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  • Si Credere Velis:Lucan’s Cato and the Reader of the Bellum Civile*
  • Christopher L. Caterine


Despite Berthe Marti’s warning seventy years ago that questions about the hero of Lucan’s Bellum Civile (hereafter BC) were unlikely to find any definitive answer (Marti 1945.343–44), scholars over the last quarter century have engaged in a fierce debate over Lucan’s depiction of Cato the Younger. Recent critics can, for the most part, be placed into one of two camps. For convenience I call “optimists” those who see Cato as the Stoic and republican hero of the BC and who view the poem as a rallying cry for opposition to the government—or at least the ruling family—established by Julius Caesar.1 This position is at root biographical and based on ancient testimony that Lucan participated in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero after a falling out with his boyhood friend.2 On the other hand are those I term “pessimists.” Drawing on the insights of deconstructionism [End Page 339] and narratology, these scholars reject the more hopeful outlook of the optimistic camp and find in Lucan signs of a dysfunctional world in which no heroes are possible.3 As these two stances are mutually exclusive, each side has accused the other of misreading the poem either willfully or out of ignorance;4 attempts to find some middle ground, meanwhile, have met with only limited success.5

My chief goal in this article is to move past the interpretive divide described above. First, I sketch the evidence that each side employs in order to demonstrate that both optimistic and pessimistic critics have good textual reasons for adopting their disparate views. Neither one, in other words, has any inherent claim to superiority. From this I conclude that Lucan’s portrait of Cato is intentionally ambiguous and thus that our ability to judge this most slippery character is intentionally frustrated. I then discuss a series of mythological and scientific excursuses that interrupt the narrative of Book 9.6 Earlier scholars faulted Lucan for the length and apparent irrelevance of these passages, while more recent critics struggle to find meaningful connections between the individual digressions and the narrative proper.7 In each case, however, one may observe the poet directly questioning the possibility of attaining certain knowledge in controversies that admit a multiplicity of explanations. This offers a marked parallel to the contradictory interpretations of Cato that have arisen in the scholarly literature, and [End Page 340] I argue that the digressions consequently invite Lucan’s readers to view Cato in similar terms: although the poem repeatedly urges us to make a definitive judgment of the man known in Lucan’s day as a Stoic hero and sage (Seo 2011), the ambiguity of the portrait found in the BC forces us to doubt whichever choice we ultimately make. Building on this conclusion, I next suggest that rhetorical education at Rome will have made Lucan especially attentive to his audience’s experience of his epic and thus that investigations into the poet’s personal beliefs should give way to alternative lines of inquiry. I end with a brief example of what such an approach might look like, arguing that Lucan’s ambiguous portrait of Cato—and of the civil war more broadly—is a powerful display of mimesis that brings the horrors of that conflict alive within the minds of his audience.


The view proposed by optimistic readers of the BC rests primarily on the authority of the narrator, who explicitly praises Cato throughout his march across Libya (9.1–949). Thus we find assertions that Cato “took in his orphaned fatherland” (“patriam tutore carentem | excepit,” 9.24–25); that he spoke with the voice of an oracle (“ille deo plenus … effudit dignas adytis e pectore voces,” “That man, full of the god … poured forth from his breast voices worthy of a temple,” 9.564–65); and that he was a “true father of his fatherland” (parens verus patriae, 9.601).8 Laudatory claims such as these are frequent and evenly spaced throughout BC 9, comprising nearly seven percent of the Libyan narrative:

  1. 1). 9.19–35, reintroducing Cato...


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pp. 339-367
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