Review of 

Claudia Wick, M. Annaeus Lucanus, Bellum Civile Liber IX. [2 vols] I: Einleitung, Text und Übersetzung. II: Kommentar. (Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 201-2) pp. xvi, 155; pp.448, München and Leipzig: K.G. Saur Verlag 2004.   

text published  in: 

Classical Review 55, 2005, 546-548


One of the most attractive parts of Lucan's epic Bellum Civile is its ninth book. Here the reader is presented with some sensational scenes involving all three protagonists of the work. After opening on a short scene picturing the murdered Pompey's 'ascension' to heaven, the book focuses on the anti-Caesarean hero, Cato the Younger, leading his army through the horrible deserts of Libya, while the final 150 lines picture Julius Caesar himself during a highly symbolic visit to the ruins of Troy. The long Cato section contains some remarkable passages in which the poet shows some ingenious variations of standard epic elements. For example, there is a violent sandstorm (444f.), a catalogue of desert snakes (700f.), and, in what is probably one of the highlights of the entire poem, a thrilling range of poisoning scenes (733f.), in which Roman soldiers variously die some form of horrible death as a result of specific snakebites.

Until quite recently there was no modern commentary on Lucan's ninth book. This seems strange, particularly if the renewed interest in Lucan of recent decades is taken into account, but it may be simply due to the sheer length of the book (1108 lines), or to the complexity of some of its subject matter. As if to make up for the lacuna, several publications on book nine have appeared within a short time. In 2001 David P. Kubiak published a helpful edition with short notes (56 pages) in the Bryn Mawr Latin Commentaries (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania). In the same year, Christian Rudolf Raschle published a revised dissertation on the snake episode, lines 587-949, (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang; reviewed in CR 54, 2004, 104-6). And finally there is a new, full commentary on the whole of book 9 by Claudia Wick. This edition is based on her dissertation on lines 1-586 (Genève 2002), which was subsequently revised and extended. It comes in two beautifully designed volumes, one of which containing the commentary, and presents readers of Lucan with a wealth of material on book 9.

The introduction is, as may be expected from academic works in German, systematic and thorough. It dispenses with sections on 'life and work', and rather focuses on the structure of the book and its individual scenes, as well as on its protagonists, notably Cato. In recent Anglo-Saxon approaches of Cato (e.g. by Johnson and Leigh) the 'Stoic sage' who leads his men in a rather devastating campaign through Libya is reduced to a caricature of wisdom, mirroring the absurdity of the war and failure of Stoic philosophy rather than embodying relevant values. These interesting corrections of the Cato image are only briefly mentioned by W., who is quick to reject the approach without much of a serious discussion, qualifying the view as 'interpretatorische Fehlentwicklung' (p.32). Significantly, in the extensive bibliography some important, if controversial, contributions on Lucan in English are not even mentioned at all. Thus, I missed entries for the studies by Henderson and Masters, surely an inexcusable omission.

Readers familiar with the recent split in Lucanean studies, will by now understand that W.'s edition belongs to the continental 'camp', which calls attention again to Lucan as a serious young man, a learned poet with deeply felt philosophical convictions and a political program in defense of old Republican ideals. This approach, exemplified in some recent European scholarship on Lucan, notably by E. Narducci, rejects all hints of postmodern ideas or theory, and reasserts the importance of philological attention for the text and its cultural context.  This school of Lucanean studies, while undoubtedly making a necessary correction to some forms of postmodernism, runs the danger of putting back the clock (see also my notice in CR 52, 2002, 68-70).

W.'s Lucan is certainly not the exciting, provocative poet of recent Anglo-Saxon studies, but the erudite intellectual as he was known from earlier scholarship. The poet's wide studies of snakes and poisons, of astrology and geometry, of religion and geography all come out clearly and brilliantly in W.'s learned and detailed commentary, which collects abundant material, including numerous parallel places, for virtually every feature of Lucan's text. In this respect, W.'s book renders good service to readers. Anyone who wishes to know all about, for instance, the ancient and moderne reality behind Lucan's scenes picturing the various snakes and their poisonous effects, will find all the necessary in W.'s edition. Those, however, who wish to understand more of Lucan's rhetorical schemes, his clever ways to raise pathos, and his innovations in the epic genre, will have more difficulty to find their way here, as will those who are looking for more immediate help in reading Lucan's dense text.

A word seems due on the adopted text and translation. W. explicitly says that she has not freshly collated the manuscripts, nor systematically followed any of the great 20th century editions (Housman, Badalì, Shackleton Bailey) (p. 33), but she does not explain her own principles in this field nor add a comparative table of textual changes. For further discussion readers are simply referred to the individual lemmata of the commentary. On the other hand, the added German translation in prose is a great help, given the difficulty of Lucan's Latin. It contains functional subtitles, that assist the reader in finding a specific scene or keeping the overall view. It also relieves the commentary of a number of interpretative remarks. Having clarified her aims as a translator, not without showing some higher aspirations, W. surprisingly ends on a modest note: 'die spröden und starren, ja sperrigen Satzgebilde der Übertragung können nur Wortmaterial widergeben, nicht aber die gedrängte, kühle Schönheit von Lukans Sprachminimalismus.' (p.35). Much as I regret the recurrence of the idea that the classics are in the end impossible to translate, W.'s qualification of Lucan's style is interesting and would seem to ask for further discussion.

W. deserves praise for publishing a full commentary on the whole of Lucan's long and varied book nine, rather than on highlights or a single passage. The material collected in the commentary is well ordered and accessible, and the two volumes have been designed and printed with care and good taste, although they are excessively priced. The publication will no doubt be a standard work of reference for scholars in the years to come. Having said this, I add that our overall interpretations of Lucan (and of his 'heroes' such as Cato) are not greatly advanced here and that the commentary seems less suited for those who seek immediate reading assistance.

One cannot help wishing that philological meticulousness and discipline, as represented exemplarily in this publication, could somehow be combined with a rather more adventurous 'Anglo-Saxon' approach of the text. Who will take up the daring task of writing a sound and detailed, postmodern commentary on a section of Lucan's Bellum Civile?


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