The Pharsalia, also known as On the Civil War (Latin: De Bello Civili) and The Civil War (Bellum Civile), is a Roman epic poem by the poet Lucan, telling of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate led by Pompey the Great. The poem's title is a reference to the Battle of Pharsalus, which occurred in 48 BC, near Pharsalus, Thessaly, in northern Greece. Caesar decisively defeated Pompey in this battle, which occupies all of the epic's seventh book. Though probably incomplete, the poem is widely considered the best epic poem of the Silver Age of Latin literature.
The poem was begun around 61 AD and several books were in circulation before the Emperor Nero and Lucan had a bitter falling out. Lucan continued to work on the epic – despite Nero's prohibition against any publication of Lucan's poetry – and it was left unfinished when Lucan was compelled to suicide as part of the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 AD. A total of ten books were written and all survive; the tenth book breaks off abruptly with Caesar in Egypt.
Book I: After a brief introduction lamenting the idea of Romans fighting Romans and an ostensibly flattering dedication to Nero, the narrative summarizes background material leading up to the present war and introduces Caesar in northern Italy. Despite an urgent plea from the Spirit of Rome to lay down his arms, Caesar crosses the Rubicon, rallies his troops and marches south to Rome, joined by Curio along the way. The book closes with panic in the city, terrible portents and visions of the disaster to come.
Book 2: In a city overcome by despair, an old veteran presents a lengthy interlude regarding the previous civil war that pitted Marius against Sulla. Cato is introduced as a heroic man of principle; as abhorrent as civil war is, he argues to Brutus that it is better to fight than do nothing. After siding with Pompey—the lesser of two evils—he remarries his ex-wife and heads to the field. Caesar continues south through Italy and is delayed by Domitius' brave resistance. He attempts a blockade of Pompey at Brundisium, but the general makes a narrow escape to Greece.
Book 3: As his ships sail, Pompey is visited in a dream by Julia, his dead wife and Caesar's daughter. Caesar returns to Rome and plunders the city, while Pompey reviews potential foreign allies. Caesar then heads for Spain, but his troops are detained at the lengthy siege of Massilia (Marseille). The city ultimately falls in a bloody naval battle.
Book 4: The first half of this book is occupied with Caesar's victorious campaign in Spain against Afranius and Petreius. Switching scenes to Pompey, his forces intercept a raft carrying Caesarians, who prefer to kill each other rather than be taken prisoner. The book concludes with Curio launching an African campaign on Caesar's behalf, where he is defeated and slain by the African King Juba.
Book 5: The Senate in exile confirms Pompey the true leader of Rome. Appius consults the Delphic oracle to learn of his fate in the war, and leaves with a misleading prophecy. In Italy, after defusing a mutiny, Caesar marches to Brundisium and sails across the Adriatic to meet Pompey's army. Only a portion of Caesar's troops complete the crossing when a storm prevents further transit; he tries to personally send a message back but is himself nearly drowned. Finally, the storm subsides, and the armies face each other at full strength. With battle at hand, Pompey sends his wife to the island of Lesbos.
Book 6: Pompey's troops force Caesar's armies – featuring the heroic centurion Scaeva – to fall back to Thessaly. Lucan describes the wild Thessalian terrain as the armies wait for battle the next day. The remainder of the book follows Pompey's son Sextus, who wishes to know the future. He finds the most powerful witch in Thessaly, Erictho, and she reanimates the corpse of a dead soldier in a terrifying ceremony. The soldier predicts Pompey's defeat and Caesar's eventual assassination.
Book 7: The soldiers are pressing for battle, but Pompey is reluctant until Cicero convinces him to attack. The Caesarians are victorious, and Lucan laments the loss of liberty. Caesar is especially cruel as he mocks the dying Domitius and forbids cremation of the dead Pompeians. The scene is punctuated by a description of wild animals gnawing at the corpses, and a lament from Lucan for Thessalia, infelix – ill-fated Thessaly.
Book 8: Pompey himself escapes to Lesbos, reunites with his wife, then goes to Cilicia to consider his options. He decides to enlist aid from Egypt, but the Pharaoh is fearful of retribution from Caesar and plots to murder Pompey when he lands. Pompey suspects treachery; he consoles his wife and rows alone to the shore, meeting his fate with Stoic poise. His headless body is flung into the ocean, but washes up on shore and receives a humble burial from Cordus.
Book 9: Pompey's wife mourns her husband as Cato takes up leadership of the Senate's cause. He plans to regroup and heroically marches the army across Africa to join forces with King Juba, a trek that occupies most of the middle section of the book. On the way, he passes an oracle but refuses to consult it, citing Stoic principles. Caesar visits Troy and pays respects to his ancestral gods. A short time later he arrives in Egypt; when Pharaoh's messenger presents him with the head of Pompey, Caesar feigns grief to hide his joy at Pompey's death.
Book 10: Caesar arrives in Egypt, where he is beguiled by the Pharaoh's sister Cleopatra. A banquet is held; Pothinus, Ptolemy's cynical and bloodthirsty chief minister, plots an assassination of Caesar but is killed in his surprise attack on the palace. A second attack comes from Ganymede, an Egyptian noble, and the poem breaks off abruptly as Caesar is fighting for his life.
Though the Pharsalia is an historical epic, it would be wrong to think Lucan is only interested in the details of history itself. As one commentator has pointed out, Lucan is more concerned "with the significance of events rather than the events themselves."
Lucan emphasizes the despair of his topic in the poem's first seven lines (the same length as the opening to Virgil's Aeneid):
Bella per Emathios plus quam civilia campos
Wars worse than civil on Emathian plains,
Events throughout the poem are described in terms of insanity and sacrilege. Most of the main characters are terribly flawed and unattractive; Caesar is cruel and vindictive, while Pompey is ineffective and uninspiring. Far from glorious, the battle scenes are portraits of bloody horror, where nature is ravaged to build terrible siege engines and wild animals tear mercilessly at the flesh of the dead (perhaps reflecting the taste of an audience accustomed to the bloodlust of gladiatorial games).
The grand exception to this generally bleak portrait is Cato, who stands as a Stoic ideal in the face of a world gone mad (he alone, for example, refuses to consult oracles to know the future). Pompey also seems transformed after Pharsalus, becoming a kind of stoic martyr; calm in the face of certain death upon arrival in Egypt, he receives virtual canonization from Lucan at the start of book IX. This elevation of Stoic and Republican principles is in sharp contrast to the ambitious and imperial Caesar, who becomes an even greater monster after the decisive battle. Even though Caesar wins in the end, Lucan makes his sentiments known in the famous line Victrix causa deis placuit sed Victa Catoni – "The victorious cause pleased the gods, but the vanquished pleased Cato."
Given Lucan's clear anti-imperialism, the flattering Book I dedication to Nero – which includes lines like multum Roma tamen debet ciuilibus armis | quod tibi res acta est – "But Rome is greater by these civil wars, because it resulted in you" – is somewhat puzzling. Some scholars have tried to read these lines ironically, but most see it as a traditional dedication written at a time before the (supposed) true depravity of Lucan's patron was revealed. The extant "Lives" of the poet support this interpretation, stating that a portion of the Pharsalia was in circulation before Lucan and Nero had their falling out.
Lucan is heavily influenced by Latin poetic tradition, most notably Ovid's Metamorphoses and of course Virgil's Aeneid, the work to which the Pharsalia is most naturally compared. Lucan frequently appropriates ideas from Virgil's epic and "inverts" them to undermine their original, heroic purpose. Sextus' visit to the Thracian witch Erichtho provides an example; the scene and language clearly reference Aeneas' descent into the underworld (also in Book VI), but while Virgil's description highlights optimism toward the future glories of Rome under Augustan rule, Lucan uses the scene to present a bitter and gory pessimism concerning the loss of liberty under the coming empire.
Like all Silver Age poets, Lucan received the rhetorical training common to upper-class young men of the period. The suasoria – a school exercise where students wrote speeches advising an historical figure on a course of action – no doubt inspired Lucan to compose some of the speeches found in the text. Lucan also follows the Silver Age custom of punctuating his verse with short, pithy lines or slogans known as sententiae, a rhetorical tactic used to grab the attention of a crowd interested in oratory as a form of public entertainment. Quintilian singles out Lucan as a writer clarissimus sententiis – "most famous for his sententiae", and for this reason magis oratoribus quam poetis imitandus – "(he is) to be imitated more by orators than poets".
Finally, in another break with Golden Age literary techniques, Lucan is fond of discontinuity. He presents his narrative as a series of discrete episodes often without any transitional or scene-changing lines, much like the sketches of myth strung together in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The poem is more naturally organized on principles such as aesthetic balance or correspondence of scenes between books rather than the need to follow a story from a single narrative point of view. Lucan was considered among the ranks of Homer and Virgil.
Lucan's work was popular in his own day and remained a school text in late antiquity and during the Middle Ages. Over 400 manuscripts survive; its interest to the court of Charlemagne is evidenced by the existence of five complete manuscripts from the 9th century. Dante includes Lucan among other classical poets in the first circle of the Inferno, and draws on the Pharsalia in the scene with Antaeus (a giant depicted in a story from Lucan's book IV).
Christopher Marlowe published a translation of Book I, while Thomas May followed with a complete translation into heroic couplets in 1626. The success of this translation led May to write a Latin continuation of Lucan's incomplete poem. The seven books of May's effort take the story through to Caesar's assassination.
The line Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni has been a favorite for supporters of 'lost' causes over the centuries; it can be translated as "the winning cause pleased the gods, but the losing cause pleased Cato". One American example comes from the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, which has these words in Latin inscribed on its base.
The English poet and classicist A.E. Housman published a landmark critical edition of the poem in 1926.
- Christopher Marlowe (1600) Lucan's First Book Translated Line For Line online text (Perseus Digital Library)
- Arthur Gorges (1614) Lucans Pharsalia online text (University of Virginia Library)
- Nicholas Rowe, London, England, 1718, reproduced in Samuel Johnson's Works of the English Poets. Johnson called it one of the greatest productions in English poetry, and it was widely read, running through eight editions between 1718 and 1807.
- Sir Edward Ridley (1896) online text (The Online Medieval & Classical Library), archived at the Wayback Machine, May 19, 2011
- J. D. Duff, M.A. and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge (1928 printing, renewed through 1988).
- Robert Graves, Baltimore, MD.: Penguin Bks., 1957
- P. F. Widdows, Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Pr., 1988
- Susan Braund, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992
- Jane Wilson Joyce, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1993
- Brian Walters, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2015.
- C. Martindale, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London 23 (1976) 47
- From the 1896 Sir Edward Ridley translation
- cf. Quintilian III.5.8-15, which specifically mentions the question "whether Cato should marry" as a school speech topic, one addessed by Lucan in a scene from book 2
- Quintilian X.1.90