The poet Marcus Annaeus Lucan was 25 years old when he was forced to commit suicide. He was born in Cordova, Spain in November of 39 CE and slit his wrists in a Rome bathtub in April 65 CE. He was a brilliant Wunderkind, a Marvelous Boy like Mozart, and he composed perhaps the sickest document in the western literary canon: the Pharsalia, or Bellum Civile. The Civil War.
He was a peer and classmate of the emperor Nero, who ordered Lucan to kill himself. Again, Lucan was 25 years old at the time.
Lucan’s Civil War dramatizes in high epic fashion the Roman civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus “Magnus” Pompey of 49-48 BCE. It’s probably unfinished. It just sort of cuts off mid-flow and that’s it. He had to commit suicide at the age of 25, after all. His poem throbs through the same epic hexameter that the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid enjoy. Lucan’s writing about events 100 years before he was born, but he was most definitely there, because he was living under a different Caesar, one far, far worse. Nero. Our wonderful Nero.
Thing is, this poem is gory. A man has his nose, ears and eyes removed in Book 2. Someone melts into a pool of blood and viscera in Book 9. A guy is ripped in half in Book 4. A man takes an arrow to the eye in Book 6, then rips it out of his head and stomps on it. There’s a mass suicide in Book 5. It requires some 30 lines of poetry to decapitate Pompey in Book 8. Sulla drinks the city of Rome’s blood. It’s really that bad.
It’s only appropriate that the Civil War should have been written in the reign of Nero. Nero began alright. He took over steerage at the age of 18 and luckily had Seneca and Burrus there to guide him through the early stages. For five years, Nero inspired a Renaissance of Roman philosophical, artistic, architectural and political thought. From 55 to 60 CE, Rome experienced her absolute best humanistic endeavor not seen since the emperor Augustus. The quinquennium, it’s called, and my that was nice.
Something happened in 60 CE, though. Nero had his own mother offed. Then, better still, he played Orestes — the original matricide — on stage. Then he took on some nasty advisors and suddenly Roman governance turned south in a hell of a hurry. In 64/65 CE, a man named Piso enlisted a number of Roman elites — Lucan among them — to attempt an assassination. Maybe. Apparently. Nero got wind of that, and ordered all the conspirators to death. Either kill yourself however you see fit, or suffer political execution. That’s a simple choice.
Lucan fought a civil war, of sorts. Lucan fought against what he viewed as outright and immoral tyranny. Lucan fought against the idea of autocracy and one-man rule. He detested the Caesars and all they stood for. He lived too late in history to do anything about it, of course, and for that he lost his life. He took his life. But he lived for that moment of self-sacrifice, because, as we’re told by Tacitus, he recited his own civil war poetry of a civil war soldier dying on the battlefield at his suicide soiree. Of course he did.
There’s real turmoil in Lucan’s voice. His poem screams and shouts and hesitates and blasts forward. “The poem of the unspeakable,” says Charles Martindale. Speaking what cannot be spoken. It hurts to read this thing, especially in its original Latin, because he’s such a wonderful, violent Latinist. The poem thrives, writhes even, in paradox, because in Roman literature opposites are always the same, and sames are always the opposite. Just ask Ovid. Just ask Lucretius. There’s no issue here.
That’s what energizes William Faulkner’s voice. The turmoil. The paradox. The oxymoron. The duality of living in a beautiful, hilarious, wonderful, southern town that despised black people. Lucan, Faulkner could look at the world around them, and see it for what it was, and hate it, and make art out of it. From moments and eras and experiences of complete despair come some of artists’ highest achievements. Certainly Lucan’s Civil War is a product of such lived experience. So is the case with Faulkner’s Sound and Fury. I, too, study the Greeks and Romans because they’re terrible, godawful people.
There’s real turmoil in being an Ole Miss alum, too. On the one hand, Ole Miss sparkles with a renowned literary and intellectual reputation. I learned to write, and write well, under some of the smartest people I’ve known in Oxford. On the other hand, there’s a damn confederate monument greeting every visitor that drives onto campus. There’s an older generation of alumni that cannot and will not let go of the racist Col. Reb avatar. The confederate flag. “Dixie.” Those are ancient history for me, however problematic and unsettling that history may be. I hate it, and you should too.
We come back to Oxford, to Ole Miss, though, because of people. Because of friends and family. Because there’s a rooting interest in being there, together. Lucan, Faulkner, hated the respective eras in which they lived, but they both knew that they needed to be there for others. Lucretius understood this too, better than anyone who’s ever lived. I forget it sometimes, but I remember it often enough to come back up from the ground and engage.
Lucan was forced to commit suicide. Earnest Hemingway straight up shot himself. So did Hunter S. Thompson. Faulkner drank himself into the earth. We don’t have to, though. We can laugh and love and flirt and drink and eat. We can hate the bad things in life that are bad. Col. Reb, the confederate flag, “Dixie,” and that horrific monument on campus. Do away with all of them. Clear the way for the more enjoyable aspects of Ole Miss football, notwithstanding angering meltdowns in Berkeley.
There’s hope. We all feel terrible and hungover today. I certainly do. I woke up mad as hell and wrote 500 words about the Odyssey for some reason. The last thing I recall from last night is shouting “FUCK” at my walls and falling into bed. We’ve advised you not to invest too much in this team, and certainly you shouldn’t, but you should most definitely pull for their success, whatever shape that may take. They’re humans. They’re people. They need you a register lower than they need each other. Interim coach, second year quarterback, and questionable defense. If you’re fighting a war with yourself about how to continue with this team, stop. They’re the Ole Miss Rebels.