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Empedoclean Echoes in Lucan: The Dialectic of Love and Strife in the Proem of the 'Bellum Civile'

Giulio Celotto

Florida State University

One of the central theses of the deconstructionist interpretation of the Bellum Civile is that the poem lacks a conventional teleology. Picking up on the identification between the epos and its subject proposed by Johnson (1987), Henderson (1988) and Masters (1992) argue that the poem is a civil war itself, and Lucan is a schizophrenic poet, who resembles Caesar in his ambition of writing an epic about nefas, and Pompey in his remorse. For this reason, the narrative flow is constantly interrupted and delayed. Following in their footsteps, Quint (1993) contrasts the structure of the Bellum Civile, circular and repetitious, with that of the Aeneid, linear and teleological. The purpose of this paper is to challenge this reading by demonstrating that the structure of the Bellum Civile is just as linear and teleological as the one of the Aeneid; however, if the one of the Aeneid is ascending, for it moves towards a positive telos, the one of the Bellum Civile is descending, for it moves towards a negative telos. More to the point, in this paper I examine the references to the dialectic of Love and Strife in the proem of the Bellum Civile in order to show that Lucan associates the time of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar with the second phase of Empedocles’ cosmic cycle, namely the progressive prevailing of Strife over Love, and its ruinous outcome, i.e. the victory of Caesar and the establishment of the Principate, with the third phase of the same cycle, namely the complete domination of chaos.

            In the first simile of the Bellum Civile (1.67-80) Lucan associates the destruction of Rome that follows the civil conflict with the dissolution of the entire universe. This passage has been discussed at length in a very influential article by Lapidge (1979), who argues that for Lucan the civil war is such a destructive event that it can be compared with the ekpyrosis, the Stoic cyclical cosmic dissolution into fire. However, a close reading of the passage–and in particular the analysis of an Ovidian intertext at line 74–reveals that Lucan is here alluding to Empedocles’ cosmic cycle as well, in order to portray the time of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar as the historic representation of the second phase of this cycle, namely the progressive prevailing of Strife over Love, which leads to chaos and utter destruction.

            If the civil war is compared with the second phase of Empedocles’ cycle, its outcome, namely Caesar’s victory and the consequent establishment of the Principate, should be identified with the third phase, namely the complete domination of chaos. In this light, the portrayal of Nero’s reign as the earthly representation of the Sphere, namely the first phase of Empedocles’ cycle, in which Love prevails and peace thrives, should be read as a flattering, but insincere praise. This reading corroborates the skeptical interpretation of the encomium of Nero proposed by Hinds (1988) and Leigh (1997, 25-6).

            Lastly, I argue that the idea of the civil war as the historical representation of the second phase of Empedocles’ cosmic cycle is confirmed by Figulus’ prophecy (1.639-72), for which I propose a metapoetic interpretation. Figulus is an astrologer, and as all the other vates figures of the poem, he too can be associated with Lucan himself (O’Higgins 1988). Furthermore, his prophecy shows significant verbal parallels with Lucan’s proem. In this light, I argue that the astronomic phenomena that Figulus connects with the civil war in his prophecy should be interpreted as the symbolic representations of the cosmic phenomena that Lucan associates with the same conflict in his proem. In particular, the fact that Venus is dim, and only Mars occupies the sky is an allusion to the progressive prevailing of Strife over Love that characterizes the time of the civil war.

Session/Panel Title

Lucan after Deconstruction

Session/Paper Number

78.2

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