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Thirty Years’ War: Lucan’s Cato since 1988

Tim Stover

Florida State University

This paper has two aims: to offer a review of the approaches to Lucan’s Cato in the thirty years since Henderson 1988 and to add my voice to those who view Lucan’s Cato as a character that brings a glimmer of light to a sea of darkness.

            In the last thirty years Cato has occupied a place of central importance in the study of Lucan’s BC, with opinions on him serving almost as a litmus test for one’s views on the nature of the epic as a whole. The importance of Cato in the current critical scene can be illustrated by recourse to Brill’s Companion to Lucan (Asso 2011), three chapters of which are devoted solely to Cato, while none are devoted solely to Caesar or Pompey. The strangeness of this is noted by Henderson himself in the volume’s epilogue (Asso 2011, 550). Cato’s prominence is interesting, especially since Henderson’s seminal article only mentions Cato twice, each time only in passing (1988, 131; 150). Henderson’s neglect of Cato is matched by his influential student, Jamie Masters. Masters’ discussion of Cato is largely limited to the question of the poem’s intended endpoint and eschews sustained analysis of Cato as a character. And this despite Masters’ opposition to the work of Ahl (Masters 1992, xiii), for whom “[Lucan’s Cato] is, in short, the greatest man of all time” (Ahl 1976, 274).

            Critics in the post-Henderson era have identified analysis of Cato as a desideratum, one that they have been eager to fill. Studies of Lucan’s Cato have sought to present him either as a positive or negative character, although some have attempted to avoid such polarization by focusing on ambiguity as the key to Lucan’s portrait of Cato (Bartsch 1997; Sklenář 2003; Bexley 2010; Tipping 2011; Caterine 2015). On the negative side, one thinks of Leigh 1997, for whom Cato’s actions in Book 9 enable Lucan to create a “flawed Stoic allegory” (267) that reveals the “impotence of philosophy” (273). Leigh’s reading is challenged by Bexley 2010, who attempts to restore a positive dimension to the allegory of Book 9, such that Cato becomes a positive exemplum of Stoic endurance. Exemplarity is also at the heart of Seo 2013, but for her Cato’s exemplarity is negative: not only do a series of Catones manqués “magnify the flaws of the original” (74), but Cato himself emerges as an example not of virtus but of amor mortis. On the other side, D’Alessandro Behr 2007 offers an optimistic reading of Cato, who is both a positive exemplum of Stoic opposition to tyranny and a character whose words represent the narrator’s own views. Others who champion a Catonian perspective for the poet, albeit in varying degrees, are Stover 2008, Galtier 2016, and Tracy 2016 (for skepticism of this approach, see Masters 1992, 82; Rudich 1997, 127; Bexley 2009, 473). Finally, Caterine 2015 urges something of a return to the aporetic approach of Henderson 1988. Since Lucan’s poem makes it impossible to find coherence or meaning, we should resist taking sides either for or against Cato by meeting the intense partisanship of the poem with unemotional detachment. But is this not to suggest that we read the epic from a Catonian perspective of sorts?

            To me the agnostic neutrality urged by Caterine is not a viable way to read this most impassioned and political poem. I wish to enter the fray as a pro-Catonian partisan by focusing largely on how the poem changes in Book 9 once Cato replaces Pompey as Caesar’s foe. I suggest that the whole tone of the conflict changes as a moral dimension, hitherto lacking, is given to the contest by Cato’s new prominence. For what had been a war to determine Rome’s next tyrant now becomes a “just war” (BC 9.292-3) that pits tyranny (Caesar) against freedom (Cato).

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Lucan after Deconstruction

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