The proem to Lucan’s Pharsalia stands out within the epic tradition which frames it. Malcovati 1951 and Conte 1966 have demonstrated its engagement with the Aeneid and Iliad, but in many ways it deviates from the norms established by these models. In particular, its paratactic syntax departs markedly from Vergil’s periodic structure; instead of a coherent overview of the trajectory of the epic, we are treated to a rapid torrent of phrases representing the horrors of civil war. Even in antiquity, readers struggled with Lucan’s aesthetic choices; Fronto famously declared the entire seven-line proem to be an unnecessary elaboration on the phrase bella plus quam civilia. The words plus quam, however, profoundly express the excesses of the poem, not only of its subject but also of its very language (Henderson 1987: 135).
In order to explore the dynamics of Lucan’s ornamental poetics, it is productive to read his proem with and against a similar passage from his uncle Seneca, whom Fronto also targeted for gratuitous verbiage. Scholars have long identified the Phoenissae as a relevant intertext for the insatiability of Lucan’s civil war (cf. Phoen. 354-6; Conte 1966: 49–50; Ahl 1976: 313; Häußler 1978: 69), but I focus on the Thyestes, another text that Seneca composed at roughly the same time that Lucan wrote his Pharsalia. At the opening of the play, a Fury goads the shade of Tantalus to torment on the house of the Atreus (23-67). Along with the theme of fraternal conflict, the passage shares language and imagery with Lucan’s proem. Seneca’s bella trans pontum (43b) finds correspondence in Lucan’s bella per… campos (1.1), which were of course trans pontum from Rome. In dialogue with the destruction of fas, fides, and ius that Seneca depicts (47-8), Lucan offers (in reverse order) iusque datum sceleri (1.2), rupto foedere (1.4), and commune nefas (1.6).
This paper argues for not only stylistic affinities between Seneca and Lucan but also a shared discourse surrounding their ornamental strategies of composition. My argument rests not so much on an intertextual reading of these common images as on the compositional strategies that both passages pursue. Both openings unleash verbal onslaughts of parataxis that explore the meaning and value of ornamental language. Just as plus quam describes both the civil war’s transgression of ethical boundaries and the Pharsalia’s breach of the aesthetic barriers of conventional epic, the Fury’s speech demands crime piled on crime through a sequence of sententiae and rhetorical devices. Form meets function in the composition as the overcrowding of violence and depravity mirrors the poetry stuffed with decorative language. The ornamental implications of Fury’s words reach a metaliterary climax as she envisions the horrors spreading beyond the house of Atreus into the heavens and the rest of the universe. She deploys the word mundus to denote both heavens and the universe. Like κόσμος, however, mundus may also mean ornament, a sense that seems operative in the phrase debitum mundo decus (50) (Cini 1974: 66–67; Tarrant 1985: 95). The celestial bodies decorate the universe with their light in the traditional terms of ornament as a tool to impose order on a system. Here, however, the Fury’s highly ornate language dismantles that notion and advocates for robbing the universe of its well-ordered design. As she calls for the palace to be festively adorned (54: ornetur altum columen) in order to make it an ideal setting for the sinister crime to take place, it becomes clear that the text has perverted ornament as a tool for chaos rather than order. The aesthetic principles that underlie the poetics of plus quam are fundamentally ornamental in nature. With language that simultaneously occupies the roles of ergon and parergon, this aesthetic positions literary ornament as the discourse through which it expounds its philosophy of a world surpassing the parameters of representation.
Bloody Excess: Roman Epic