- Lucan: Civil War tr. by Brian Walters, and: Statius: Achilleid tr. by Stanley Lombardo
With an Introduction by W. R. Johnson.
With an Introduction by Peter Heslin.
Lucan’s reception has often risen and fallen on historical context, and we find ourselves again in a political climate where themes from the Civil War resonate: the relationship between state authority and violence against its citizens, the dividing line between leadership and demagoguery, the definition of “liberty” claimed with equal conviction by opposed factions. Brian Walters, aware that the poem’s “obsessive meditations on tyranny and the corruption of power” fit the times, brings to life in his translation the fractured state of the late Roman [End Page 290] Republic as Julius Caesar’s compulsive boundary-crossing chips away at the increasingly futile resistance of Pompey and Cato. Lucan’s violent content demands an equivalent violence of expression, and here Walters is especially successful, as during the naval slaughter at Massilia (3.549–803) or Erichtho’s reanimation of a young soldier’s corpse (6.760–883). He really hits his grisly stride, though, with the infamous snake episode (9.749–854), a scene of herpetological carnage that he renders with Quentin Tarantino-esque intensity and absurdity. Walters’ language here revels in explaining the “countless strange deaths” that Cato’s men suffer in the North African desert, as with Sabellus’ fatal encounter with the seps (9.797–798): “His head and neck melted faster than snow/in the South wind, faster than wax struck by sunlight.” Throughout the poem, we find inspired diction such as the description of the storm that nearly finishes off Caesar as a “massive tsunami” (5.738), or Pompey’s flight from Pharsalus as “wandering in a zigzag labyrinth” (8.5). But Walters’ verse can in stretches be sober—a service to an audience trying to engage with the historical narrative, but occasionally a disservice to Lucan, whose poetry traffics in tortured expression, hyperbole, and paradox. The resulting translation is a solid compromise between the reserved fidelity of Susanna Braund’s translation of the Civil War and the dynamic vigor of Jane Wilson Joyce’s.11
Statius’ Achilleid, that unfinished epic on Achilles’ early life and in particular his time spent disguised as a girl at Scyros, has garnered significant scholarly attention in recent years.12 Stanley Lombardo, who has become somewhat of an in-house specialist in classical epic for Hackett with excellent editions of Homer, Vergil, and Ovid, provides a literary translation to match this renewed enthusiasm for the poem and succeeds in his stated goal of maintaining the “fine harmonic tension between the poem’s unserious and serious strains.” Lombardo is at his best in quick-moving scenes, such as the marshaling of the Greek forces in preparation for the Trojan War (1.448–522) or Chiron’s education of the young hero (2.109–184)—scenes marked by short sentences often dominated by monosyllables, as, for example, at 1.496–497: “Now all the lands of Pelops and the world of Greece/has been drained by the War God.” His ear for rendering ancient mythological settings with modern turns of phrase—“gender line,” “partner in crime,” “peccadillo”—or with fragments of English verse pregnant with meaning from nonclassical sources—“don’t be cruel,” “fairest of them all”—is exceptional. Nuance like this does much to enliven Statius’ accidental epyllion and makes Lombardo’s Achilleid a front-runner among recent English translations.13 [End Page 291]
Both volumes contain excellent introductions. W. R. Johnson, a critic who has been most willing to find the dark humor in Lucan’s poetry, situates the work accordingly as a “unique fusion of high seriousness with an especially bitter kind of satire fueled by vehement sarcasm” and takes the reader through the greatest hits of modern Lucanian criticism—anti-heroics, Olympian omissions, the...