Science, Egypt, and Escapism in Lucan
By Jonathan Edward Tracy
PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2009
Abstract: This dissertation seeks to demonstrate Lucan’s profound engagement and conflict with two ancient intellectual and literary traditions that can both be regarded as escapist, that is, as promising or postulating a sanctuary (whether physical or spiritual) from the world’s troubles, and that were both active in Lucan’s own day: utopian writing about science, exemplified in Latin by Lucan’s uncle Seneca the Younger, as well as by the astronomical poet Manilius, and utopian Egyptology, as reflected in a wide variety of texts ranging from Herodotus, through Diodorus Siculus, to Lucan’s contemporary, the Alexandrian polymath Chaeremon.
To this end, I have examined two closely related sequences in the De Bello Civili that have received little attention from scholars of Lucan, namely Pompey’s journey to Egypt in Book Eight and Caesar’s Egyptian sojourn in Book Ten, during which Lucan’s two main characters are each shown attempting to take refuge from the poem’s ubiquitous violence through the double avenue of travel to Egypt (to which the defeated Pompey flees, and where his pursuer Caesar hopes to leave the civil war behind) and the practice of natural science (with Pompey’s astronomical inquiry and Caesar’s investigation of the Nile). In this context, I have also considered Cato’s Libyan adventures, from the intervening Book Nine. Both Pompey and Caesar discover that escape through either method is impossible, for the fabled Egyptian Shangri-La is now embroiled in the political, social, and economic crisis of the outside world, while not only the natural universe but even the very act of inquiry into nature are alike contaminated by the ethos of civil war. The virtuous Cato, on the other hand, does not even make the attempt, maintaining a single-minded focus on his civic duties. By revealing such escape to be both immoral (through Cato’s example) and impossible (through the examples of Pompey and Caesar), Lucan signals his decisive rejection of the escapist predilections of many of his contemporaries (including his uncle Seneca and his own father Annaeus Mela), who tried to distance themselves from the vicissitudes of political life under the later Julio-Claudians through retirement into a state of philosophical otium.