Civil War
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"Civil War" Summary

By Marcus Annaeus Lucanus

classics | 544 pages | Published in 1960

A magnificent new translation of the enduring epic about the sundering of the Roman Republic.Lucan lived from 39-65 AD at a time of great turbulence in Rome. His Civil War portrays two of the most colorful and powerful figures of the age-Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, enemies in a vicious struggle for power that severed bloodlines and began the transformation of Roman civilization. With Right locked in combat with Might, law and order broke down and the anarchic violence that resulted left its mark on the Roman people forever, paving the way for the imperial monarchy. Accessible and modern yet loyal to the rhetorical brilliance of the original, this will be the definitive Civil Warof our times.For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

A poetic and dramatic retelling of the Roman Civil War, highlighting the destructive power of conflict and the tragic fate of a divided nation.


In "Civil War" by Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, readers are taken on a journey through one of the most significant periods in ancient Roman history. This epic poem, also known as "Pharsalia," explores the events leading up to the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Lucanus presents a vivid and detailed account of the war, highlighting the political intrigues, personal ambitions, and the devastating consequences of the conflict. Through his powerful verses, Lucanus provides a thought-provoking examination of power, honor, and the human cost of war.

Brief Synopsis

Set in the first century BC, "Civil War" tells the story of the conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, two of the most influential figures in ancient Rome. The poem begins with a detailed description of the political landscape and the tensions that arise between Caesar and Pompey. As their rivalry intensifies, Lucanus delves into the motivations and ambitions of the key players, offering readers a glimpse into the complex web of alliances and betrayals.

The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of a crumbling republic, with Caesar seeking to consolidate his power and Pompey striving to maintain the status quo. Lucanus skillfully depicts the chaos and violence that erupts as the Roman world is torn apart by civil war. The poem explores the devastating impact of the conflict on individuals and society, capturing the horrors of battle and the moral dilemmas faced by those caught in the crossfire.

Main Characters

Julius CaesarA charismatic and ambitious military leader, Caesar seeks to extend his power and influence over Rome.
Pompey the GreatA respected statesman and military general, Pompey opposes Caesar's growing dominance and fights to preserve the traditional Roman Republic.
Cato the YoungerA stoic philosopher and political opponent of Caesar, Cato represents the ideals of the traditional republic and stands firm against tyranny.
Marcus BrutusA trusted ally and friend of Caesar, Brutus struggles with his loyalty and ultimately becomes one of the key conspirators in his assassination.
CleopatraThe Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra becomes entangled in the power struggles between Caesar and Pompey, aligning herself with Caesar and later Mark Antony.

Summary of Story Points

Chapter 1: The Growing Tensions

In the opening chapters, Lucanus sets the stage for the conflict between Caesar and Pompey. He explores the political climate of Rome, highlighting the growing tensions and rivalries among the senators. The narrative introduces the key characters and their ambitions, foreshadowing the impending civil war.

Chapter 2: The Outbreak of War

As the tensions escalate, Lucanus chronicles the outbreak of war between Caesar and Pompey. The narrative delves into the military strategies employed by both sides and the initial battles that ensue. Lucanus vividly portrays the chaos and bloodshed of the battlefield, capturing the human cost of war.

Chapter 3: Betrayals and Alliances

In this chapter, Lucanus explores the shifting allegiances that occur throughout the war. He delves into the political maneuverings and backstabbing that take place as individuals and factions align themselves with either Caesar or Pompey. The poem highlights the complexities of loyalty and the moral compromises made in pursuit of power.

Chapter 4: The Assassination of Caesar

The narrative reaches its climax with the assassination of Julius Caesar. Lucanus delves into the motivations and inner turmoil of the conspirators, particularly Marcus Brutus, who grapples with his conflicting loyalties. The poem examines the tragic consequences of the assassination and the power vacuum that follows.

Chapter 5: The Aftermath and Legacy

In the final chapters, Lucanus explores the aftermath of the civil war and its lasting impact on Rome. He reflects on the rise of Caesar's heir, Octavian (later known as Augustus), and the transformation of the Roman Republic into an empire. The poem raises questions about the price of power and the erosion of the republic's ideals.

Main Events

  1. The tensions between Caesar and Pompey escalate, leading to the outbreak of war.
  2. Key battles and military strategies are depicted, illustrating the brutal realities of war.
  3. Betrayals and shifting allegiances occur as individuals align themselves with either Caesar or Pompey.
  4. Julius Caesar is assassinated, leading to a power vacuum and further political turmoil.
  5. The aftermath of the civil war sees the rise of Octavian and the transformation of the Roman Republic into an empire.

Themes and Insights

  • Power and Ambition: Lucanus explores the corrupting nature of power and the lengths individuals will go to attain and maintain it.
  • Loyalty and Betrayal: The poem delves into the complexities of loyalty and the moral compromises made in times of political turmoil.
  • The Human Cost of War: Lucanus vividly portrays the horrors and devastation of war, highlighting the impact on individuals and society.
  • The Erosion of the Republic: "Civil War" examines the decline of the Roman Republic and the rise of autocratic rule, raising questions about the fragility of democratic institutions.

Reader's Takeaway

"Civil War" offers readers a gripping and visceral account of one of the most significant periods in Roman history. Lucanus' powerful verses bring to life the political intrigues, personal ambitions, and the devastating consequences of the conflict. The poem prompts readers to reflect on the themes of power, loyalty, and the human cost of war, resonating with contemporary issues and reminding us of the dangers of unchecked ambition.


In "Civil War" by Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, readers are immersed in the tumultuous period of ancient Roman history. Through vivid descriptions and powerful verses, Lucanus brings to life the epic conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. The poem explores the motivations, betrayals, and devastating consequences of the civil war, offering a thought-provoking examination of power and the human cost of war. "Civil War" is a captivating read that resonates with readers, prompting reflection on the timeless themes and lessons it presents.

Civil War FAQ

  1. Who is the author of 'Civil War'?

    The author of 'Civil War' is Marcus Annaeus Lucanus.

  2. What is the genre of 'Civil War'?

    'Civil War' is a historical epic poem.

  3. When was 'Civil War' first published?

    'Civil War' was first published in 65 AD.

  4. What is the main theme of 'Civil War'?

    The main theme of 'Civil War' is the conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, leading to the downfall of the Roman Republic.

  5. What is the setting of 'Civil War'?

    'Civil War' is set during the Roman Republic, specifically during the years 49-45 BC.

  6. Is 'Civil War' based on real historical events?

    Yes, 'Civil War' is based on real historical events and characters, particularly the power struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great.

  7. What is the writing style of 'Civil War'?

    'Civil War' is written in the form of an epic poem, following the tradition of ancient Roman literature.

  8. Is 'Civil War' suitable for all ages?

    While 'Civil War' contains historical and political themes, it is generally suitable for readers of all ages.

  9. Are there any other notable works by Marcus Annaeus Lucanus?

    Apart from 'Civil War', Marcus Annaeus Lucanus is also known for his poem 'Pharsalia', which also focuses on the Roman Civil War.

  10. Has 'Civil War' been adapted into other forms of media?

    Yes, 'Civil War' has been adapted into various theatrical and operatic productions over the years.