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Caesar and the Poetics of Nefas in Lucan's Civil War

Isaia Crosson

Columbia University

               In this paper I argue that Lucan's portrayal of Julius Caesar as a supernatural force of evil (Narducci 2002; Masters 1992; Marti 1945) that surpasses the boundaries of human possibilities is key to understanding the meaning of book 10 of the De Bello Civili, as well as the overall meaning of the poem.             

               In book 1, Lucan announces that great things come crashing upon themselves (in se magna ruunt): it is a destiny shared by all, from Marius and Sulla to Pompey the Great, who went from glorious victories on the battlefield to resembling an old oak. Only Caesar appears to be immune to this universal law: since his crossing of the Rubicon against the will of divinized Roma, Lucan has granted Caesar an almost omnipotent power (Henderson 20102). Episodes like Ilerda in book 4, where Caesar is said to recognize the favor of Fortune and heaven in his military and moral triumph; or like the storm of the Adriatic in book 5, where he hybristically challenges the gods and nature and yet suffers no harm; or like Pharsalus in book 7, where he dares to banquet among the corpses of his fellow-citizens without paying a price for his unprecedented impiety, all seem to corroborate the view that Caesar can do anything he wishes. Book 3 offers perhaps the most excellent example of this: Caesar cuts down a grove sacred to Druidic gods and explicitly states that he has committed a nefarious deed (... me fecisse nefas). As Keith has convincingly argued, Lucan resorts to subtle intertextual allusions to recall the impiety of Ovid's Erysichthon and Narcissus in this episode. And yet, no Ovidian nemesis strikes Caesar down. In other words, Caesar persistently contributes to creating the very subject-matter of Lucan's poem, the nefas of civil war, but never incurs a punishment. Stover, Ahl and others, who think that the poem is unfinished, believe that Lucan might have eventually portrayed the Ides of March in terms of a divine nemesis against the Roman tyrant.

               However, I believe that Caesar's punishment occurs within the boundaries of the poem as we have it, making book 10 an ideal endpoint for Lucan's epic. At the beginning of book 10, Lucan unexpectedly divests Caesar of his quasi-Jovian power and turns him into a man full of fear. Later on, after Pothinus' troops surround the palace of Alexandria, Caesar is even compared to a child (puer) and a woman (femina). This characterization of Caesar is unique not only if we compare it with that of the preceding nine books of Lucan's De Bello Civili, but also if we compare it with that of all extant historical sources (including Caesar's own commentarius). Towards the end of book 10, Caesar is paralyzed: he cannot act anymore, and he cannot even think clearly. For the first time, then, he is completely unable to create nefas. This, I believe, is an excellent endpoint for Lucan's narrative, because it allows the poet to recall the end of Caesar's own version of the civil war and to avoid recounting the far worse nefas of Caesar's final suppression of the Republic (cf. Tracy 2011).

               Against the wicked will of heaven and Fortune, who have elevated men like Caesar to the rank of the superi, it is the poet himself who chooses to put an end to the nefas he has recounted down to book 10. Thus, Lucan grants supernatural proportions to the character of Caesar only in order to strike him down most vehemently at the end: even the ultimate maker of nefas must eventually crash down upon himself. So does also Lucan's poem, an inmensum opus subject to the very destiny of his protagonists.

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Latin Hexameter Poetry

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