Lucan: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Nora Goldschmidt

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The texts and translations relating to this guide have been prepared by Nora Goldschmidt.

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (‘Lucan’, AD 39-65) was a Roman poet of the Neronian period, famously compelled to commit suicide at the age of 25 after becoming involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the emperor Nero. He is best known for his epic De bello ciuili (often called Pharsalia), a poem in ten books on the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar.

Even as a toddler, Lucan inspired a short character sketch from his uncle, the philosopher and playwright Seneca Sen. Helv. 18.4-5 (Fantham 2011: 3). The first extended biographical narrative, however, was written shortly after Lucan’s death by the poet Statius (Newlands 2011b). In a posthumous poem composed for the anniversary of Lucan’s birthday and addressed to his widow, Polla, Statius Stat. Silv. 2.7 embeds a life of Lucan narrated in the voice of the muse Calliope (lines 36−106). Part of Statius’ purpose is to rehabilitate Lucan after the poet’s disgrace (Newlands 2011a and 2011b): in doing so he remains largely silent on Lucan’s political life, and instead writes a poetic biography. Calliope describes how the infant poet, favoured by her from birth, will go on to produce a catalogue of works, despite ‘ungrateful Nero’ (ingratus Nero), all at a remarkably young age. For Statius, Lucan, despite his short life, reached full maturity as a poet, producing an epic to rival Virgil’s: the Aeneid itself will venerate Lucan as he sings to the Romans, ipsa te Latinis/Aeneis uenerabitur canentem (Silvae 2.7.79−80: Quint 1993: 131−4; Newlands 2011b). Another of Lucan’s contemporaries, Martial Mart. 7.21-3, wrote a cycle of epigrams, likewise for the anniversary of Lucan’s birthday and likewise concerned to rehabilitate the poet, in which he calls Lucan Apollo’s poet (7.22.1) and criticises ‘cruel Nero’ (Nero crudelis) (7.21.3) for his unjust death. Snippets of Lucan’s life and death are found, too, in passing remarks by the historian Tacitus Tac. Ann. 15.49; 56.3-4; 58.1; 70.1; 71 in his account of the conspiracy against Nero and its aftermath. According to Tacitus, when he was arrested, Lucan gave up his own mother even though she had nothing to do with the plot (15.56; a claim repeated in Suetonius’ Life of Lucan and the Codex Vossianus), while his death was fit for a poet: as the blood left his body, Lucan, still in control of his mind, quoted with his last breath from his own epic on the death of a wounded soldier (15.70).

Apart from these piecemeal poetic lives, two principal ancient prose biographies of Lucan survive. The first is by Suetonius Suet. Vita Luc., composed roughly fifty years after Lucan’s death, and the second by the otherwise unknown ‘Vacca’ Vita Vaccae, probably written in or after the fifth century CE (Fantham 2011: 4). A third anonymous life found in the second Codex Vossianus Codex Vossianus II seems to depend to a large extent on Suetonius (Asso 2010: 2). All share a central concern with Lucan’s precocious talent and consequent life-long rivalry with Nero ― the emperor who traditionally had such an inflated sense of himself as an artist that he famously ‘fiddled while Rome burned’, and with his dying breath lamented, ‘What an artist dies in me!’, qualis artifex pereo (Suetonius, Life of Nero 49). Suetonius is the more critical of the two, painting a picture of a rash poet with a diva’s ego to match Nero’s own. In his account, after Nero called an unnecessary meeting simply in order to pour cold water over a performance of Lucan’s poetry, the young poet, incensed, engaged in a sustained programme of self-sabotage. Not least of his actions was farting loudly in the public toilets while reciting one of Nero’s own verses (cf. Cowan 2011): sub terris tonuisse putes, ‘you would think thunder had broken out under the earth’.

The later and more eulogistic Life of Lucan by Vacca is much closer to Statius and Martial in constructing Lucan as a poet born. This life, originally composed as an introduction to the epic, tells the remarkable anecdote of an omen in which a swarm of bees spontaneously hovered around the infant poet’s cradle and settled on his lips, either in order to drink in the ‘sweet breath’ (spiritum ... dulcem) of poetry already emanating from the infant Lucan’s mouth, or else as a prophecy of the great verbal power to come. Similar anecdotes involving bees and young poets are also attested in the Greek biographical tradition. According to Vacca, following Tacitus and Cassius Dio (62.29), Nero explicitly banned Lucan from writing poetry, and it was this which drove him to join the ill-fated conspiracy. In the end, it was Lucan’s own prodigious talent, piquing the emperor’s vanity, that brought about his death.

It may be that Lucan’s death was in fact an execution and the story of his voluntary suicide, explicit only in Vacca, is an extrapolation from his epic: Suetonius has Lucan offer his wrists to be slit by a physician (bracchia ad secandas uenas praebuit medico) and Tacitus skirts the issue (Tucker 1987; Masters 1992: 216 n.1). De bello ciuili is in many ways a poem about suicide, in which civil war is seen as a kind of national self-immolation that invades every level of Lucan’s universe (cf. De bello ciuili 1.2−3; Masters 1992: 29, 41-2; Bartsch 1997: 24−5). Whatever the truth of the circumstances of his death, with the inevitability of hindsight, Lucan himself ― the young genius who produced the true Roman epic to rival Virgil’s at an age when Virgil had not even written his juvenilia (Statius Silvae 2.7.73-4; Suetonius Life of Lucan; Quint 1993: 132) ― can be seen to have inscribed the myth of his own death into his poem.


  • Asso, P. 2010. A Commentary on Lucan, De bello civili IV. Berlin.
    • (ed.) 2011. Brill’s Companion to Lucan. Leiden.
  • Bartsch, S. 1997. Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War. Cambridge, Mass.
  • Cowan, R. 2011. ‘Lucan’s Thunder-box: Scatology, Epic and Satire in Suetonius’ Vita Lucani.HSCP 106: 301-313.
  • Fantham, E. 2011. ‘A Controversial Life.’ In P. Asso (ed.): 3−20.
  • Masters, J. 1992. Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Ciuile. Cambridge.
  • Newlands, C. E. (ed.). 2011a. Statius, Silvae Book II. Cambridge.
    • 2011b. ‘The First Biography of Lucan: Statius’ Silvae 2.7.’ In P. Asso (ed.): 435−51.
  • Quint, D. 1993. Epic and Empire. Princeton.
  • Tucker, R. A. 1987. ‘Tacitus and the Death of Lucan.’ Latomus 46: 330−7.