Lucan: Opening to his Epic on the Civil War (From Latin)

I have recently finished reading (for the first time in its entirety) Lucan's unfinished epic Bellum Civile "The Civil War." I found it extraordinary. When I had finished, I wanted to translate the entire thing. Though I quickly realized that I hadn't the time or the resources to do so without the task taking several years. So I have selected a few excerpts from the Bellum Civile that I think read well on their own, and have added these to my translation queue. Starting with this part here from the poem's opening. You can see a list of the planned excerpts on my table of contents (list of translated poems.)

Opening to his Epic on the Civil War (1.1-82) 
By Lucan
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

  I sing of war far worse than civil war
waged in the nasty fields of Thessaly,  
of crime gone legal, of a powerful state  
that disemboweled itself with victory's sword,  
of family front lines1; how when the pact  
of tyranny imploded, all the forces  
of a concussed world clashed in combat, leaving  
a nation guilty of abomination;  
the citizen who marched against the city,  
the Roman spear faced with the Roman spear.  

  Countrymen! What insanity was this?
This orgy of sick swords! Did you enjoy it,  
treating barbarian peoples that detest us  
to a spectacle of savage Roman bloodsport,  
when you by all rights should have been despoiling  
proud Parthia of her Italian trophies2  
in fit retaliation? Why so willing  
to wage entropic wars that stood no chance  
of triumph, while killed Crassus' grisly ghost3  
roamed unavenged abroad?   

              Can you conceive
how much land, how much sea might have been ours  
through the Roman blood that Roman blades have squandered -   
where Day's sun rises, where Night stows her stars,  
where southern midday seethes in scorching hours,  
where rigid Winter that no Spring can thaw  
fetters the Scythic sea4 in chains of ice,   
by now we'd have the wild Armenians  
and the Chinese beneath our potent yoke,  
as well as that race (if there even is one)  
that knows the secret of the Nile's true source5  
Then, if you still so lust for heinous warfare 
once you've wrenched all the world to Latin law, 
only then, Rome, may you take up the sword  
of suicide. Not while you have enemies. 

   Now in Italy's cities walls are crumbling,
the buildings teetering half-demolished, ramparts   
reduced to huge heaps of wrecked rock, the houses     
have no one to guard them. Only the odd squatter  
wanders the ancient emptied cities' streets.  
Now Italy's countryside is overrun     
with brambles, her soil unploughed for year on year, 
no hands left for the work the fields cry out for.  
It wasn't you, fierce Pyrrhus6, nor the savage  
Hannibal who achieved such devastation.    
No, foreign steel could not gore us like this.         
The deepest wounds are dealt by citizen swords.   

  But if the Fates could find no other way  
to gift us Nero7, if an everlasting  
kingdom cost the gods dear, if Jupiter  
the Thunderlord could hold no throne on high  
before a war with vicious worldborn Giants,  
then, gods, I'll not complain. The hideous crimes  
and rank abominations were all worth it.   
So heap Pharsalia's dread fields high with corpses,  
glut the brute Punic ghost with Latin blood,  
let the final combat clash at fateful Munda.  
Add to those massacres, O Caesar Nero,   
starvation at Perugia, Mutina's hardships,  
the armada overwhelmed at lethal Leucas  
and blood of slave-wars under Etna's slopes   
ablaze. Rome owes so much to civil war  
as all was done to bring us you, O Caesar.  
  And when your reign is done for, when you seek  
the stars at last, with reveling in the sky,  
you will be more than welcome in heaven's palace   
on any seat you choose. Whether you want  
to seize Jove's scepter, or Apollo's blazing  
chariot to circle earth with roving fire,  
the world won't fear the transference of suns.    
All gods will yield their place to you, and Nature  
will let you choose which god to be, and where  
in the cosmos to rule from. Only do not  
set your throne cold up in the Arctic North  
nor at the polar opposite where skies  
turn sweltering around the Southern vertex.  
Your star would look on Rome with sidelong light.  
If you put all your weight on either side   
of the unbounded ether, the sky's vault  
would buckle in your gravity's great moment.   
Stay rather at the midpoint of the heavens  
keeping the spheres in equilibrium.  
And let that stretch of sky stay clear and blue,  
let not one cloud ever stand in Caesar's way.  
That day, let humankind sheathe all its swords  
to take care of itself, and every nation  
love every other. Peace shall flutter proud  
over the earth, and shut forevermore  
the iron temple-gates of two-faced war.     
But you're a force of heaven to me already  
and if you breathe your genius through my breast
giving me visionary strength of verse,  
why would I trouble that old god who stirs   
the mysteries of Delphic seers, or call   
Bacchus from sacred Nysa? I need nothing  
but Nero to give life to Roman song.  

  And now my spirit moves me to set forth
the cause of great events. The mind has opened  
before me an enormous task, to tell  
what drove a people mad, drove them to arms  
of battle, and drove peace out of the world.    

  It was that jealous nemesis, the chain 
of fate, the law that nothing stays on top  
for long, the hard fall of the mighty: Rome  
had grown too great for her own self to bear.   

  It was as it will be when the final hour  
that ends the cycles of the universe,  
sunders the cosmic structure and all things  
are regressed to primeval chaos: burning  
stars will shoot straight into the ocean, earth  
refusing to lie flat fling all the waters  
up and away, the moon turn to her brother  
demanding rule of daylight, tired of driving  
her chariot in waxing, waning orbit.   
And the whole broken universe's machine   
in discord will overthrow the rule of nature.  
  Great things implode upon themselves. This limit  
of growth the gods ordain for all success.  


1 - Pompey and Caesar were not merely fellow citizens, but kinsmen related by marriage. 

2 - The "Italian trophies" were the Roman standards lost to the Parthians by Crassus at the battle of Carrhae (in what is today southeastern Turkey) in 53 BC. 

3 - Crassus had been killed at Carrhae. 

4 - i.e. the Black Sea

5- the question of where the source of the Nile lay was a subject of speculation, and even exploration, for Romans. Seneca in book six of his Natural Questions informs us of an expedition that had been sent to Ethiopia to gather information on, among other things, the Nile's spring.  

6- Pyrrhus of Epirus, a Greek king and general who invaded Italy in 280 BC.  

7 - The question of whether the eulogy of Nero in this section is sincere or not is an old one, as it has proven hard for many readers, ancient and modern, to take at face value. My brief perusal of the staggeringly extensive scholarly literature on this passage suggests that the question remains far from settled.    
In my considered view, tempting though it may be to see it in retrospect (and in the context of the later books of the Bellum Civile) as a form of ironic or grossly satyrical double-talk, this seems unlikely. First of all, if it was actually understood as gross satire by its original audience, then how could Nero, who was assuredly part of that audience, fail to notice? Nero was many things, but he was no idiot. Nor was Lucan, which is why it strains credulity to imagine him satirizing an eccentric autocrat literally to his face. And readings of certain lines as satirizing Nero's corpulence, among other things, take the later vilifying depictions of Nero's physiognomy at face value for no good reason. The contrast between this eulogy and the condemnation of Caesars found in later parts of the Bellum Civile, may be more reasonably explained (if explanation is really needed) by the fact that Lucan's opinion of Nero changed over time, from being a favored poet, to having his works banned, to ultimately participating in a failed attempt on Nero's life.
While it may seem out of place in a poem like this, the eulogy itself isn't unusual for Roman poetry. Similar specimens of panegyric effusion may be found elsewhere in Roman literature, including Statius' praise for Domitian, and some of Virgil's most famous passages lauding Augustus. (Parts of Virgil here are strongly echoed, or subverted if you prefer, including this passage from the Georgics, and this passage from the Aeneid.) Indeed I suspect that part of why Virgil's praise for Augustus has seemed easier to take and appreciate for what it is, is posterity's high esteem for the latter, whereas Nero has become synonymous with imperial excess, cruelty and abuse of power and so the idea of someone like Lucan praising him didn't sit well with later readers. 
Moreover, leader-praise of this kind is also common in autocratic regimes more generally. One notes how frequently and how effusively court poets throughout the medieval world, whether in Valencia, Aachen, Aleppo, Shiraz, Delhi or Cháng'ān, directed their talents toward the praise of the local Rei Virtuós. (See this poem by Jordi de Sant Jordi for an excellent example.) More recent examples of the same phenomenon abound in poetry written in Francoist Spain, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, Stalin's Soviet Union, Niyazov's Turkmenistan, Baathist Iraq and a number of modern Arab monarchies.  
Some of the enduring appeal of this passage is that Lucan even as he praises Nero (as he may have been expected to do) retains his integrity as an artist. What modern readers of this poem may not fully appreciate is that the eulogy does not need to be insincere or ironic to have subtext. The horrors of civil war that made Nero, and the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty, possible are thrust in the listener's face. The responsibility that lies on Nero is immense, in view of what he cost. Behind the statement that Nero was worth it, may lurk the implication that Nero had better prove he was worth it or that he ought to appreciate at what cost his power comes. The fact that Nero is portrayed as the blessèd source of inspiration for a poem about bloodshed and civil war may also suggest a different subtext still.  Indirect tactics like this are also not hard to come by in laudatory verse addressed to autocrats. Scholars of Arabic and Persian panegyric have long understood that not all extravagant flattery is hollow, servile or sycophantic. Sometimes the only way to tell a ruler what they don't like hearing is to say it in the form of a compliment.

The Original:

Bellum Cīvīle I.1-82
Mārcus Annaeus Lūcānus

  Bella per Ēmathiōs plūs quam cīvīlia campōs
iūsque datum scelerī canimus, populumque potentem
in sua victrīcī conversum vīscera dextra,
cognātāsque aciēs, et ruptō foedere rēgnī
certātum tōtīs concussī vīribus orbis
in commūne nefās, īnfēstīsque obvia signīs
signa, parēs aquilās et pīla minantia pīlīs.
  Quis furor, Ō cīvēs, quae tanta licentia ferrī?
Gentibus invīsīs Latium praebēre cruōrem
cumque superba foret Babylōn spolianda trophaeīs                
Ausoniīs umbrāque errāret Crassus inultā
bella gerī placuit nūllōs habitūra triumphōs?
  Heu, quantum terrae potuit pelagīque parārī
hōc quem cīvīlēs hausērunt sanguine dextrae,
unde venit Tītān et nox ubi sīdera condit                
quāque diēs medius flagrantibus aestuat hōrīs
et quā brūma rigēns ac nescia vēre remittī
astringit Scythicō glaciālem frīgore pontum!
Sub iuga iam Sērēs, iam barbarus isset Araxēs
et gēns (sīqua iacet) nāscentī cōnscia Nīlō.                
Tum, sī tantus amor bellī tibi, Rōma, nefandī,
tōtum sub Latiās lēgēs cum mīseris orbem,
in tē verte manūs: nōndum tibi dēfuit hostis.
  At nunc sēmirutīs pendent quod moenia tēctīs
urbibus Ītaliae lāpsīsque ingentia mūrīs                
saxa iacent nūllōque domūs cūstōde tenentur
rārus et antīquīs habitātor in urbibus errat,
horrida quod dūmīs multōsque inarāta per annōs
Hesperia est dēsuntque manūs poscentibus arvīs,
nōn tū, Pyrrhe ferōx, nec tantīs clādibus auctor                
Poenus erit: nūllī penitus dēscendere ferrō
contigit; alta sedent cīvīlis vulnera dextrae.
  Quod sī nōn aliam ventūrō fāta Nerōnī
invēnēre viam magnōque aeterna parantur
rēgna deīs caelumque suō servīre Tonantī                
nōn nisi saevōrum potuit post bella gigantum,
iam nihil, Ō superī, querimur; scelera ipsa nefāsque
hāc mercēde placent. Dīrōs Pharsālia campōs
impleat et Poenī saturentur sanguine mānēs,
ultima fūnestā concurrant proelia Mundā,                
hīs, Caesar, Perusīna famēs Mutinaeque labōrēs
accēdant fātīs et quās premit aspera classēs
Leucās et ardentī servīlia bella sub Aetnā,
multum Rōma tamen dēbet cīvīlibus armīs
quod tibi rēs ācta est.
          Tē, cum statiōne perācta              
astra petēs sērus, praelātī rēgia caelī
excipiet gaudente polō: seu scēptra tenēre
seu tē flammigerōs Phoebī cōnscendere currūs
tellūremque nihil mūtātō sōle timentem
igne vagō lūstrāre iuvet, tibi nūmine ab omnī                
cēdētur, iūrisque tuī nātūra relinquet
quis deus esse velīs, ubi rēgnum pōnere mundī.
Sed neque in Arctōō sēdem tibi lēgeris orbe
nec polus āversī calidus quā vergitur Austrī,
unde tuam videās oblīquō sīdere Rōmam.                
Aetheris immēnsī partem sī presseris ūnam,
sentiet axis onus. Lībrātī pondera caelī
orbe tenē mediō; pars aetheris illa serēnī
tōta vacet nūllaeque obstent ā Caesare nūbēs.
Tum genus hūmānum positīs sibi cōnsulat armīs                
inque vicem gēns omnis amet; pāx missa per orbem
ferrea belligerī compēscat līmina Iānī.
Sed mihi iam nūmen; nec, sī tē pectore vātēs
accipiō, Cirrhaea velim sēcrēta moventem
sollicitāre deum Bacchumque āvertere Nȳsā:                
tū satis ad vīrēs Rōmāna in carmina dandās.
      Fert animus causās tantārum exprōmere rērum,
immēnsumque aperītur opus, quid in arma furentem
impulerit populum, quid pācem excusserit orbī.
Invida fātōrum seriēs summīsque negātum                
stāre diū nimiōque gravēs sub pondere lāpsus
nec sē Rōma ferēns.
           Sīc, cum compāge solūtā
saecula tot mundī suprēma coēgerit hōra
antīquum repetēns iterum chaos, ignea pontum                
astra petent, tellūs extendere lītora nōlet
excutietque fretum, frātrī contrāria Phoebē
ībit et oblīquum bīgās agitāre per orbem
indignāta diem poscet sibi, tōtaque discors
māchina dīvolsī turbābit foedera mundī.                
In sē magna ruunt: laetīs hunc nūmina rēbus
crēscendī posuēre modum.

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