. Hence his partiality for finished antithesis, contrasting strongly with his generally breathless style and turbid diction. Quintilian sums up both aspects of his genius with pregnant brevity, “Ardens et concitatus et sententiis clarissimus,” adding with equal justice, “Magis oratoribus quam poetis annumerandus.” Lucan’s oratory, however, frequently approaches the regions of poetry, e.g. the apotheosis of Pompey at the beginning of the ninth book, and the passage in the same book where Cato, in the truest spirit of the Stoic philosophy, refuses to consult the oracle of Jupiter Ammon. Though in many cases Lucan’s rhetoric is frigid, hyperbolical, and out of keeping with the character of the speaker, yet his theme has a genuine hold upon him; in the age of Nero he celebrates the republic as a poet with the same energy with which in the age of Cicero he might have defended it as an orator. But for him it might almost have been said that the Roman republic never inspired the Roman muse.
Lucan never speaks of himself, but his epic speaks for him. He must have been endowed with no common ambition, industry and self-reliance, an enthusiastic though narrow and aristocratic patriotism, and a faculty for appreciating magnanimity in others. But the only personal trait positively known to us is his conjugal affection, a characteristic of Seneca also.
Lucan, together with Statius, was preferred even to Virgil in the middle ages. So late as 1493 his commentator Sulpitius writes: "Magnus profecto est Maro, magnus Lucanus; adeoque prope par, ut quis sit major possis ambigere." Shelley and Southey, in the first transport of admiration, thought Lucan superior to Virgil; Pope, with more judgment, says that the fire which burns in Virgil with an equable glow breaks forth in Lucan with sudden, brief and interrupted flashes. Of late, notwithstanding the enthusiasm of isolated admirers, Lucan has been unduly neglected, but he has exercised an important influence upon one great department of modern literature by his effect upon Corneille, and through him upon the classical French drama.