Lucan’s *Civil War* is grossly underrated, and I found reading it to be a revelation

COWEN: Why does reading Lucan’s The Civil War make more sense in 2021 than it might have 30 years ago? To me, it seems remarkably contemporary — more than Virgil. People are crazy. They’re at each other’s throats, but not really for any good reason.

BARTSCH: Lucan seems contemporary. Lucan is very much after and in response to Virgil. He reads Virgil as saying the possibility of the good state, the good empire is a real thing. What Lucan says is, “No, that is never possible. There will always be men grubbing for power and killing each other, and civil war is, frankly, a condition of life, a condition of history. Right now, I’m writing under Nero, who is not a good emperor. I’m writing about the events that led to Nero coming to power, and I hate them. They’re terrible. People lie to each other. Brothers killed brothers. Friends slashed each other in the face, all for political reasons. People use language, again, incorrectly to distort what they meant, and then — here’s the rub — because I’m writing under Nero and because Nero is one of the bad emperors, I can’t complain about writing under Nero. I have to praise him. Otherwise, I’ll get in trouble.”

So you get this beautiful juxtaposition of a poet starting out his poem with almost over-the-top praise. “Oh, Nero, you’re going to heaven, and you’re going to be a star in the constellations. There’s never been anybody so wise as you. Civil war was worth it if you were the outcome.”

Then the rest of the poem is this blistering indictment of the present, which is the present under Nero. By indicting the present but praising Nero, he effectively shows us that his praise is false, but that false praise is what everybody has to engage in in a world where there’s no freedom. Maybe that is what seems topical to you. Or maybe it’s just about fake news, and you see Lucan is writing fake news in the beginning of his epic.

COWEN: I think the lack of obvious self-interested motivation for the polarization is what strikes me as so contemporary about Lucan. It’s not primarily about rent-seeking. There’s simply some logic of escalation that never stops. Now, maybe at the end of the poem, there’s a return to sanity in some ways, but there’s still this total immersion in violence, and the dynamics of that, the nonrationality or arationality — it struck me if I had read Lucan in 1991, I would have been quite puzzled, like this is something of antique interest. But I read it today — I’m not so pessimistic about the Western world, but it seems to hit much closer to home.

BARTSCH: Why is that? Sorry, you’re supposed to be asking me questions, but why does it seem to strike closer to home to you now?

COWEN: There seems to be a logic in contemporary politics where people take opposite sides of an issue because other people have taken a side. They don’t necessarily care anymore what it’s about. This may have moderated in the last few months, but there was a sense, if Trump tweeted some view about Turkey, some people would agree, and other people would take the other side, whether or not they had agreement about Turkey.

BARTSCH: Absolutely. The polarization of political views — that is completely in Lucan. Everything is binary. Both sides are at each other’s throats. The problem is, neither side is good. They’re just both opinionated. Yes, he constantly shows us horrible, meaningless scenes of butchery, which will never lead to anything meaningful. I think in that sense, yes, it’s an interesting comparison to what happens today.

Another interesting thing that he does is that, even though everything has been boiled down into them versus us — or actually them versus them because there’s nobody good in the epic except for Cato, who ends up dying — even as he takes on so serious a subject, he refuses to partake of its seriousness in a way. What I mean by that is that his battle scenes are ridiculous. They’re not realistic.

Here’s an example. You’re fighting for Julius Caesar, and you’re on a boat, and you’re trying to get onto a boat that belongs to Pompey, so you grab it with one arm as it comes by, but the people in Pompey’s boat chop off your arm. Then you grab it with your other arm, and then they chop that arm off. Then you’ve got no arms. So, what do you do? Well, Lucan says, you just lob yourself onto the boat armlessly and hope that you can make a difference that way. There’s arms and legs flying everywhere.

In Virgil or Homer, somebody stabs you, you groan, blood comes out, you die. In Lucan, you just bop around like a puppet losing limbs and legs. That’s very strange.

That is from my Conversation with Shadi Bartsch.

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