- Lucan’s Egyptian Civil War by Jonathan Tracy
Based on the author’s 2009 dissertation, this book explores Lucan’s engagement with two disparate conceptualizations of Egypt: Egypt as bastion of traditional values and social stability, and Egypt as trademark of oriental decadence and political corruption. In De Bello Civili, Tracy argues, this contradiction is made to reflect tensions within Roman society, the relationship between science and politics, and potential avenues of resistance to Nero. Lucan juxtaposes the Pharaonic and Ptolemaic epochs, and he parallels the destructive influence of the Ptolemies on Pharaonic Egypt to the ruin of the Republic by the Principate. While not all of its arguments are equally strong or original, the book makes a solid contribution to studies of Lucan, of Seneca’s Natural Questions, and of Roman Egypt.
In the first part (“Pompey in Egypt,” 13–96), Tracy analyzes Pompey’s choice of Egypt as a refuge after Pharsalus. While other sources for that senatorial debate tie Pompey’s flight to Egypt to pragmatic strategies, the consular Lentulus idealizes the land of the Nile as a remote safeguard from the moral bankruptcy of bellum civile. His ethnographic model, however, is fatally out of touch with his contemporary Egypt, where Alexandrian commercialism and Ptolemaic realpolitik have shortened the distance from Rome. In a similarly high-stakes debate, the plainspoken Memphite priest Acoreus fails to convince the young Ptolemy that his loyalties lie with Pompey. The courtier Pothinus trumps Acoreus’ pious yet anachronistic values by dressing cynical expedience with attractive Greek rhetoric. Although different in their circumstances, Lentulus’ unfounded utopianism and Acoreus’ moral isolation point jointly to a central theme in Lucan: [End Page 570] the universal decline of traditional values and the inability of most characters to accept this reality. The linkages between Lentulus, Pompey, and Acoreus as idealist supporters of traditionalism are innovative and engaging.
The second part (“Caesar in Egypt,” 97–273) examines Caesar’s Alexandrian sojourn, focusing on his Nile inquiry to Acoreus. It has long been recognized that this episode belongs with the topos of the tyrant’s hostility to nature. In this vein, Caesar’s egotistical imperialism is arrested by Acoreus’ inscrutable Nile. Tracy cuts a narrow path in this well-trodden ground, refining scientific facets of Acoreus’ speech rather than redefining its message. Without denying Acoreus’ role as a mouthpiece for Lucan, he establishes a meaningful connection between his Egyptian ethnicity and his speech: Acoreus rises above his compromised heritage to convey the essence of Egyptian wisdom, but stripped of Egyptian cultural referents. Especially insightful is Tracy’s differentiation between Acoreus’ speech and his Senecan model (N.Q. 4A). Seneca’s optimistic rationalism, which claims a progressive knowledge of nature, becomes in Acoreus a conservative and humbling occlusion of natural mysteries.
More adventurous arguments are grounded in macrostructures rather than textual analysis (225–73). Contrary to the prevailing reading of Caesar as impervious to Acoreus, Tracy proposes that Caesar is profoundly, if temporarily, touched by him. Acoreus’ influence emerges in Caesar’s escape from the conspiracy of Pothinus. The Nile speech is the crucible of Caesar’s emotional-ethical shift, because it is the only experience intervening between his fearless megalomania and his fearful hiding in the royal enclosure. Tracy likens the transformative force of this speech to Lentulus’ case for Egypt, as “the sole experience that intervenes for Pompey between his delusional case for a Parthian alliance . . . and his courageous death” (236). The parallel, however, between Lentulus’ ignorance and Acoreus’ insight seems forced, as do the reversed moral transformations of Pompey and Caesar. Moreover, Pompey’s astronomical education (8.165–92) resembles Acoreus’ cosmology more than Lentulus’ naive idealization of Egypt. Tracy concludes by returning to Lucan’s divergences from Seneca through the lens of Neronian politics. He makes the stimulating argument that, by cutting Caesar down to size, Acoreus criticizes Seneca’s flattery of Nero’s own scientific inquiries (N.Q. 1.5.6, 6.8.3, 7.17.2, 7.21.3).
The book is well produced; I found a...