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Cutting off Ennius’ nose? Lucan’s Subversion of Ennius’ Annales in Books 2 and 6 of the Pharsalia

Timothy Joseph

College of the Holy Cross

Recent scholarship has demonstrated Virgil’s pervasive aemulatio in the Aeneid with Ennius’ Annales (see e.g. Casali 2007, Gildenhard 2007, Elliott 2013, and Goldschmidt 2013). But the reception of Ennius in Latin epic does not end with Virgil’s poem. This paper explores the imperial epic poet Lucan’s manner of polemical allusion to the father of Latin epic. Scholars have long noted the echoes of Ennius’ self-presentation at Annales 12-13 (Skutsch) in Lucan’s programmatic passage at 9.980-6 (see Zwierlein 1982 95-6 and Skutsch 1985 167-8). After addressing that key intertext, this paper argues for Lucan’s subversive aemulatio with Ennius in two earlier passages in the poem.

The first passage comes during the account of the Caesarian soldier Scaeva’s aristeia in Book 6. At 6.184-195 Lucan draws much of the language and imagery for Scaeva’s battefield stand from Ennius’ account of the tribune Aelius’ heroics at the siege of Ambracia at Ann. 191-8 (Skutsch), a nexus noted by scholars (see Conte 1970; Goldschmidt 2013, 186-7) but not related to a broader poetic agenda. Here Lucan builds upon, stretches out, and redirects Ennian language to the point of graphic, self-immolating absurdity. And, whereas Aelius stands as an exemplum of virtus directed towards Rome’s defense, the civil warrior Scaeva is an embodiment of virtus aimed only at self-destruction (as Leigh 1997 158-190 and Sklenár 2003 45-58 have addressed). Lucan thus evokes the Annales only to contort Ennian imagery, and to highlight the degeneration from the Republican glories that Ennius celebrated down to the ruinous civil wars of his poem.

The second passage appears during an elder Roman’s remembrance of the civil wars waged under Marius and Sulla (2.68-232). At 2.183-4 this man recalls how a Sullan attacker of Marius Gratidianus “cut off the vent-holes of his hooked nose” (spiramina naris aduncae | amputat). As Day 2013 (79-82) has recently considered, the line echoes Ennius’ statement that Pluto “placed vent-holes of the Nar River [and of Hell’s nose] beside its sulfurous waves” (sulpureas posuit spiramina Naris ad undas, Ann. 222 Skutsch). The poet thus suggests that the holes near the river’s banks “were in fact the nostrils of Hell, thus giving an etymology of Nar” (Skutsch 1985, 399). By bringing to mind this memorable image of a passageway from the Underworld in Ennius’ poem, Lucan evokes the idea that the civil wars led to the movement of Hell onto Earth – a motif that is strong later in this same passage (the rivers of blood and corpses at 2.209-220) and is then predominant at Erictho’s lair in Thessaly (6.434-830) and again on the plains of Pharsalia after the battle (7.764-776). That Ennius’ image of an Underworld portal has been transferred onto a human face accentuates this shift and the ghastly transformation of the earthly realm – and its humans – through the civil wars.

With the phrase spiramina naris aduncae | amputat, Lucan may also be making a metapoetic statement about his engagement with Ennius. The nose was frequently understood to represent the powers of discernment and sagacity (OLD s.v. naris 3), and derivatives of spiro could carry with them associations of inspiration (see e.g. OLD s.v. spiritus 5). In addition, the verb amputo is used of cutting short a speech or work of writing (OLD 3c). This act of cutting off in Lucan’s poem stands in stark contrast to the act of placing or establishing (posuit) in Ennius’. This allusion, then, while evoking the vapors of Ennius’ Hell for thematic purposes, may bring with it a claim of violent poetic succession: the poet whose content and themes overturn those of Ennius is himself “cutting off the inspiration of the nose” of his predecessor – that is, cutting short and cutting down the venerable and wise father of Latin epic.

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Insult, Satire, and Invective

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