The Defeat of Victory in Book 1 of Lucan's Bellum Civile

Mark Thorne

University of Iowa

The opening lines of Lucan's Bellum Civile describe the horror of civil war through the powerful image of suicide: populumque potentem in sua victrici conversum viscera dextra (1.2–3).  In this civil war, the victor must attack its own "body," ironically defeating itself in the process.  Lucan's use of suicide has long been recognized as an apt image for civil conflict (Getty 1940, Ahl 1976, Masters 1991, Leigh 1997), but I believe that the larger implications for our understanding of victory in this epic have been overlooked.  By examining those passages in Lucan's first book that contain derivations from the verb vincere, I will argue that Lucan uses these passages rhetorically to subvert the traditional meaning of victory—for those within this mad world of civil war, defeat is the only outcome.

In traditional warfare, victory and defeat should have naturally opposing outcomes, yet Lucan's rhetorical use of the active and passive derivations of vincere reveals how much the winner (victor) has in common with the defeated (victus).  In addition to the proem's image of self-destruction which blurs any real distinction between victor and victus, a solid example of this technique may be found in the poet's comparison of each leader's past victories.  Lucan grants Pompey triumphos and laurea (1.121–2) but portrays Caesar's conquest of Gaul only in terms of the defeated people: victis Gallis (1.122).  Lucan's rhetoric subtly associates Caesar's victory with defeat, suggesting in turn that Caesar's next "victory" in the civil war will also be established in the image of a chained and defeated people—the people of Rome.  Truly this civil war is one that can yield no real victory for any side (bella…nullos habitura triumphos, 1.12).

In the entire second half of Book 1, only the passive forms of vincere appear, as if to emphasize the power of defeat in a world of civil war.  Most notable is Lucan's description of Rome at the moment of Caesar's invasion: urbem populis victisque frequentem gentibus (1.511–2).  The Romans—previously the victores—have now been collapsed into the conquered nations such that they are now a virtually indistinguishable mob, all of them destined to become victi at the hands of Caesar.  The prevalence of defeat on all sides in such a conflict leaves little room for the traditional definition of military victory in the Bellum Civile.  This argument in turn holds profound implications for any interpretation of Caesar's ultimate "victory" in this epic.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page