(39—65 ad) Roman poet, born in Spain

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Roman poet (ad 39–65), b. Corduba. His father, Annaeus Mela, was an equestrian and brother of Seneca the Younger. Mela came to Rome when his son was about eight months old. There Lucan received the typical élite education, ending with the school of rhetoric, where he was a great success (see education, roman); he probably also studied Stoic philosophy under Annaeus Cornutus, a connection of Seneca. He continued his studies at Athens, but was recalled by Nero, who admitted him to his inner circle and honoured him with the offices of quaestor and augur. In 60, at the first celebration of the games called Neronia, he won a prize for a poem in praise of Nero. In 62 or 63 he published three books of his epic on the Civil War. Growing hostility between him and Nero finally led the emperor to ban him from public recitation of his poetry and from speaking in the lawcourts. Early in ad 65 Lucan joined the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso, and on its discovery was forced to open his veins in April 65; as he died, he recited some of his own lines on the similar death of a soldier.


Lucan was a prolific writer. The surviving epic ‘The Civil War’ contains ten books covering events in the years 49–48 bc beginning with Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon; the poem breaks off, almost certainly unfinished, with Caesar in Alexandria. Lucan freely manipulates historical truth where it suits his purpose, e.g. in introducing Cicero in Pompey's camp on the eve of the battle of Pharsalus. The epic has no single hero; the three main characters are Caesar, an amoral embodiment of Achillean (see achilles) and elemental energy; Pompey, figure of the moribund republic and shadow of his own former greatness; and Cato (of Utica), an impossibly virtuous specimen of the Stoic saint (see stoicism).

The Civil War is narrated as a tale of unspeakable horror and criminality leading to the destruction of the Roman republic and the loss of liberty; this message sits uneasily with the fulsome panegyric of Nero in the poem. From the moment when Caesar is confronted at the Rubicon by a vision of the distraught goddess Roma, in a scene that reworks Aeneas' vision of the ghost of Hector on the night of the sack of Troy, Lucan engages in continuous and detailed allusion to Virgil's Aeneid, the epic of the birth and growth of Rome, in order to construct ‘The Civil War’ as an ‘anti‐Aeneid’, a lament for the death of the Roman body politic as Roman military might is turned in against itself. Lucan's rhetorical virtuosity is exploited to the full to involve the audience (defined in the proem as Roman citizens, i.e. those most nearly concerned by the subject of civil war) in his grim tale. In an extension of tendencies present already in Virgil, an extreme of emotion is achieved through the use of lengthy speeches, apostrophe of characters in the narrative, and indignant epigrammatic utterances (sententiae); in contravention of the objectivity associated with Homeric epic, Lucan as narrator repeatedly intrudes his own reactions, as in the shocked meditation on the death of Pompey. Related to the goal of emotion are the features of hyperbole and paradox. Hyperbole is expressive both of the vast forces involved in the conflict, presented as a ‘world war’, and of the greatness of the crimes perpetrated. Lucan's use of paradox is rooted in the conceptual and thematic anti‐structures of civil war, in which legality is conferred on crime, and the greatest exemplars of Roman military virtue, such as the centurion Scaeva, are at the same time the greatest criminals; but in this topsy‐turvy world paradox also extends to the physical, as in the sea‐battle at the end of bk. 3 which turns into a ‘land‐battle’ because the ships are so tightly packed. Realism is not a goal; Lucan's notorious abolition of the traditional epic divine machinery is not determined by the desire for a historiographical plausibility; rather, Lucan replaces the intelligibility of the anthropomorphic gods of Homer and Virgil with a darker sense of the supernatural, in a world governed by a negative version of Stoic Providence or Fate. Dreams, portents, and prophecies abound. Death fascinates Lucan, in both its destructive and its heroic aspects; a recurrent image is suicide, viewed both as the symbol of Rome's self‐destruction and as the Stoic's praiseworthy exit from an intolerable life. The Roman spectacle of ritualized killing in the amphitheatre is reflected in the frequent gladiatorial imagery (see gladiators) of the epic. In all of these features Lucan shows a close affinity with the tragedies of his uncle Seneca the Younger.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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