Lucan's Sextus Pompeius: Nefastus Embodiment of Pompey's Military Ambitions

Robert Holschuh Simmons    

The University of Iowa

The role of the necromancy episode in Book 6 within the greater narrative structure of Lucan's Bellum Civile remains open for debate.  Masters (1992), though, takes steps toward a convincing explanation in identifying verbal and thematic connections between Sextus and Erictho, the scene's main characters, and Caesar.  Similar Caesarian parallels to Pompey and his forces earlier in the book, however, add to Masters' reading and set the sorcery scene in its context.  The Caesarian echoes recognizable first in Pompey, in his short-lived moment of aggressive glory at Dyrracchium, then in Sextus and Erictho, in their grotesque quest for illicit knowledge to expedite a fratricidal victory, reinforce the epic's connection between civil war supremacy, destined for Caesar, and nefas.  History does not allow Pompey to win, but in this epic, vincere peius erat (7.706).  The spawn of Pompey's momentary striving to win the civil war, this book shows, is only more civil war, embodied in Sextus' continuance of hostilities as a pirate in Sicily.

Prior to and following Book 6, Caesar's and Pompey's actions and imagery are sharply distinct.  While Pompey's only military endeavor is retreat (e.g. 1.552; 2.596-609; 2.650-708; 7.677), Caesar constantly marches and attacks.  Pompey is pejoratively compared to an old oak about to fall (1.136-141) and a defeated bull that flees (2.601-07); Caesar, in turn, is associated with powerful forces in nature, e.g. lightning (1.151), a lion (1.206), and rough waters (1.204-22; 2.496-98; 5.531-677).  But in Book 6, as Pompey asserts his military agency for the only time in the epic, his force's actions mirror Caesar's in earlier attacks, and Pompey himself also assumes Caesar's powerful natural imagery.  For example, his desire to break Caesar's siege at Dyrrachium in broad daylight and against the strength of Caesar's force (6.122-24) matches Caesar's earlier wish to overrun opposing troops rather than take land by default (2.439-446).  And Pompey's resort to sea when his initial drive is rebuffed (6.268-69) recalls Caesar's forces' similar regrouping against the Massilians (3.509-10).  As for imagery, Pompey is compared to an ocean (6.265), the Po (6.272), Mount Etna (6.295), and a dust storm (6.296).  Lucan has made the connection between the two of them so close, in fact, that Pompey has to deny to his troops that he will appear in Rome Caesaris . . . exemplo (6.319-20).

Thus the considerable connections between Caesar and Sextus and Erictho are merely an extension of those between Caesar and Pompey.  Masters (182) has indicated Sextus' similarity to Caesar in being impatiens morae (6.424), a character trait Lucan has Caesar show repeatedly, thrice using variations on those same terms (2.650; 3.453; 7.240).  Erictho, parallel to Caesar generally in her "violence and wickedness" (Masters 214), also is linked to him via pun: Lucan has her twice lust for corpses caesorum (6.584, 626).  The most pejorative connection between Caesar and Sextus, though, is their desire to wage war on their own people: Lucan bookends Sextus' appearance in the scene with references to his rebellious sea attacks at Sicily (422; 814).  Pompey, who begins the book by aggressively striking out against his own compatriots, has in Sextus a symbolic offspring of his belligerence, another civil warrior who will continue to shed native blood.

When Pompey, the Stoic proficiens (Marti 1945, 372), wins, he is like Caesar, the opposite of a Stoic (Marti 358).  The scene between Sextus, also an "anti-Stoic" (Martindale 1977, 375), and Erictho is designed to extend Pompey's temporary transition away from Stoicism and toward Caesarian ambition to its most gruesome conclusion.  While victories against foreign foes, such as those Pompey dreams about at the beginning of Book 7 (1-19), are glorious, there is no glory in killing one's countrymen.  Just as Lucan notes the effects of this civil war redounding to his own day (1.33-44), so does he also portray Pompey's brief slip from his Stoic principles giving birth to more civil violence.  Pompey's military success in Book 6 confirms that it is not impossible for him to win the battle of Pharsalus; but his victory would be a loss for Rome.


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