A Lofty, Old Oak Tree: Pompey in Lucan’s Pharsalia

My friend and I were having our daily lunchtime walk when we were discussing the fact that his is my 20th year of teaching secondary school—it hardly seems possible that I have been in my profession for that long! During the same conversation she also reminded me that next month is my birthday and she said out loud the age that I will be turning. I was so shocked to hear the number spoken out loud that I had the urge to slap her on the arm! I know that my birthday is coming up but I didn’t actually think about the age I am going to be. I told her all this, of course, and we had a good laugh about it. And this conversation brought to mind the image of the poet Lucan’s description of the Roman general Pompey who, compared to a younger and more vigorous Julius Caesar, is at a great disadvantage when they are at war with one another. Lucan says about Pompey’s former glory and advancing years (translation is my own):

Thus Pompey now stands as a shadow of his great name; similar to a lofty oak tree standing in a fertile field, bearing the old mementos of its people and the sacred gifts of its leaders, no longer fixed to the earth with strong roots, it remains upright merely because of its own weight; and lifting its naked branches into the air, it casts a shadow not with its leaves but with its trunk. And even though it shakes and threatens to fall with the first strong wind, while other trees with more robust trunks grow around it, this oak tree alone is still revered.

I, of course, exaggerate for humorous effect—I don’t feel quite that old. I also have Lucan on my mind because I am rereading Dante’s Divine Comedy and this underappreciated Roman poet figures prominently in the Inferno. His uncle was the famous stoic philosopher, Seneca, who had a great influence on him while he was growing up. Lucan wrote his most famous work, an epic poem entitled the Pharsalia, during the reign of the Emperor Nero with whom Lucan had a close alliance and friendship. The Pharsalia (in Latin De Bello Civile) tells the story of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar that took place during the waning years of the Roman Republic. Written as a poem in dactylic hexameter, Lucan is indebted to Vergil and Ovid for his literary style. Neither Pompey nor Caesar are portrayed as heroes—each man is greatly flawed—and Lucan does not shy away from describing the horrible consequences of a civil war.

The short section I translated above is from Book 1 and, I think, highlights Lucan’s talent as a poet and an astute critic of his own country’s history. It is a fairly quick read and I highly recommend it for those who want a better understanding of Dante’s poems.

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8 responses to “A Lofty, Old Oak Tree: Pompey in Lucan’s Pharsalia

  1. Craig

    I loved your post and the transition from your own birthday to Lucan on aging. Well done! I’m not sure how lofty an old tree I am, but I turned 61 this summer. Shudder. There is a line in a George Oppen poem about aging where he writes ‘What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.’ (The quote may not be exact as I am quoting from increasingly faulty memory, ha ha). Can you recommend a translation of Lucan?

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    • Happy belated birthday to you, Craig! It’s funny you should mention the Oppen quote because I just saw someone else make reference to it. The only translation of Lucan I’ve read is the Loeb one. But I recently found a copy of the Robert Graves translation. I will let you know what I think of that one.

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  2. The Jane Wilson Joyce version seemed pretty good to me, or at least it had good notes, which may matter more for this book. I don’t remember it being quick though! I remember it taking some effort. Worth it just for Caesar crossing the sea, though, and the witch scene.

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  3. Well, happy birthday.
    It’s strange how our age on paper feels nothing like with the one we feel.

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  4. Twenty years in teaching is a great achievement, an admirable commitment to your profession. Have you been at the same school all that time? I’m sure you must have seen so many changes over the years too.

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