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Lucan's Parthians in Nero's Rome

Jake Nabel

Cornell University

For an epic that recounts the horrors of civil war, Lucan’s poem refers with surprising frequency to an enemy that is not domestic but external: the kingdom of the Parthians, a vast empire to the east of the Euphrates ruled by the Arsacid royal family. The Parthians, the poet says, have unleashed the strife between Caesar and Pompey by killing Crassus, the only man capable of suppressing the rivalry between the two commanders (1.98–108). They escape vengeance for Carrhae as Rome sinks into civil war (1.10–12, 7.431). And the nature of their realm is debated at length by Pompey and Lentulus in a pair of speeches that dominate the eighth book of the epic (8.202–455) – a passage that this paper reinterprets.

Commentators usually read the Parthian debate as an illustration of Pompey’s character (Ahl 1976: 170–3; Bartsch 1997: 82–7; Fantham 2010: 55; Lintott 1971: 501–2, 505) or as a demonstration of Lucan’s rhetorical skills (Postgate 1917: 38–40; Mayer 1981: 118–41; Narducci 2002: 329; cf. Radicke 2004: 443). But such treatments have not discussed the contemporary resonance of the speeches in the context of Roman-Parthian relations during Nero’s reign. Lucan lived and wrote through a protracted Roman war with the Arsacid empire (54–63 CE), a conflict over Armenia that was a primary concern of Neronian foreign policy (Heil 1997). This war ended not with a decisive battle, but with a brokered settlement that involved negotiation, compromise, and concessions on both sides. Against this background, Pompey and Lentulus’ debate can be read as a dramatization of a central problem of Roman foreign relations under Nero: the anxiety over whether Parthia – a land so often viewed with distaste, apprehension, and fear – could be a diplomatic partner, and more than a mere enemy.

In its call for an alliance with the Arsacids, Pompey’s speech echoes Nero’s diplomatic overtures to Parthia in the wake of a humiliating military defeat. The loss suffered by the Roman commander Paetus at Rhandeia in 62 CE meant that diplomacy and negotiation would assume critical importance in the Neronian regime’s efforts to save face (Chaumont 1976: 123; Heil 1997: 130–1, 196–7; Campbell 1993: 232–3; Wheeler 2002: 289; Mratschek 2013: 52). Lucan’s Pompey wonders whether the Parthians can be relied on to uphold a treaty (8.218–20), but he also affirms the necessity of trusting “the savage family of the Arsacids” for lack of better options (8.306–8).

Lentulus’ response is that of a hardliner who brooks no accommodation with the eastern enemy. He draws on a host of Roman clichés about the unreliability of the Parthians, inveighing against their treachery, lustfulness, and incestuous marital customs (8.368–416; cf. Sonnabend 1986; Schneider 2007; Lerouge 2007: 305–49). Moreover, he is unequivocal that the Roman defeat at Carrhae can be avenged only on the battlefield, not with a treaty; Pompey errs in pursuing peace with the Parthians instead of victory over them (8.420–39). Such arguments present a vivid contrast with eastern policy in Lucan’s own day. Peace instead of victory was precisely the choice that Nero made when, in 63 CE, he ended hostilities with the Parthians and ceded Armenia to a member of the Arsacid family. This settlement was a recent development when Lucan began work on the later books of his epic (Griffin 1984: 155–60; Rudich 1997; cf. Fantham 2011: 13–14).

The debate between Pompey and Lentulus is no straightforward guide to Lucan’s view of Roman policy in the Parthian east. It can, however, be read as an expression of the fear, uncertainty, and suspicion that accompanies détente with a long-demonized enemy. The troubled history of Roman-Parthian relations shows how Lucan’s Parthian debate had deep roots in the politics of the Neronian age.

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Imperial Fashioning in the Roman World

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