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Civil War in the Key of Caesar: Traumatic Soundscapes in Lucan

Mark Thorne

Brigham Young University

Like any other human activity, warfare creates its own aural environment. From the blasts of horns and the clash of swords down to the moans of the dying, military conflict in the ancient world was a dangerously aesthetic experience. The epic tradition from Homer onwards has engaged with the noise of war by attempting to represent in verbal art the lethal clamor of battle through similes and other literary descriptions (e.g. recent work by Strauss Clay 2011 and Gurd 2016). This sonic dimension of aesthetic representation in Roman epic, however, remains relatively unexplored. This is especially so with regard to Lucan’s epic of civil war, despite the fact that Lucan’s poetics are insistently sensory (e.g. Hömke/Reitz 2010, Lovatt 2013). While scholarship has paid due attention to the importance of Lucan’s visual emphasis (esp. Leigh 1997), this paper seeks to contribute to a greater understanding of Lucan’s use of auditory aesthetics in shaping his epic experience of Rome’s self-destruction through civil war. Building off recent work by Walters 2013 on Lucan and the senses, I aim to explore the direct association that Lucan makes between the character of Caesar and the explosive sounds of war.

Lucan famously introduces Pompey and Caesar into the epic by way of similes describing them respectively as an old, dead tree festooned with past trophies (1.135-43) and as a crashing lightning bolt ready to smite the earth (1.151-57). In the rich commentary on these lines, the significance of sound in Lucan’s poetics has been largely overlooked. While Pompey appears in primarily visual terms as a tree set in a soundscape of comparative silence, Caesar blasts onto the scene with thunderous explosions of sound (fulmen | aetheris impulsi sonitu, 1.151-2). Unlike his opponents, Caesar is a creature of sound as much as sight, and his sound notably leads straight to fear (rupitque diem populosque paventes | terruit, 1.153-4). This soundscape of Caesar accompanies him through the epic, and Lucan explicitly links outbreaks of Caesarian violence with outbreaks of sound to a degree not found with the epic’s other major characters Pompey or Cato. At the very moment when he breaks open the chains of civil war by crossing the Rubicon, Lucan paints him in another simile as a raging lion, roaring at his approaching enemies (vasto grave murmur hiatu | infremuit, 1.209-210). Then again at the moment when his troops capture Ariminum, their first Roman city to fall in civil war, the restful calm of the people at peace is shattered (rupta quies populi, 1.239) by an eruption of Caesarian sound in the form of military trumpets (stridor lituum clangorque tubarum | non pia concinuit cum rauco classica cornu, 1.237-8). In contrast, Cato first appears when visited by Brutus in a peaceful scene of “sleepy night” (nocte sopora, 2.236) and Pompey’s opening speech to his troops is greeted by the explicitly noted absence of cheering and trumpets (verba ducis nullo partes clamore secuntur | nec matura petunt promissae classica pugnae, 2.596-7).

The terrifying soundscape of Caesar culminates in Lucan’s description of world- shattering noise that accompanies the moment when the decisive Battle of Pharsalus begins after Caesar’s soldier Crastinus throws the first spear. The explosion of sound from the trumpets that unleash war produces a clamor of music that fills the heavens (aethera tundit, 7.477) and assaults Olympus (extremique fragor convexa irrumpit Olympi, 7.478), reverberating through the mountains back toward the soldiers who are terrified at the sounds of their own madness (vocesque furoris | expavere sui tota tellure relatas, 7.484). Through this deep association of Caesar, sound, and terror, Lucan employs these auditory aesthetics to convey to his audience, far removed from that time, a sensory taste of the traumatic experience of civil war. 

Session/Panel Title

The Sounds of War

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