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Vergil's Shield of Aeneas and Its Legacy in Lucan

Catherine Mardula

Lucan, a master of allusion, refers to authors from genres as diverse as epic, didactic and tragedy within the Bellum Civile. However, none of these authors is referenced as frequently and consciously as Lucan’s epic predecessor, Vergil. In this paper, I explore the influence of Vergil’s shield ekphrasis on Lucan’s poem, a previously unexamined and essential element of the connection between these two authors.
Lucan’s brand of Vergilian allusion targets some of the most proleptic passages in the Aeneid, recontextualizing the Golden Age optimism therein to great ironic effect. His emulation of three of these passages – Jupiter’s prophecy, the underworld scene and the walk through Pallanteum – is reasonably clear to a reader of the Bellum Civile. However, an overt reference to the most forward-looking passage in the poem, the shield of Aeneas, is mysteriously absent. Because of this, scholars have thus far minimized the importance of the shield to Lucan, at best limiting his reception of the passage to a single line, if they acknowledge it at all. However, given Lucan’s enthusiasm for this type of passage and the status of the hero’s shield as a major epic trope, to suggest that Lucan deliberately chose not to use it as a source creates more problems than it solves. Instead, I argue for the reinterpretation of several lines and sections of Lucan’s poem as allusions to Vergil’s shield.
Resemblances of words and phrases between works are not always enough to imply conscious imitation, but Lucan’s hesitation in general to recycle Vergilian language in his allusions makes such small-scale lexical similarities significant beyond a reasonable doubt in this specific context. For instance, Faber has linked Lucan’s unusual use of the verb “recoquo” in the context of weaponry to the tradition of the shield beginning with Hesiod, with a Vergilian intermediary. Additionally, numerous names from the first half of the shield of Aeneas make a notable appearance in Lucan, from the use of the rare honorific Mulciber that calls to mind Vulcan’s forging work in the Aeneid to the borrowing of almost an entire line from Vergil, unequaled in Lucan, with Bellona as its subject.
On a broader scale, Lucan takes further inspiration from the events depicted on the second part of Vergil’s shield, emphasizing the latent civil war imagery contained in the originals. Most significant here is Lucan's treatment of Augustus' triumph after Actium. In the Aeneid version, Vergil mentions the Araxes river, "indignatus pontem," as a target of Roman conquest. In his proem, Lucan chooses the same river to level a criticism at the Romans for having chosen civil war over their foundational goals.

Finally, there are two instances in Lucan where the idea of the shield itself, beyond its ekphrastic content, takes on particular metaphorical significance. From its introduction, Vergil's shield heralds glory for both his hero's military exploits and the future Roman Empire. Nevertheless, when Lucan uses the shield as an image for his own purposes, we are left with the opposite impression: that the Roman state has failed to live up to its foundational vision. First, during the sea battle at Massilia, a brother acts as a human shield for his twin in his final moment of life; a heroic act is turned darkly comic because the brother has just lost all four of his limbs. Then, in a truly antiheroic aristeia, the soldier Scaeva runs out into battle, only to be run through with an excessive number of spears. These episodes mix the shield tradition with classic civil war tropes to further Lucan's motive of Vergilian inversion.

The Bellum Civile may not inherit the Vergilian shield ekphrasis in the traditional sense, but this approach yields a more powerful result: Lucan is able to address and reinterpret the themes in the shield of Aeneas while still staunchly refusing to endorse a hero in his own narrative universe by granting them a shield of their own.

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(Inter)generic Receptions in and of Early Imperial Epic

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