Lucan and Hari Seldon
The great Roman dynasts Julius
Caesar and Pompey the Great duked it out in 48 BC in the fields near the
Greek town of Pharsalus. The stakes and the reasons why each fought were complex,
but in the event Pompey, a general who had a tremendous reputation going into
the battle, suffered a sort of breakdown and contributed in no small way to
the decisive defeat of his side (nominally, the forces of the republic--huzzah!). Later
Roman authors seized upon the contrast between Pompey's proven reputation and
his fairly ignominious role in the battle--it made a good story.
The Roman poet Lucan wrote a brilliant
epic poem called the Pharsalia (in the early 60s AD) about the war
between Caesar and Pompey, and he found a way to describe Pompey as a paper tiger that no one who reads it ever forgets. He uses a metaphor
of a noble old oak tree covered with trophies (Pharsalia,
Book I, 135-143):
. . . stat magni nominis umbra,
/qualis frugifero quercus sublimis in agro /exuvias veteris populi sacrataque
gestans / dona ducum nec iam validis radicibus haerens /pondere fixa suo est,
nudosque per aera ramos /effundens trunco, non frondibus, efficit umbram,
/et quamvis primo nutet casura sub Euro, /tot circum silvae firmo se robore
tollant, /sola tamen colitur.
"He (Pompey) stands, a shadow
of a 'great' name, like a lofty oak in the fertile countryside bearing the
spoils of an ancient poeple and gifts dedicated by generals. No longer clinging
firmly with its roots, it sits fixed by its own weight, and pouring out bare
branches through the air from its trunk it offers no shade with leaves--and
though it sways and will fall in the first good wind, and a mass of trees
around it lift themselves up with unshaken strength, it alone is venerated."
Now let's have a look at a passage
of Asimov's Foundation. Seldon has been brought before
the Commission of Public Safety, and while being questioned, he seeks a metaphor
to describe the weakness of the Galactic Empire despite its outward appearance
of being as strong as ever:
Q. (theatrically) Do you realize,
Dr. Seldon, that you are speaking of an empire that has stood for twelve thousand
years, through all the vicissitudes of the generations, and which has behind
it the good wishes and love of a quadrillion human beings?
A. I am aware of both the present
status and the past history of the Empire. Without disrespect, I must claim
a far better knowledge of it than any in this room.
Q. And you predict its ruin?
A. It is a prediction which is
made by mathematics. I pass no moral judgments. Personally I regret the prospect.
Even if the Empire were admitted to be a bad thing (an admission I do not
make), the state of anarchy which would follow its fall would be worse. It
is that state of anarchy which my project is pledged to fight. The fall of
the Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought.
It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing
of caste, a damming of curiosity--a hundred other factors. It has been going
on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement
Q. Is it not obvious to anyone that the Empire is as strong as ever it was?
A. The appearance of strength is
all about you. It would seem to last forever. However, Mr. Advocate, the rotten
tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has
all the appearance of might it ever had. The storm blast whistles through
the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory,
and you will hear the creaking.
Coincidence? Anyone who has ever
spent time in a forest knows about widowmakers, so the idea of a tree that
is ripe to topple is common enough. On the other hand, Asimov parallels Lucan
in using the tree as a metaphor, and I would argue that he has adopted
and adapted Lucan's oak in several particulars. The wind whistles through the
branches of Asimov's tree, while Lucan's oak shoots its naked branches out into
the air; in both it is a storm wind that will topple them; Asimov's rotten tree
parallels Lucan's leafless trunk; and Asimov's tree creaks (because it is loose)
just as Lucan's sways. Carried a bit further, Lucan's oak is an object of reverence
covered with the ancient glories of its people just as Asimov has Seldon's inquisitor
refer to the antiquity of the Empire (12,000 years), the vicissitudes of generations
through which it has lasted, and the good wishes of a quadrillion citizens.
Asimov had an encyclopedic knowledge,
and if many of his books probably reflect learning from later years, he clearly
had some background in the classics (quite apart from the obvious model for
the fall of the Galactic Empire he had in Gibbon's Decline and Fall)
as he wrote the Foundation stories. Seldon's homeworld is Helicon--a
name laden with significance in the ancient world as the mountain on whose slopes
the muses tarried with their patron Apollo--a little further west on the same
mountain mass is Mt. Parnassus, where Apollo had his oracular seat
at Delphi. Seldon is explicitly called "raven Seldon": "He
keeps predicting disaster." How fitting then, that this oracle should have
come from Helicon. Again, when breakaway provinces are putting pressure on Terminus,
we have the names Smyrno (there is a famous ancient Greek city Smyrna which
is now Izmir, Turkey) and Anacreon, the latter the name of a Greek lyric poet.
The great and luckless general Bel Riose of Foundation and Empire
is a very slightly altered form of Belisarius, Justinian's great and ultimately
Until we find some smoking gun in
Asimov's correspondence (or buried in his autobiography) telling us he read
Lucan, the proposal that this breathtakingly beautiful passage from Foundation
has one of its roots firmly in the Roman world is just a probability at best.
I find the parallels convincing: YMMV.
The Asimov quotations are taken from
Foundation (1951), p. 27; the unlovely translation of the Latin is