Shadi Bartsch, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan's Civil War. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. & London, 1997. Pp. X + 224. ISBN 0- 674-44291-1. UKú29.95.
Department of Classics, University of South Africa
Shadi Bartsch's previous book offered a fascinating analysis of how the establishment of quasi- monarchical rule affected the behavioural patterns of the senatorial class and how the 'suppression of freedom' shaped the literature of the early Principate.[] For her latest book she has taken as her subject an author who is seen by many as the most vociferous critic of that particular system of government, the most open and wild advocate of the view that freedom and all that was truly Roman died at Pharsalus. Ideology in Cold Blood provides a strikingly dissident approach to Lucan in that it aims to weld together a text-orientated focus, a political reading of the Civil War and a discussion of Lucan's political activities, i.e. his involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy.[] Bartsch's decision to include a biographical approach in her analysis should not be taken for bland na´vety coming at a time when influential scholars on Lucan have come to reject this approach for the blatant fallacies that it entails.[] Bartsch offers something completely novel in this area, for it is entirely obvious that her sympathies do not lie with forms of historical reconstructionism in which the biographical data are simply made to correlate with the presumed political message of the poem.
In both her analysis of Lucan's text and of his Republican ideology, Bartsch uses predominantly contemporary literary and philosophical parallels which allows his work to become more accessible to modern readers (although it does not necessarily provide us with a better explanation for his decision to join the Pisonian conspiracy). I found especially helpful her reliance on the Vietnam War poets for elucidating the body language of the victims of civil war. It is her emphasis on the interconnectedness of Lucan's poetry and his life and especially his involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy, however, that is by far the most controversial part of the book. Here modern philosophers are brought in to explicate Lucan's abrupt partisanship in favour of Pompey. The gist of her argument is that belief in the ideological value of the Republic, although long fossilized as a true belief, has to be resurrected by Lucan, the author, to justify the political choice of Lucan, the conspirator. It is with this part of her book, arguably its core, that this review will be mainly concerned.
The main thrust behind our frustrations in getting things right in Lucan lies in the duality of Pompey, 'symbol par excellence of failed hopes, of chances nearly grasped and then let slip', as Johnson has aptly characterized him.[] Yet the narrator, that self-appointed eye-witness of the events of civil war, makes it clear that everybody's sympathies should lie with this vainglorious man. He does so most emphatically in 7.207-213, most significantly just prior to the point of no return for Republican hopes, but Bartsch has discovered signs of his favouritism earlier in the poem, esp. 2.519-21; 2.736; 4.358f. (discussed on pp. 78 and 79). The latter point wreaks havoc with any attempts to pinpoint Lucan's pro-Pompeian stance to any historical event, for instance his quarrel with Nero and the subsequent ban on the publication and recital of his poetry. The change in tone from despair to hope cannot be linked to any outside changes; it comes from within the persona of the narrator without affecting the other characters' opinion of Pompey (pp. 83f.). This is the 'faultline' of Lucan's poem, 'the systematic clash in the Civil War between detachment and engagement as a stance toward disaster' (pp. 4f.). The explication of this change is the subject of Bartsch's book. As she makes perfectly clear (although she occasionally goes into rhetorical overdrive), the schizophrenia of the text is reflected in Lucanian scholarship. Bartsch professes to be doing what Lucan wants us to do all along, to provoke and reconcile these two possibilities for understanding, a point which students of Lucan have failed to see (p. 7).
In doing so she cleverly appropriates the structure of Lucan's poem as the framework for her own discussion. A provocative analysis of the breakdown of norms, values, and the normal rules of anatomy and agency, can stand on its own, but it simultaneously aims to lay the foundation for the phoenix-like rise of ideology out of the ashes of nihilism. Readers familiar with the work of Johnson, Henderson and Masters will find much to their liking here. Bartsch frequently opens up new perspectives which are cogent and persuasive. Her discussion of the body, with the introduction of the term 'abject' (something which is the product of the body, but to which the mind must enact an instinctive distance) is a gem. Her analysis of the snakes episode in book 9, emphasizing the ambiguity of the animals as beings which are capable of swallowing things whole and creeping into holes (the enveloper and enveloped in one species!) is the most persuasive one to date. Here Bartsch is continuing the search for the mind-warping ambivalence of civil war. Her main point is the falling away of boundaries, between friend and foe, Roman and foreigner, and within the citizen-body, between who is right and who is wrong. The argument becomes a bit repetitive here and there, but the main point is well made: 'what we have here is merely the last step in the author's systematic denial of the possibility of picking one side of a pair, of halting the collapse of pairs into ones, and, most of all, of giving voice to any coherent ideological stance in the weakened, empty terms of post-Republican Latin' (p. 56), or, more plainly, 'Ideology, too, is impossible, when no clear boundary separates the two sides' (pp. 63f.). And, still, Lucan's narrator makes that choice, and obviously wants us to do the same.
The orthodox interpretation of this conundrum, recently restated with new vigour but hardly more convincing results by Vassily Rudich, is that the change reflects Lucan's enmity with Nero which encourages him to take a pro-Pompeian stand. The ban on publishing and reciting, so the argument goes, drove Lucan underground and allowed him to throw off the mask of dissimulation.[] Of course, as Jamie Masters has pointed out, this all depends on accurate chronological knowledge of Lucan's life and literary career, knowledge which we do not have.[] In contrast, some critics have rejected the value of the biographical tradition outright and have found a possible answer within the theme of Lucan's poem. As Masters has formulated it, the narrator's abrupt and paradoxical partisan attitude is the result of the poet's fractured voice, a consequence of the doubleness and unjustifiability of the civil war that he describes.[] Bartsch quibbles with both views and offers a surprising and at times perplexing alternative. She relies on modern and contemporary thinkers, such as Pascal, Rorty and Zizek, to explain Lucan's stand towards ideology. The latter is informed both by an awareness that belief in the Republic is dead and by a fervent desire to recreate belief nonetheless. Lucan, Bartsch argues, is a political ironist (a term borrowed and adapted from Richard Rorty's discussion of moral ironism, a contemporary phenomenon affecting the American intelligentsia) who cold-bloodedly promotes belief in a system of ideology which can no longer claim general acceptance. In her own words: 'Where Rorty suggests the coexistence of ethical commitment and ethical ironism as the unlikely bedmates of the modern intellectual, Lucan instead seems to enact the coexistence of political cynicism and despair with political commitment and fervour even in the face of the deadlock of upper-class myths of power lost' (p. 102). This argument forms part of a powerful presentation in which the paradox of contradictory views is deliberately retained in order to move toward a political explanation. For the bottom line of Bartsch's arguments is always Lucan's involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy.
One cannot but be impressed with Bartsch's ingenuity and her case is well-argued. However, some doubts can and must be raised. My first line of argument focuses on the overall framework in which the discussion is embedded. Why does Bartsch need modern and contemporary philosophers to explain Lucan's ideological conundrum? The pathological pattern behind his choice, and how this is prefigured in his poetry, becomes more understandable, but how does this fit the ancient scheme of beliefs? The crucial point here is that there are no ancient parallels for the combination of political poetry followed by political action along the lines of part of the ideological message of that poetry such as can be found in Lucan. There is, therefore, substantial risk involved in equating the two elements. In fact, Bartsch's explanation can only make sense as part of an attempt to understand Lucan's poetry, at the expense, as we shall see, of the integrity of the historical source-material.
This must be followed with a related observation: is her approach not simply too much of a modern construct imposed on a situation for which it is distinctly inappropriate? The twentieth century experience of totalitarian regimes has undoubtedly influenced our reading of the Civil War, and it is extremely welcome that Bartsch makes the implicit reading explicit (pp. 66f.), but does the ancient evidence allow for such bold comparisons? Surely, the scale of the destruction wrought by Nazi- Germany and Stalinist Russia, and, more importantly, the novelties of the crimes that were committed, bear no resemblance to the pathological anxieties of the upper classes under Nero. Everything rests on the accuracy of our ancient sources and on the degree to which we are prepared to commiserate with those talented but possibly equally unlikeable members of the aristocracy. Any reader is, of course, at liberty to choose his or her own framework for the interpretation of an ancient piece of writing, but by bringing together two distinct historical periods, reflected in responses which are different in their level of personal experience of the horrors described, Bartsch causes a deliberate blurring of lines.[] On occasion the use of such an overly modernising framework results in the surreptitious elision of historical distance. Lucan's poem is turned into something more than a work of creative imagination, recreating, for whatever reason, a gruesome past in which the author himself was not involved; it becomes the direct precursor of twentieth century critics of totalitarian regimes.[]
Secondly, how are we to treat the relationship between Lucan's engagement in his poetry and his political involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy? Is it necessarily true that Lucan's choice to join the conspiracy must be part of our reading of the Civil War? This has been the traditional view so far, or at least that of one school of thought. As observed above, Bartsch's view has very few similarities with previous attempts to integrate poem and biography, except for one important point. She prefers to see Lucan's pro-Pompeian stand as a deliberate move towards active involvement in the opposition against Nero. Although the rationale is entirely different, the difference between the two views is merely one of perspective, the relationship between poem and political activism remaining the same. Instead of looking for an exact moment in the poem where Lucan changed his mind about the thrust of his story, we are now in search of a reason why the poet departs on a drastically different ideological course, one in which the instability of Pompey is of minor concern. The importance of Pompey is now as a symbol, an instrument of ideology whose blemishes continue to be evoked but are transcended by the urgency of the political choice that faces Lucan, the future conspirator. But the question remains as to how far it is possible to view Lucan's poem as anything else than politically motivated, and is this necessarily true?
From the tradition on Lucan's involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy Bartsch retains first of all the unquestionable fact of his participation in the event. This appears to make good sense for this is the item attested to by all the sources. However, most strikingly, she also happily accepts an item from Tacitus that serves as the historian's cue as to how we should read the mind-set of the conspirators. M. Julius Vestinus Atticus, Tacitus tells us matter- of-factly, was excluded from their ranks because he suffered from delusions of libertas (Ann. 15.52.2). How can this bit of information help our understanding of Lucan's position? Does it not make his participation in the conspiracy even more intractable? Bartsch's reasons for endorsing this odd combination are as follows: 'For here return the two most striking features of the Bellum Civile itself: its furious partiality in favor of the Old Republic (this is no poem in favor of any domini, Stoic rex or not) and the impossibility of justifying that very partiality' (p. 90). I'm sorry, but this is mumbo-jumbo posturing as scholarship. By endorsing Vestinus' exclusion, Bartsch wittingly imposes the framework of contradictions which she has discovered in Lucan's poem onto the conspiracy as a whole. Thus in the end we find our poet, the author of the most outspoken defence of the Republican ideal, joining a conspiracy which, in Tacitus' opinion, deliberately excluded the input of Republican idealism. Secondly, by dismissing the tradition of Lucan's literary feud with Nero (by not incorporating it in her analysis), the ban on his poetry and the termination of his senatorial career as his main reasons for joining the conspiracy, Bartsch leaves us no option but to view Lucan as a Republican activist.
My main objection to this highly contrived reading of an important episode in Neronian history is that the contradiction that Bartsch claims to expose rests entirely on the view that the Civil War must be read as a brief for conspiracy against Nero. And in the second instance, it depends on our willingness to believe, with Bartsch, that Tacitus' sentiments about the spirit of senatorial opposition are somehow able to present us with a reflection of Lucan's personal predicament. That the relationship between Tacitus' account and Lucan's poem is perhaps entirely different, though equally complex, can be shown once we accept the tendentiousness of Tacitus' story- telling. His emphasis on Lucan's personal reasons for joining the conspiracy can then be shown to be part of a broader framework of selfishness which Tacitus ascribes to the main conspirators. The best way to approach Tacitus' account is by way of Tony Woodman's illuminating article which is absent from the bibliography, although Bartsch made use of it for her previous book. The irony of Tacitus' version is that the conspirators are under the delusion of performing in a play, and the play they have chosen is based on the assassination of Julius Caesar. The conspiracy fails because the individuals pay more attention to the quality of their acting than to committing the act of assassinating Nero.[]
In view of the negative light in which the whole episode is set by Tacitus, the exclusion of Vestinus serves to enhance the image of petty self-obsession by which the conspirators are hampered. By having Lucan join them for purely non-political reasons and without including a reference to his major poetic work, Tacitus wants us to believe that Lucan decided to participate for the same selfish reasons which motivated his co-conspirators. In fact Lucan is made to look decidedly more apolitical when we observe that his personal motivations (propriae causae, Ann. 15.49.3) are paired with the entirely different reasons ascribed to Plautius Lateranus, an element which is missing from Bartsch's discussion. The latter joined the conspiracy not because of any personal grievances but out of patriotism (nulla iniuria, sed amor reipublicae sociavit, Ann. 15.49.4). Amor rei publicae is commonly (as here) translated as 'patriotism'. Yet one could put an equally strong case in for 'devotion to the Republic'. This would be inaccurate, of course, for, as Tacitus makes clear elsewhere, restoring the Republic was definitely not the objective of the conspiracy. However, the phrase provides a neat commentary on Lucan and his poem insofar as it is a direct denial of an idea which one may reasonably derive from a political reading of the Civil War. The point whether Tacitus can be trusted here is moot; the fact of the matter is that he wants his readers to reject any possible link between such a political reading and Lucan's subsequent activities as a member of the Pisonian conspiracy. Nobody will claim that we have to swallow everything Tacitus has to say about the conspiracy, but this much is clear: Tacitus offers very little evidence that would permit us to infer existential doubts about the concept of Republicanism -- in Bartsch's words, 'the impossibility of justifying that very partiality' (p. 90). If Bartsch is actually arguing that Vestinus' exclusion proves how difficult it was to frame the opposition to Nero in terms of Republicanism, we end up with a different set of problems. If this were true, it carries the suggestion that Lucan was more successful than Vestinus in conveying his views to his co- conspirators and the implications of such a view automatically short-circuit our ideas about Lucan's political convictions. Lucan was not suffering from delusions of libertas, for he was accepted by the group of conspirators, and Vestinus was not.
After having been found out, the 'action poet' behaves unheroically under torture and dies by his own hand while reciting the verses spoken by (written for) one of his own characters (Ann. 15.70). For decades Lucanists have been obsessed with tracing the exact words that Lucan may have quoted on this occasion and in so doing, I believe, have missed an essential point in Tacitus' account.[] Tacitus is well known for not referring to the literary output of the writers who were engaged in the Neronian political scene. Although he is referred to as a writer more than once, there is for instance no explicit mention of Seneca as the author of the Apocolocyntosis or the De Clementia. Seneca is mainly remembered as the writer of Nero's speeches, an area where the precise political relevance of his pen afforded him an inclusion in Tacitus' historical work. The same anonymity of literary stature can be found in Tacitus' portrayal of Petronius, and it is this instance which has created so much speculation as to the identity of the writer of the Satyrica. It may not be entirely coincidental, however, that both Seneca and Petronius are presented as committing suicide after composing a final piece of writing, each in his own style and in a sense characteristic of his approach to life. Seneca, in true philosophical style, committed suicide in the manner of Socrates after having written down his final thoughts in a dissertation (Ann. 15.63.3).[] Petronius wrote his Codicilli which he spiced up with references to Nero's sexual adventures, a perfectly satirical way of taking revenge (Ann. 16.19.3).[] It is Lucan alone who is not allowed the time to compose something new but instead has to rely on a hand-me- down from his own work. Although the historical circumstances may have prevented him from doing so, the image of the poet dying whilst reciting his own poetry is probably a Tacitean invention. One of its several functions may be to emphasize once again the discrepancy between poetry and action.[]
The three writers committing suicide after (or while) engaging in literary pursuits provide us with an intentional travesty of aristocratic ethics. In a society where dying words were recorded for posterity with vivid interest and published in anthologies, the situation sketched here is completely anomalous. Instead of the true grit of heroism, stuff for possible inclusion in the long tradition of Roman exempla we are here offered 'dying writings'. It is therefore all the more significant that Tacitus does provide us with the straightforward dying words of Subrius Flavus, a minor soldier in the praetorian guard, and not with a summary of Seneca's last observations. This is done on the ostensible excuse that the latter are too familiar to require citation, and that the words of Flavus deserve to be recorded for posterity. The ultimate effect, however, and I have no doubt that this was intended, is to deprive the main conspirators of their hero status, to readjust the picture in favour of minor (lower class) characters, thereby condemning all the more severely the self-styled, but ultimately ineffectual, opposition to Nero. Lucan's involvement in the conspiracy can never be doubted, but it is clear that in Tacitus his personal behaviour is part of the overall lack of heroics that characterize the main conspirators. Whether Tacitus is correct in representing the episode as such is a different matter altogether, and one for which no easy solution is available.
The above critique on Bartsch's analysis of the historical aspects of Lucan's life has occupied more space of this review than I originally intended and should in no way be taken as a lack of admiration for Bartsch's challenging arguments. In fact, I have done exactly what she says her book aims to provoke in a reader. It has made me think long and hard about Lucan's poetry and the place it occupies in the history of the first century AD. Her study has familiarised me with a different way of looking at this complex issue, but in the end I am not persuaded by the consistently modernising character of her arguments. Bartsch's approach is extremely successful when she explains matters relating to the text, especially in the field of mental destruction created by civil war. I am prepared to accept, furthermore, that Lucan felt the need to replace aporia with fiery partisanship and that this move somehow coincided with his growing enmity of Nero who made an end to his hopes of a promising literary and political career. Whether his written Republicanism also fired his participation in the Pisonian conspiracy is doubtful, or at least not verifiable.
Bartsch's book is not for the uninitiated. As she concedes, it is not a comprehensive treatment of Lucan's poetry and life, but a highly charged reading of the poem and its ideological message. It will surely be ranked among the best works on the poet and I strongly recommend it to scholars interested in the literature of the Principate and in the role of Roman political epic. For those who have a special interest in the reign of Nero in all its aspects there are perhaps fewer rewards involved. The main weakness, in my view, is Bartsch's refusal to delve deeper into Lucan's own times to substantiate her inferences on his psychology. That the Neronian regime was somehow akin to totalitarianism is accepted from the start and not once is the question raised whether modern readers are not too much tempted to read everything about Nero, and the Principate in general, in such anachronistic terms. For instance, Bartsch argues: 'Lucan's own times . . . was (sic) a time when the privacy and rights of the individual itself were under siege. The exaggerated social mobility of the era, the sense among the Roman upper classes that even the very walls were porous and their secrets unsafe, were phenomena that went hand in hand with the slow death of the subject's legal and moral identity and the attack upon the political and social efficacy of the same upper classes' (pp. 41f.). The point about the exaggerated social mobility is subjective and has an almost Juvenalian ring to it. In fact, a similar characterization of Rome under Nero has been offered by Johnson.[] It is nothing more than a paraphrase of Lucan's opinions (7.385- 459), spiced up with the familiar tropes of imperial history represented in twentieth century anti- totalitarian rhetoric. From a historian's perspective, this is perhaps the principal weakness of the book, that it allows for such psychological depth in the personality of Lucan, whereas it engages in such blatant oversimplifications of his times.
[] Shadi Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge, Mass. 1994).
[] How the text of Lucan's poem is shaped by the mental and physical catastrophes of civil war can be experienced most vividly in John Henderson, 'Lucan: the word at war', Ramus 16 (1987) 122-64, now republished in idem, Fighting for Rome (Cambridge 1998) 165-212; Jamie Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan's Bellum Civile (Cambridge 1992).
[] Cf. Masters (above n. 2) 87f., and especially his n. 95, a view endorsed by Vincent Hunink in his review of Masters' book in Mnemosyne 46 (1993) 253.
[] W. R. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes (Ithaca and London 1987) 85.
[] Vassily Rudich, Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricization (London and New York 1997) 107-86, esp. 152.
[] Jamie Masters, 'Deceiving the Reader: the political mission of Lucan Bellum Civile 7', in J. Elsner & J. Masters (edd.), Reflections of Nero (London 1994) 170. On the same page Masters makes the important point that Lucan's poem was a dangerous project from its inception, that is, from the time when relations between him and Nero were not strained.
[] Masters (above n. 2) 87-91.
[] A good example may be found on p. 46 where Bartsch argues that Lucan's perspective on the problems of his era was not an isolated one. She immediately follows this with a reference to Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York and London 1990) 209-14, who suggests that a fascination with horror and the grotesque is a side effect of convulsive social changes and is most often seen in the aftermath of war, in times of cynicism about the government and fascination with countercultures.
[] E.g. on p. 40 Hannah Arendt's writings on Nazi Germany are described as curiously evocative of Lucan's view of Rome under Caesar, then (p. 67) there is mention of parallel after parallel between the visions of his imagination and our own history. Yet, on p. 68 [writing about parallels with the Holocaust] Lucan's grim visions may become for us more than the fancy of a long-dead poet striving for the expression of evil. This is exactly what we should not allow to happen.
[] A.J. Woodman, 'Amateur Dramatics at the Court of Nero: Annals 15.48-74', in T.J. Luce & A.J. Woodman (edd.), Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (Princeton 1993) 104-29, with the reference to Julius Caesar's assassination on p. 107.
[ See the recent overview in Vincent Hunink, 'Lucan's Last Words', in C. Deroux (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, vol. VI (Brussels 1992) 390-407. He concludes by saying that a philological approach is unable to render us any specific text as the one Tacitus may have alluded to.
[] Woodman (above n. 10) 117f. makes the interesting suggestion that the parallels with Socrates' death are more numerous and detailed than Tacitean commentaries suggest. Not all of them, moreover, may have been in Seneca's favour. One may perhaps think of the charge of corrupting the youth, which is potentially embarrassing for one who had been a tutor of Nero for so long.
[] That satirical comments on members of society were sometimes cast in the form of a mock testament can be inferred from the example of Fabricius Veiento in Ann. 14.50; cf. J.P. Sullivan, 'Petronius' codicilli: A note on Tac. Ann. 16, 19', Petronian Society Newsletter 7.1 (1976) 2.
[] It could also be taken as a victory in defeat, albeit a useless one, in that Lucan, in spite of Nero's ban, is able to recite his own poetry after all.
[] Cf. Johnson (above n. 4) 88: 'Rome is no longer thronged with her own citizens: she is the junkyard, the sewer, of the world, she is stuffed to bursting with the dregs of humanity'; even more speculative on pp. 93f.