Critics of Lucan’s Bellum Civile have argued since antiquity about the structure and significance of the poem’s introduction. Most recently, Stephen Wheeler and Paul Roche have suggested that Lucan’s allusions to the Augustan poets consistently focus on negative interpretations latent in the source texts; consequently, they may be seen to anticipate the pessimistic tone that Lucan adopts throughout the rest of his narrative. Although these studies accord with the current—albeit predominantly Anglophone—evaluations of the Bellum Civile and have revealed much about how Lucan manipulates the language of his predecessors, the types of negativity proposed by these readings differ radically from one another and do nothing to account for the most problematic aspects of Lucan’s introduction: its length and coherence.
This paper will attempt first to demonstrate the limits of intertextual analysis as applied to Lucan’s introduction, then to suggest an alternative path forward. I begin with a discussion of Lucan’s allusions to Vergil and Ovid. Although these do seem to emphasize negativity latent in the source texts, as Wheeler and Roche have argued, the impact of the allusions on Lucan’s own poetic outlook is not at all clear. Although we may presume that references to Aeneid 2 and Metamorphoses 1 prompt Lucan’s readers to think about the civil wars in the terms established by his epic predecessors, doing so brings the radically different outlooks of their poems into sharp relief: how can Lucan’s universe be simultaneously Vergilian and Ovidian? Indeed, if a chief goal of poetic introductions is to set forth the manner in which a poet will treat his theme (Conte 1992), then Lucan’s allusions, at least as they have been explained thus far, actually interfere with this proemic function. The difficulty is further exacerbated if one accepts less obvious references (e.g. to Horace, Lucretius, Manilius, and Propertius) that scholars have argued are identifiable and active within Lucan’s introduction. Accepting that all of these supposed allusions are meaningful will result in a sort of poetic and ideological clutter that actually frustrates any cogent interpretation of Lucan’s epic outlook.
Intratextual analysis and reader response offer a solution to this crisis. I propose that Lucan’s introduction can be divided into five movements whose status as separate entities is guaranteed by their internal coherence. Each one offers a certain outlook on the civil wars (factual, pessimistic, optimistic) and/or a means of explaining how and why the Roman state was made to suffer them (teleological, cosmological, historical). Although these movements differ widely from one another, their respective styles and tones are remarkably constant. Moreover, four of the five introduce a crucial metaphorical image that will recur throughout the poem, while all of them independently prepare the reader for the narrative that begins at line 1.183. I consequently suggest that Lucan uses his introduction to create a sort of proemic conflict that mirrors the conflict of poetics that is inherent in his allusions and that leaves his readers in doubt about how they should engage with the poem’s narrative. Unlike the exegesis offered by intertextual approaches, however, the analysis I offer allows us to infer that the difficulty presented by this portion of the text is likely to be intentional. If this is correct, we may conclude that the effect Lucan is trying achieve is precisely the frustration of his reader’s ability to understand the civil wars according to a single, coherent model. Such a stance fits well with the discordant tone of the Bellum Civile and indicates that Lucan has abrogated the traditional role of an epic poet: to present a coherent picture of the universe and man’s place within it.
(Inter)generic Receptions in and of Early Imperial Epic