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Why Did It Have to Be Snakes? Animals, Knowledge and Dread in Lucan and Nicander

Colin MacCormack

University of Texas at Austin

Scholarly treatments of Cato’s encounter with the Libyan serpents in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (9.607-949) have revealed it as one of the poem’s most confounding and thematically dense sections. Over the last several decades, scholarship has highlighted how its engagement with various literary and allegorical traditions paint a complex, even subversive, portrait as Cato and his forces struggle across the desert (Johnson 1987, 35-66; Batinski 1992; Bartsch 1997, 29-35; Leigh 2000). Building on these works, this paper discusses how Lucan’s snakes engage with Greco-Roman zoological traditions, particularly as represented in the most extensive and well-known poetic treatment of venomous serpents: Nicander’s Theriaca. Whereas prior analyses of the two works have primarily concentrated on the extent to which Lucan drew ophiological knowledge from Nicander (e.g. Cazzaniga 1957), such an approach obscures their shared poetic features and aims. Through spectacular but horrifying presentations of snakes and their bites, both Nicander and Lucan similarly manipulate knowledge so as to construct uniquely dark and threatening poetic worlds. Beyond merely aping his Hellenistic predecessor, this paper argues that Lucan expands Nicandrean aesthetics and themes, emphasizing the unknowability of nature and deadly consequences such ignorance brings.

The first section of the paper explores the stylistic and generic hallmarks surrounding venomous snakes in Nicander’s Theriaca. While attuned to Hellenistic tastes, such as a heightened interest in “the particular,” and heavy incorporation of technical learning (cf. Fowler 1989, 110-36), Nicander presents a decidedly darker world than the didactics of Aratus and Hesiod or the bucolics of Theocritus, as animals actively conspire to do harm (Sistakou 2012; Overduin 2014). Not only is the poem’s natural world willfully malicious, Nicander deliberately deploys biological/zoological knowledge to impose a lingering sense of dread. In contrast to the ‘unforeseen’ (ἀπροϊδὴς) strikes which threaten would-be victims (cf. Ther. 2, 18), the poem furnishes readers with various ‘signs’ (σῆμα) distinguishing each species, with special care and attention devoted to graphic descriptions of their venom. For example, concerning the haemorrhous or ‘bloodletter’ (Σῆμα... αἱμορρόου… ἐνίψω; 282), the reader learns exactly how their body will deteriorate if bitten. The poem, in hyper-realistic detail, describes how the venom enters the system, breaks down the body’s integrity and causes progressively dire hemorrhaging throughout (298-308). By design, such knowledge does not just inform, but fascinates and terrifies.

The second section of this paper turns to how this tradition of snakes manifests in Lucan. Despite some overlap within and across species (Cazzaniga 1957), Lucan was not solely dependent on Nicander for zoological knowledge and Roman authorities, most conspicuously Aemilius Macer, probably also exerted significant influence (Courtney 1993, 107-9). Though pulling from a broader pool of material, the Bellum Civile nevertheless taps into an approach towards animals exemplified and likely popularized by Nicander. Like his Hellenistic predecessor, Lucan emphasizes colorful visuals and almost clinical detail, with heavy smatterings of gore. When a ‘bloodletter’ strikes poor Tullus, Cato must behold ‘greater spectacles’ (maiora spectacula) as his follower violently haemorrahges from his entire body (9.805-14). As Leigh (1997, 265-91) has shown, such scenes deliberately invoke spectacle and gladiatorial combat, creating a sort of inverse venatio wherein Cato becomes spectator to his men’s deaths. Moreover, Lucan expands upon the Nicanderean contrast between seen and unseen, known and unknown. He overtly states the ascribed mythic aetiology behind Libya’s serpents is false and ‘no care or labor’ (non cura laborque) can unearth its vera causa (9.619-23). Unprepared for his opponent, Cato can only watch as his men suffer unaccustomed deaths from surprisingly tiny wounds (insolitasque uidens paruo cum uolnere mortes; 9.736). It is only through the intervention of the Psylli, who alone know the necessary charms and medicines, that the Romans survive (9.890-949). Like in Nicander, such specifically curated knowledge works in deliberate ways. Juxtaposing graphic yet informed violence with the ignorance and overreach brought by civil war, Lucan’s snakes craft an appropriately dark and intimidating world for his epic.

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Lucan Statius and Silius

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