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Erotic Distraction in Lucan's Bellum Civile

Patrick Burns

In the Bellum Civile proem, Lucan criticizes the citizens of Rome for their excessive love of war (tantus amor belli, 1.21) arguing that they have become distracted from their imperial potential by neglecting foreign enemies and turning against themselves. This programmatic appeal to amor sets in motion a theme of destructive love in the poem: the word appears 32 times in the Bellum Civile (Tucker 1990), almost entirely with a negative connotation and directed towards an inappropriate goal (e.g., amor belli civilis, 2.325, 9.228; amor ferri, 1.355; amor auri, 3.119; amor mortis, 6.246). I argue in this paper that Latin love elegy is an important influence on amor as a destructive and distracting force in Lucan's poem. While the scholarship on Lucan has tended to read the Bellum Civile primarily as an anti-Aeneid (Casali 2011; Narducci 1979), the poem also shows an antagonistic relationship with other literature of the period, namely Latin love elegy (McCune 2014; Caston 2011). Lucan uses elegiac themes throughout his epic to offer a critique of the theme of militia amoris and the commitment to a "life of love" which allows it to exist (Lyne 1980). Lucan’s transvaluation of elegiac amor adopts the generic conceit while applying it to the actual circumstances of the characters. Characters in the Bellum Civile are motivated by amor, but it is not the “virtual pacificism” (Lyne 1980, 75) that the Augustan settlement of the civil wars permitted. I will focus on the distracting nature of elegiac amor on display in two scenes: Pompey's attachment to Cornelia before Pharsalia in book 5 and Caesar's affair with Cleopatra in book 10. Both scenes demonstrate the subversive nature of the elegiac pose in which military service and civic duty are subordinated to erotic distraction (Volk 2010, 192). The elegists however spoke through the metaphor of war; Pompey and Caesar both literally put themselves and their military objectives in jeopardy. In Pompey's case, amor makes the general "hesitant and frightened for battle" (5.728-9); Caesar under its spell becomes "captive" in Cleopatra's court (10.65). By way of conclusion, I connect the influence of Latin love elegy on the Bellum Civile, and erotic distraction in particular, to Lucan's narrative style. As one critic comments, Lucan's greatest deviation from the epic tradition is "his tendency to abandon narrative for an editorial reflection upon events” (Mayer 1981, 148). A striking feature these narrative interpolations is Lucan's apparent unwillingness to recount his chosen narrative (Masters 1992, 3-10). Yet while Lucan writes that he will remain silent about the horrors of civil war (7.566), he in fact does the opposite. Where the elegists programmatically demur from writing the res gestae of the Caesars (Lyne 1995, 31-39), Lucan despite fits and starts of narrative delay and avoidance succeeds in writing precisely this material. Accordingly, Lucan's narration in the end avoids the erotic distraction which plagues his characters and, in a compelling example of Lucan's antiphrastic use of an elegiac theme, delivers the definitive anti-recusatio.

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Gender Trouble in Latin Narrative Poetry

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