Something on Armistice Day
“Seneca had once said to Nero, ‘However many men you kill, you can never kill your successor.’” That from Warmington on “The Fall of Nero” (last chapter). There was, prior to that, an interesting quote from Momigliano: “When many of the rights usually connected with Roman libertas were lost, some people rediscovered what the Greek philosophers had noticed before, that loss of political rights involves almost unexpectedly a much more serious offense to elementary moral values.” Interesting because it is hard to wrap my mind around it, it seems worthwhile mulling over some. Today in America, threats to political rights are rampant—most obviously voting restrictions in many states that seem to target minorities, but in other insidious ways also.
That said, I wasn’t sure what I should embark on next, done with the brief history of Nero and his reign. I have another short book, by David Shotter, but decided against it; while my Marcus Aurelius in Loeb (containing his speeches) is available and waiting. No, I determined to turn my attention elsewhere.
Seneca’s nephew—also a (forced) suicide under Nero’s reign—happened to be an epic poet. As far as I can tell, Susan Braund’s translation is the one to have; the work, though incomplete (in ten books) is preferentially titled (The) Civil War. It—or I should say the translation—contains memorable lines. Not being a scholar, I can’t tell you what might be famous or have been oft-quoted in antiquity, but these (so far) have struck me, from within the first two books:
"Fortune works to justify the leader's moves and finds pretexts for fighting."
"O gods, you are so ready to bestow supremacy, but to preserve it so reluctant!"
Why have the constellations left
their paths to move obscurely through the universe?
And why does sword-girt Orion’s side so intensely shine?
Because war’s frenzy is upon us: the power of the sword
shall overthrow legality by might, and impious crime
shall bear the name of heroism, and this madness shall extend
for many a year. And what use is it to ask the gods to end it?
The peace we long for brings a master. Rome, prolong your chain
of disaster without a break and protract calamity
for lengthy ages: only now in civil war are you free.
The opening of the poem echoes Vergil but is more complex:
Of wars across Emathian plains, worse than civil wars,
and of legality conferred on crime we sing, and of a mighty people
attacking its own guts with victorious sword-hand,
of kin facing kin, and, once the pact of tyranny was broken,
of conflict waged with all the forces of the shaken world
for universal guilt, and of standards ranged in enmity against
standards, of eagles matched and javelins threatening javelins.
In the first seven verses at the beginning of the poem he has done nothing but paraphrase the words ‘wars... worse than civil’. Count up the phrases in which he rings the changes on this... Annaeus, what end will there be?
I remember reading those comments by Fronto, and truth is I side with him. This may be a matter of having Lucan in translation—though I do not fault Braund’s English: her rendering conveys very clearly a sense of the original, and she explicitly translated for meaning (that is, did not work a paraphrase), albeit in verse. But I did find the repetitions or parallel constructions tiresome: “You will undoubtedly/ be overthrown, as Lepidus by Catullus was brought low, as Carbo,/ buried now in a Sicilian tomb, submitted to my Axes,/ and Sertorius, who in exile roused the fierce Iberians.”
This also gives you a sense of what I find troublesome: copious notes are necessary to catch all the references and allusions—and I am “wafting” without taking time to study. It may be that I drop the effort sooner rather than later: there is an excitement to the flow of the lines (hexameters in the original), but I am not liking it. Unlike Homer, this requires looking at the notes to make sense of it, while the narrative is not so secure that, even missing allusions, the story captivates, as with the earlier poet. (The feeling is akin to reading the two epics turned out by Keats.)
The fault may be with my reading, with my haste and impatience. I am as much looking at the poem as a historical document—something that will shed some light on the time of Nero—as for its literary value. It may well be, at a future date, I shall return to Lucan more profitably, when I have a better sense of the subject matter (though I have a schematic understanding of the civil war period from previous readings in Cicero). Lucan is said to have espoused the prevalent Stoic principles and ideals; and, while it was suggested that he was made to suicide because he turned out better verses than Nero, more probably he was an active participant, even the main one, in a failed assassination attempt of Nero, which renders him something of a heroic figure.