Lucan’s Medusa: The Power of A Severed Head

Mark Thorne

In Book Nine of Lucan’s Bellum Civile, one episode of Cato’s march across the Libyan desert that has attracted little attention is the Medusa myth narrative in which Lucan retells the story of Perseus and provides an aetiology for the poisonous snakes that Cato’s army must face (9.619–99).  Braund’s commentary in her translation (Clarendon, 1992) sees it essentially as a light breather in the narrative, while Johnson’s Momentary Monsters (Cornell, 1987) calls it “an easy, graceful transition” before the snakes begin their gruesome attacks.  Yet the length of this mythical “intermission” should invite the reader to ask why it was important enough for the poet to include.  Elaine Fantham, one of the few scholars who has worked on this episode in depth (“Lucan’s Medusa-Excursus: Its Design and Purpose,” Materiali E Discussioni Per L’Analisi dei Testi Classici 1993) sees Medusa as representative of mankind’s own capacity for evil and thus as an emblem for civil war in general.  The purpose of this paper is to go a step further and show how Lucan fashions his Medusa also as the means by which civil war may come to an end—but only once her head has been severed, an image that clearly and ominously recalls the fate of Pompey.

In the usual Medusa myth, Polydectes sends Perseus to retrieve the head, hoping that the boy will be killed in the process and trouble the king no more.  Lucan’s version, however, removes this background completely, leaving Perseus and his divine guardian Athena with no apparent motive for why they are there at all.  I argue that the answer lies in the revealing phrase pacta caput monstri (9.666).  Athena has struck a bargain with Perseus: the goddess’s help for the Gorgon’s head.  A curious thing about this narrative is just how little Lucan allows Perseus to actually do.  Between 9.662 when the hero first raises his blade (sustulit harpen) and 9.684 when he flies away (fugit), Perseus never appears in the nominative case but is rather always the object of Athena’s many orders; it is not even he but Athena who severs the head.  The poet elevates the role of Athena and dimishes that of Perseus in order to stress that Athena and the severed head are what are important here.  Why then does Athena want the Gorgon’s head?  The answer is found in lines 9.655–58 where the poet relates how the Gorgon—affixed to Athena’s aegis—brought to an end the bellum immane deorum, the civil war of heaven, a war already invoked in comparison by Lucan 7.144–50 on the eve of Pharsalus.  This severed head of myth helped end the civil war of myth.

Yet Medusa’s is not the only severed head of note in the epic; that of Pompey also looms large.  One of the direct results of Pompey’s decapitation is the infusion of his newly divine spirit into the hearts of Cato and Brutus in a memorably bizarre passage.  One way to interpret this is to see how much Cato’s march now begins to resemble the outline of the Medusa myth embedded in it: a divine power accompanies a hero on a Libyan expedition in order to find and obtain something that will help end civil war.  Yet in Lucan’s world turned on its head, Caesar has already won the ground war, seemingly rendering Cato’s quest in vain.  I argue however, that Cato is searching not for a physical weapon but rather a philosophical one, the libertas that can help one overcome the tyranny of a Caesar.  Therefore, just as Medusa’s head is used to end a civil war, Pompey’s head both ends the formal civil war against Caesar as well as creates the opportunity for Cato, led by Virtus (9.371, 402–3), to try to overcome at a philosophical level the tyranny that Caesar represents, a quest in which I believe Lucan intended his imperfect Stoic hero to succeed.

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