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Poetics of Political Fear: Lucan and the Neronian Age of Anxiety

Irene Morrison-Moncure

Graduate Center, CUNY

Fear is represented many ways in Lucan’s Bellum Civilethat together portray a collective Roman fear that is political in nature. As defined by political scientist Corey Robin (2004), political fear is “a people’s felt apprehension of some harm to their collective well-being.” This harm often comes from political leaders, and through this lens Lucan’s epic becomes acommentary on Rome’s relationship with autocracy in the early empire. TheBellum Civilenarrates several famous campaigns in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (49 – 48 BCE). From the perspective of emotion, the poem also addresses the fear of the Roman people in the crucible of political turmoil and does so, I suggest, in conversation with the political climate under the emperor Nero. Previous scholars, from Marti (1964) to Leigh (2007) and Behr (2007), have acknowledged the centrality of fear in Lucan’s work, having related it to the Aristotelian theory of pity and fear and to the use of rhetorical devices in historiographic writing. However, there has been no extended analysis of the multifaceted depictions of fear in Lucan’s historical epic, and political analyses and discussions of fear’s programmatic role in the poem are likewise lacking. To remedy this gap, my paper advances an interpretation of Lucan’s epic that exposes Rome’s history of political fear by arguing that the Bellum Civilepromotes the reign of Nero as an “age of anxiety,” a political climate defined by uncertainty, apprehension, and despair.

In my paper, I examine Lucan’s episode of theelder’s tale (2.67-233) for what it reveals about Rome’s history of political fear and those responsible for it. The elder’s tale is an example of a story within a story and serves as a useful model for the larger narrative that frames it. Lucan places the episode at the start of Book 2 to punctuate the uncertainty at Rome following Julius Caesar’s transgression at the Rubicon (Book 1). In seeking precedents for this uncertainty, the elder recalls to a crowd the events and emotions surrounding the conflict between Sulla and Marius a generation prior. I first focus on the process the elder models in recalling this prior conflict. I outline how the elder (1) considers the suffering in Rome’s immediate future, (2) remembers the events of Rome’s past, then (3) predicts a more general future for humanity. I next argue that this is the same process a reader of Lucan’s epic experiences in the process of reading the text.The elder’s tale establishes a set of parallels between the elder, who I identify as a stand-in for the poet, and the Romans in the crowd who represent Lucan’s contemporary Neronian audience. Lastly, I contend that, based on these parallels, Lucan represents Nero as the heir to a dynasty of political fear that began under Sulla and was inherited by Caesar. I conclude that the prevalence of fear elements in the Bellum Civileand the intensity by which these elements are represented in the poem expose the distress and frustrations of a poet who is seeking exemplaof fear from the past (i.e. the time of Caesar and before) to understand a present state of anxiety at Rome (i.e. under the emperor Nero). The poet of the Bellum Civiletherefore conveys a psycho-political critique of Nero and Caesar’s imperial dynasty to his contemporary readers. 

Session/Panel Title

Truth to Power: Literary Rhetorical and Philosophical Responses to Autocratic Rule in the Roman Empire

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