Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 5.

A. Loupiac, La poétique des éléments dans la Pharsale de Lucain. Brussels: Collection Latomus vol. 241, 1998. ISBN 2-87031-181-8. No price supplied.

C.M.C. Green
University of Iowa

Once upon a time, Lucan was held in the highest regard, beginning from the period shortly after his death (Statius Silv. 2.7), because of his involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy against Nero. Dante ranked him fourth after Homer, Horace and Ovid (Inferno 4.90) and Chaucer likewise honored him (House of Fame 499). Milton's rebellious Lucifer owes an incalculable debt to Lucan's Caesar. Lucan's subject matter and rhetorical style were both liberally appropriated by playwrights like Corneille and Addison. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Pharsalia was a ready source for libretti (e.g. Busenello's La Prosperità infelice di Giulio Cesare and Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto), for Lucan was perfectly suited to the new genre of opera, with its celebration of high art and high emotion. Many of Lucan's speeches could be seen as operatic arias avant la lettre. Yet from the early nineteenth century onward Lucan's reputation began to decline, and by the twentieth it was well into the nose-dive from which Ahl finally rescued him.[[1]]

Lucan is not a poet for an era capable of believing in the possibility and the virtues of self- government, whether that self-government be of the state by its people, or of the individual by his reason. Perhaps this is why, in an age like ours where the reliability, indeed the very reasonableness, of human reason is anxiously in doubt, we are again finding something in Lucan that appeals. Loupiac's La poétique des éléments dans la Pharsale de Lucain systematically analyses a Lucan whose world-view is at once vastly romantic and bleakly modern: 'son message historique et philosophique nous paraît être le suivant: le monde est en proie au chaos, le hasard cruel et la loi du plus fort règnent dans la nature et dans la société' (p. 205).

The interpretation of nature, primarily through augury, haruspicy, or the interpretation of omens, had long been at the heart of Roman religion. Once this religious system was joined to the complex cosmology of Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism, where nature is both a mirror of and an allegory for the divine organization of the universe, Roman authors could assimilate nature into a completely Roman discourse that was still universal in its implications. Loupiac's analysis of the Pharsalia from the view of Stoic cosmology therefore touches a very significant aspect of the poem, being both more detailed and more narrowly focussed than Morford's study, an important predecessor.[[2]] In his 'Première Partie: Situation des quatre éléments' (pp. 25-44) he defines the Stoic view of the cosmos (Chapter 1, 'Physique et cosmologie: Lucain et le stoïcisme', pp. 25-35), recognizing that Lucan appears to embrace chaos and cosmic disorder, to the noticeable neglect of a compensating return to order. Loupiac then gives an overview of the cosmography of the Pharsalia (Chapter 2, 'La cosmographie de Lucain', pp. 36-43).

'Deuxiéme Partie: Formes et attributs: typologie des éléments' (pp. 47-144) has four chapters, one on each of the four elements: 'L'air' (Chapter 1, pp. 47-58); 'La terre' (Chapter 2, pp. 59-78); 'L'eau' (Chapter 3, pp. 79-112); and 'Le feu' (Chapter 4, pp. 113-43). Each chapter has a discussion of the specific element's symbolic or allegorical meaning in Stoic thought, followed by an analysis of specific passages in the poem. These discussions are illuminating. Loupiac's overall assessment is well attested by the title of the conclusion to the second part: 'Un univers hostile, pervers et perverti' (pp. 143-46).

The third section, ('Signification des éléments', pp. 147-213) pursues the overall meanings of the individual appearances of the elements in the context of Stoic thought. Chapter 1 ('Le combat des éléments entre eux: une nature en conflit', pp. 147-58) presents the conflict of the elements as nature's reflection of civil war. Chapter 2 ('Souillures et sacrilèges', pp. 159-75) deals with the manifestations of the unnatural -- omens, sacrilege, phantoms, magicians and magic -- which is essentially nature perverted. Chapter 3 ('Les fléaux naturels: les labores', pp. 176-86) connects the struggle appropriate for each element to the characters and the acts thus described. Loupiac's tentative conclusion to this section is that one function of the elements is to make Cato's triumph over nature in Africa stand out all the more.

Chapter 4 of this section focusses on 'Les angoisses de Lucain: visages de la mort' (pp. 187-98) and the imagery of the elements that underlines Lucan's powerful concern with the dead and dying in the Pharsalia. Chapter 5 ('Les leçons des éléments', pp. 199-211) puts the capstone, as it were, on the argument, by a discussion of the elements as psychological guides to the characters in Lucan's epic. There follow a conclusion to this section ('Lucain et le probléme du mal' (pp. 212-14), and a general summing-up (pp. 215-17).

Loupiac finds Lucan's sensibility very modern, comparing him to Camus and Malraux, and the Pharsalia to Picasso's 'Guernica' (p. 205). Caesar is the 'héros du Mal' (p. 204); Cato is the 'défenseur de la piété' (p. 204). Above all, for Lucan, 'l'effondrement des valeurs essentielles de l'idéal romain, que symbolise la guerre civile, est une catastrophe irréversible' (p. 215).

Despite his fascinating connection between Spaniards as diverse in time as Picasso and Lucan, and particularly despite his solid and learned analysis of Stoic cosmology in the Pharsalia, Loupiac's interpretation founders on the same two sections of the poem that seem to thwart us all: the eulogy to Nero, in which Lucan claims that even the civil war was not too high a price if Rome was thereby to gain Nero (1.34-37), and Book 10, in which the character of Caesar seems to be transformed from madman to a philosophically inclined traveler to Egypt. The conventional explanation for the eulogy is that it was written when Lucan still admired Nero, and that it is in any case just a meaningless bit of courtly posturing, unconnected to the work as a whole. This is simply not possible. The evil symbolized by Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus in 48 BCE was from the beginning the subject of Lucan's poem, and the eulogy envisions a justification of that evil by the end. Lucan might have changed his mind as to Nero being the person who achieved this; but we cannot doubt that his subject was always the horror of the civil war, and that in some way or other he thought his poem could resolve that horror.

Book 10, on the other hand, is most often ignored, ostensibly because it is incomplete, but in fact because it would seem to undo everything that Lucan had accomplished up to that point, its sole apparent purpose the thwarting of any attempt to give a coherent and full account of the poetics shaping his epic. Loupiac acknowledges the change in Caesar's character, but can make nothing of it, and, like many others, simply dismisses the eulogy as not worth serious consideration.

There is something rather dated about Loupiac's arguments both here and elsewhere. Only two of the works cited in the selective bibliography (except for one of Loupiac's own) were published after 1990, even though this last decade has seen a great resurgence in Lucan studies. Important (and controversial) books as well as many important articles of the last twenty years, are neither listed by Loupiac in his bibliography nor discussed in his text.[[3]] Nevertheless, Stoic cosmology remains central to any interpretation of Lucan, and to this Loupiac has given us, precisely because it is so focussed and systematic, a really first-class guide, which will also serve as a useful handbook, to how other Latin authors could exploit the powerful and complex Stoic system of nature as symbol, and acts of nature as allegories.

As Monteverdi, Handel and Milton saw so well, it is the character of Caesar (provided we eliminate those two inconvenient episodes from consideration) that seems to unify the poem through a magnificent repudiation of all that epics, epic heroes, and grand art are traditionally meant to achieve. Our own century, because of its wretched, seemingly endless experience of evil, and progressive dissolution of all that is good, has once again responded to Lucan's vision. It is critical, however, not to be seduced by our own romantic nihilism into supposing that Lucan, had he lived to finish his epic, would, with equal nihilism, have left the world spinning towards infinite chaos.


[[1]] F. Ahl, Lucan: An Introduction (Ithaca 1976).

[[2]] M. P. O. Morford, The Poet Lucan: Studies in Rhetorical Epic (Oxford 1967).

[[3]] See, for example, R. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and his Heroes (Ithaca, New York 1987); J. Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan's Bellum Civile (Cambridge 1992); and S. Bartsch, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan's Civil War (Cambridge, Mass. 1997).