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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: September 2009

Chapter 10 - The angry poet and the angry gods: problems of theodicy in Lucan's epic of defeat


Victrix causa deis placuit sed uicta … poetae. Despite a general assumption that Lucan kept the gods out of his epic, I would argue that he simply kept them out of engagement on the battlefield. If we are rightly curious about why he omitted divine causality from his opening enumeration of causes for the civil war, it is not long before his narrative provides portents in plenty to demonstrate divine anger to the Romans and to his readers. And the poet himself repeatedly reproaches the gods, but is far from consistent in his reproaches: at times he accuses them of active hostility to Roman liberty; on other occasions he seems only to blame them for inertia or indifference. Once, but only once, he will go so far as to assert that “they do not exist – or at least not for us,” the Romans: sunt nobis nulla profecto | numina (7.445–6). But within ten lines he has corrected himself. The gods do exist: they are simply Epicurean gods “who do not care about mankind”: mortalia nulli | sunt curata deo (454–5). Indeed Lucan ends the same outburst by holding them responsible for the Pompeian defeat, when he interprets the deified line of Caesars as the good republicans’ revenge upon the Olympians – retaliation for purposive divine action.

And purposive divine action is the norm before and after the poet's self-generated crisis in the thick of battle.

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