The Dark Side of the Buffoon: The Tyranny of Lucan’s Pompey (Elaine Sanderson, University of Liverpool)

1:00pm - 2:00pm / Thursday 17th October 2019 / Venue: Arthur West Room, 8-14 Abercromby Square Abercromby SQ (south)
Type: Seminar / Category: Department
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Studies of tyranny in Lucan’s Bellum Civile tend to focus on the character of Caesar on account of his unashamed ambition, desire for power, and threat to Roman liberty (Martindale 1984, Johnson 1987). By contrast, Lucan seems to cast Pompey in conflicting and contradictory terms, as being blundering, ineffective, and utterly preoccupied with his past glory (Ahl 1976, Johnson 1987, Ormand 1994, Bartsch 1997). The epic’s other characters – particularly Caesar and Cato – see Pompey differently, comparing him to the despotic Sulla and referring to him using the tyrannical terms rex and dominus (Luc. 1.330, 135; 7.307; 9. 204-207, 265-266). These remarks may, at first glance, appear as nothing more than the character assassination of one’s enemies. However, if we consider these comments alongside Pompey’s actions throughout Lucan’s narrative, more potentially problematic elements of his character emerge.

In this paper I propose an alternative, darker, reading of Lucan’s Pompey and suggest that tyrannical traits and behaviours are more prominent in his actions than previously thought. Taking Pompey’s execution (8. 608-636, 663-667), his dream of Roman adoration (7. 7-14), departure from Pharsalus (7. 677-689), and proposal of future plans (8. 261-326) as case studies, I will show that Pompey enacts qualities associated with the 1st century AD literary tyrants (McGuire 1999) through the placid expression concealing his thoughts, his unquenchable thirst for power, and his eroticised obsession with public adoration. I will therefore argue that the presence of such qualities serves to produce a more complex and penetrating picture of Lucan’s Pompey. This event is part of the Work in Progress seminar series