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Lucan’s African Monsters: the Triumph of Chaos over Cosmos in the 'Bellum Civile'

Giulio Celotto

Concordia College

Lucan’s Bellum Civile contains only two mythic excursuses: Hercules and Antaeus in Book 4 (581-660), and Perseus and Medusa in Book 9 (619-99). Although scholarship has contributed valuable studies on these scenes (on the former, see Grimal 1949, Thompson-Bruère 1970, Ahl 1972, Martindale 1981, Saylor 1982, and Asso 2002; on the latter, see Fantham 1992, Eldred 2000, Leigh 2000, Saylor 2002, Malamud 2003, and Papaioannou 2005), an in-depth examination of the relationship between the two digressions has not been attempted until recently. Lowe (2010) and Bexley (2010) have pointed out that the two mythic excursuses are analogous, for they both portray the triumph of a Greco-Roman civilizing hero against a monstrous Libyan inhabitant, and have suggested that they are vital for interpreting the historical scenes that they introduce, namely Curio’s clash against Juba, and Cato’s battle against the snakes, respectively. Following these studies, in this paper I argue that Lucan contrasts these two mythic episodes, in which cosmos prevails over chaos, to the time of civil war, in which chaos prevails over cosmos.

            Lucan’s episode of Hercules and Antaeus is clearly modeled on Vergil’s episode of Hercules and Cacus in Aeneid 8 (184-279): in both cases the civilizing hero Hercules defeats a violent monster (Grimal 1949; Thompson-Bruère 1968; Ahl 1976, 93). However, the function of the two mythic digressions in the two poems is opposite. In the Aeneid, Hercules’ victory over Cacus anticipates Aeneas’ triumph over Turnus (Galinsky 1966, 27-31) and Octavian’s triumph against Marc Antony (Gransden 1976, 107), which represent the reestablishment of order after a time of chaos. In the Bellum Civile, on the other hand, Hercules’ victory over Antaeus anticipates Scipio’s triumph over Hannibal, mentioned in passing at 4.656-60, but contrasts with the defeat of the Caesarian general Curio at the hands of Juba. By reversing his model, Lucan replaces Vergil’s optimistic view of a world dominated by cosmos with the pessimistic view of a world dominated by chaos. The civil war is furor, as Lucan explicitly states at 1.8. By becoming prey to furor and chaos, Rome loses the role of defender of ratio and cosmos, which during the Republican age allowed it to subdue violent and mad foreign people, such as the Carthaginians. Such “barbarization” of Rome will inevitably cause it to succumb to these same people, in whom furor is historically deeply rooted and, therefore, stronger.

This narrative structure finds a parallel in the episode of Cato and the snakes. As the mythic clash of Hercules and Antaeus is contrasted with the historical clash of Curio and Juba, so the mythic battle of Perseus and Medusa is contrasted with the historical battle of Cato and the snakes. The Greco-Roman character Cato, the new Perseus, faces the monstrous Libyan snakes, born from Medusa’s blood; but just like Curio, Cato is unable to follow in his mythical predecessor’s footsteps, and is defeated by the African monsters. It cannot be overlooked that Cato is unquestionably wiser and more rational than Curio; however, he is not more successful. If the Curio episode shows that when Rome falls into chaos it is doomed to succumb to a foreign people, the Cato episode suggests that even when Rome tries to reaffirm its role of defender of cosmos, this attempt remains so isolated in the context of the civil war that it is destined to fail.

Session/Panel Title

Latin Hexameter Poetry

Session/Paper Number

43.3

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