“Dismemberment” in Neronian Literature’

Benni Rodewyk

Dismemberment and mutilation of bodies is a significant theme frequently encountered in Neronian literature. The striking violence found in Lucan’s Bellum Civile is, to some degree, shared but not rivalled by other Roman writers of the time1 – his descriptions of wounding and killing is on average three to four times longer than any other poet’s.2 However, this dismemberment evident in Neronian literature is not solely limited to the physical dismemberment of bodies in the texts, there is also notable evidence for literary fragmentation within the works. By close reading of selected passages of Lucan’s Bellum Civile and Seneca’sThyestes, this essay will show how these Neronian poets, through the grotesque dismemberment of human bodies, allude to the breakdown of social, political and moral order in Neronian Rome. It will also explain how the poets self-consciously utilise literary fragmentation within their works to allude to this breakdown. Furthermore, it will examine the allusions to gladiatorial games found in the Bellum Civile and link them to the apparent thirst for blood in the Neronian age.

The beginning of this study will focus on the opening lines of Lucan’s Bellum Civile. The poet introduces the reader to the central theme of his epic- the civil war: ‘bella…quam plus civilia’ (line 1). This opening passage allows us a glimpse into the theme of the epic to come- the civic strife forced the Romans to plunge their sword into their own viscera(entrails, line 3). Lucan therefore, introduces his focus on the various parts of the human body3 and their subsequent physical dismemberment as a result of the horrors of civil war as early as line 3. Furthermore, the opening lines give a flavour of the literary fragmentation that is to come in the surviving ten books. Throughout his Bellum Civile, Lucan employs a variety of literary devices 4 to impose his authorial voice upon the narrative and thereby disrupt the flow of the text, delaying the development of the narrative. An example for this is readily found in lines 1-7, where Lucan essentially repeats the idea of Romans turning against their own fellow citizens four times:Bella per Emathios plus quam civilia campos, (1);5 in sua vitrici conversum viscera dextra, (3);infestisque obvia signis signa, (6); pila minantia pilis, (7). The apostrophe in line 8 (o cives), the rhetorical questions in line 8 (quis furor…ferri) and lines 9-12 (bella geri…triumphos) and the authorial exclamation heu (alas!, 13) further upset the flow of the narrative. Therefore, the opening lines already emphasize Lucan’s focus on physical dismemberment (viscera) throughout the poem and give evidence of a fragmented and disjointed narrative, representing the social, political and moral order, prominent in the later years of Nero’s reign. Quint argues that the narrative disunity of the Bellum Civile corresponds to a body in pieces, mutilated beyond recognition, and that “the epic narrative, which classical literary theory describes with the metaphor of the whole, well-knit body, is deliberately fragmented by Lucan to depict a world out of joint.” 6

The prolonged episode of Scaeva, Caesar’s crazed centurion, in Book VI of the Bellum Civile, is an ideal example of the grotesque physical dismemberment and mutilation of human bodies so prevalent in Neronian literature.7 What is particularly remarkable is the sheer brutality of the scene and the great variety of body parts, which are mangled by Scaeva, the frenzied one-man army. The entire episode can be perceived as a perversion of the epic topos of aristeia. Lucan, here, figuratively dismembers the epic tradition of aristeia as he is not glorifying Scaeva’s exploits on the battlefield, but rather mocking them, presenting Scaeva as a frenzied follower of a mad cause and ridiculing the epic value of aristeia.8 He uses anything he can get his hands on as a weapon, not only to kill his enemies but to utterly disfigure any part of his enemies’ body he can reach; he dislodges from the wall the breasts of his adversaries (nunc duro contraria pectora conto detrudit muris, 174-75), cuts off hands (amputat ense manus, 176), crushes heads with stones so brains are scattered all around the battlefield (caput obterit ossaque saxo ac male defensum fragili conpage cerebrum dissipat, 176-78), and burns hair (crines, 178) and beard (genas, 178) so that the eyes burn away with a crackling sound (strident oculis ardentibus ignes, 179). Lucan does not interrupt this raging bull in his ‘day’s-work’ by authorial interjection, nor does he need to. The grotesque scenery of one man fighting an entire army, drunk on mad frenzy for Caesar’s cause, is already hyperbolic and Lucan does not need to reinforce this image by literary fragmentation to achieve its aim. The reader, whether he will be disgusted or entertained by this gruesome dismemberment of various body parts, is forced to linger on the imagery put in front of his eyes by Lucan, with the effect of disrupting the narrative’s progression.

Scaeva’s crazed deeds on the battlefield, however, are far from over then and Lucan seems to revel in the description of the dismemberment of his anti-hero Scaeva.9 He plunges himself into yet another army of enemy troops and now the focus of physical dismemberment is on Scaeva himself. Frequent blows destroy his armour (crebris ictibus, 192), his vitals are exposed (nudis vitalibus, 194) and multiple arrows hit him (nulla fuit non certa manus., non lancea felix, 190). Lucan diverts the reader’s attention from the battlefield with an authorial interjection in the form of a hyperbole, containing the apostrophe vaesani (fools!) in lines 196-97. When the reader is sucked back into the narrative, Scaeva’s chest is like a thick forest of spears (ferens densem in pectore silvam, 205) and after a spear pierces one of his eyes (219), he pulls out the arrow with his eye hanging off it and treads upon it (calcat, 119). Lucan’s portrayal of Scaeva is ridiculously grotesque, unconcerned by the spears in his chest and the loss of his eye, he keeps on fighting like a gladiator in the arena10 and, in fact, Lucan alludes to the Roman amphitheatre in lines 220-23.11 This allusion to gladiatorial battles is reinforced in light of lines 167-69, where Scaeva’s fellow soldiers choose to take on the role of spectators marvelling at him, eager to watch him fight (mirantesque virum atque avidi spectare, 167-68). These lines invite the reader to imagine taking a seat in the Roman amphitheatre, experiencing the gruesome battle for survival between men and animals first-hand. In his book, Spectacle and Engagement, Leigh argues that spectators in ancient Rome took a different attitude towards death in the amphitheatre, despite its apparent violence, than towards peaceful death in real life, asserting that they “no longer abhor it…but now enjoy it as a spectacle and wonder”,12 as they are “not emotionally involved with the pathos of the victim’s experiences.”13 Lucan seems to be commenting on the bloodthirsty nature of Neronian society, where bodies were ripped apart to the cheers of the audience- the gladiatorial games, the venationes, the spectacula – all thrived.14 By composing the Bellum Civile with its frequent and grotesque mutilation of human bodies, he is essentially giving his contemporaries what they craved – gory scenes of vile dismemberment of human bodies en masse. Most suggests that the obsession with the dismemberment of the human body may be “the symptom of an anguished reflection upon the nature of human identity and upon the uneasy border between men and animals”15 and he relates it to the questions asked within Stoic philosophy about the continuity of personal identity and, more specifically, to the extent to which mutilation of a body will lead to the “loss of personal identity of that body’s owner.”16

The decapitation of Pompey in Book VIII of the Bellum Civile (8.560-711) can also be perceived as physical dismemberment.17 Pompey was elected as the true ruler by the senate, the vindex senatus (8.554), and was considered champion of the struggling republic. Rome was itself thecaput mundi (2.136) and the leader of Rome would subsequently rule the world. Therefore,caput had strong connotations of power within the Roman state. The use of caput to convey the supremacy of a community over others is essentially “an extension or variety of the body-state analogy, in which the head may be used to convey the elevated status of a leader over other members within the community”.18 The decapitation scene, containing allusions to Priam, Turnus, Julius Caesar and Cato,19 is drawn out over 152 lines, in which Pompey’s attempt “to secure for himself a heroic, Stoic death20 is overlaid upon the text’s digressive, allusive insistence that the Stoic model is insufficient”.21 Leading up to the actual beheading of Pompey, Lucan teases the reader by building up tension, only to deflate this tension by fragmenting the narrative through asyndeton (Transire parantem…in caedes, 6.595-600), apostrophe (Fortuna, 600), rhetorical questions (Quis non…fugasses?, 600-603), authorial exclamations (heu, 604) and authorial interjections (603-605). This literary fragmentation of the text, chopped into pieces by Lucan, delaying the course of the narrative, could be perceived as a literary beheading of Pompey, shortly before his actual physical decapitation in lines 607-8 (puer [Achillas] gladio tibi cecidit, Maegne, tuo). Lucan, however, is not finished with Pompey just yet. Over the next 26 lines (610-636), reveals Pompey’s noble, dying thoughts, praising Pompey for his control over his thoughts and mastery of his mind (Talia custodia Magno mentis erat, ius hoc animi morientis habebat, 635-6), only to subvert the reader’s positive notion of Pompey’s death with an eye-witness account of the decapitation a few lines later (664-691). The Roman soldier proceeds to dismember the once beautiful body cutting up the muscles and veins, hacking long at the knotted bones of Pompey (nervos venasque secat nodosaque frangit ossa diu, 672-73), before fixing the head onto an Egyptian spear (Phario veruto…suffixum caput est, 681) and by abominable art (nefanda arte, 688), they drained his head of all the blood, dried his skin and tore out his brains (summota est capiti…veneno est, 689-691). Marks asserts that “with the loss of the community’s leader, its head, comes the fall of the community itself, the body”22 and that “Rome is being torn apart: her head is becoming detached from its trunk.”23Therefore, by mutilating Pompey’s body and, subsequently, decapitating him, Lucan is putting the final nail in the coffin of the republic.

In comparison, in Seneca’s Thyestes24 the messenger relates to the Chorus how Atreus has killed his brother Thyestes’ two young children in only four lines, compared to the decapitation of Pompey, which takes up more than 150 lines of Lucan’s narrative in Book 8:

Tunc ille ad aras Plisthenes saevus trahit
adicitque fratri. Colla percussa amputat;
cervice caesa truncus in pronum ruit,
querulum cuncurrit murmure incerto caput

Thyestes, 726-29

[Then that savage man [Atreus] drags Plisthenes to the altar, and adds him to his brother. With a stroke he chops off the head; with the neck severed his trunk falls forward, while the querulous head rolls away with unintelligible murmur.]

For Seneca the actual act of decapitation is not the central point- his abhorrent detail of dismemberment will be provided later in the play, when the messenger describes how Atreus prepared his impious meal for Thyestes (749-775). The asyndeton (727-29) employed here serves to speed up the process of the execution. Atreus is clinical and swift, he feels no sympathy, but is driven by his rage and hatred for his brother. The frequent and harsh “c”-sound25 in this passage and the alliteration (cervice caesa) reinforce the image of a man driven on by bitter hatred, and the reader, aware of Seneca’s obsession with bodily mutilation, anticipates gruesome descriptions in the narrative to come.

For the physical and literary dismemberment encountered in Lucan are also prominent features in Senecan tragedies. In his works Phaedra and Thyestes, the poet forces upon the reader grim images of body parts being utterly mangled. Most argue that Seneca also, like Lucan, is not overly concerned with the mental sufferings of the physically wounded. Their fictional bodies are lacerated, but the “persons whose suffering seem to concern these authors most are not the victims, but ourselves”,26 the readers. Furthermore, he maintains that there is an obvious connection between scenes of amputation of the human bodies in the works of Neronian literature and the dismemberment of the body of a sentence for which Seneca was distinguished.27

Seneca’s description of the dismemberment of Thyestes’ children by Atreus for his sacrilegious meal is, essentially, in accordance with other descriptions of dismemberment in Neronian literature. However, the physical dismemberment in the Thyestes (as opposed to other works of Seneca like his Phaedra, in which Hippolytus’ body is severely disfigured at the end of the play) is not as brutally detailed as Lucan’s mutilation of both live and dead bodies in the Bellum Civile. However, Seneca still “shows the same urge as Lucan to describe a world poised on the brink of spiritual bankruptcy”.28 Seneca, however, does not linger on physical dismemberment to the same extent as Lucan does in his B.C.. From the first line of the prologue of hisThyestes, when Tantalus finds himself forcibly removed from Tartarus29 (quis…sede ab infausta extrahit, 1), Seneca’s language repeatedly “depicts a disjointed world, in which things do not remain in their normal position and in which customary boundaries fail to hold good.”30 The idea of violent fragmentation, being one of the central themes in Seneca’s Thyestes, links Atreus’ dismemberment of his victims (divisum secat, 760; rupta fractis cruribus vestigial, 1039), the figurative fracture of moral ties that produced it (fas omne ruptum, 179), and the dismemberment of natural order of the cosmos (raptum…diem, 777). Tarrant establishes a link between the strange and repulsive world of the Thyestes and Seneca’s own,31 arguing that the megalomaniac and tyrannical nature of Atreus would have reminded his contemporary audience of their emperor.

In lines 755-775 Atreus chops up the young, previously decapitated bodies of Thyestes’ sons, and prepares them as a sacrilegious meal for his brother; their entrails are torn out from their chests (erepta exta pectoribus, 755), while still alive (vivis, 755) and quivering (tremunt, 755). Like a skilled butcher, Atreus separates their bodies limb by limb (ipse divisum secat in membra corpus, 760-61), and chops off their resisting (patentes, 762) arms and lays bare the joints and bones (763), but keeps their faces intact (764), so that he can see Thyestes’ despair when he presents their severed heads to him (907), and so that Thyestes can fully understand what he has done.

The fragmented nature of his Thyestes also owes to its genre tragedy, where apostrophes such as in line 776 (O Phoebe patiens), sententiae such as peior est bello timor ipse belli (‘the fear of war is worse than war’ 572), asyndetons (saevum asperum, 314; ubi non est…instabile regnum est, 216-18) were a frequent occurrence. Seneca was renowned for his stylistic and rhetorical nature as a writer and evidence for this can, for example, be found in lines 192-203, which contain a series of symmetrical phrases At the same time, his narrative in the Thyestes is littered with short sentences and exclamations (Utinam arcuisset!, 749; ne tegat…ignis!, 750;pater insepultos spectat!, 753; credibile in aevo…neget!, 753-54) and rhetorical questions (e.g.quid esse…superet illum?, line 196-97; numquid abiectus iacet?, 197 and numquid secundis…quietem?, 198-99) and other kinds of character interjections (o, 753), which disrupt the narrative and delay the development of the plot and create a sense of fragmentation and disjointedness of the text.

There seems to have been a rather grim fascination with physical dismemberment in Neronian literature, which is reflected by the disjointed nature of the texts themselves. The very language of Lucan’s Bellum Civile, backed up by the poet’s own dark view of Roman contemporary society and his occasional cries of desperation, “provide a self-conscious testimonial to Lucan’s belief in nothing.” Both Lucan’s Bellum Civile and Seneca’s Thyestes can be perceived as a product of a disjointed society, and their literary fragmentation reflects the breakdown of order under Nero reign. The enthusiasm for gladiatorial games might have been a contributing factor for the extensive gore found within the work and Lucan’s allusion to gladiatorial fights within his epic poem can be perceived as the poet criticising the passion for gory sights in the gladiatorial arena. Lucan and Seneca utilize this grotesque aspect of their works to incite a furious passion in their audience and spur them to reflect on the dismembered nature of their own society.


Primary Reading:

Duff, J.D. trans. Lucan: The Civil War I-X. Cambridge Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Fitch, J. G., trans. Seneca: Tragedies Vol. II Cambridge Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Secondary literature:

Ahl, Frederick M. Lucan: An Introduction. Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1976.

Bartsch, S. Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War. Cambridge Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Boyle, A. J. (ed.) Roman Epic. London and New York; Routledge, 1993.

Gorman, V. ’Lucan’s Epic “Aristeia” and the Hero of the “Bellum Civile”’. The Classical Journal, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Feb. – Mar., 2001), pp. 263-290.

Hardie, P. R. The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Hexter, R. (ed.) and Seldon, D. (ed.). Innovations of Antiquity. London; Routledge, 1993.

Leigh, M. Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1997.

Malamoud, M. ‘Pompey’s Head and Cato’s Snakes’. Classical Philology, Vol. 98, No. 1 (Jan., 2003), pp. 31-44.

Marks, R. ’Getting Ahead: Decapitation as Political Metaphor in Silius Italicus’ Punica’.Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 66-88.

Masters, Jamie. Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Cambridge Classical Studies. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992.

Quint, D. Epic and Empire: Politics and generic Form from Virgil to Milton. Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1993.

Tarrant, R. J. Seneca’s Thyestes. Atlanta, Georgia; Scholars Press, 1985.

Walde, C. Lucan im 21. Jahrhundert. München and Leipzig; Saur Verlag, 2005.

  1. Bartsch (1997), p. 12.*
  2. Most (1993), p. 397.*
  3. Dinter (2005), p. 295: throughout the B.C., Lucan uses: corpus (164 times); manus (137);pectus (107); caput (84); membrum (70); tergum (35); artus (32); iugulum (29); oculus(29); lumen (when translated as eyes: 18); collum (27); viscus (24); latus (22); pes (12);auris (9); ala (11); naris (3). These statistics demonstrate the omnipresence of corporeality in Lucan.*
  4. Boyle (1993), p. 154 gives a list of fragmentation in Lucan: discontinuous narrative, constant poetic intervention, apostrophe, descriptive set-pieces, verbal lists, declamatory structure, epigram, hyperbole, paradox, the summoning of the reader into the text, prosaic language, discordant rhythm and negative formulation. *
  5. All Latin passages of Lucan’s Bellum Civile have been taken from Loeb’s edition (1988); the translations offered are my own reading of the poem.*
  6. Quint (1993), p. 141.*
  7. Examples of threatened mutilation of a body or other forms of mutilation in Neronian literature: in Petronius’ Satyricon: 36; 48; 79; 80; 102; 108; 119; 129; 132 and 141; in Lucan’s Bellum Civile: 2.140-222; 3.609-17; 3.635-46; 3.663-69; 6.176; 6.217-19; 6.357-59; 7.623-28 and 8.676-711; allusions to dismemberment in Persius: 5.7-8; 5.17-18.*
  8. See Gorman for full discussion (2001), p. 278.*
  9. ‘Anti-hero’ is, here, not meant to have positive (or necessarily negative) connotations, but is used to describe Lucan’s rejection of the epic hero.*
  10. Examples of gladiatorial similes in Lucan’s B.C.: 4.285-91; 4.708-10.*
  11. Libyan gladiators were frequent ‘visitors’ in the gladiatorial arena, and bears were also not unknown to the gladiatorial arena.*
  12. Leigh (1993), p. 287.*
  13. Leigh (1993), p. 287.*
  14. Bartsch (1997), p. 42.*
  15. Most (1992), p. 405.*
  16. Most (1992), p. 406.*
  17. Masters (1992), p. 162.*
  18. Marks (2008), p. 67.*
  19. Hardie, (1993), p. 38; 45; 46.*
  20. Pompey tries to secure for himself a noble Stoic death by arranging his own body in the way he wants it to have as a corpse, unmoving and speechless. He covers his face and head, closes his eyes, and holds back his anima.*
  21. Malamoud (2003), p. 33.*
  22. Marks (2008), p. 71.*
  23. Marks (2008), p. 79.*
  24. Although the exact date of the Thyestes is unknown, Boyle asserts that Seneca’s Thyesteswas one of the last plays written by the poet. For fuller discussion, see Boyle (2006), p. 190.*
  25. In the passage quoted above, I have highlighted the “c”s to make them more obviously stand out.*
  26. Most (1992), p. 400.*
  27. Most (1992), p. 408.*
  28. Ahl (1976), p. 17.*
  29. Originally a welcome guest at the table of Olympians, Tantalus betrayed the gods by stealing ambrosia and nectar for his people on earth. He was punished to dwell in eternal thirst and hunger in Tartarus, the deepest portion of the underworld, for killing and serving up his son Pelops as a meal for the gods.*
  30. Tarrant (1985), p. 47.*
  31. Tarrant (1985), p. 48.*
  32. Nulla…probet, / sed nulla taceat, 192-93; non ulcisceris / nisi vincis, 195-96; secundis…rebus modum, / fessis quietem, 198-99; flecti non potest, frangi potest, 202; petatur…ne…petat 203; aut perdet aut peribit, 203.*
  33. Bartsch, p. 6.*

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