Lucan

The Civil War (Pharsalia)

Book III

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

Contents


Book III:1-45 Pompey’s vision of Julia

As a southerly, filling the swelling sails, drove the fleet on

ploughing the open sea, the mariners gazed ahead over

the Ionian waves. Pompey alone looked back towards Italy,

as the harbours of his native land, a shore he would never

see again, the cloudy hilltops, the mountain chains dimmed

before his eyes and vanished. His weary flesh yielded then

to drowsy slumber, in which he suddenly saw a vision:

Julia, a phantom full of menace and terror, raising her

sorrowful face above the yawning earth, stood there in

the shape of a Fury amid the flames of her funeral pyre.

‘Now,’ she cried ‘now as civil war began, driven from

Elysian fields, the regions of the blessed, was I dragged

down to Stygian darkness and the realm of guilty spirits.

There I saw with these very eyes the Furies, torches in hand,

roused to work strife between you; Charon, the ferryman

of Acheron’s scorched banks, waits for endless boatloads;

Tartarus extends its borders to punish a host of sinners;

the triple Parcae’s hands are full, scarce equal to the task,

the three sisters weary of snapping threads. Magnus, while I

was your wife, you celebrated triumphs in joy, but then

your fortune altered with your bride: Cornelia, my rival,

doomed by fate to bring her husbands from rule to ruin,

supplanted me before my funeral pyre grew cold. She

can cling to your standard by land and sea, and welcome,

if I have but power to trouble your sleep, robbing you

of time for love-making; if Caesar occupies your days,

let Julia have your nights. Not even Lethe’s shore that

brings forgetfulness could banish you from my memory;

the monarchs of the dead permit me now to haunt you.

When you fight I will appear in the midst of the field;

my shade, my ghost, will not let you forget that you

were spouse to Caesar’s daughter. Sever in vain the tie

of kinship that binds you. This civil war will make you

mine.’ So saying, the phantom fled, fading from her

troubled husband’s arms. Threatened thus with disaster,

by the gods and by the dead, Pompey only hastened

more eagerly to his fate, his mind prepared for ruin.

‘Why am I fearful,’ he cried, ‘of some empty spectral

vision? Either the mind loses all sensation after death,

or if not, then death is no great tragedy.’ Now the sun

sank towards the sea, as much of its fiery disk lost

as the moon loses just before or after the full, and lo

a benign shore offered the fleet an easy approach;

they hauled in, lowered the masts, and rowed ashore.

Book III:46-83 Caesar marches on Rome

As the wind snatched the ships from his grasp, as

the sea hid Pompey’s fleet, Caesar on the Italian

shore, became a leader without rival. Yet he felt

no pleasure in having driven Pompey far away,

only resentment that his enemy had fled to safety

abroad. Success no longer satisfied his eagerness

for speed; even victory was not worth delay. Now

he banished thoughts of battle from his mind, intent

on the problems of peace, on how to win the fickle

favour of the people, knowing that the price of corn

was cause for popularity or its reverse. When men

in power feed the idle mob they buy subservience,

a starving people knows no fear, and hunger itself

gives birth to freedom. Caesar therefore ordered

Curio to Sicily, by way of Messina’s straits where

the sea inundated the land or severed it, turning

what had been mainland to shore. The waves

there work powerfully, the waters ever serving

to prevent the cliffs once more making contact.

Other troops were sent to Sardinia. Both islands

are famous for their corn; no foreign fields

supplied the granaries of Rome earlier or more

abundantly. Libyan soils scarcely outdo them,

though southerlies may fade, and northerlies

drive clouds to those warmer climes, until

rains pours down to ensure a mighty harvest.

Having taken these precautions, the general

led his troops, unarmed, victorious, wearing

the aspect of peace, to the city of his birth.

Ah, if on his return to Rome he had merely

conquered the north, and the Gallic tribes,

what scenes of his exploits and his battles

might have adorned his long procession

through the City! The fetters he had laid

on the sea and on the Rhine, his high chariot

followed by noble Gauls and blonde Britons!

How great a triumph he missed in adding

to his conquests! No happy crowds met him

on his march; but looks of silent dread, no throng

gathered there to greet him, yet he was pleased

to be feared, preferring their dread to their love.

Book III:84-140 Lucius Metellus defends the treasury

He passed the craggy cliffs of Anxur, and where

the mired way cleaves the Pontine Marshes, where

Scythian Diana rules her hill bound grove and temple,

and where Roman consuls climb to Alba’s heights.

At last from a lofty place he sighted distant Rome.

Seeing her again after so long warring in the north,

he gazed in wonder as he addressed his native city:

‘Have men, whom no immediate threats of battle

oppress, abandoned you, a dwelling place of gods?

What other city then, dare hope to be defended?

The gods be thanked that eastern savages, swift

Sarmatians with Pannonian allies, or Getae joined

by Dacians, have not chosen to descend on Italy!

Fate is merciful that Romans, led by so feeble

a general as Pompey, have only Romans to oppose.’

So saying he entered a city paralysed by dread.

For men believed that, as if capturing the city,

he’d destroy the walls, blacken them with fire,

and scatter the statues of the gods. Such was

the measure of their fear, they felt he owned

the power to do as he wished. They could feign

no words of welcome, nor, pretending pleasure,

shout aloud with joy, scarcely free to utter curses.

He lacked authority to summon the Senate,

but a crowd of those city fathers, dragged from

their hiding places, filled Palatine Apollo’s temple.

The consuls were absent from their sacred chairs,

and the praetors, next in office, were not apparent,

so their empty seats were carted from their places.

Caesar was all in all, and the Senate forced to meet

to hear the speeches of a mere private individual.

If he had sought royal powers or divine honours,

execution or exile for the senators, the assembled

patricians would have sanctioned such. Happily,

there was more that he blushed to request than they

blushed to allow. Nevertheless, Freedom in her anger,

sought in the person of a single man, to try if might

would yield to right. Seeing brute force employed

to burst the gates of the treasury, Saturn’s temple,

Metellus stubbornly hastened there, slipped through

the ranks of Caesar’s men and before the lock was

shattered, stood before the gates. Thus we see that

love of money is a true proof against fear of death.

The loss and destruction of the constitution made

no stir, but gold, least of all things, prompted action.

This tribune, trying to bar the conqueror from theft,

cried: ‘Over my dead body shall the temple fall to your

assault; you’ll win no gold by robbery, unless drenched

in our sacred blood. The violence done our office will

surely bring down vengeance from the gods, just so

the tribune’s curse which sought defeat for Crassus

followed him to war. Draw your sword then, fear

no crowd of witnesses. The city is abandoned by its own,

yet our wealth should not go to pay your evil soldiery,

there are nations to defeat, cities for you to grant them.

Nor does indigence drive you to despoil the peace

you thrust aside; for you have war itself to enrich you.’

His speech filled Caesar with profound indignation:

‘Metellus,’ he cried, ‘you may hope for death’s glory,

but this hand of mine will not be stained by your blood.

Your office cannot make you worthy of my wrath.

Are you then the champion who will secure liberty?

The centuries have not wrought such confusion

that should the voice of Metellus defend them,

the laws would not rather be trampled on by Caesar.’

Book III:141-168 The treasury is seized

So Caesar spoke, his anger deepening, as the tribune

still refused to quit the gates; forgetting the citizen’s

part and looking instead towards his ruthless soldiers.

But now a fellow tribune, Cotta, persuaded Metellus

to forsake his over-bold intent, saying: ‘When a nation

is oppressed by tyranny, freedom of speech may rob

us of our freedom, while a semblance is preserved if we

agree to its demands. That, overcome, we have suffered

acts of coercion, such is the sole excuse for our disgrace

our abject fear, that to refuse was in no way possible.

Let Caesar carry off these baneful seeds of accursed

war, as swiftly as he may: nations protected by law

may feel a loss of wealth, the poverty of slaves is

not theirs but their master’s.’ Metellus was drawn aside

while the temple gates were swiftly opened. Loud

the Tarpeian Rock re-echoed to the grating noise

as the doors parted; then Rome’s wealth, untouched

in the vaults for many a year, was brought outside;

treasure from the Punic Wars, and those with Perses

of Macedon, the spoil of conquered Philip, the gold

that Brennus the Gaul forfeited to Rome in flight,

and that which could not bribe Fabricius to sell

the city to Pyrrhus; all that our ancestors saved

with care, all the tribute paid by the rich nations

of Asia, or given victorious Metellus by Minoan

Crete, or brought by Cato from distant Cyprus.

The wealth of the Orient, the treasure of captive

kings borne in Pompey’s triumph was revealed.

Tragic the plunder that despoiled the temple,

and first made Rome poorer than its Caesar.

Book III:169-213 Greece and Asia Minor rally to Pompey

Meanwhile Pompey’s fame had stirred nations everywhere

to war, those destined to share his fate. Greece the nearest

sent soldiers to her neighbour’s battle: Amphissa sent men

from Phocis, rocky Cirrha too, and both Parnassus’ peaks

were deserted. Boeotia’s leaders gathered, those whom

swift Cephisus’ and Cadmean Dirce’s oracular streams

embrace; men came from Pisa and the Alpheus whose

waters flow beneath the waves to the Sicilian shore.

Arcadians quit Maenalus, and the soldiers of Trachis

left Hercules’ Oeta behind. Thesprotians and Dryopes

rushed to fight, and the Selloi abandoned their silent

oracle of oak-trees on the ancient hillside of Chaonia,

The levy drained Athens of all her men, though few

of her ships gathered at Apollonia, and three vessels

alone bore witness to historic Salamis. Next to rally

to the cause was Crete, isle dear to Zeus, ancient

island of a thousand cities, Cnossos skilled in archery,

and Gortyn whose bowmen rivalled those of Parthia.

They were followed by those who dwelt in Trojan

Oricos, the scattered Athamanes who roam mountain

forests, and the Encheliae whose ancient name refers

to Cadmus’ death and his transformation to a snake.

Men came too from the Colchian Absyrtides round

which the Adriatic foams, those came who till the fields

of Haemonian Iolcos, where the untried Argo first left

the shore, challenged the waves, and forged links

between alien nations, pitting men against the storms

and ocean breakers, bringing a new manner of death.

Next Thracian Mount Haemus was abandoned, then

Pholoe with its pure myth of the bi-formed Centaurs.

Strymon was deserted, that each year sends Bistonia’s

cranes to winter by the Nile, and barbarous Cone where

one mouth of the branching Danube sheds its Sarmatian

waters and bathes Peuce’s isle sprinkled by the waves.

Mysia too was deserted; the land of Idalus drenched

by Caicus’ chill waters; Arisbe’s all too shallow soil.

The people of Pitane gathered, and those of Celaenae

who mourn Pallas’ invention of the flute, Celaenae

condemned with Marsyas when Apollo won the contest.

There the Marsya running swiftly in its straight course

meets the winding Maeander, and merging turns about,

and there earth emits the Pactolus in seams of gold,

and Hermus, rich as Pactolus, dissects the cornfields.

The soldiers of ever ill-fated Ilium joined the standards

of the doomed army too, untroubled by the tale of Troy,

or by Caesar’s boast of his descent from Trojan Iulus.

Book III:214-263 The Middle East and India rally to Pompey

The tribes of Syria followed, from the Orontes and Nineveh

of whose riches legend tells; they abandoned wind-swept

Damascus, Gaza, and Idume rich in palm-trees; Tyre

subject to earthquake; Sidon precious for its purple dyes.

Setting unerring course for war, they steered their ships

by the pole-star, that star to them above all the safest guide.

These, the Phoenicians, if the legend is true, first sought

to record language in written characters for the future,

before Egypt learned to bind papyrus reeds, when only

hieroglyphs of birds, wild beasts, and other creatures,

preserved the secrets of its speech. Men left the woods

of Tauros, Tarsus where Perseus landed, and the cave

above Corycus where the earth yawns wide in a hollow.

Mallos and far-off Aigai are loud with sounding shipyards;

the Cilicians, pirates no more, set sail in true ships of war.

News of war reached further east, where Ganges descends,

Ganges that alone on earth opens its mouths directly towards

the rising sun, and drives its current on against the easterlies;

nearby it was that Alexander was forced to halt, believing

the outer ocean beyond, yet confessing himself defeated

by the world’s vastness. Now the land was roused where

Indus too, its current flowing swiftly with additional force,

barely feels the addition of the Hydaspes to its wide waste.

The tribes rallied who drink sweet juice from sugar-canes;

those who dye their hair with saffron dye, and gird their

cotton robes with bright jewels; those who build funeral

pyres, climb on the burning logs, and immolate themselves.

How glorious to seize fate in one’s hands and, satiated

with life, let what remains be gifted back to the gods!

Savage Cappadocians rallied to the cause; those men

who find the soil of Mount Amanus far too hard; also

the Armenians who live where Niphates rolls its boulders.

And the Choatrae abandoned their sky-reaching forests.

The Arabs entered a world unknown to them, amazed

that the shadows of trees no longer fell southwards.

The madness of Rome even troubled the remote Orestae;

and the chieftains of Carmania, where the more southerly

heavens still reveal the Bear not wholly sunken below

the horizon, where Bootes, swift to set there, is visible

only for a brief part of the night; and Ethiopia, which

no part of the northern constellations would cover

if the foreleg of rearing Taurus was not bent

so that the tip of his hoof projected downwards;

and it troubled Parthia where the mighty Euphrates

and the swift Tigris raise their streams from sources

not far apart in Persia, such that if earth allowed

them to meet, who could say which would conquer.

Yet the Euphrates spreading over the land fertilises

the ground as the Nile does Egypt’s, while the Tigris

is suddenly swallowed by a chasm in the earth

which hides its course until giving birth to it again

in another place, allowing the river to reach the sea.

Book III:264-297 The Black Sea and North Africa rally to Pompey

The warlike Parthians favoured neither Caesar’s forces

nor the armies who opposed him, content to see them rivals.

But the nomadic tribes of Scythia, bounded by Bactros’ chill

streams, and the vast forests of Hyrcania, refreshed their

poisoned arrows. The Heniochi came, of Spartan descent,

dangerous on horseback, the Sarmatians too, akin

to the savage Moschi. Men marched from the regions

where the Phasis cleaves the Colchians’ rich fields,

where the Halys flows that doomed Croesus, where

the Tanais falling from the Riphaean heights, bounds

Asia on the one side and Europe on the other, granting

the names of two worlds to its banks, separating them

and with its winding adding now to one continent now

the other; and where the Black Sea gathers the flow

from the Maeotian Lake, so that men deny that Cadiz

is the only outlet to the Ocean, and Hercules’ Pillars

are robbed of their uniqueness. From another region

came the Essedonian tribes, the Arimaspians who

bind their hair with loops of gold, the brave Arians,

the Massegetae who quench their thirst after battle

with the Sarmatians by bleeding the horse they rode,

and the swift Geloni. Neither Cyrus, leading an army

from the east, his Persians numbered by each soldier

casting a dart, nor Agamemnon seeking vengeance

for the wrong done Menelaus, neither cut the waves

with so great a fleet. Never did so many kings obey

a single leader, nor so many nations, strangely garbed,

meet together with such great confusion of languages.

Fate stirred the peoples and sent them as companions

to a great disaster, as a funeral train fit for Pompey’s

exequies. Even horned Ammon was not slow to send

squadrons from Africa to battle, from all parched Libya,

from Morocco in the west to Egyptian Syrtes in the east.

So that Caesar, fortune’s favourite, might win all with

a single throw, Pharsalia brought all the world to battle.

Book III:298-357 Marseille opposes Caesar

Leaving the walls of a fearful Rome, Caesar now marched

swiftly beyond the cloud-capped Alps, where the Phocaean

colonists of Marseilles, free of Greek fickleness, dared

when others trembled in terror at the sound of his name

to be loyal and true to their oaths in a doubtful hour,

following right rather than fortune. Still, at first, they

tried to mollify Caesar’s fierce determination and harsh

will, with peaceful representations, and when his army

drew near spoke thus, proffering Minerva’s olive-branch:

‘All the annals of Italian history bear witness that Marseilles

has shared the Roman people’s destiny in their foreign wars.

Now too our swords are ready to oppose those foreigners,

should you seek fresh triumphs in some unknown land.

But if Italy is divided, if you intend ill-omened campaigns,

and cursed war, we mourn that civil strife, and step aside.

If the sky-dwellers armed themselves in anger, or the Giants,

born of Earth, attacked the heavens, pious men would shrink

still from helping Jupiter with prayers or weapons. No other

should interfere in a sacred quarrel. The human race, not

knowing of events above, would seek to learn from his

lightning bolts alone if the Thunderer still ruled the sky

without a rival. Moreover innumerable nations are rushing

to the fray from every quarter; nor are men so reluctant for

a fight, so averse to the contagion of evil, that civil war

needs involve coercion. We ourselves however wish all

men shared our resolve, to refuse to share Rome’s destiny;

and that no foreign soldier would take arms in your quarrel.

What Roman will not be troubled, or hindered from hurling

his spear, seeing father or brothers ranked among the foe?

Civil war would end swiftly if you enlisted only those whom

it is lawful to enlist. This is the burden of our petition to you:

leave the dread eagles and menacing standards far from our

city, and entrust yourself to our walls. Let us admit Caesar

and exclude the war. Let there be one place free of evil,

neutral ground for Pompey and yourself. Then if Fortune

shows mercy to an unconquered Rome, and you choose

peace, both will retain a place in which to meet unarmed.

When Spain summons you at this point of crisis, why

direct your swift forces towards us? We are of little

weight or moment; a people never victorious in war.

Driven from our ancient place, when Phocaea burnt

and her towers were razed, we fled to this foreign shore,

and owe our security to our fragile walls; our only

claim to fame is our loyalty. If you seek to blockade

the city, or storm the gates, then we are ready; our

houses will survive your burning missiles; should

you divert our springs we will dig for transient water

and lick with our parched tongues the soil we dig;

if bread is scarce we will defile our mouths by eating

things foul to see and hideous to touch. We do not fear,

in defending freedom, to share the miseries that Saguntum

bravely suffered. Let our babes, sucking in vain at breasts

run dry through famine, torn then from their mother’s arms,

be hurled into the flames; let wives seek death at the hands

of their beloved husband; let brother deal wound to brother,

choose, if forced to do so, that dire expression of civil war.’

So the Greeks spoke, and Caesar’s anger, already visible

in his darkened face, betrayed his resentment in speech:

Book III:358-398 Caesar blockades the city

‘These Greeks trust in my need for haste, but in vain;

though I may be hastening to the west there is time

to destroy Marseilles. Rejoice, men! Through a gift

of fate you are offered battle. Just as a storm loses

strength, and dissipates in the void, or a conflagration

dies when nothing obstructs its passage, so the absence

of enemies weakens me, and I deem my weapons idle

if those who might have been conquered evade me.

They say their city is open to me if I disband my army,

entering alone and vulnerable. Their true purpose

more subtle than simply to bar me, is to imprison me.

They say they wish to avoid the taint of war, but they

shall suffer for seeking peace, and learn that in my days

none are safe but those I lead to war.’ So saying, he led

an advance against the fearless city, whose gates he soon

saw closed, and its walls defended by a ring of warriors.

Not far from the walls a hill rose from the plain, with

a small stretch of level ground at its summit. This height

seemed to him ripe for fortification, providing a secure

site to pitch camp. The nearest aspect of the city rose

in a tall fortress as high as this hilltop, and the ground

between was pitted with hollows. Caesar’s strategy

involved vast labour, to link the opposing heights

with an immense earthen rampart. But first, in order

to blockade the city on its landward side, he threw out

a long line of works from his hilltop camp to the sea,

whose ditch deprived the city of its freshwater springs

and pastures, and built earthworks with soil and turf

crowned by a solid battlement. This alone was fame

enough for the Greek colony, fame and eternal glory,

that it was not overcome by mere terror, but halted

the headlong onrush of war that swept all the world,

and delayed Caesar’s total conquest, by its resistance.

How great a thing it was, to hold back destiny, cause

Fortune to lose time, as she hastened to set Caesar

above the whole world. Now all the trees must be

felled, the forests stripped of timber far and wide,

for since brushwood and soft soil made for too weak

a structure, timber was needed to constrain and bind

the earth, to stop it sinking under the turrets’ weight.

Book III:399-452 Caesar destroys the sacred grove

There was a grove, untouched through long centuries,

whose interlacing boughs enclosed cold and shadowy

depths, the sunlight banished far above. It was sacred

to no rural Pan, no Silvanus king of the wood, nor

to the Nymphs, but gods were worshipped there with

savage rites, the altars piled high with foul offerings,

and every tree drenched in human blood. On those

boughs, if ancient tales, respectful of deity, may be

believed, the birds feared to perch; in those coverts

no wild beat would lie; on that grove no wind ever

blew, no lightning bolt from the storm clouds fell;

and the trees, spreading their leaves to an absent

breeze, rustled of themselves. Water flowed there

in copious dark streams, while the images of the gods,

rough-hewn and grim, were merely crude blocks cut

from felled trunks of trees. But their very age itself,

and the ghastly colour of their rotting timber struck

terror; men feel less awe of deities in familiar forms;

their fear increases when the gods they dread appear

as alien shapes. They also say the subterranean caves

often shook and roared, that yew-trees fell and then

rose again, that flame glowed from trees free of fire,

while serpents slithered and twined about their trunks.

The people never gathered there to worship; they had

abandoned the place to the gods, and when the sun

was at the zenith, or night’s blackness seized the sky,

the priest himself dreaded those moments, afraid

of surprising the lord of the wood. This grove

Caesar ordered felled by the stroke of the axe.

Growing near his outworks, spared by earlier wars,

it stood clothed in trees among hills already bare.

But now strong arms faltered, his soldiers awed

by the solemn majesty of the place believed

that if they struck the sacred trees, their axes

would rebound to sever their own limbs. Caesar,

seeing his soldiers paralysed and afraid, seized

an axe and was the first to strike, daring to fell

a towering oak-tree with its blade’ Driving his axe

into the desecrated timber, he cried: ‘Any sacrilege

falls on me: now none of you need fear to strike.’

Then all the men obeyed his orders, their minds

still uneasy, their fears not assuaged, but weighing

Caesar’s anger against the wrath of heaven.

Ash trees fell, gnarled ilexes were tumbled,

while oracular oaks, alders fitted for the waves,

cypresses that bore witness to a king’s grief,

all lost their leaves for the first time. Robbed

of their foliage they let in the light, the toppling

trunks supported, as they fell, by their neighbours.

The Gauls were grieved by the sight, yet the besieged

rejoiced in their belief that such injury to the gods

could not go unpunished, though fortune often serves

the guilty, the gods’ wrath reserved for the wretched.

When enough timber had been felled, waggons

were brought to carry it, while farmers, robbed

of their oxen, mourned for the unploughed fields.

Book III:453-496 Caesar leaves for Spain, the siege continues

But Caesar impatient of this protracted siege of the walls

led an army towards Spain and the ends of Europe,

giving orders for the blockade to continue. The rampart

was extended with a lattice of timber, two turrets tall

as the walls set on it; their foundations were not driven

into the earth but they sat on rollers moved covertly.

When it creaked under its burden, the besieged thought

it the winds trying to break from their hollow cavern,

and wondered their walls remained standing. From

these towers missiles were hurled against the citadel,

but the Greek projectiles hit the Romans harder

since their javelins not merely thrown but also

hurled from the arms of powerful catapults pierced

more than one body before they halted, cleaving

their swathe through armour and bone, gone by,

leaving death behind, having dealt it passing on.

Each boulder driven by the impulse as the tension

was released, shattered everything in its path, like

a section of weathered cliff that a sudden gale

tears from the mountain-side, not simply crushing

life from its victims, but annihilating flesh and bone.

Yet when brave soldiers approached the wall

in close formation, with shields overlapping those

behind, their heads defended by the roof they made,

the missiles which had dealt death flew by them,

while it was difficult for the Greeks to alter range

and redirect their engines designed to hurl their bolts

a certain distance. They were forced to hurl boulders

down using their arms alone, relying on the weight.

As long as it continued the mass of shields repelled

every missile, like a roof rattling harmlessly in a burst

of hail; but when the soldiers’ strength and courage

wavered, forcing gaps in the defence, the shields

gave way one by one under the relentless assault.

Next boards lightly covered with turf were brought

forward, and the besiegers screened by the boards

with covered fronts, worked to sap the foundations

with iron tools and crack the walls. Now the ram

was used, its swinging blows effective, its impact

seeking to damage the wall’s solid structure,

by dislodging stones supporting those above;

but scorched by fire from on high, struck by huge

and jagged stones, by a rain of missiles, and blows

from oak shafts hardened in the flames, the boards

with their loads of turf gave way and the besiegers,

foiled for all their efforts, retired wearily to their tents.

Book III:497-537 The Romans initiate a naval battle

To defend the walls was the most the Greeks had hoped for,

yet now they prepared a night offensive. Grasping burning

torches behind their shields, their warriors advanced boldly,

fire was their weapon not spears or death-dealing arrows,

and the wind, driving the flames carried them swiftly over

the Roman lines. Despite the green wood the fire was quick

to show its power, leaping from every torch in the wake of vast

volumes of black smoke, it ate not only timber but hard stone;

and great rocks were shattered to dust. Ramparts tumbled,

appearing even more voluminous spread over the ground.

Abandoning all hope of a victory by land, the Romans

chose to try their luck by sea. Vessels bare of paint,

unadorned with gleaming figure-heads, rough timbers,

as they were cut in the hills, were strapped together to form

platforms for waterborne attack, while Caesar’s admiral,

Decimus, sailing down the Rhone ahead of the fleet

had reached the sea and anchored off the Stoechades.

The Greeks were as ready to chance their fortunes,

mingling old men with youths in the ranks, manning

their fleet that rode at anchor, stripping the dockyards

of ships retired from service. Now Phoebus scattered

splinters of morning light over the waves, the sky was

unclouded, the northerlies and southerlies peaceful

and at rest, the sea calm as if spread for battle. Every

ship released from its moorings, the rival fleets leapt

towards each other equally, Caesar on one side, Greeks

on the other, the hulls quivering to the beat of oars,

rapid strokes driving the tall ships through the water.

The arms of the Roman fleet were a mix of vessels,

triremes, quadriremes, and even a few with extra

banks of oars, tiered one above the other, these ships,

the heaviest, set as barrier against the open water,

while the galleys with their double banks of oars,

lay further back in a crescent formation. Towering

above them all was Decimus’ flagship with its six

banks of oars, shadowing the deep as it advanced,

those of the uppermost tier reaching for the waves.

Book III:538-582 The fleets engage

When only as much water parted the fleets as each

could cover with one mighty stroke of the oars,

countless shouts rose to the heavens above, until

the splash of blades was drowned out by the cries,

and the trumpets went unheard. Then, straining

against the thwarts behind them, oars against

their chests, the crews drove forward over the sea,

backing astern again as prow clashed with prow,

while a volley of missiles plunged from the sky,

clouding the heavens and the sea as they fell.

The Romans now deployed the wings, in open

order; the space between the vessels allowing

entrance to the enemy ships. As the waves are

driven in one direction, when the tide opposes

an easterly or westerly wind, while the mass

of water moves on in another, so, as the vessels

ploughed their distinct furrows through the sea,

the water thrown back by one ship’s set of oars

was thrown by another in the opposite direction.

Though the Greek ships were handier in attack

or retreat, swiftly tacking to change course, quick

to answer the helm’s guidance, the Roman ships

had this advantage, that they offered a steadier

platform for fighting, a foothold firm as dry land.

Now Decimus hailed the helmsman at the ensign

on the poop: ‘Don’t let the fleet wander the waves,

ignore the enemy manoeuvres. Gather the ships

together, offer our side to the Phocaean prows!’

The helmsman obeyed, exposing the ship broadside

to the foe. Each ship attacking the flagship’s flank

was defeated by the blow, a captive wedded to

the vessel it had rammed. Others were caught by

grappling irons, chains, or entangled in their oars.

The waves were hidden, and the battle stationary.

Spears were no longer flung by vigorous arms,

wounds were no longer inflicted from a distance,

they fought hand to hand, the sword doing most

damage in that sea battle. Each man leaned from

the bulwarks of his own vessel to strike at the foe,

and none fell on deck, Their blood dyed the wave,

and a crimson foam veiled the sea. Ships caught

by the iron chains made no contact for the mass

of corpses. Some men sank alive in the depths,

drowning in brine and blood, others while still

breathing, struggling against slow death, died

from the sudden plunge of their doomed vessel.

Weapons that missed their target killed men

in the water randomly; every missile that fell,

its blow awry, still found a victim in the waves.

Book III:583-634 The death of Catus

One Roman ship, hemmed in by Phocaean vessels,

defended herself to port and starboard, her crew

separating to man the sides with equal courage.

Catus, fighting at the rear, grasping the ornament

on the enemy stern, boldly, was pierced in chest

and back by weapons launched together; they

met in his flesh, the blood stayed for a moment

its outlet uncertain; at last its pressure dislodged

both javelins at once, dealing a double death,

apportioning out his life between the wounds.

Here ill-fated Telo steered his craft; no ship

on stormy sea was more obedient to any hand

than his; no helmsman could better forecast

the weather from observation of sun or moon,

and so set his sails to the coming breeze. Telo

would have rammed the Romans broadside on

had not their spears pierced his chest, so that

the dying helmsman’s hand drove the ship aside.

Though Gyareus tried to clamber over and take

his friend’s place, a grapnel, flung, caught him

by the waist as he hung in the air, and there he

remained held fast by that snare to the gunwale.

Twin brothers fighting there, their mother’s pride

and joy, born of the same womb were destined

for different fates. Death’s cruel hand distinguished

between them, and the wretched parents, no longer

puzzling over which was which, found in the sole

survivor the single source of their unending sorrow,

since he recalled the lost brother to their mournful

thoughts and kept their grief ever-present. The one

had dared to grasp the gunwale of a Roman vessel,

their oars overlapping entangling the two ships. His

hand was severed by a downward blow, but still

gripped the side stiffening as the blood left it. His

courage rose though with disaster, and mutilated

he showed an even more heroic ardour. Fiercely

he continued the fight, but reaching his left hand

out to retrieve his right, that too and the whole arm

were severed. Then deprived of shield and sword,

in full view not hidden by the bulwarks, he defended

his brother with his own bared breast, standing firm

though pierced by many a weapon, and though he

had already chanced death many times, stopping

spears that would have taken many lives in their fall.

Then he gathered his remaining strength, though his

life was ebbing due to many wounds, and bracing

his dying limbs, with the power left him, he sprang

on board the Roman ship, his weight his sole

advantage, since his muscles had lost their force.

The ship was drenched with blood, piled high

with the bodies of her crew. She suffered blow

after blow on her side, that shattered let in the sea,

and filling to her decks she sank into the waves,

sucking the waters round her into a whirlpool.

The sea parted as the ship sank, and then fell back

into the space she had occupied. Many another

form of death too was seen that day on the deep.

Book III:635-669 The death of Lycidas

So Lycidas was caught by the flukes of a grappling iron

flung swiftly on board, and would have sunk in the sea

but for his friends who seized his legs as they swung

in the air. He was ripped apart though, and his blood

spurted out through the severed arteries, not trickling

as from a single wound but gushing forth, till the play

of blood flowing from the several limbs merged with

the waves. No other victim spilt his blood so widely,

the lower limbs lacking vital organs soon drained,

but the air-filled lungs and beating heart long baffled

death that wrestled with the man till it had mastered all.

On another ship the crew, over-eager for the fight,

leaning over the one gunwale where the enemy lay,

overbalanced the craft with their collective weight,

till she toppled on her side with them beneath,

unable to rise free, dying in their watery prison.

On that day too a dreadful death without precedent

was witnessed. A man in the water was pierced

by the beaks of two ships meeting, his chest split

in two by the dire impact, the bones crushed so

the body could not halt the clash of bronze prows.

The belly was flattened, blood and gore spouted

from the mouth, and when the ships backed water

and the prows disengaged, only then the corpse

with shattered breast sank, and the water poured

through its remains. Most of another crew swam

when shipwrecked to seek help from another crew,

but catching the gunwale, they were warned away,

since the ship was unstable and destined to sink

if they were taken aboard, so the other crew, pitiless,

hacked at the gripping hands with sharp swords.

Their hands still clinging to the Greek ship they fell

away, leaving their severed limbs behind, no longer

able to support their mutilated bodies on the surface.

Book III:670-708 The death of Phoceus

By now all the combatants had flung their missiles,

but empty-handed their fury still found weapons.

One hurled an oar towards the enemy, other

strong arms launched a whole stern-piece,

and turning the rowers out tore up the thwarts

as missiles, breaking up the vessel for ammunition.

Snatching at sinking corpses they robbed them

of the shafts that had killed them. Many a man,

lacking a weapon dragged the javelin from his own

wound and clutching his innards with his other hand

gathered remaining strength for a vital stroke,

hurling back the spear before his blood poured out.

No power brought more destruction in that sea-fight

however than the element most hostile to the waves,

since fire spread everywhere carried by resinous

torches, and fuelled by sealed-in sulphur, so that

the ships, with their caulking of pitch and wax swift

to melt and burn, instantly caught fire. Nor did waves

quench the fire, the flames gripping the wreckage now

scattered over the deep. Some sailors let in the water

to try and douse the fires, others fearful of drowning

still clinging to the burning timbers; among a thousand

ways of dying, men fear that most in which death first

draws near. Courage does not falter with shipwreck:

they snatched weapons flung into the waves passing

them to the living, or dealt feeble blows with errant

aim from the water. Some, lacking other weapons,

employed the deep; enemy fiercely clasping enemy,

they gladly locked limbs and sank, drowning as they

drowned the foe. One warrior, Phoceus, could hold

his breath underwater longer than all others, used

to searching the depths for whatever the sands had

taken, or wrenching the flukes free when an anchor

biting too hard refused to answer to the cable’s tug.

He had grappled now with his enemy, dragging him

deep below, and now victorious was surfacing alive

thinking to rise unobstructed, but struck the keel

of a ship and sank again. Some men grasped the oars

of the foe to check their vessels’ flight, anxious not

to waste their lives, many a dying man stopping

an enemy craft from ramming the stern of his ship,

by presenting his own wounded body to its prow.

Book III:709-751 The death of Argus

One Lygdamus, a Balearic sling-thrower, hurled

a missile, and aiming at Tyrrhenus who stood high

at the ship’s bow crushed the hollow of his temples

with the ball of lead, so that the ligaments were torn

and the eyes bleeding driven from their sockets.

Tyrrhenus, stunned by his sudden blindness, thought

it the darkness of death, but feeling that his limbs

still had their strength, he called to his companions:

‘Set me where you have set the missile-throwers,

in the correct place for hurling spears. Tyrrhenus

must use what life remains in some warlike way.

This ruined flesh can still play the soldier’s part:

I shall find death instead of some man still whole.’

With this, he threw a javelin blindly at the foe,

but still found a mark. It struck Argus, a noble

youth, at the junction of the groin and lower

belly, and he drove the steel deeper in falling.

His unfortunate father, at the further end of the ship,

beyond the immediate fight, would in his prime

have matched any Phocaean; age had robbed him

of strength, yet though he could no longer fight

he could still direct others. Seeing his son’s deadly

wound, he stumbled sternwards among the benches

and found Argus still breathing. Bereft of tears, his

hands instead of beating at his breast flying wide

apart, his body became rigid, darkness overcame

him veiling his sight, so that he ceased to see the sad

form of Argus before him, while the son, finding his

father there, raised his bowed head, speechlessly,

no words issuing from his throat, but seeking

with a silent look, his father’s embrace at the last,

and that his father’s hand might close his eyes.

As the old man recovered from his swoon, cruel

sorrow asserted its power. He cried: ‘I shall not

waste what remaining life the ruthless gods grant,

but will use it to slit this aged throat. Argus, forgive

your father for denying you a last embrace,

a parting kiss. The blood still flows warm from

your wound, and you still breathe; you may yet

die after me.’ So saying, not content with thrusting

the sword through his body to the hilt, he sprang

headlong into the sea, so eager to die before his

son that he would not trust to a single mode of death.

Book III:752-762 Decimus wins the encounter

The issue was no longer in the balance, the outcome

of the siege was decided. Most of the Greek fleet

was sunk, others were now crewed by the victors,

only an unconquered few gaining harbour by a hasty

flight. What tears the city shed, how loud the lament

of mothers on the shore! Many a wife embraced

a Roman corpse in error, mistaking its features,

disfigured by the battle, for her husband’s. Soon,

beside the lighted pyres, wretched father struggled

with father for possession of some headless body,

while Decimus with his naval victory brought

Caesar’s forces their first glory on the waves.


End of Book III