Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, also called Lucan, is best known for his epic* poem Pharsalia, also known as De Bello Civili (Civil War). The poem comprises ten books and recounts the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey that led to the fall of the Roman Republic* and the beginning of the Roman Empire. It is generally considered the greatest Latin epic after the Aeneid by Vergil. Lucan’s excellent style won him praise in his own time and the attention of the emperor Nero. He wrote much during his brief life and career, but only a few fragments exist of poems other than Pharsalia.
Lucan was born in Spain, the son of a Roman equestrian* and nephew of the philosopher* Seneca the Younger. Nero appointed Lucan to the high offices of quaestor* and augur* at a very young age. In the year A.D. 60, Lucan won a prize at the games called Neronia for a poem that praised the emperor Nero. However, he fell out of favor with the emperor following the publication of the first three books of Pharsalia in A.D. 62 or 63. Nero’s resentment may have arisen from jealousy, since he himself was an aspiring poet, or because of the openly republican* and anti-imperial sentiments in Lucan’s work. Soon, those same sentiments spurred Lucan to join a conspiracy to overthrow the emperor. When Nero discovered Lucan’s involvement, he forced the young poet to kill himself.
Pharsalia is based on historical events, but Lucan raised the significance of the events and characters to mythic proportions. The principal hero is Cato the Younger, the Stoic senator who defied Julius Caesar to the end and chose to commit suicide rather than live under Caesar’s rule. Cato represented the freedom and glory of the former republic, which Caesar had destroyed by his illegal grab for power. The other hero was Pompey, who led the republican army against Caesar and who symbolized to Lucan the weaknesses of the failing republic. Pharsalia ends with Caesar’s victory over Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus, although the last volume is unfinished. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Epic, Roman; Literature, Roman; Senate, Roman; Stoicism.)
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* equestrian order second rank of the Roman upper class, consisting of wealthy landowners whose social position entitled them to claim eligibility for service in the cavalry
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* quaestor Roman financial officer who assisted a higher official such as a consul or praetor
* augur Roman religious official who read omens and foretold events
* republican favoring or relating to a government in which citizens elect officials to represent them in a citizen assembly