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Setting Sun: Light and Darkness in Julius Caesar's Bellum Civile

Evan Armacost

Boston University

In Julius Caesar’s Bellum Civile and the Composition of a New Reality, Ayelet Peer (2015:15) cites six instances in which Pompey and his forces move under cover of darkness to dastardly ends, remarking that these meetings carry “significant meaning.” Examining these six examples and many more throughout the Bellum Civile, this study will pick up where Peer left off in an attempt to ascertain how light imagery colors the depiction of Caesarian and Pompeian forces and why Julius Caesar as author would employ such a device while writing his work. I argue that Caesar’s use of light and darkness stands in contrast to the Ciceronian depiction of Pompey in Pro Lege Manilia as a symbol of light. Cicero notes that Pompey is particularly praiseworthy for returning light to a city enshrouded in darkness. By creating a dark archenemy out of Pompey, Caesar is able to boast this very accomplishment. Whereas Cicero used lux to laud Pompey, Caesar’s darkness marks Pompey as the clear antagonist of the Bellum Civile who defies every virtue Cicero extolled. It is Caesar, rather, who assumes this lux to drive out the Pompeian darkness and take Pompey’s place as the true lumen rei publicae.

The first use of light imagery in the Bellum Civile occurs just after the opening meeting of the Senate, in which anti-Caesarian sentiment runs high. Caesar writes: “When the Senate adjourned at sunset, all who are of that order were summoned by Pompey” (BCiv 1.3.1). Despite his brevity, Caesar packs a large amount of information into this sentence. By noting the sunset, Caesar is making a loaded comment about the Senate and its actions. The time of day is essential to Roman senatorial business. Kathryn Welch (2005:313) opens her book chapter, “Lux and Lumina in Cicero’s Rome: A Metaphor for the Res Publica and Her Leaders,” by stating that “any system which involved a large group exercising sovereign government needed the light of day in order to function.” It is clear that the Senate fits the role of such a group in the Bellum Civile. Since the Senate was not allowed to meet outside the city after hours, Caesar is clear that this rendezvous is illegal activity. Physical separation from the city parallels moral separation from its ideals. Although Pompey was unable to enter the city himself without releasing his army, this meeting outside the walls takes on new meaning with an understanding of the light imagery in Caesar’s text.

When Caesar and Pompey both discover that Mark Antony is coming to bolster Caesar’s forces in Bellum Civile 3.30, nearly every sentence in 3.30 serves to contrast the enemy generals, often using light imagery to do so. As he describes each man’s expedition to Antony’s location, Caesar writes: “Pompey [leads out his troops] secretly and by night, Caesar openly and by day” (BCiv. 3.30.4). Caesar continues to emphasize this contrast by writing that, when Pompey reaches Antony first, he “prohibited fires, by which his arrival would be more hidden” (BCiv. III.30.5). These two sentences succinctly illustrate the fundamental differences Caesar endeavors to draw between the two generals: in contrast to Pompey’s treachery, Caesar stands in the light and on the moral high ground.

By examining Caesar’s consistent use of visual imagery to further his political message, this study aims to reveal a unique aspect of the rhetorical underpinnings of the Bellum Civile. Welch (318) writes that “Rome was about doing things in the open, in the full light of the sun, even when they were evil.” Caesar intentionally writes himself as a symbol of romanitas, whereas Pompey becomes a non-Roman figure more acceptable for Caesar to defeat. In a dark reflection of Cicero’s praise, Caesar reframes the civil war as a battle of absolutes: good and evil, light and dark. Becoming the hero of his own story, Caesar rewrites the past to create a new future.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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