Lucan’s “Civil War”: A Massacre Without God

M. Annaei Lucani Pharsalia sive De Bello Civili Caesaris, & Pompeji Libri X.

Published by Hugo Grotius, printed by Stefano Curti in Venice, 1679.

Due to his tolerant, enlightened and moderate opinions, Hugo Grotius had made many enemies in his native country. After a dramatic escape from prison, the Dutchman found refuge with the French king in 1621. In 1626, while being in exile, he published both treatises on philosophy of law and ancient works, including the “Pharsalia”, in which Roman poet Lucan describes the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Actually, Grotius’ choice shouldn’t come as a surprise as in his age, there was also a bloody massacre taking place in Europe: the Thirty Years’ War. Thus, there were many parallels between the ancient poet and his modern publisher.

Hugo Grotius actually escaped from prison thanks to literature. Instead of returning borrowed books, he hid in the box that was meant for the books and fled to Paris. Illustration by G. Sibelius, 1771.

Grotius – A Prodigy on the Run

Calvinist Hugo Grotius spoke and wrote fluently in Latin and Greek at the early age of 12, he wrote elegant poetry and studied at the university. At the age of 16, he was admitted to the bar. However, his repeated advocacy for moderate Calvinist positions and his opinion that the state should be allowed to decide matters of church demonstrated that he firmly stood up for his convictions – or that he simply was naive regarding politics. The former prodigy ended up in prison and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent this time with his family at Loevestein Castle, where he was allowed to continue his activities as an editor. As there was no internet in the 17th century, he was granted the privilege of having books being delivered to him for academic purposes. Obviously, Grotius had to return them – and that was his rescue. With the help of his wife he hid in one of the boxes meant for returning the books and set off for Paris. There he wrote his main work in 1625 under the protection of Louis XIII: “On the Law of War and Peace”. Displaying a tolerant attitude, Grotius advocated the creation of a universally binding international law that respected different legal traditions. Furthermore he believed that no single country should be allowed to claim the sea. This was obviously an outrageous statement in times of naval powers. In this context, Grotius published his edition of Lucan’s work in 1626. Soon his life became less monotonous once again, he lived at several courts, worked as a diplomat and was often caught between two stools. Expelled from his country, he must have felt connected to ancient poet Lucan on more than one occasion.

After the murder of his mother, Nero is said to have been tormented by doubts – at least that’s the interpretation of a painting by John William Waterhouse (1878). When Lucan, who was perhaps the most ingenious poet of his time, had killed himself on the emperor’s orders, the ambitious amateur poet probably rather breathed a sigh of relief because his talented rival could no longer outshine him.

Lucan – A Prodigy Who Wasn’t Favoured by Fortune

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (called Lucan) was considered a prodigy in the field of poetry, too. Poetry probably ran in the family: his father was a famous orator, his uncle was best-selling author Seneca. Yes, the very philosopher Seneca who was supposed to keep whippersnapper Nero on track. He wasn’t successful, as we know now. At that time, Nero, who already considered himself the greatest poet of all time, invited the literature prodigy to live at his court. But when he noticed that Lucan’s wit, his polished language, his new images and his powerful expression outshined any competitor, he withdrew his favour without mercy. The consequence: Lucan was banned from his profession and received a terse order to commit suicide in AD 65. By then, productive Lucan hadn’t even reached the age of 26 and died without completing his main work, the “Pharsalia”.

Lucan’s epic poem on the civil war starts with Caesar crossing the Rubicon – here depicted in a painting by Adolphe Yvon (1875).

Pharsalia – Existentialist Massacres Without Gods

You have never heard of this work even though you learned Latin in school? That’s no surprise. Lucan’s style is actually very demanding. So demanding that one cannot expect the latest generation of Latin students to read his work. But it’s worth reading! The title alludes to the decisive battle at Pharsalus between Caesar and Pompey in 48 B.C., the original title had actually been “On the Civil War”.


The work had even left its contemporaries speechless, oscillating between poetry and historiography. Its form was that of an epos written in verse, the content full of personal comments of the author as it was known from historiographic works. Lucan incorporated detailed psychological studies and what’s most important: his work did without the usual apparatus of gods. Think of the Iliad or the Aeneid – what would they have been without the glorious Olympians? Although Lucan compared himself quite immodestly to Homer and Vergil, capricious Fortuna is the only one who sometimes interferes in the plot of his work. In line with modern existentialism à la Sartre, people could only rely on themselves in their misery, and Caesar was an evil, almost unstoppable Rambo who stopped at nothing and massacred innumerable people in order to achieve his goals. The republican opponents had claimed moral superiority, however, adhering to ethical values was exactly what made them inferior.

But be aware: Lucan certainly just wanted to replace Nero with a better emperor, he did not want to abolish monarchy. Many “republicans” misunderstood this fact in later times. Grotius, too, has probably seen his own anti-monarchical attitude confirmed by Lucan on numerous occasions. After all, Grotius had already argued vehemently that the Netherlands should remain an aristocratic republic when he was still a young man. (This did not stop him from serving various monarchs while living in exile…) So while the secular interests behind the massacres in Europe were rather poorly disguised by a religious cloak, which already hung in shreds, Grotius published Lucan’s civil war epos, whose linguistic beauty was breath-taking and which could certainly be understood as a rejection of the excessive attempts for the purposes of self-fulfilment made by power-thirsty princelings.

Lucan: Inspiration and Benchmark

Our edition is a late reprint from 1679, one of many as one should add, because this edition was very popular. At the time, Grotius had already been dead for a generation. However, Lucan was en vogue. Actually, Lucan had always been popular. In Christian late antiquity, believers were pleased about the absence of pagan gods, in the Middle Ages Lucan was read as an important historical document on Roman history. And Grotius’ contemporaries appreciated Lucan’s linguistic abilities. There were adaptations, rewritten works and numerous borrowings and allusions. They were inspired by the unusual pictures created by the young genius. They realised that it was possible to express something one experienced or describe historical events in verse. Traces can be found in Shakespeare’s Roman plays and Lucan’s witch Erichtho makes an appearance in Goethe’s classical Walpurgis night. During the French Revolution, a quote from Lucan’s work was engraved on the sabres of the guards (4,579: “The sword was given for this, that none need live a slave.”). Philological works as those of Hugo Grotius served as basis for an intensive reception. Translations based on these texts were already available in Grotius’ time. But anyone who wanted to read Lucan seriously needed a reliable original.

So why don’t we know Lucan today? Reading Lucan requires time – just like any complex work of literature. And that is certainly just as out of fashion as the great figures of the Roman Republic are. But if we look beyond these figures, a bulging world of ideas opens up to us – for example the ideas of people who had to manage to life in this world without the help of Gods –, linguistic pictures and a captivating language that can fascinate us today just as much as they fascinated the buyers of Grotius’ edition in the 17th century.


Other Things You Might Be Interested In

A digital version of the original edition from 1626 can be found in the database of the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, Weimar.

Text bewerten