Last reviewed: June 2018
Roman epic poet
November 3, 39 c.e.
Corduba, Roman Province of Spain (now Córdoba, Spain)
April 15, 65 c.e.
Rome (now in Italy)
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, or Lucan (LEW-kuhn), was one of the foremost writers of the Latin Silver Age of literature. He is generally regarded as the most significant author of verse epic after Vergil, with whom he stands in great contrast. His suicide before the age of twenty-six, a result of his involvement in a plot against the emperor Nero, was a great loss to Latin and world literature, for his anti-Caesarian epic Pharsalia represented a new and dramatic departure from traditional epic form and content. Bust of Lucan.
Bust of Lucan.
Lucan was born into a rich and well-connected Spanish family that occupied an important position in imperial life. His uncle, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger), was a distinguished philosopher, poet, and statesman. For a time, as tutor and later adviser to the young emperor Nero, Seneca exerted great control over the rule of the Roman Empire. It was likely through the influence of his uncle that Lucan came to Rome at an early age to study and, while a pupil of the noted Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, was introduced to court life, where he became a personal friend of the emperor.
It was at this same time, around the year 60
This civil war was a subject of some sensitivity, because its eventual result had been the destruction of the old Roman republic and the establishment of the imperial dynasty of which Nero was the ruling representative. Although he opened his epic with a generous, even fawning, tribute to Nero, Lucan had written a poem that clearly was on the side of the defeated republicans, and it was also clear from these early books of the epic that Lucan regarded Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalia (the battle that would give the poem its best-known title) as one of the greatest disasters to befall Rome.
Nero’s response was to ban Lucan from further publication and from appearing in the Senate or in law courts; he thus effectively stripped Lucan of any public role. This action was taken in 64
The incomplete epic Pharsalia is one of the greatest works of classical literature, and one of the most controversial. Written during a period of imperial dominance of Roman political life, it celebrates the antique republic that had been destroyed by Julius Caesar and then replaced by his eventual successor Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Pharsalia is an epic that dispenses with the traditional epic conventions, most notably the presence of the divine gods and goddesses as motivating characters in human events. Stylistically, it is an epic that obviously and deliberately flouts the epic tradition of restraint, propriety, and decorum. Pharsalia is therefore one of the most subversive works of classical writing.
After its ironic dedication to Nero, the poem opens with Caesar’s celebrated crossing of the Rubicon River, which began the civil war that brought the final end to the Roman republic. It ends, unfinished, after the defeat of the republican army under Pompey at the battle of Pharsalia and Pompey’s betrayal and death in Egypt. The work is notable for its extensive use of rhetorical devices more often associated with prose than with poetry, as well as its emphasis on the horrors of civil war. Most notably, Pharsalia stands in vivid contrast to Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29–19