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The Turn of the Screw: Lucan, Tacitus and the Sublime Machine

Siobhan Chomse

Lucan's Bellum Civile pushes constantly at the boundaries of epic norms and the limits of a recognisably 'real' past. In Lucan's battle scenes our perception of historical reality is often stretched, as we witness traumatic clashes between bloody historical fact and the awful flight of poetic imagination, and are encouraged to recognise the emergence of the sublime (Day). In Tacitus' historical works we find an author engaged in the same creative endeavour, seeking to pluck the sublime from the often unreal 'reality' of Roman history.

This paper considers just one aspect of this sublime: I examine what we might call the 'technology of war' in Lucan's Bellum Civile and Tacitus' Histories, looking particularly at passages involving siege-works, engines and machinery. Lucan's depictions of machinae, I argue, draw upon an intertextual network dominated by Virgil and Lucretius. Here machinae are represented using recognisable sublime features: height, obscurity, and analogies that evoke the sublime force of nature. Lucan re-elaborates these epic-sublime machinae in describing his own machinae belli in order to endow these machines, and their Roman engineers, with a sense of sublimity that plays upon Roman prowess in the field of war. In Tacitus' own intertextual engagement with Lucan, these machinae undergo another appropriation, in which the sublime is introduced into the historiographical sphere. Through this process of intertextual appropriation both authors, I suggest, trace a special affinity between the sublime of the war machine and the idea of Romanitas.

Siege narratives stud the texts of Lucan's Bellum Civile and Tacitus' Histories. Clear verbal parallels have recently been identified in some of these episodes, in works by Timothy Joseph (2010) and Melanie Marshall (2010), that establish our sense of one aspect of Tacitus' use of and response to Lucan's work. This paper does not seek further allusive resonances in these passages, but rather considers an intertextual connection between the two authors that is based on an affinity recognisable in their appropriation of the sublime into the 'historical' world of Rome's past. I focus initially upon the Massilian siege in Book 3 of the Bellum Civile, and on the Batavian revolt of Histories 4.30, considering both of these episodes in light of Lucretius' description of an earthquake in Book 6 of the De Rerum Natura, and in light of Edmund Burke's discussion of the terror and awe of sublime experience, as a way to access a sense of the 'technological sublime'. This opens up my discussion to encompass examinations of other appearances of machinae in a siege context in the Bellum Civile (6.32-9; 8.377; 10.481) – where I find intertextual resonances of Books 2 and 4 of Virgil's Aeneid – and in Tacitus' Histories (4.23). My reading here examines the way in which both Lucan and Tacitus draw a connection between Roman-ness or Romanitas and a sublimely elevated battle-prowess that is manifested in the incredible machinae of the Romans.

Through his engagement with Lucan, Tacitus keys into an established poetic intertextual network that depicts Roman machinery in sublime terms. The figure of the sublime machina that Tacitus receives is one already re-appropriated by Lucan from epic and figured as a reflection or embodiment of Rome's own sublimity in the field of war. The historical poetry of Lucan's Bellum Civile, then, functions for Tacitus as an intertextual bridge between the literary spheres of Roman epic and Roman historiography. For Lucan and Tacitus, sublimity lends the war-machine a quality of unpredictable instability, as a structure liable to collapse; a terrific power poised in balance between aid and destruction, but always ready to drop. The ambivalence of the technological sublime – a tension between respect for its beneficence and terror at its power – taps into the greatest affinity that Lucan and Tacitus share: the anxious ambivalence at the heart of Romanitas.

Session/Panel Title

(Inter)generic Receptions in and of Early Imperial Epic

Session/Paper Number

30.3

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