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Rivalry, Repetition, and the Language of Pestilence in Lucan’s Bellum Civile

Hunter H. Gardner

University of South Carolina

Among the prophecies on the eve of war that conclude Bellum Civile 1, Figulus describes the calamity as a matura lues (645) and pestis (649), anticipating how plague and civil war will reciprocally inform each other throughout the poem. Plague narratives expose the contagious nature of violence within the social order, violence described by René Girard as “mimetic,” since individuals mirror each other in their desire for the same distinctions (1974). Roman ventures in epic constantly throw up doubles to confound the power of an individual hero—no longer “superlative” if rivalled—to represent the whole (Hardie 1993; Bandera 1981). While the sacrifice of one contending party should resolve conflict, I argue that Lucan recycles the language of epidemic disease within a context of civil war to predict the renewal of doubles rather than the recovery of the social order: section one of this paper observes how the symptomatology of plague at Dyrrachium in Book 6 echoes the distortions of a diseased Roman body politic; section two examines moments when the poet repeats tropes associated with the epidemic (e.g., bodily accumulation, physical decay) in non-epidemic contexts. Reprising the soothsayer Arruns’ exposure of the mass of “another head” (alterum caput, 1.627-8) destined to destroy Rome, BC’s language of plague subtends a structural doubling that dictates open-ended rivalry among equals.

Epidemic disease, along with Caesar’s army, besieges Pompey’s men at Dyrrachium (circumdatus, 6.44) and culminates in the tottering head of the victim, unable to bear its own weight. Scholars have acknowledged the vulnerabilities of Lucan’s bodies as well as their figurative potential for Lucan’s poetic architecture (Quint 1993; Bartsch 1997; Dinter 2012) and prescriptions for the Roman body politic: in particular, Mebane (2016) argues that Lucan uses decapitation to indict the authoritarianism of the Principate. The power of the caput to signal political authority implicates Lucan’s symptomatology within a discourse of rivalry, supremacy, and collapse: the head’s refusal to bear itself up (caput se ferre recusat) recalls Book 1’s sketch of a morbid Roman empire, unable to bear its own weight (1.70-72), a Rome elsewhere described as “head of the world” (caput mundi, 2.655, 2.136). Where Lucretian and Thucydidean accounts of the Athenian plague begin with effects of illness on the head (Lucr. 6.1145; Thuc. 49.7) and follow the progress of the disease into the lower body, Lucan’s tottering heads mark the moment before death. Focusing on the weight of the head prior to the victim’s incorporation within the crowd of anonymous soldiers (6.101-102), the poet rehearses a contention among equals that yields to supremacy, but also predicts the collapse of the one and resurgence of the same frustrating parity.    

The pestilence abates with a change of winds and recognition that Caesar’s men have been equally besieged by famine (circumdatus, 6.108; Saylor 1978). Yet pestilence motifs precede the epidemic and persist beyond Book 6 (Vallillee 1960), renewing disease as civil war and supplementing the poet’s resistance to conclude the conflict that would seal the fate of the Republic (Masters 1992; Tracy 2011). The poet echoes his own account of plague at Dyrrachium in the conflict between Marius and Sulla (2.152-3; Fantham 1992), an episode recognized as a mise en abyme of the larger war (Henderson 1987, Dinter 2012, Chidwick 2017). The language of plague also illustrates confusion around funeral pyres after the battle of Massilia (3.756-62; cf. Lucr. 6.1278-86) and contaminates Book 7’s battlefield narrative (7.597-8). Repetition has been observed as fundamental to Lucan’s artistry (Masters 1992; Dinter 2012); the repetition of mortality characteristic of contagious disease has, moreover, been identified as a means by which modern plague texts subvert narrative closure (Gomel 2000). While the telos of disease at Dyrrachium looks forward to the emergence and demise of monarchy in Caesar, the persistence of plague motifs in BC implies that an empire founded on contention among twins will only temporarily resolve itself in one-man rule.

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Contagious Narrative

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