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Pompey's Head and the Body Politic in Lucan's De Bello Civili

Julia Mebane

Book 8 of Lucan’s De Bello Civili vividly describes the death of Pompey Magnus, whose head is chopped off, impaled on a pike, paraded through the city, and then embalmed as a prize for Caesar. I argue that Lucan stages this gruesome scene as a figurative revolt of the Roman body politic. The inevitable toppling of Pompey’s head becomes central to the poet’s criticism of imperial power.

My argument draws on two strands of current Lucan scholarship. The first is the so-called “problem of Pompey,” that is, why the general transforms from a lackluster leader to divinized hero in Books 8-10 (Feeney 1986, Johnson 1987, Masters 1992). The second is the importance of the human body in depicting the confusion of civil war (Bartsch 1997, Dinter 2005). Treating Pompey in terms of his physical body puts new light on his function within the epic.

Throughout the poem, Lucan figures political authority through imagery of the head. The metaphorical associations of the caput are first articulated in Book 1, when a seer examining a liver exclaims, “ecce, videt capiti fibrarum increscere molem/alterius capitis,” (1.627-8). As Roche notes, the ominous nature of the portent is made explicit in Seneca’s Oedipus, in which a two-headed liver is called “semper omen unico imperio grave,” (359; Roche 2009, ad loc. 1.627). The two leaders are consistently referred to within this frame. Caesar’s troops tell him, “tantus caput hoc sibi fecerit orbis,” (5.686) while Pompey’s son inquires, “stat summa caputque/orbis, an occidimus?” (9.123-4) Because their heads denote their political power, they become central to the poem’s interpretation.

The breakdown of Pompey’s leadership after Pharsalia is represented as the attack and dismantling of his caput. The mutiny of his subordinates begins in an assembly at Cilicia and is realized in the decision of King Ptolemy to murder his patron. It culminates in the actions of the traitorous Roman soldier Septimius, who kills the general who once commanded him. Lucan interjects, “Pellaeusque puer gladio tibi colla recidit/Magne, tuo,” (8.607-8). Pompey’s murder is emphatically situated within the paradigm of civil war, allowing his corpse to speak to the larger consequences of intra-state violence. The head, fixed by embalming, and body, half-burnt on a pyre, are precluded from both death and regeneration. Closure is rendered impossible, a troubling message for Rome.

The full significance of Pompey’s self-destructive body can only be discerned within the context of body politic metaphors in Roman discourse. The tradition began with Menenius Agrippa’s Fable of the Belly, which likened the senate to a stomach and the people to the body’s limbs (Livy 2.32). The head is notably absent in his metaphor. Cato the Elder offered another version; describing how Q. Caedicius’s body was discovered replete with wounds but his head perfectly intact, Cato maps the body of the general onto the body of the state. His military formulation, however, proved problematic in Roman politics. The difficulty is exemplified in Catiline’s treacherous query, “What is the harm, when I see two bodies, one thin and sickly, but with a head, and the other headless, but great and strong, if I put a head on the latter?” (Plut. Cicero 14). In the context of Republican ideology glorifying the careful distribution of power between the senate and consuls, a single head for the people was potentially tyrannical.

By the time Lucan composed his epic, head-of-state metaphors were increasingly being used to justify the authority of the principate. So Seneca writes in De Clementia, “For while a Caesar needs power, the state also needs a head,” (1.4.3). Lucan offers a strong critique of such rhetoric. The figurative revolt of Pompey’s body suggests that the authority of the individual over the many can never be successfully realized. He leaves us with an unsettling paradox: the Republic cannot function with a head, but can Rome survive without one?

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On the Boundaries of Latin Poetry

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