What We Could Have Done Instead of War: Lucan on Labor Lost (6.48-63)

{I have debated Lucan’s ability before, but this passage has an urgency and power I find compelling)

“Now let ancient myth build up Troy’s walls
and credit it to the gods; let the retreating Parthians
wonder at the brick walls encircling Babylon—
Look, a place as great as that the Tigris or swift Orontes embraces–
one large enough to be a kingdom for Assyrians in the East–
such a space is suddenly enclosed by the tumult of war!
Such labors are wasted.
So many hands might have joined Sestus to Abydos
with an earthenwork made to erase Phrixus’ sea.
Or they could have ripped Corinth from the Peloponnese
To give relief to ships from the distant Cape Malea,
Or some other part of the world–even if nature denied it–
They could have changed the place for the better.
The plain of war is engaged. Here we nourish blood that will flow on all lands;
Here we hold the victims from Thessaly and Libya;
Here the insanity of civil war churns on narrow strands.”

nunc uetus Iliacos attollat fabula muros
ascribatque deis; fragili circumdata testa
moenia mirentur refugi Babylonia Parthi. 50
en, quantum Tigris, quantum celer ambit Orontes,
Assyriis quantum populis telluris Eoae
sufficit in regnum, subitum bellique tumultu
raptum clausit opus. tanti periere labores.
tot potuere manus aut iungere Seston Abydo 55
ingestoque solo Phrixeum elidere pontum,
aut Pelopis latis Ephyren abrumpere regnis
et ratibus longae flexus donare Maleae,
aut aliquem mundi, quamuis natura negasset,
in melius mutare locum. coit area belli: 60
hic alitur sanguis terras fluxurus in omnis,
hic et Thessalicae clades Libycaeque tenentur;
aestuat angusta rabies ciuilis harena.

2 thoughts on “What We Could Have Done Instead of War: Lucan on Labor Lost (6.48-63)

  1. “hic alitur sanguis terras fluxurus in omnis,” Pulchre, bene, recte! Lucan is actually very good with heightened pathos and all of that; his problem – common to his age in general – is the need to pad his work out with ostentatious displays of erudition, especially geographical minutiae. Both Lucan’s Pharsalia and Statius’ Thebaid would have been much better if confined to the scale of epyllion, rather than full-blown epic length.

    1. Absolutely, when reading this today, I felt like the phrasing the the pace was closer to that of lyric or epigram rather than the narrative form of epic. Perhaps Callimachus was right about the muddy rivers…

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