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Luca'nus, M. Annaeus

The short notices of this poet in common circulation, such as that prefixed to the edition of Weise, although particularly meagre, contain a series of statements many of which rest upon very uncertain evidence, while the longer biographies, such as that of Nisard, are almost purely works of imagination. In order that we may be enabled to separate those portions of the narrative which admit of satisfactory proof from those which are doubtful or fictitious, we must examine our materials and class them according to their quality.

I. The facts collected from the writings of Statius, Martial, Juvenal, Tacitus, the Eusebian Chronicle as translated by Jerome and Sidonius Apollinaris, may be received with confidence. According to these authorities Lucan was a native of Cordova; his father was L. Annaeus Mella, a man of equestrian rank and high consideration, who, satisfied with amassing a large fortune by acting as agent for the imperial revenues (procurator), did not seek the same distinction in literature or politics, which was achieved by his brothers M. Seneca and Junius Gallio. The talents of the son developed themselves at a very early age and excited such warm and general admiration as to awaken the jealousy of Nero, who, unable to brook competition, forbade him to recite in public. Stung to the quick by this prohibition the fiery young Spaniard embarked in the famous conspiracy of Piso, was betrayed, and, by a promise of pardon, was with some difficulty induced to turn informer. In order to excuse the hesitation he had at first displayed, and to prove the absolute sincerity of his repentance, he began by denouncing his own mother Acilia (or Atilia), and then revealed the rest of his accomplices without reserve. But he received a traitor's reward. After the more important victims had been despatched, the emperor issued the mandate for the death of his poetical rival who, finding escape hopeless, caused his veins to be opened. When, from the rapid effusion of blood, he felt his extremities becoming chill, but while still retaining full consciousness, he recalled to recollection and began to repeat aloud some verses which he had once composed descriptive of a wounded soldier perishing by a like death, and with these lines upon his lips expired (A. D. 65). The following inscription which, if genuine, seems to have been a tribute to his memory proceeding from the prince himself, was preserved at no distant period in one of the Roman churches: --


From the birthday ode in honour of the deceased, addressed to his widow Polla Argentaria, by Statius, we gather that his earliest poem was on the death of Hector and the recovery of his body by Priam; the second, on the descent of Orpheus to the infernal regions; the third on the burning of Rome; the fourth, an address to his wife; the last, the Pharsalia; there is also an allusion to the success which attended his essays in prose composition, and we infer from an expression of Martial that his muse did not confine herself exclusively to grave and dignified themes. (Stat. Silv. ii. praef. and Carm. 7; Martial, Mart. 1.61, 7.21, 22, 23, 10.64, 14.194; Juv. 7.79; Tac. Ann. 15.49, 56, 70, 16.17; comp. Dialog. de Orat. 20; Hieron. in Chron. Euseb. n. 2080; Sidon. Apollin. 10.239, 23.165; Wernsdorff, Poet. Lat. Min. vol. iv. pp. 41, 587.)

II. In a short trumpery fragment entitled " Vita Lucani," ascribed to Suetonius, and which may be an extract from the treatise of that grammarian, " De claris Poetis," we are told that Lucan made his first public appearance by reciting at the quinquennial games the praises of Nero, who ranked him among his chosen friends, and raised him to the quaestorship. This good understanding, however, was short-lived, and the courtly bard having been, as he conceived, insulted by his patron, from that time forward seized every opportunity of attacking him in the most bitter lampoons, and eventually took a lead in the plot which proved the destruction of himself and his associates.

III. Another "Vita Lucani," said to be " Ex Commentario Antiquissimo," but which can scarcely be regarded as possessing much weight, furnishes sundry additional purticulars. It sets forth that he was born on the 3d of Nov. A. D. 39, that he was conveyed from his native country to Rome when only eight years old, that his education was superintended by the most eminent preceptors of the day, that he gave proofs of extraordinary precocity, attracted the attention of Nero, and while yet almost a boy was admitted into the senate, raised to the dignity of the quaestorship, that he exhibited in that capacity gladiatorial shows, and was soon after invested with a priesthood, that he incurred the hatred of Nero by defeating him and carrying off the prize with his Orpheus, in a poetical contest at the quinquennial games, in consequence of which he was prohibited from writing poetry or pleading at the bar; that, seeking revenge, he found death, and perished on the last day of April, A. D. 65, in the 26th year of his age. Then follows a catalogue of his works, many of the names being evidently corrupt: Iliacön. Suturnulia. Catascomon (probably Catacausmos, i. e. κατακαυσμός). Sylvarum X. Tragoedia Medea imperfecta. Salticae Fabulac XIV, Hippamata prosa oration in Octavium Sagitlam, et pro eo De incendio urbis (words which it has been proposed to reduce to sense by reading Hypomnnemtnta prosa oratione in Octavium Sagittam, et pro eo Declamationes-De incendio urbis). Epistolarum ex Campania.

As to the accuracy of the above list it is impossible to offer even an opinion; but it is confirmed to a certain extent, at least, by an old scholiast upon Statius, generally known as Lutatius, who quotes some lines from the Iliacon (ad Stat. Theb. 3.641, and 6.322), besides which he gives two hexameters from a piece which he terns Catagonium (ad Stat. Theb. 9.424). With regard to the story of the public defeat sustained by Nero, which has been repeated again and again without any expression of distrust, and has afforded the subject of a glowing picture to a French critic, we may observe that it is passed over in silence by all our classical authorities, that it is at variance with the account given by the compiler of the life attributed to Suetonius, that, à priori, it is highly improbable that any literary man at that period, however vain and headstrong, much less a court favourite, whose nearest kinsmen were courtiers, would ever have formed the project of engaging seriously in a combat where success was ruin. That no such event took place under the circumstances represented above, can be proved from history, for the quinquennial competition (quinquennale certamen -- triplex, musicum, gymnicum, equestre) instituted by Nero, and called from him Neronia, was held for the first time A. D. 60, when, as we are expressly informed by Suetonius, " carminis Latini corona, de qua honestissimnus quisque contenderat ipsorum consensu concessam sibi recepit," words which indicate most clearly the amount of opposition offered by these mock antagonists; the second celebration did not take place until after the death of Piso and his confederates (Tac. Ann. 14.20, 16.4; Sueton. Ner. 12, comp. 21; D. C. 61.21). In all probability the fable arose from an obscure expression in the Genethliacon of Statius (5.58), which, although hard to explain, certainly affords no sufficient foundation for the structure which has been reared upon it.


The only extant production of Lucan is an heroic poem, in ten books, entitled Pharsalia, in which the progress of the struggle between Caesar and Pompey is fully detailed, the events, commencing with the passage of the Rubicon, being arranged in regular chronological order. The tenth book is imperfect, and the narrative breaks off abruptly in the middle of the Alexandrian war, but we know not whether the conclusion has been lost, or whether the author never completed his task. The whole of what we now possess was certainly not composed at the same time, for the different parts do not by any means breathe the same spirit. In the earlier portions we find liberal sentiments expressed in very moderate terms, accompanied by open and almost fulsome flattery of Nero; but, as we proceed, the blessings of freedom are more and more loudly proclaimed, and the invectives against tyranny are couched in language the most offensive, evidently aimed directly at the emperor. Whether this remarkable change of tone is to be ascribed to the gradual development of the evil passions of the prince, who excited the brightest hopes at the outset of his reign, or whether it arose from the personal bitterness of a disgraced favourite, must be left to conjecture; butt, whichever explanation we may adopt, it is impossible to believe that the work was published entire during the life-time of the author, and it appears almost certain that it never received his last corrections.


A remarkable diversity of opinion exists with regard to the merits of Lucan. The earlier critics assuming the attitude of contending advocates, absurdly exaggerate and unreasonably depreciate his powers. And yet great defects and great beauties are obvious to the impartial observer. We find almost every quality requisite to form a great poet, but the action of each is clogged and the effect neutralised by some grievous perversity. We discover vast power, high enthusiasm, burning energy, copious diction, lively imagination, great learning, a bold and masculine tone of thought, deep reflection and political wisdom; but the power being ill governed, communicates a jarring irregularity to the whole mechanism of the piece, the enthusiasm under no control runs wild into extravagant folly, the language flows in a strong and copious but tur-bid stream; the learning is disfigured by pedantic display; the imagination of the poet exhausts itself in far-fetched conceits and unnatural similes; the philosophic maxims obtruded at unseasonable moments are received with impatience and disgust we distinctly perceive throughout vigorous genius struggling, but in vain, against the paralysing influence of a corrupt system of mental culture and a depraved standard of national taste.


The Editio Princeps of Lucan was printed at Rome, by Sweynheym and Pannartz, under the superintendence of Andrew, Bishop of Aleria, fol. 1469, and two impressions, which have no date and no name of place or printer, are set down by bibliographers next in order. Some improvements were made by Aldus, 8vo. Venet. 1502, 1515, but the first really critical editions are those of Pulmannus, 16mo, Antv. 1564, 1577, 1592. The text was gradually purified by the labours of Bersmannus, 8vo. Lips. 1584, 1589; of Grotius, 8vo. Antv. 1614, and Lug. Bat. 1626; of Cortius, 8vo. Lips. 1726; of Oudendorp, 4to. Lug. Bat. 1728; of Burmann, 4to. Leid. 1740; of Bentley, 4to. Strawberry Hill, 1760; of Renouard, fol. Paris, 1795; of Illycinus, Vindob. 4to. 1811; of C. Fr. Weber, 8vo. Lips. 1821-1831; and of Weise, 8vo. Lips. 1835.

Of these the editions of Oudendorp and Burmann are the most elaborate and ample, especially the latter, but the most useful for all practical purposes is that of Weber, which contains an ample collection of Scholia and commentaries, a dissertation on the verses commonly considered spurious, and various other adminicula; a fourth volume, however, is required to complete the work, and is intended to contain remarks on the life and writings of Lucan, an account of the editions and fragments, complete indices, and other aids.

Supplement to the Pharsalia

A supplement to the Pharsalia, in seven books, by Thomas May, being a translation into Latin of an English supplement appended to his metrical translation, was published at Leyden in 1630, and will be found at the end of the Amsterdam edd. of 1658, 1669.


The first book of the Pharsalia was rendered into English, line for line, by Christopher Marlow, 4to. Lond. 1600, the whole poem by Arthur Gorges, 4to. Lond. 1614, and by Thomas May, 12mo. Lond. 1627. The latter was reprinted in 1631, with a continuation of the subject until the death of Julius Caesar, and although pre-eminently dull, seems to have been popular, for it passed through a great number of editions. The best translation is that of Rowe, which first appeared in 1718 (fol. Lond.); it is executed throughout with considerable spirit.

Of the numerous French translations, that of Guillaume de Brebeuf, 4to. Paris, 1654-1655, long enjoyed great reputation, and, notwithstanding the censures of Boileau, still finds admirers. The prose version of Marmontel, 2 vols. 8vo. Paris, 1766, is in every way detestable.

The German metrical translations of L. von Seckendorff, 8vo. Leip. 1695, and of C. W. von Borck, 8vo. Halle, 1749, are not highly esteemed, and that in prose by P. L. Haus, 8vo. Mannheim, 1792, is almost as bad as Marmontel's.


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  • Cross-references from this page (12):
    • Tacitus, Annales, 14.20
    • Tacitus, Annales, 15.70
    • Tacitus, Annales, 15.49
    • Tacitus, Annales, 15.56
    • Tacitus, Annales, 16.17
    • Tacitus, Annales, 16.4
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 10.64
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.194
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 1.61
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 7.21
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 7.22
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 7.23
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