Patrick J. Burns

Research Associate at Harvard Human Evolutionary Biology | Formerly Quantitative Criticism Lab, ISAW Library | Fordham PhD, Classics | CLTK contributor

Lucan’s tres libri: A reconsideration of arrangement and argument in the Bellum civile

Classical Association of the Atlantic States Annual Meeting October 4, 2018


The order of composition for the books of Lucan’s Bellum civile has long been a source of debate. The biographical tradition refers to “three books” published during his lifetime and, in an example of scholarly Ockham’s razor, these are generally assumed to be Books 1-2-3. Yet, there is not consensus. Masters (1992) states the question directly—“Which three books were published?”— challenging the assertion by Rose (1966) that anything except 1-2-3 is “out of the question.” Other suggestions include 1-7-9 (Ussani 1901), 2-7-8 (Pichon 1912), and 1-2-7 (Duff 1964). Bruère (1951) mentions that it is perhaps not the first three books, but is also likely not the last three.

In this paper I argue for a different arrangement, namely 7-8-9. I base this reading on three arguments from internal evidence: 1. the Battle of Pharsalus is the poem’s centerpiece and it is inconceivable to have not been part of the work’s original conception; 2. the close relationship between Book 3 and Book 4 in documenting the war’s Western campaign suggests that they were composed in a coordinated manner; and 3. the unusual length and imbalanced content of Book 9, suggests a break in composition and rethinking of poetic design. In addition, with 7-8-9 assumed, a fourth closely related argument can be adduced, namely that Book 10, famously incomplete, provides several parallels to Aeneid 4, and accordingly makes sense as a book conceived as a structural allusion to its predecessor and the fourth book in its original design.

The consequences of assuming that Book 1 was written first, specifically that it was written before Book 7, are great: most recent arguments about Lucan’s relationship with Nero are predicated on the idea that his disposition changed from fawning (whether ironically or not) to hostile (e.g. Ahl 1976; Dewar 1994; Nelis 2011). This argument, however, is compromised if Book 7 is shown to be the earlier composition, with the address to Nero (1.33-66) then representing an unsuccessful attempt to mitigate the disfavor that the poet found with the emperor and that cost him the right to declaim his poetry.

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