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Published in The Classical Journal 96:3 (2001), pp. 263-290. Copyright (c) 2001 The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Inc.


Scelerique nefando nomen erit virtus ("Virtue will be the name given to unspeakable crime," 1.667-68). This rhetorically- charged sententia does more than illustrate Lucan's penchant for impassioned embellishment. It also reflects a sophisticated critical structure that resolves an apparent contradiction of momentous importance in Lucan's poem. On the one hand, Lucan chooses to write on the subject of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, a war that is scelus nefandum: it is more painful, more damaging, and more atrocious than any other Roman battle because it requires the shedding of kindred blood and results in tyranny. On the other, he decides to present that material as epic poetry, which genre traditionally focuses on the praise of virtus (arete), the performance of heroic acts--often at great personal cost--for the sake of homeland, family, and gods. Obviously, civil war cannot produce a hero in the conventional sense of the word because it pollutes both parties: aggressive action is moral depravity, but defensive resistance is little better since it too involves violence against fellow countrymen and thus participation in their crimen. Periere nocentes,/sed cum iam soli possent superesse nocentes ("The guilty died, but at a time when the only possible survivors are also guilty," 2.143-44). By choosing to express an account of civil war through the medium of epic poetry, Lucan mediates the extremes of virtus and scelus. He draws upon the literary tradition of epic, but ingeniously inverts that tradition by removing the individual heroes and concentrating instead on weapon and wound. As a result, he is able to establish that Caesar and Pompey have overturned virtus in favor of personal ambition and selfishness, and thus he condemns civil war. In addition, along the way he leaves hints that the only virtue to be found in such a war is obtained by refusing either to participate or to persevere: the true hero will take his own life to avoid immoral action.

Lucan inverts the battlefield aristeia in order to condemn the combatants on both sides of the civil war. He uses the themes of anonymity and nonrecognition, weapon and wound, and the pollution of kindred blood to demonstrate his disapproval of a war waged by a civic body upon itself. Instead, persuaded by the ethical demands of Stoic doctrine, Lucan employs the conventions of epic to show that the only morally correct path to follow is the one trod by Cato: it is far better to take one's own life than to live under a tyrant and be implicated in his evil by cooperation in his rule.

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