Christopher Marlowe's Poems

Christopher Marlowe's Poems Summary and Analysis of Lucan's First Book


Lucan, a first century Roman poet, wrote a long epic (though unfinished) called Pharsalia, chronicling the civil war between the General Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. Lucan (M. Annaeus Lucanus) was a poet during Nero's reign, and the poem is dedicated to him. There were ten books, originally, which comprised the unfinished poem (twelve books were probably planned) but Lucan was forced to commit suicide when Nero suspected him of treason. This work is widely considered one of the best epics written in Latin. Marlowe translated only the first book, during the last year of his life.

The First Book opens with a long, flattering address to the Roman Emperor Nero. Lucan bewails the stupidity of civil war – "Ay me, O what a world of land and sea/Might they have won whom civil broiles have slain." The great generals and soldiers of Rome, he is saying, could have conquered the entire world with the time and energy that they spent killing each other. The Civil War of which he speaks was between the Senate of Rome and Julius Caesar. In 48 B.C.E., a few generations before Lucan was writing this, the army representing the Republican forces of Rome faced Caesar (who hoped to rule Rome himself) a Pharsalus in Northern Greece. This battle, however, takes place Book 7, Book 1 is concerned mainly with the dedication and background material.

Nero held the power to make or break a poet (literally, for he ended up sending Lucan to his death – and Ovid was in a similar situation with Augustus) so Lucan spends considerable verse on glorifying his emperor. A particularly memorable passage discusses (lines 53-69), apparently seriously, where Nero should locate himself in the heavens when, after death, he becomes an immortal star. Lucan manages to make this sounds sincere, with just the barest touch of humor. He then launches into a discussion of the relationship between the antagonists in the Civil War. Pompey was Caesar's son-in-law (his only daughter, Julia, had died some years earlier, and Lucan cites this loss as part of the reason the two could not reconcile), and the two were so competitive that they could not bear the other's victory. "Pompey could abide no equall, Nor Caesar no superior" (lines 127-128). Lucan treads carefully, however, and refuses to take sides (Nero was the emperor, and it would be unwise to criticize the originator of the imperial custom; likewise it would be foolish to ruffle any Republican sympathizers).

Lucan then criticizes the wealth and softness of Romans at this time. He says that they were "licencious and rude" and loving of wealth and luxury. There was evil in government, with offices being sold and widespread "Frauds and corruption in the firld of Mars" (line 183). Caesar, who had been in the north with his legions conquering Gaul (modern day France and Switzerland, called France here by Marlowe) marched toward Rome with his army. Caesar had dreadful visions of Rome personified as a woman in mourning. She spoke to him in a dream, asking him to lay down his arms and not march on the city. He says he "hates her not" lays down all his implements of war.

If Caesar were to cross the Rubicon River at the head of his army, it would be in violation of the Roman custom of no general marching on Rome with his legions. This long-standing custom was to prevent the takeover of the city by a victorious general. There were specific laws pertaining to what a general could and could not do within the bounds of Italy, and the Rubicon river was the dividing line between Italy and the provinces. Caesar crossing this river was, therefore, a momentous act.

As Caesar passes through Northern Italy, men throng to his army to join him. Curio, a prominent Roman, joins him, and says that Rome can be easily won by the conqueror of Gaul. Curio is lavish in his eloquence, detailing their hardships in war and their strength in arms. A decorated centurion, Laelius, steps forward and speaks for the troops. He says that they have been wronged by the Senate's tyranny (the soldiers had grievances about back pay, and also about the promises of land to legionnaires after their term of service had come to an end), and that conquest in civil war is not a shameful thing. If anything Laelius is more persuasive than Curio, for he seems to speak the will of the common soldiers. This decides it for Caesar, and he proceeds to muster his men to march on Rome. The men came from all around Italy to follow the great leader.

The people of Rome hear of the formation of the army and are duly frightened. Panic sweeps through the city, right up to the Senate chamber. Lucan then goes on a long description of panic and chaos from various stories in Greek and Roman mythology. The poem ends with the philosophical question about civil war "Why grapples Rome and makes war, having no foes?" (line 690). Rome is left in panic, with various factions dividing the Senate and the people in disorder. Disastrous portents and omens are seen, and tragedy seems imminent.


For Marlowe, the subject of civil war was a not a distant or foreign one. Before the reign of Queen Elizabeth I England had been embroiled in various forms of civil strife, mainly between the Catholics and the Protestants. The reign of the Protestant Elizabeth had brought, on the most part, peace to England. The words against civil war in Lucan's poem would have fallen on sympathetic ears in the England of Marlowe's time. Civil war, in Lucan's time, Marlowe's time, and now, has been considered a particularly ugly and horrific political event; not long before Marlowe's time writing this the Catholic half-sister of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, had torn apart the country with persecution of Protestants. Elizabeth, too, had her methods for dealing wth Catholics after she came to power. Before and after this shift of power between the Catholics and the Protestants there was a persistant country-wide fear that civil war would destroy the country. Lucan's poem was an apropos choice for Marlowe to translate.

Marlowe uses Elizabethan words rather than the Latin terms of Lucan (church, France, nuns, and matron – Hopkins, Literary to make this poem speak more to the people of this time. Though the events are far removed from sixteenth-century England, the themes are universal: the arrogance of men, the lust for power, the folly of the populace, and the inevitability of occasional civil war. The people in the England of Marlowe's time were all too familiar with these faults of humanity, and would easily be able to understand a story about a tyrannical ruler, an arrogant pair of competing generals, and the chaos of a city expecting to be invaded. So many of these things, even in the just the first book of Lucan, had already been experienced by England at that time, that Marlowe's choice of translation seems quite clear.

The meter of this poem is iambic pentameter – the "mighty line" Marlowe had already used in so many of his plays to great effect. It is never rigid, but in Marlowe's hands (who was one of the greatest practitioners of it ever to take up a pen) becomes a musical regularity with a similarity to speech. This is all the more impressive when one considers that the subject matter of this poem was not chosen by Marlowe. He had some license with vocabulary and definitely tone and and description, but the events, characters, and narrative all belong to Lucan; Marlowe had to fit Lucan's story into his English meter. Considering the compactness and density of Classical Latin at this time (Lucan's style was a bit more verbose than Ovid's, but was nevertheless a high poetic language of a mature tongue) this feat was not an easy one. The iambic pentameter lends itself well to the speeches of Curio and Laelius (like this one from lines 364-368)

..even nowe when youthfull bloud

Pricks forth our lively bodies and strong armes

Can mainly throw the dart; wilt thou indure

These purple groome? That Senates tyranny?

Is conquest got by civill war so hainous?

Though the meter here is regular throughout (there are only two minor departures from the iambic pattern) it is not singsong, and the caesura (pause) after "groome" is very like common speech. The "feminine" ending (an unstressed syllable) on "heinous", which is end-stopped by a punctuation mark eliminating any possibility of enjambment, also shows the slight indecision on Laelius's part. He feels strongly about marching on Rome, does this loyal centurion, but he is still a bit wary about breaking his beloved country's laws and customs.

It is thought that Marlowe may have intended to translate all of the extant books of Lucan (the ten and a half he completed before his death have all survived.) If so, it would have shown that Marlowe was interested in poetry not only as an employment during the closing of the theatres (Hopkins). Marlowe translates this book with a combination of accuracy and poetic license. He retains the Classical allusions (some of which are very obscure), but also adds in contemporary touches to make the poem current for his readers. His tone is one of instruction, tempered with political feelings and a love for the poetry of Lucan.