Carnifex Romanorum: Gore, Narrative, and Caesar’s Battlefield Brunch in Pharsalia 7.781-824
Sapiens Ubique Civis VIII: PhD Student and Young Scholar Conference on Classics and the Reception of Antiquity
September 1-3, 2021 (accepted but unable to attend due to COVID-19)
Ursula K. Le Guin described the battle scenes in Homer as “kind of fun: everybody chops everybody’s head off, and whoopee!” Though very little about Lucan’s Pharsalia is Homeric (or, for that matter, epic at all), a maniacal glee in violence and death is nevertheless one of the text’s defining features. Numerous scholars have noted the emphasis on the stomach-churning and the grotesque: the sea battle at Massilia in the third book, the last stand of Scaeva in the sixth, and Cato’s march through the snake-infested deserts of Libya in the ninth have all received particular attention. Lucan’s Romans melt, disintegrate, and split in twain; they are impaled, eviscerated, enucleated, pulped, pulverized, and (in one memorable instance) inflated like a balloon. The fabulous gore splattered across the Pharsalia’s ten books brings to mind the campy tastelessness one associates with B-movie horror. The absurd excess of blood and guts, and the wild creativity of the violence, is too over-the-top to take entirely seriously– but why? What does Lucan gain from turning his epic into, to borrow a term from horror critic John McCarty, “splatter cinema”? I argue that we can gain some insight into this problem by examining an often-overlooked passage in the seventh book of the poem, wherein Caesar has breakfast on the morning after Pharsalus. Though the gore in these lines is far from the most graphic the Pharsalia has to offer, the particular association of the dead with Caesar is the only time the poem’s brand of maniacally delighted violence is specifically, causally linked to one of its three main characters. This unique assignation of blame elevates Caesar above his fellows, and provides him a special narrative weight: he alone speaks the language of gore, and he alone perpetuates the hideous self-mutilation the Pharsalia takes as its subject.
Etiam periere ruinae: Roman Ruins, Troubled Temporality, and HP Lovecraft’s Alien Other
July 31, 2021
Lovecraft is notorious for his ruins: Cyclopean and/or non-Euclidean, they typically contain horrors from the depths of time, lying in wait for some foolish adventurer to unleash them upon the present. Sometimes these places are set-dressing, but in a few notable instances Lovecraft utilizes the notion of the ruin itself to evoke horror. In both the novella At the Mountains of Madness and the short story “The Shadow out of Time,” Lovecraft uses the image of the ancient ruin to evoke the terror of deep time: the idea that the scope of history is far larger than we can comprehend, and human civilization is so small within that scope as to be insignificant. Magnifying the de-centering effect of Lovecraft’s timescales, the denizens of these ruins don’t stay in the past, but explode into the present, and consequently effect the collapse of any construction of time. Scholars of Lovecraft have argued that the purpose of this temporal collapse is to amplify the effects of deep-time horror: not only are we insignificant within history, but history itself is only an illusion. We can take this line of thinking further by examining several scenes from classical poetry which utilize a remarkably similar technique. Caesar’s tale of Troy in Lucan’s Pharsalia IX, Julia’s necromantic fury and Caesar’s invasion of Rome in Pharsalia III, and Erichtho’s prophecy in Pharsalia VI each use the visual touchstone of the ruined city to trouble the boundaries between the past, present, and future. By so doing, both texts bring the fear of the Other into a de-centering model of world history, and evoke parallel senses of insignificance and terror.