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Sed mihi iam Numen: Poetry and Inspiration in Lucan’s Pharsalia

Caolán Mac An Aircinn

University of Texas at Austin

This paper reinterprets the elogium of the emperor Nero in Lucan’s Pharsalia, 1.33-66, as a comment on Neronian poetry. Hitherto, discussion has focused overwhelmingly on the political implications of the panegyric, specifically whether it was intended ironically or not (e.g. Nock 1926; Grimal 1960; Hinds 1987), though the scholarship has reached such an impasse that Nelis (2011) could question whether we know how to read the elogium at all. Much of this scholarship treats the elogium in isolation, and the suggestion has even been made that the elogium represents a ‘fossil’ (Dewar 1994, 210) from prior to Lucan’s falling out with Nero. In contrast, I will argue that the elogium is in fact a vatic invocation of an inspiring deity no different from and in dialogue with Virgil’s addressing the Muse, and that the fraught nature of knowledge in the rest of the poem (Henderson 1987; Tracy 2009) represents a theorisation of decline in Neronian literature à la Persius or Seneca (Hinds 1998, 85; Johnson 1987, 123–34).

I will begin by sketching the vates-concept, an idea closely associated with the Augustans that a poet represented the mouthpiece of a god and spoke divine truth (Virg. G. 1.24-42, A. 8.626-731; Newman 1967; Thompson and Bruére 1968; O’Higgins 1988; Masters 1992; Kersten 2018). Lucan establishes himself as a vates at 1.64 (nec, si te pectore vates/accipio). As such, he requires an inspiring god, in which role he casts Nero, and he should speak divine truth. I will then turn to Book Five’s Phemonoe, another vates whom Lucan describes as conforming to the Augustan conception of the term (esp. at Luc. 5.83, 105-6) and a cipher for the poet (c.f. Masters 1992). For all this, she resoundingly fails in her vatic duty, bringing forth nothing but lies and disinformation. This casts doubt on the validity of her inspiring figure, Apollo.

I will then show that the Lucanian narrator, like his analogue Phemonoe, fails in his vatic duty. I will choose a few demonstrative instances of inconsistency in the narrator’s speech in the Pharsalia which demonstrate that Lucan’s narrator fails to achieve any reasonable standard of accuracy, necessary for a vates. Following Phemonoe’s analogy above, this implicitly casts doubt on Nero’s efficacy as inspiring deity. This implies that Nero is unworthy of deification and implies that any poetry written taking him as Muse is flawed.

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Neronian Literature

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