Erictho and the Manipulation of Memory in Bellum Civile

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This paper was originally published in Westmarch, the Patrick Henry College literary journal, vol. 3, no. 2 (fall 2022). I have published it here with the quotes translated into English.

Lucan’s Bellum Civile serves as a eulogy for the Republic, in which he expresses his agony about its death. For the Romans, remembering was an important part of proper piety, and proper remembering required proper rites of remembrance. Bellum Civile serves as this sort of rite. To construct such a monument to the Republic, however, Lucan must demonstrate that he has the power to do this, which he does in the Erictho episode. The Erictho episode also serves as a discussion of the importance of memory. Thus, in mourning the Republic, Lucan both makes a memory of it and destroys and manipulates that very memory; the Erictho episode serves as a cornerstone of Lucan’s mastery over memory.

Mark Thorne summarizes Lucan’s use of memory, arguing that Bellum Civile serves as an “epic funeral monumentum” to the Republic.1 Writing about the civil war at all, not to mention in as bleak language as Lucan does, was quite shocking to the Roman conscience, who avoided such a topic as best as they could. Both Claudius and Valerius Maximus carefully avoided the discussion of the civil war, which Valerius Maximus called a “memory which must be abhorred.”2 Seneca the Elder wrote that the “best defense against civil war is forgetfulness.”3 Thus, Lucan works against the Roman conscience, making Bellum Civile a very memorable monument by shocking its audience by its very topic matter, saving the civil war and the death of the Republic from the fate of forgetfulness.

Lucan, however, also takes this effort to preserve memory and tears it apart. Civil war, since it confuses everything, serves as a vehicle for this destruction of memory. Caesar is a master of memory; he even fashions his own memory by writing his commentaries.4 He is also the sort of person who sees everything (at least during the present). During his speech before the battle of Pharsalus he proclaims, “and when a quivering lance crosses the sky, I will not fail to say from what arm it was hurled,”5 a well-nigh impossible task requiring godlike omniscience. When he seeks to visit Troy to recall the memory, though, he is “unknowing” of the individual significance of each rock of Troy, of which “none is without name.” Caesar, who sees everything, requires somebody to show him the significance of everything.6 Such a great change from Caesar’s character shows memory itself is being destroyed.

Civil war produces corrupt memories. In the discussion of Marius and Sulla, memory becomes terrifying and dishonoring to the very dead that it should honor. Thorne notes in this speech the “subversion of attempts to memorialize the dead,” particularly with the mutilation which Sulla carries out. Such a mutilation prevents the families of the dead from carrying out an honorable funeral; the bodies are too disfigured to be recognized. The “wretched parents,” however, gather any corpse which they can find for a funeral. Thus, the funeral is rendered corrupt; memory no longer can function because there is no recognition. Instead of functioning as a vehicle for glory as proper patterns do, the memory of civil war functions as “a pattern for great fear.”7 Thus, the ruins of Rome are compared to the ruins of Troy: neither is recognizable in its destruction. There is no epic redemption from the destruction of Rome, however; there is merely the installation of tyranny.

Although Bellum Civile conveys horrid indeed memory, it still serves as a monument to the Republic and the loss of liberty.8 By conveying the narrative in such harsh imagery, it presents a rather memorable commentary on the death of the Republic, shocking the Roman mind with grief; thus, the mere existence of such a poem serves as a monument. Lucan’s characters also bear memory. Pompey is described as an oak which memorializes the past as a trophaeum. Pompey himself also has visions of the glorious past. Cato does not simply remember decaying memory; rather, he actively seeks to refine and thus preserve it. He does, however, realize that the Republic is obsolete, and cannot continue itself longer. Rather, for Cato, memory is what is important. Cato thus serves as what Lucan himself wishes to be: the preserver of memory.9 The purpose of memory is indeed to cause one to act; hence, Cato uses it for his practical rhetorical appeals. Pompey, however, is an inadequate bearer of memory since he does not act. Not only does he not act, but he is also rather forgetful, even attempting to forget his marriage to Julia.10

Caesar, however, serves the opposite purpose, a “destroyer of memory.”11 Indeed, his simile is that he is lightning, a force of nature which can destroy decrepit trees.12 He ignores thoughts of Rome and disregards the image of Rome attempting to dissuade him from his conquest. Thorne further notes that images were objects of memory.13 In Caesar, then, the pious importance of memory is destroyed by the weight of personal ambition. Such personal ambition means that Caesar also attempts to control memory. His Commentaries on the Civil War served this purpose; he was a victor wishing to ensure that the war was remembered in accordance with his own narrative.14

The witch Erictho likewise is a destroyer and controller of memory. She relishes and exerts enormous power over all the world, and so would wish to control memory. Erictho seeks to control nature much as Caesar did.15 She, though, would have even more desire than Caesar to control memory than the mere desire to exert power; she engages in witchcraft for its own sake.16 Little seems more witchlike than modifying the perception of the history of the world; such a thing would be a difficult task indeed and very satisfying for someone with Erictho’ s motivations. Erictho and the other Thessalian witches challenge the gods’ own power; indeed, they speak “words which compel unwilling gods.”17 Caesar’s power is also portrayed as overshadowing the gods’ power; his walls built to besiege Pompey are compared to the divinely-created walls of Troy; he thus challenges the gods’ supremacy in his siege methods.18

Erictho and her Thessalian comrades do indeed cause forgetfulness and unknowledge in others, even in the gods. Contrasting with Caesar’s impressive knowledge of his men’s missiles, these witches can cause Jupiter himself to be unaware of what happens in his universe. For example, “the heaven thunders while Jove is unaware;” the thundering of the heaven ought to be Jupiter’s own special knowledge.19 With this description of Jupiter’s forgetfulness contrasted with the description of Caesar’s near-omniscience, Lucan sets up Caesar as a power to rival Jupiter, and thus as a primordial power in the same league as Erictho.20 Both Erictho and Caesar exert power over memory, and both control the functioning of the universe.

Erictho’s manipulation and mutilation of the corpses also represents her exercise of power over memory. For the Romans, corpses and their proper burial were the means by which deaths were remembered. The mutilation of corpses in the civil war between Marius and Sulla was tragic not because of the death (after all, the Romans cared rather little about death, provided that it was respectable and for the good of the fatherland) but rather because of the deprivation of the ability to properly memorialize the fallen.21 This old man discusses his memory of how he diligently searched for “the deformed likeness of his slaughtered brother” in order to complete proper funeral rites, the rites for the preservation of memory.22 Thus, for Erictho to mangle corpses as she loves to shows her power over the objects of memory. 23

Erictho, however, does not simply limit her wickedness to the manipulation of the objects of memory: she also manipulates the acts of memory themselves:

…She has brought back funeral processions, turned away from the graves; corpses have escaped death. She snatches the smoking ashes of young men and the burning bones from the middle of funeral pyres and even also the torch which the parents held…24

In this way, Erictho becomes like an imperial ruler; she can decide what sorts of memory are permissible and which she wishes to use her power to hide and destroy. This does make Erictho a Caesarian figure (although with a somewhat Orwellian twist): she commits execrable wickedness in order to manipulate memory.

Lucan uses Erictho to subvert his goal of the preservation of memory. This episode itself seems to be a corruption of memory. Zissos notes that the battle has not happened yet, yet there is a corpse.25 This is most certainly a mutilation of memory: Duff comments, “Lucan seems to have forgotten that there had been no fighting as yet in Thessaly.”26 This anachronism is quite noticeable; it can hardly be assumed that Lucan simply forgot. Rather, such an anachronism must serve a rhetorical purpose.27 This sort of temporal dislocation is rather jarring; it almost makes the reader feel as if his own memory is failing. Such an emotion in the reader adds to the overall atmosphere of Bellum Civile: civil war is insane, so it would be of great rhetorical value to make the reader feel as if his own mind was failing. Lucan succeeds quite well in this, and thus Johnson says of the atmosphere of Bellum Civile, particularly of the effect of the Erictho episode, “It is not madness here, but reason, that is mere appearance. The reality is madness.”28 Memory can hardly be preserved in the midst of madness.

Since Caesar is a master of memory, the subversion of the possibility of the manipulation of memory also minimizes his power. The corpse does not give nearly as substantial of a prophesy as Erictho boasts that it will.29 Such a lack of knowledge after such a boast subtly undercuts Erictho’s own power, and thus the power of all who claim to be able to manipulate memory. Caesar boasts about manipulating knowledge and memory, but Lucan gives little evidence of that he succeeds in his boasts. Lucan, however, does succeed in his own manipulation of memory: he, as the poet, functions as the highest potentate over memory in his poem; all the other manipulators of memory are dependent on him for their actions.

The Erictho episode, however, does not merely subvert memory, but also helps Lucan in his ambition of preserving memory. Lucan demonstrates power over memory by manipulating it: if he has the power to manipulate memory as he wishes, he should also be able to preserve it and shape it to his own views. He also demonstrates this power through his portrayal of Erictho. Any horrid thing that Erictho does is something which the poet allowed; after all, he is writing these actions from his imagination. Erictho does help the proper preservation of memory: as discussed above, corpses require proper burial for proper memory, and proper burial requires death.30 Erictho’s burial of the corpse would fulfill this purpose. After such a dreadful torture, his soul can finally find rest in the underworld. Nevertheless, “the work requires magical poems and potions,” essentially requiring supernatural power to bring about the proper funeral rites.31 It must be noted, though, that Lucan himself is writing a poem while attempting to memorialize the Republic; thus, he sets himself up as a nigh-supernatural preserver of memory.

Lucan also uses the Erictho episode to discuss the importance of memory itself. The Pompeian soldier speaks about the Republican past. He recalls how, in the underworld, the dead are divided between Elysium and Tartarus, the optimates in Elysium and the populares in Tartarus. With the civil war, this order underworld also has been disturbed: those wicked populares in Tartarus such as Marius and Cataline are escaping and rejoicing; some virtuous optimates in Elysium such as Camillus and Sulla are grieving; the only one in Elysium who is in any way pleased at the circumstance is Brutus, because he knows that his descendent will bring vengeance for the Republic upon Caesar.32 Thus, memory is portrayed as being of a cosmic significance while the civil war is portrayed as disturbing memory on a superhuman level. The allusion to the burial of Misenus in the Aeneid also emphasizes the importance of proper funeral memory.33 Proper memory is important for the preservation of the society; thus, Lucan is fulfilling a heroic quest of similar importance to Aeneas’ rescue of Rome.

In the Erictho episode, Lucan establishes the importance that he assigns to memory and his ability to shape it. By establishing the importance and malleability of memory and subverting at the same time, he creates a complex, rhetorical eulogy for the Republic. He asserts his own power as a poet to create a proper monument for the Republic by implicitly comparing his poetic power to Erictho’s magic power, while he condemns Caesar for attempting to corrupt the memory of the war by comparing his wickedness to Erictho’s own. Even the horror which any good Roman would feel towards the treatment of the corpse would remind him of the importance of proper memory, make him cringe at the disrespect which Caesar showed the Republic, and despise the great execrable wickedness the civil war was.

Works Cited

De Moura, Alessandro Rolim. “Hesiodic Patterns in Lucan: Cosmic and Civil Wars.” The Classical Journal 116, no. 1 (2020): 47–79.

Gowing, Alain M. Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture. Roman Literature and Its Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Johnson, W. R. Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes. Vol. 47. Cornell Studies in Classical Philology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Lucan. The Civil War. Edited by J.D. Duff. Loeb Classical Library 220. Cambridge, Mass. London: Harvard university press W. Heinemann, 1988.

Lucan. Civil War. Translated by Susan Braund. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Masters, Jamie. Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Sansom, Stephen A. “Typhonic Voices Sounds of Hesiod and Cosmic War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile 6.685-694.” Mnemosyne 73, no. 4 (2019): 609–32.

Thorne, Mark. “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan.” In Brill’s Companion to Lucan, edited by Paolo Asso, 363–81. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2011.

Zissos, Andrew. “Thessalian Preludes.” In Reading Lucan’s Civil War: A Critical Guide, 105–20. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture 62. Notes: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021.


  1. Mark Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” in Brill’s Companion to Lucan, ed. Paolo Asso (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2011), 363.

  2. “detestendam memoriam.” Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, quoted in Thorne, 363.

  3. “optima civilis belli defensio oblivio est.” Seneca Maior, Contraversiae, quoted in Thorne, 364.

  4. Thorne, 365–66.

  5. “caelumque tremens cum lancea transit, dicere non fallar, quo sit vibrata lacerto.” Lucan, The Civil War, ed. J.D. Duff, Loeb Classical Library 220 (Cambridge, Mass. London: Harvard university press W. Heinemann, 1988), l. 7.288-289.

  6. Lucan, Bellum Civile, l. 9.973-974, quoted in Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” 366.

  7. “Miseros…parentes.” “magno…exempla timori.” Lucan, The Civil War, l. 2.63-67; Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” 372–74. “Lucan’s epic illustrates that civil war has an inherent capability to subvert and destroy, whether in terms of epic genre expectations, traditional virtues, or the healthy functioning of memory,” 374.

  8. Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” 374.

  9. Thorne, 375–77.

  10. Alain M. Gowing, Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture, Roman Literature and Its Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 85–87.

  11. Gowing, 87. Quoted in Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” 376.

  12. Lucan, The Civil War, l. 1.151-157; Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” 375.

  13. Lucan Bellum Civile, l. 1.186, quoted in Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” 375.

  14. Gowing, Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture, 89.

  15. Andrew Zissos, “Thessalian Preludes,” in Reading Lucan’s Civil War: A Critical Guide, Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture 62 (Notes: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021), 108, 115.

  16. “…she is…the first recognizably modern witch in European literature. Her predecessors in witchery are more classically rational than she by far: they are mostly concerned with love or money. But Erictho seems totally indifferent to sex or to cash—or even to revenge. Nor would it be fair to say that she lusts for power. She is a witch’s witch, a pure artist in the black arts, and in this purity she surpasses even some of her Renaissance and Puritan progeny. She is enormously pleased with the satanic discors machina. She knows exactly how to operate it, and here prayers to it, unlike Lucan’s prayers to more traditional numina, are invariably answered in her favor. For, doing bad things to good people, or even to bad people, or to any one at all—virtue and vice do not engage her imagination—is fun. Of course, she enjoys the power she so gleefully abuses, but power for her is a means to an end: the end is evil for evil’s sake.” W. R. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes, vol. 47, Cornell Studies in Classical Philology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 19–20.

  17. “verbaque ad invitum…cogentia numen.” Lucan, The Civil War, l. 6.446. See l. 438-451 for a full discussion of how the witches exercise power over the gods and nature.

  18. Lucan, Bellum Civile l. 6.48–6.54, as quoted in Zissos, “Thessalian Preludes,” 108–9.

  19. “tonat ignaro caelum Iove.” Lucan, The Civil War, l. 6.466; Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes, 47:25.

  20. Compare the discussion of Erictho as a primitive Typhonic figure. Stephen A. Sansom, “Typhonic Voices Sounds of Hesiod and Cosmic War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile 6.685—694,” Mnemosyne 73, no. 4 (2019): 609–32,; Alessandro Rolim De Moura, “Hesiodic Patterns in Lucan: Cosmic and Civil Wars,” The Classical Journal 116, no. 1 (2020): 47–79.

  21. Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” 372–73.

  22. “Caesi deformia fratris/ora.” Lucan, The Civil War, 2.169-170; This is a bit ironic: a memory about the effort to preserve memory. In a way, though, this speech serves as a miniature Bellum Civile since that is Lucan’s quest with the whole of the epic. Both this man and Lucan are preserving memory in the midst of a civil war.

  23. A lengthy and rather gruesome description indeed. Lucan, The Civil War, l. 6.538-568…

  24. …Perversa funera pompa
    Rettulit at tumulis, fugere cadavera letum.
    Fumantes iuvenum cineres ardentiaque ossa
    A mediis rapit illa rogis ipsamque, parentes
    Quam tenuere, facem…

    Lucan, l. 6.531-535. My translation here is indebted to Civil War, trans. Susan Braund, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  25. Zissos, “Thessalian Preludes,” 115–16.

  26. Lucan, The Civil War, 348.

  27. Stephen McRoberts, “Bellum Civile 6.413-830” (lecture, Patrick Henry College, Purcellville, VA, April 11, 2022).

  28. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes, 47:5.

  29. Jamie Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 200–202.

  30. “There cannot be any commemoration until death has occurred.” Thorne, “Memoria Redux: Memory in Lucan,” 377.

  31. “carminibus magicis opus est herbisque.” Lucan, The Civil War, l. 6.822-825. There does seem to be a more mystical aspect to carminibus magicis than merely the English poem; incantations might be more precise, yet carmen can also simply refer to a poem such as Lucan writes.

  32. Lucan, l. 6.779-799; Zissos, “Thessalian Preludes,” 116.

  33. For more on the structure of the allusion, see Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile, 194–95.