Of all Lucan’s works, only the unfinished ten books De bello civili have survived. The epic depicts the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, the climax of which was the battle at Pharsalos, which is why it was already called Pharsalia by the author himself. Lucan began the work around the year 59. The first book begins with Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. The tenth ends with Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria. (The epic was probably intended to comprise twelve books in all.) With Lucan, the epic genre underwent significant changes. He dispenses with the obligatory scene of the gods and marginalises the mythological moment altogether. Instead, he places more emphasis on geographical and scientific descriptions. In addition, he takes a personal stand on the events. Pharsalia was written in deliberate contradiction to Vergil. Its basic mood is pessimistic, a shining hero is missing. The plot is carried by three characters: Caesar, the power seeker, Pompey, whom external circumstances make the representative of a better cause, and Cato, who stands unwaveringly by his principles. Lucan thus showed himself to be an opponent of monarchy and an admirer of Cato the Younger.

Pharsalia had already been known in the Middle Ages. Dante paid praise to Lucan in the Vita Nova and placed him alongside Homer, Horace and Ovid in the Divina Commedia.1

In 16th century Europe, there was a great deal of translation activity. Here, too, the development in England was different from that on the continent, where translation was a matter of art. For translations of ancient works, formal and metrical criteria existed just as they did for literature. For the English, the focus was more on content, which had to meet national needs. When, for example, Alexander Barclay translated Bellum Iugurthinum around 1520 or Thomas Paynell translated Sallust’s Catilinae coniuratio in 1541, it was with the ulterior motive of calling the readership to political unity and warning them against attacks on the state. Initially, mainly scientific and philosophical works were translated. Later, the focus turned to historians, but poetry continued to be neglected. This changed under Elizabeth I. Between 1558 and 1572, almost four times as many translations appeared as under Henry VIII. The emphasis continued to be on expediency. The translations were intended to show the Elizabethans the dangers that arose when sedition, intrigue or civil war threatened the order of the state. Out of this attitude, interest in Lucan’s work grew in the 1560s.2

Marlowe probably began his work at Cambridge University, which would also explain why he only completed the first book. The entry in the Stationers' Register was made on 8 October 1593, the earliest surviving print dates from 1600.3 In 1614 Arthur Gorges, a cousin of Walter Raleigh, produced the first complete English translation. Raleigh himself wrote a preface for it.4

Marlowe chose for his translations works by the epic poets who were most vehemently opposed to the Roman Empire. By translating Lucan for the first time, he opened the door to English republicanism, whose great theorists Algernon Sidney and James Harrington repeatedly quoted the first book ofPharsalia in the 17th century..5

Meissner, Paul. 1952. England im Zeitalter von Humanismus, Renaissance und Reformation. Heidelberg: Kerle.

  1. Vita Nova XXV., Divina Commedia, Inferno, IV, 88-90↩︎
  2. Meissner (1952)↩︎
  3. Brooke (1922)↩︎
  4. Meissner (1952)↩︎
  5. Cheney (2004); Cheney (2009)↩︎

Aktualisiert am 23.05.2024

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