Whether Lucan has depicted Cato the Younger in a positive or negative light in Bellum Civile 9 has been a point of scholarly contention for over a century. In this paper I shall try to resolve this interpretive crux. I will argue first that Lucan’s characterization of Cato is intentionally contradictory. The narrator repeatedly praises him in glowing terms as a Stoic sage and Republican hero, while pervasive negative undercurrents in the narrative itself invite us to question this rosy evaluation. Despite countless efforts, critics have not succeeded in resolving this tension, and a recent revival in the debate suggests that they are unlikely to do so any time soon. To this end, this paper will demonstrate that the contradictory depiction of Cato is deeply rooted in the poem, and propose that it is therefore likely to be an intentional feature of it. My second and more crucial point is that Lucan alerts his reader to this interpretive issue through his treatment of myth, history, and science. Digressions on these topics make up a full quarter of Bellum Civile 9, yet each of them is repeatedly challenged as a useful means of understanding the world as Lucan portrays it. This paper will propose that these passages work in tandem to draw the readers’ attention to the issue of judging the events and actors of the civil war; at the same time, however, they undermine the bases on which those very judgments might be formed. The result is a concordia discors that precludes evaluative certainty: whether one chooses to praise Cato as a hero or condemn him as a would-be autocrat, the narrative ensures that doubts will linger.
The most obvious positive statements about Cato are a series of editorial interjections, occurring at regular intervals throughout Bellum Civile 9, in which the narrator offers explicit praise of his character (9.19-35, 188-9, 215-7, 255, 292-3, 406-10, 509-10, 564-5, 587-604, 617-8, 881-9). As D’Alessandro Behr (2007) has argued, this powerful voice prompts us to interpret Cato’s actions favorably, and in particular to see Cato as an ideological challenger to Caesar and to the monarchy established in his name. On the other hand, there are a series of scenes that utilize intratextual allusion and a manipulation of the historical record to suggest profound similarities between Cato and Caesar (5.237-373, 7.45-150, 9.215-94; 9.498-86, 961-99). Drawing on the work of Matthew Roller (2001) and Yanick Maes (2009), I shall argue that the result of Cato’s leadership for the men who follow him is virtually identical to the absolute loyalty demanded by Caesar. Since both optimistic and pessimistic readings are so deeply rooted in the text, it is impossible to dismiss either one.
The interpretive difficulty that results from this seeming contradiction is reinforced through a series of digressions in which the narrator pauses to explain geographical disputes or relate aetiological myths (9.303-18, 348-67, 411-44, 619-99). When introducing these passages, however, he claims that his mythical tales cannot be trusted and asserts the impossibility of deciding between the available scientific theories. This suggests that both poetic and practical knowledge are equally uncertain. Indeed, the narrator then insists through a series of second-person apostrophes that his audience must decide for itself what to believe (9.411-3). This subjectivity is ultimately brought to bear on Cato. During an editorial sequence praising his leadership, the narrator claims that Cato’s difficult march across Libya proved him worthy of a great reputation (magna...fama, 9.593-4). In a book that presents Cato in contradictory terms and underscores the unreliability of fama, however, it seems likely that in this, too, individual readers must make their own judgments. Although the poet has presented us with two, equally valid portrayals, he emphatically refuses to help us decide between them.