“And Rome not able her own weight to beare”

May, Thomas (c.1595-1650); Lucan, Marcus Annaeus (38- 65 A.D.)

Lucans Pharsalia: or The ciuill warres of Rome, betweene Pompey the great, and Iulius Caesar. The whole tenne bookes, Englished by Thomas May, Esquire.

London: printed by Aug. Mathewes, for Thomas Iones, and are to be sold at his shop in St. Dunstanes Church-yard, and printed [by J. Haviland] for James Boler at the signe of the Marigold in Pauls Church-yard, 1631 and 1630


Octavo: 14 x 9.5 cm. I. a8, A-S8 T2. II. A-K8. With blank leaves A1, A2, and K8 in the second book present. . There are engraved title pages to both works; the first is tipped in. The second is integral to the collation. Complete.

SECOND EDITION (1st ed. 1627) of May

This copy is bound in contemporary limp vellum, lacking ties. Both works are introduced by additional, engraved title pages, the first, engraved by Hulsius, with full-length portraits of Pompey and Caesar and an image of Lucan committing suicide in his bath; the second, engraved by Thomas Cockson, features Hermes and Apollo and three allegorical figures: Historia, Fama and Rumor. Internally, these copies are in very good condition with insignificant dampstaining to the lower part of the first few signatures. There is a small repair to the first engraved t.p. A very pleasing copy.

The English poet, playwright, and historian Thomas May had a remarkable life and career. He experienced royal favor during the early reign of Charles II, who referred to him on a notable occasion as “My poet”. In 1627 May published his greatest poetical work, a translation of Lucan’s Roman epic poem the “Pharsalia”. Written during the reign of Nero, the “Pharsalia”, which took as its subject the civil war between the would-be dictator Julius Caesar and the senatorial faction led by Pompey the Great, offered a subtle critique of imperial power and a warm nostalgia for republican institutions. Lucan eventually joined the conspiracy of Piso against the emperor and was compelled to commit suicide at the age of 26.

Despite the critique of imperial power explicit in his rendering of Lucan’s “Pharsalia”(1627), May retained the King’s favor. When May published his continuation of Lucan (1630), he dedicated it to his sovereign. Yet in the political crisis of 1640-1642, May sided with parliament. His allegiance divided, May justified his new allegiance without “venting personal bitterness against the king”, offering instead “a dark view of the general tendency of monarchical institutions to threaten liberty whatever the character of the individual ruler. May's firm yet temperate style won him favour as a propagandist for parliament in pamphlets and news books”(ODNB) and in 1646 he became parliamentary secretary. In 1647 he published an official “History of the Parliament of England which Began November the Third, 1640”. May died a year after the execution of Charles I and was buried in Westminster. During the Restoration, his body was exhumed and re-buried at St Margaret's, Westminster.

May’s “Pharsalia”

The turn to a politically sensitive moment of Roman history may have been influenced by the rising political temperature in the last years of James I and the opening of his son's reign. When May published the full ten books of the ‘Pharsalia’ in 1627, he dedicated individual books to figures like the earls of Warwick and Essex who were associated with patriotic independence, at a time of great anxiety about the king's apparent subservience to the unpredictable Buckingham. May's stance was politically sensitive: the dedications were excised from most copies. His tragedy of ‘Julia Agrippina’, acted in 1628, drew on Lucan in a stark portrayal of imperial corruption. His Latin tragedy of ‘Julius Caesar’, now lost, is likely to have shared these political concerns. His Antigone (published in 1631) is unusual among the dramas of the period in turning directly to Greek themes and tragic models, but this play too draws on Lucan as it pits universal justice against tyrannical willfulness…

“John Aubrey traced May's later republicanism to his early enthusiasm for Lucan (Brief Lives, 2.56). He was certainly not regarded as a republican during the ‘king's peace’, however; on the contrary, Sir John Suckling's ‘A Sessions of the Poets’ implies that he became a credible candidate for succeeding Jonson as de facto poet laureate. In the aftermath of the Lucan translation the anti-imperial tone of his writings became somewhat muted… In 1630 he published a Continuation of Lucan that offered a more sympathetic view of imperial power. This he dedicated to the king, and it was at the king's command, noted on the title-pages, that he now turned to English history in verse narratives of the reigns of Henry II (1633) and Edward III (1635)… Clarendon looked back to the May of the 1630s with some affection, praising his continuation of Lucan as ‘for the learning, the wit, and the language … one of the best dramatic poems in the English language’.”(ODNB)

“May’s translation of Lucan's ‘Pharsalia,' published in 1627, passed through three editions in eight years. May followed it up by composing a continuation of Lucan (1630), both in Latin and English verse, which carried the story down to the death of Caesar. The translation was unstintingly praised by Ben Jonson and May was permitted to dedicate his continuation to Charles I. An epigram in ‘Wit's Recreations’ (1640), addressed to May compares his fortunes with those of Lucan:

Thou son of Mercury whose fluent tongue

Made Lucan finish his Pharsalian song,

Thy fame is equal, better is thy fate,

Thou hast got Charles his love, he Nero's hate.

STC 16888 and STC 17711