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Pompey’s Groan: Collective Heroism in Lucan’s 'Bellum Civile'

Andrew Zissos

University of California, Irvine

Lucan’s Bellum Civile has long bedeviled critics with vexing questions concerning its unity and coherence. Chief among these questions has been that of its chief protagonist. Does the epic have a hero, and if so who? Arguments have been put forward for Caesar, Cato and Pompey, for the three of them as a group, and much more besides, including abstractions such as Libertas.

Here as much as anywhere, recent scholarship has often lapsed into an essentially aporetic position that coincides with or draws support from the deconstructive strands of the last three decades of Lucanian scholarship. The absence of a clearly identifiable hero is an aspect of the poem that critics have seized on in order to demonstrate the decentered, unstable character of the epic. For many this is part and parcel of the poem’s insistent frustration of efforts to find coherence or meaning. The absence of a clearly defined hero seems appropriate for a text at war with itself (Henderson 1988), for a text offering up a series of momentary monsters (Johnson 1987). But in truth the perception of the hero problem well predates Lucan’s ‘deconstructive moment’. The critical consensus is well summed up by the pronouncement of Ahl, that the “the search for a hero in the conventional epic sense is futile” (1976, 150).

In this paper I would like to revisit the hero conundrum of Lucan’s epic, to explore a thesis, proposed without elaboration well over a century ago by Merivale (1858), but largely ignored ever since. In Merivale’s view the epic has a collective hero, and that hero is the Roman senate. My analysis will focus on the figure of Pompey, who is crucial for demonstrating the coherence of Lucan’s collective heroic conception, in no small part because he is widely regarded as having the best claim to be the epic’s principle hero.

Lucan’s Pompey undergoes a profound political transformation as the epic unfolds and that transformation has him increasingly drawn into association with key senatorial figures such as Cato and Brutus. At the beginning Pompey and Caesar are presented as equals in depravity (quis iustius induit arma scire nefas, ‘who had the more just reason for warfare, we may not know’, 1.126-7). After his death, however, Pompey undergoes a quasi-apotheosis that sees his soul ascend into the aether and then, curiously, re-descend to the terrestrial sphere and enter the breasts of Brutus and Cato (et scelerum vindex in sancto pectore Bruti  / sedit et invicti posuit se mente Catonis, 9.17-8). This is quite literally the merging or fusion of Pompey with the two greatest champions of the senate. And this is merely the culminating stage of his progressive assimilation to Republican ideology and senatorial power structures. The fact that Cato reorganizes and takes over command of the Pompeian forces after Pompey’s death serves to cement the effect. The progressive assimilation of Pompey to the Senate, of course, involves a loss of individual stature; it entails an inversion of the initial power relations: cf. docuit populos venerabilis ordo / non Magni partes sed Magnum in partibus esse (‘The venerable [sc. senatorial] order taught the world that they were not the party of Magnus, but that Magnus was merely one of their partisans’, 5.13-4). In other words, Pompey the Great becomes great in Lucan’s eyes, precisely when he is divested of individual heroic attributes and assimilated to the collective heroism and authority of the Roman Senate.

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Lucan after Deconstruction

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