In an attempt to rouse his troops to march on Rome in Book 1 of Lucan’s Bellum Civile, Caesar condemns Pompey’s connection to Rome’s most recent violent dictator, Sulla. In a strikingly vivid epic simile, Caesar compares his rival, Pompey, to wild tigers, following their mother through the Hyrcanian jungle and feeding deeply on the gore of slain herds. Emotional, graphic, and poetic, this is not the Caesar we know from the Commentarii or his extant speeches (Fantham, 60).Indeed, in describing the horrors of Rome’s recent past, this Caesar has more in common with Lucan himself, well-known for his use of violent imagery and epic similes in his account of the disastrous civil war. I argue that the tiger simile of Book 1 constitutes a moment of poetic competition between Lucan and Caesar over how Rome’s past should be remembered, a competition in which the poet undermines his character’s re-imagining of historical memory through his own appeal to the reader’s literary memory.
From an oratorical perspective,Caesar’s tiger simile has a number of features that might have effectively persuaded his troops. Caesar encourages the soldiers to recall the Sullan civil war, an event many of his men likely experienced in their own lifetimes. He then tendentiously re-imagines those events in the wild, foreign setting of the Hyrcanian jungle, a move which not only transforms his enemy into a bloodthirsty beast, but also obscures Pompey’s Roman identity. The comparison to the tiger cubs succeeds in infantilizing Pompey, who must follow his “mother,” Sulla, to be fed. Furthermore, the animalistic elements proper to the tiger portion of the simile contaminate the description of Pompey, as, cat-like, he “licks the Sullan sword” (Sullanum...lambere ferrum, 330). Not only is the Sullan protégé infantilized and dehumanized, but he is implicitly “de-Romanized” through the transfer of the scene from the Roman forum to wilds of the Hyrcanian jungle. Caesar’s characterization of Pompey’s earlier career would encourage his military audience to view their enemy as a childish, literally bloodthirsty, uncivilized animal.
The very same words, however, would inspire an entirely different memory in Lucan’s readerly audience. As Roche observes in his commentary:“[Hyrcania is] the only place for an epic tiger to be since Verg. A.4.367,” where the scorned Dido famously rages at Aeneas “Hyrcanian tigresses gave you their teats.” In well-engineered moment of dramatic irony, Lucan has his Caesar unknowingly align himself with the heart-broken Carthaginian queen, railing against his own noble ancestor, Aeneas. The very words that Caesar hoped would impugn the memory of Pompey serve to condemn his own. Although the allusion to the Hyrcanian tiger would be the initial trigger for the reader to connect Caesar’s speech to Dido’s diatribe, additional similarities subsequently emerge. Caesar’s somewhat incongruous apostrophe to Pompey in the midst of a speech to his troops matches Dido’s direct indictment of Aeneas. Both characters launch a series of stinging rhetorical questions (BC.1.333-4; A.4.368-371). Perhaps most tellingly, both Caesar and Dido call their respective foes “faithless,” improbe (BC.1.334; A.4.386). Lucan’s appeal to his reader’s literary memory transforms Caesar’s seemingly patriotic cause into a private domestic dispute and his poetic language into the rantings of a wronged woman. His primary audience, the army, is forgotten, as the embittered leader harangues his father-in-law for his treachery. This is not the only moment in the poem in which Caesar demonstrates a comical ignorance of his own family’s epic, the Aeneid (see Tesoriero), but it may be the most pointedly ironic.
Scholars have long observed a rivalry between Lucan and his character, Caesar, in the realms of history and memory (see especially Masters and Rossi). Here, the Roman general attempts to co-opt the language of the poet in an evocative simile, only to find his own words used against him through a particularly crafty allusion engineered by Lucan. In such a poetic showdown, it is only right that the author himself should have the last laugh.