Lucan

The Civil War (Pharsalia)

Book IX

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

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Contents


Book IX:1-50 Cato imbued with Pompey’s spirit

Now Pompey’s spirit found no rest among those Egyptian

embers, no heap of ash could constrain his mighty shade.

Soaring from the flames, leaving the charred flesh, and that

unworthy pyre behind, it sought the Thunderer in heaven.

Where our dark atmosphere, that fills the region between

Earth and the orbit of the moon, meets the starry spheres,

there dwell the shades of demi-gods, whose fiery virtues

fit them, their lives being guiltless, to inhabit the lower

regions of the aether, their souls gathered to the eternal

realms, barred to those shrouded with incense, entombed

in gold. Once steeped in the clear light of those regions,

Pompey’s shade gazed at the wandering planets, the fixed

stars of the heavens, saw beneath what darkness our light

lies, smiling at the headless travesty of a body that was

his. Thus his spirit flew over Pharsalia’s field, over cruel

Caesar’s standards, over the ships weaving about the sea,

to find a dwelling place in the mind of indomitable Cato,

then settle, an avenger of crime, in Brutus’ sacred breast.

Cato had hated Pompey as he did Caesar while the war’s

outcome was uncertain, and none could say whom civil

strife would make master of the world. Yet, driven on

by his country’s need, following the senators, he joined

Pompey’s camp; and now after Pharsalia’s disaster, he

wholeheartedly favoured Pompey. His country lacking

a defender, he took the role, revived the weakened body

of his nation, restoring the swords that cowardly hands

let fall, and waged civil war without ever seeking power

or fearing to serve. He did nothing warlike for his own

ends, and after Pompey’s death his whole party became

the party of freedom. Yet its adherents were scattered

round the coast and lest a victorious Caesar roll them

up in his rapid progress Cato sought refuge in Corfu,

carrying the remnants of Pharsalian disaster in a host

of vessels. Who would have thought those thousand

ships were now carrying an army in flight; who would

have thought the sea contained a fleet of the defeated?

Next Cato sailed for Dorian Malea, for Taenarus open

to the dead, then Cythera, shunning the coast of Greece,

as the north wind drove on his fleet, skirting the shores

of Crete as the waves yielded to them. When Libyan

Phycus dared to close its harbour to the ships, Cato

attacked and overthrew that town deserving of being

mercilessly ravaged. From there gentle breezes wafted

him to your shores, Paliurus, for Africa bears witness

that your quiet harbour pleased the Trojan steersman

Palinurus, remembered thus in other than Italian waters.

There the sight of sails far out to sea filled their minds

with doubt; did they carry companions in misfortune,

or their enemies? Fearful of Caesar’s rapid progress,

they conceived of his presence in every vessel seen.

Yet the ships were freighted with grief and mourning,

with misfortune to draw a tear even from stern Cato.

Book IX:51-116 Cornelia’s departure from Egypt

For Cornelia’s prayers having so restrained the flight

of her stepson and the crew, that it was clear Pompey’s

corpse would not be driven by the sea from the Egyptian

shore, and the rising smoke having indicated the flames

of his imperfect burial rite, she cried out then: ‘Fortune,

I was unworthy, it seems, to gather my Magnus’ body

from the waves, bend over his cold limbs, throw myself

on his corpse, let flow a flood of tears over every wound,

light my husband’s pyre, burn my plucked tresses, gather

to my heart scorched bone and ashes, so as to sprinkle

whatever was saved from the extinguished flames there

in the temples of the gods! The pyre burns on without

the funeral honours, and perhaps, unwelcomed by his

shade, some Egyptian hand performs this service. Well,

that the Crassi remained unburied! With these flames,

the gods show less respect to Pompey, Was there ever

a sadder fate than mine? Shall it never be granted me

to give a husband due burial? Never to mourn over

an urn filled with ashes? Yet why is a grave needful,

what trappings does grief require? Do I not, unworthy

woman, hold Pompey wholly in my heart? Does his

image not inhabit my inmost thoughts? Let a wife

who wishes to survive a husband seek out his ashes.

For now, this fire whose meagre light blazes far off,

rising from the Egyptian shore, reveals you, to me,

Magnus, still. And now the flames die, the smoke

that bears Pompey from me fades as the sun rises,

and a breeze I loathe is filling my vessel’s sails.

With sorrow, believe me, I leave Egypt’s shores.

They are more welcome to me than the conquered

lands that yielded Pompey triumphs, his chariot

rolling over the stones to the lofty Capital. That

fortunate Pompey lapses from my mind; the one

I need is he whom Nile possesses, and I moan

I may not cling to the land that saw this crime,

a land whose guilt commends its sands to me.

Sextus, I bid you seek the throes of war, carry

your father’s standard throughout the world.

For Pompey left this command for his sons,

left this message in my care: “When the fatal

hour brings my death, take up the civil war,

my sons, and while any offspring of my line

remains on earth, never let the Caesars reign

in peace. Rouse those kings and states strong

in their own freedom; invoke our glorious name;

this role, those armies I leave to you. Should

a Pompey take to the seas he will find fleets,

my heirs shall stir many a nation to battle;

only let your hearts remain indomitable,

remember your father’s power. Cato alone,

if he should rally a party to defend liberty,

you may fittingly obey.” Now I fulfil my

trust, and have done your bidding Pompey.

So you lured me successfully into living on,

that, deceived, I might not perfidiously

carry your message to the grave. Now I

can follow you, husband into the depths

of chaos, Tartarus, if such a place there be,

uncertain how distant lies my fated death;

punished by then for surviving over-long.

My heart had the strength to see you die,

Magnus, and not yet take refuge in death:

it will end bruised by blows, melt away

among tears, for I shall never touch rope

or blade, or launch myself through the air,

and shame on me if I do not die of grief

alone, now you are dead.’ Speaking thus,

she covered her head in a mourning veil,

and choosing to endure darkness she hid

herself in the ship’s hold, clasping her

grievous sorrow to herself, enamoured

of tears and loving grief in her husband’s

stead. Neither the height of the waves nor

the howl of the east wind in the rigging

troubled her, nor the shouts rising louder

as the danger grew. Begging to suffer what

the frightened sailors now begged to escape,

she lay as one dead, in league with the storm.

Book IX:117-166 Pompey’s sons

First Cyprus received their ship in its foaming

waves, then an easterly, ruling the sea but with

less fury, drove them to Libya and Cato’s camp.

Gnaeus, Pompey’s elder son, gazed in sorrow

from the shore at his brother, Sextus, and his

father’s friends, then rushed wildly into the sea,

shouting: ‘Brother, where is our father; is that

summit and crown of all the world still living,

or are we destroyed, has Magnus taken Rome

with him to the shadows?’ So Gnaeus spoke,

and his brother answered: ‘O, happy are you

whom fate drove to foreign shores, who only

heard evil: my eyes, brother, were condemned

to witness our father’s death. He did not fall

to Caesar’s weapons, no worthy hand proved

author of his ruin: he died in the power of that

vile ruler of the Nile, still relying on the gods

of hospitality, and that great favour he gifted

the dynasty: he fell victim to having granted

them the crown. I saw the murderers lacerate

our noble father’s breast. Not crediting the king

of Egypt with such boldness, I thought Caesar

must have reached the Nile. But more than his

bloody wounds, I grieved their carrying his

head through the city, fixed high on a pike.

They said the king sought proof of his crime,

that it was kept for the cruel conqueror to see.

As to the body, I do not know if it was torn

to pieces by the wild dogs of Egypt or by

vultures, or burnt in the stealthy fire I saw.

Whatever injury of fate robbed us of his

body, I free the heavens above of guilt,

but moan for the part which remained.’

Gnaeus did not display his grief in tears

or groans on hearing the tale but, burning

with indignation and love of his father,

cried: ‘To the ships, my mariners; quit

this shore; drive the oars and let the fleet

head boldly into the wind. With me, my

captains, to inter the unburied dead; no

greater prize was every offered to those

in civil conflict as this: appease the shade

of Pompey with the blood of this unmanly

king! Shall I not drag Alexander’s body

from its shrine, and sink it, with his city,

beneath the sluggish waves of Mareotis?

Shall I not haul Amasis and all those other

Pharaohs from their tombs in the Pyramids,

and send them swimming down the Nile?

Let the loss of their sepulchres atone for

Magnus who has none! I shall disclose that

funereal shrine of Isis, goddess of the nations,

and scatter Osiris, shrouded in linen, through

the streets. Their gods shall make a pyre for

my father’s head. Their land I shall give over

to punishment, leaving their fields with none

to tend them, Nile abandoned, men and gods

fleeing Egypt, which you alone, my father,

shall possess!’ So he swore, and sought in

anger to launch the fleet at once, but Cato,

while praising the youth, restrained his fury.

Book IX:167-214 Cato eulogises Pompey

As the news of Pompey’s death spread along

the shore, the sky rang to the beat of lament.

Unprecedented was that mourning; unknown

to any age such grief of a people for the great.

Yet when Cornelia disembarked from her ship,

her eyes weary with weeping, her hair falling

loose over her face, they redoubled their blows,

in renewed sorrow. When she had reached that

welcoming shore, she gathered up the clothes

and insignia of her poor Magnus, the weapons,

the gilded robes he had once worn, the togas

embroidered in many colours, robes Jupiter

saw him wear thrice in triumph; and set them

all on a funeral pyre. To her they did sad duty

as her husband’s relics. All the pious followed

her example, and pyres were raised all along

the shore, lit for those who died in Thessaly.

So Garganus, Vulture’s fields, and the mild

pastures of Matinus glitter when the Apulians

burn the stubble to fertilise the soil on their

close-cropped plains, and grow fresh grass

for winter herbage. No tribute so welcome

to the shade of Pompey was uttered (though

all dared to cry against heaven, and to blame

the gods for Pompey’s death) as Cato’s words,

few, but rising from a heart filled with truth:

‘This dead citizen, though far inferior to our

ancestors in knowledge of the lawful limits,

yet served our generation, which has shown

scant reverence for justice; though powerful,

defending liberty; alone remaining a private

citizen when a nation sought to be his slaves;

leader of a senate that yet ruled. He made no

claim by right of force; wishing that others

might have the power to refuse him what he

wished; he possessed vast wealth but gave

more than he retained. He took up the sword

knowing how to lay it down. He preferred

military service to public life, but, armed,

still loved peace; he was pleased to accept

leadership, and pleased to resign its power.

His household was chaste and free of luxury,

never corrupted by its master’s fortune. His

name is known and revered among nations,

and he did much service to our own state.

True belief in liberty died long ago, once

Marius and Sulla were admitted to Rome:

But now Pompey is lost from the world,

even the fiction of freedom has perished.

None who rule in future need feel shame,

blush to usurp power, or abuse the Senate

as a front. O happy was he, whose ending

followed on defeat, the Egyptian swords

offering the death he should have sought.

He might perhaps have lived on instead

under Caesar’s rule, yet the highest fate

is to know when to die, and the second

best to have such death forced upon one.

As for myself, if fate should place me

in another’s power, Fortune, let Juba

prove such a host; I am not unwilling

to be detained at the enemy’s pleasure,

so long as my head too is first severed.’

Book IX:215-252 Pompey’s men prepare to defect

Greater honour in death was thus rendered

the noble shade, than if Rome’s Rostrum

had sounded out his praises. But the men

were soon loud with discord, weary, now

Pompey was dead, of war and the camp.

Then King Tarcondimotus of Cilicia gave

the signal for deserting Cato. He readied

his ships for flight, but Cato followed him

to the shore and rebuked him, in these words:

‘O Cilician, never pacified, do you sail again

to plunder the shipping? Fate has removed

Pompey, and now you can return as a pirate

to the high seas!’ Then he gazed at all those

who were gathered in flight, but one whose

intention was clear addressed the commander:

‘Forgive us, Cato, our love of Pompey led us

to arm, not civil conflict, and we took sides

out of favour to him. But he lies low, whom

the world preferred to peace, and our cause

has perished; let us return to our native land,

the homes we left, and the children we love.

What end will there ever be to this warfare,

if not Pharsalia and Pompey’s death? Our

life’s effort has been lost; let our last days look

forward to the proper rites, since civil conflict

cannot even grant its leaders graves. Defeated,

no barbarous rule awaits us, savage Fortune

threatens me with no Scythian or Armenian

slavery; I pass into the civil power of Rome.

Whoever was second while Pompey lived

shall now be first, for me. I shall pay high

honour to the sacred dead; I shall own to

the master defeat forces on me, yet own to

no leader, but you, Magnus: you alone I

followed to war, now you are dead I will

follow fate; since no hope of good fortune

exists for me, nor is allowed. All fortune

follows Caesar; his victory has scattered

the forces in Thessaly; the wretched have

lost belief, and he alone in all the world

has power and will to grant the defeated

life. Civil engagement was loyalty while

Pompey lived, treachery now he is dead.

If you, Cato, are always faithful to your

country’s laws, and your homeland, then

let us seek the standard a Roman consul

bears.’ So saying, he leapt on board his

vessel, with a disordered swarm of men.

Book IX:253-293 Cato wins them over

The Roman cause seemed as good as lost,

and the shore seethed with masterless men,

but speech broke from Cato’s sacred lips:

‘Soldiers, it seems you fought for the same

reason as others, for tyranny, for Pompey

and not for Rome. You now, who no longer

labour for a kingdom, whose lives are your

own and not your leader’s, who work to gain

the world for none and may safely win it for

yourselves alone; you flee the fight, and seek

a yoke now your necks are free, unable to live

without a master. Yet you have a cause now

worthy of brave men. Pompey was able to

abuse your powers, now freedom is in sight

do you refuse to fight, to die for your country?

Of the triumvirate only one remains. Shame

on you! Egypt’s Pharaoh and Parthian bows

have done more for the rule of law than you.

Depart, degenerates, spurning Ptolemy’s gift

to you and your own weapons. Who would

have ever thought your hands had dealt death?

Caesar will think you were quick to flee to him,

the first to take flight from Thessalian Pharsalia.

Go with impunity; worthy to render yourselves

to Caesar’s justice, who neither siege nor arms

conquered. O, vile slaves, after your former

master’s death, you run to his heir. Why not

seek a greater prize than mere life and pardon?

Seize Magnus’ unhappy wife, that daughter

of Metellus, carry her overseas; lead Pompey’s

sons captive, and outdo Ptolemy’s munificence!

Whoever bears my head to the hated tyrant will

win no small reward: from the price on my head

your men will know they did well to follow my

standard. So rouse yourselves, gain merit from

that heinous crime; flight is the sin of cowards!’

With this speech he recalled all the ships without

exception from the waves. So, when hosts of bees

depart the hive, where their young have hatched,

they neglect the waxy cells, their wings no longer

brush one another, each takes its own way, idling,

refraining now from sipping the flowering thyme

with its bitter taste; yet if the sound of Phrygian

cymbals rises, they interrupt their flight, in alarm,

returning to the performance of their flowery task,

and their love of gathering pollen. The shepherd

in Hybla’s meadows is relieved, delighted that

his honey harvest is secured. So Cato’s speech

persuaded his men to endure the lawful conflict.

Book IX:294-347 The fleet reaches Lake Tritonis

Now he resolved to keep these men busy, who could

not bear quiet, with endless tasks and military action.

First the soldiers tired themselves shifting sand on

the shore. Their next task was against the ramparts

and walls of Cyrene. Cato took no revenge for his

being refused entry, the sole punishment exacted

on the defeated was defeat. Then he chose to sail

to Juba’s Libyan realm, bordering Moorish lands,

though Nature barred their way, the Syrtes lying

between: the bold and brave hoped to defeat her.

When Nature first gave shape to the world, she

left sea and land to dispute the Syrtes, the earth

not low enough there to admit the water, nor

high enough to defend itself from the waves,

so the region is an uncertain waste, shallows

broken by shoals, land cut off by the waters,

and the breakers sound on strand after strand,

so harshly has Nature abandoned her creation

asking nothing of it. Or else perhaps Syrtis

once lay beneath deeper water, far beneath,

but the sunlight of the torrid zone evaporated

the ocean, sucking up the water, and though

the sea still resists being conquered by the sun

with fierce heat over lengths of injurious time

Syrtis will be dry land. Already the waves that

cover it are shallow, and doomed to disappear.

No sooner had oars begun to drive the sluggish

vessels through the waves, when a southerly

storm arose with dense rain. Blowing from

its own realm, defending the waters, where

the ships sailed, with a tempest, it now drove

the waves far from Syrtes, and interspersed

the sea with land. It tore the sails from any

ship with mast still standing, the rigging

straining in vain to oppose the wind, while

the canvas torn from the sailors’ grasp blew

from the ship, its folds flapping at the prow.

Any prudent captain who ran with his sails

brailed to the yard was driven off course,

defeated, under bare poles. Those vessels

met a better fate that rode over deep water,

tossed on a sea that was sea. But any ship

lightened by cutting the masts away, so

leaving the blasts of wind to scourge it,

was driven, helplessly, on a strong tide,

in an opposing direction to the gale; a tide

that carried it away and victoriously thrust

it against that countervailing southerly.

Such were left stranded in the shallows,

where the sea, eating at the land, wrecked

them, exposed to a twin danger, being

half-aground half-floating on the waves.

Then, driven further on-shore they struck

against dry land, which emerged as the sea

fell, for the waves raised by the southerly

often failed to lift above the sandbanks.

Far from the grassy shore, these ramparts

of sand, rising from the depths, defied

the waters; the wretched sailors stuck

fast, their keels aground, far from shore.

So the sea destroyed part of the fleet,

but the larger part, answering the helm,

were saved by flight, and finding pilots

familiar with that coast, they reached

its sluggish Lake Tritonis, unharmed.

Book IX:348-410 Lake Tritonis: Cato’s speech

The lake, as story tells, is dear to the god,

who is heard on every shore blowing his

sounding shell over the waves, and dear

also to Pallas who, born from her father’s

head, alighted first in Libya, whose hot

climate shows it most aligned to heaven:

there she stood on the lakeshore and saw

her face in the still waters, calling herself

after the lake, in delight at its far expanse.

Nearby, Lethe’s stream silently steals past,

which, they say, brings forgetfulness from

the depths of the underworld, and there is

the Garden of the Hesperides, once guarded

by the sleepless dragon, now despoiled,

its branches rifled. Invidious, those who

decry the myths of ancient times, those

who demand truth of poets. For there was

once a golden grove, its branches heavy

with a wealth of burnished fruit; a band

of virgins its custodians; and a dragon,

its eyes doomed never to close in sleep,

coiled about the trees bowed by the metal.

But Hercules relieved them of their task,

and their precious burden, leaving branches

robbed of their rich weight, carrying off

those shining apples for the king of Argos.

Now, the ships, off course, driven from

the Syrtes, clinging to the Libyan waters,

lingered on a more favourable coastline,

with Gnaeus in command. But bold Cato

impatient to move, trusting in the soldiers,

dared to commit them to unknown lands,

and bypass the Syrtes on foot. Winter too

persuaded him, by closing the high seas

to the fleet; while rain was a benefit to men

who feared excessive heat, and the passage

would be less harsh without burning sun

or freezing cold, Libya’s climate tempered

by winter. Before entering the barren desert,

Cato addressed his troops with this speech:

‘O you who choose the true path, to follow

my standards to the death, heads unbowed,

prepare yourselves for a feat of high courage,

and supreme hardship. We will march through

wastelands in an earthly furnace, where the sun

pours down endless heat, where there is rarely

water in the gullies, and the dry ground seethes

with venomous snakes. Hard is the path to law,

and a love of a ruined country. Let those march

on through the heart of Libya, finding a pathless

route, who have not a thought for turning back,

for whom it is enough to go onwards. For I have

no intent to deceive any man, nor draw the army

on by concealing danger. Let my companions be

those whom danger itself attracts, who, myself

as witness, think it glorious in a Roman to endure

even the worst. But any man who seeks a guarantee

of survival, tempted by life’s sweetness, let him

take the honeyed path to tyranny. I shall be first

to tread the desert, first to set my feet in the dust,

let the sky’s heat strike me, the poisonous snake

confront me; so test the danger first by my fate.

Let him thirst who sees me drink, or feel the heat,

who sees me seek the shade, or tire, who sees me

ride when the army marches: or find anything to

show whether I am the general or the plain soldier!

Snakes, thirst, burning sand, are sweet to the brave;

the tough delight in hardship; virtue finds joy in

its degree of constancy. Libya alone, with all her

ills, can prove that defeat makes no man unworthy.’

So he stirred courage and love of toil in their fearful

hearts, and began a march from which there would

be no return, by forging a way through the desert;

Libya determined an uncaring Cato’s fate, Libya

destined to inter his name in a humble grave.

Book IX:411-462 North Africa

Africa is a third of everything, if you are willing,

on the whole, to credit report; yet if you judge

by wind and weather, it is part of Europe, since

the banks of the Nile are no further than the Don

is from Cadiz in the far west, where Europe and

Africa are separated, and their coasts make room

for the sea to enter; while Asia alone is a larger

portion of the world. It takes Europe and Africa

together to pour out the west wind, while Asia,

feeling the northerlies on one side, southerlies

on the other, alone owns the winds of the east.

The fertile part of Africa is towards the west,

though even there the land is devoid of rivers,

and receives scant rain when northerlies blow

and our temperate climate refreshes its fields.

It is not worked for riches; neither copper nor

gold are smelted, its untouched soil is still pure

earth below. The people are rich in nothing but

Mauretania’s timber, which they have no idea

how to use, content to live in the citrus-tree’s

leafy shade. Our axes have invaded the virgin

groves, we seek wood for our tables as well as

foodstuffs from the ends of the earth. But that

coast which embraces shifting Syrtes, lying

beneath the parching sun under a burning sky,

burns the crops, smothers the vines with dust,

and no roots bind the crumbling soil. Living

things lack temperate air, Jove cares nothing

for the rainless land below; nature is torpid,

the unmoving sand experiences no seasons.

Yet this barren land produces a scattering

of grass, cut by the Nasamonians, a hardy

race who live in nakedness along the coast,

while cruel Syrtes sends them the world’s

salvage; for the wreckers wait on the sandy

shore, familiar with trade­-goods though no

vessel harbours there; through shipwrecks

they sample the commerce of all nations!

Cato’s stern virtue bade him march there.

And there the soldiers, expecting no gales

or tempest on land, endured the equivalent

of those at sea. For the southerlies blow

more fiercely on the dry coast of the Syrtes

than over the deep, and are more damaging.

Libya has no mountains to break their force,

no tall cliffs to oppose and dissipate them,

turning the fierce gusts to tranquil breezes;

nor do they meet forest, weary themselves

bowing ancient oaks: the whole land is flat,

and an Aeolian fury freely scours the desert.

There is no moisture in the whirling clouds

of dust, driven violently in spirals, a vast

amount of sand is raised and, merged with

the air, never falls. The poor Nasamonians

see their possessions fly in the wind, their

huts razed; the Garamantians, unhoused,

see their roofs snatched up and blown away

Flames are smothered; as high as the smoke

rises to darken day the dust is already there.

Book IX:463-510 The sandstorm

Now the wind attacked the Roman columns

more fiercely than ever, the men staggering,

unable to find a footing, the very sand they

stood on being blown away. If the Libyan

land was solid, with a ponderous weight

of cliffs that confined the southerlies in

cavernous spaces, the winds would shake

the earth, wrench the globe from its place;

but because the drifting sand is so easily

disturbed, the ground offers no resistance,

earth below solid, while its surface is bared.

The storm, blowing violently, snatched at

the men’s javelins, shields and helmets,

whirling them fiercely through the sky’s

great void, perhaps to fall, like a portent,

in some remote and distant country, men

there fearful of armour from the heavens,

thinking a gift of the gods what was torn

from men’s grasp. Surely those sacred shields

that fell around Numa as he made sacrifice,

which elders elect now carry on their shoulders

were stripped from their owners by the south

or north winds, and in that way became ours.

Now, as the wind tormented the world thus,

the Roman soldiers flung themselves down,

fearful of being blown away, and buckling

their armour tight, they clutched the ground,

strength as well as weight holding them there,

barely surviving the storm, that roiled vast

piles of sand over them, burying their bodies

in the dirt. Crushed by the weight, they could

scarcely rise from the ground. Ramparts of sand

kept them anchored where they stood, prevented

from moving by the surging dust. The storm

broke down walls, tore out the stones within,

and dropped them far off, a strange quirk of fate

when, seeing no houses, people saw their ruins

fall from the sky. Now the route was totally

obscured, devoid of landmarks, and they found

their way by the stars; though the regions of sky

that cover the lands of North Africa did not show

all the usual constellations, many being concealed

below the horizon. At dawn it grew burning hot,

the sun’s heat expanding the air compressed by

the storm; sweat poured from their bodies, their

mouths parched with thirst. A meagre trickle of

a stream was found some way off, and a soldier

filled the hollow of his helm with water, won

with care from the sand, then offered it to his

general. Every mouth was dry with dust, so that

their leader holding the least drop in his hands,

was an object of envy. ‘Do you, you rascal, think

me the only man lacking fortitude in this army?

Do I seem soft as that, unequal to the first blaze

of heat? What a fitting punishment for you that

would be, made to drink, as all round you thirst!’

Thus provoked to anger he emptied out the helm,

and left what water there was to suffice for all.

Book IX:511-586 The Temple of Ammon (The oracle of Amun at Siwa)

They came to the shrine of the crude Garamantians,

the only temple the Libyan tribes possess. They say

Jupiter has an oracle there, but Ammon, unlike our

god, never wields the lightning bolt, and has curved

horns. It is no rich temple the Libyan peoples have

built there, no altars resplendent with eastern gems.

Though the Ethiopians and others, and the wealthy

tribes of Arabs, have but one god, Jupiter Ammon,

yet their god is a pauper, his temple has remained

untainted by riches throughout the centuries, while

the deity, in ancient mode, now defends his shrine

against Roman gold. Yet the heavenly powers are

attested by an oasis of trees, the only broad grove

in the Libyan desert. All the expanse of arid sand

that separates burning Berenice (Benghazi) from

more temperate Leptis Magna (Lebda) is devoid

of foliage; Ammon appropriated the only grove.

A local spring feeds the trees, binding the dusty

soil, its waters cementing the subjugated sands.

Yet even here nothing hinders the sun, when that

orb of light balances at the zenith, the trees barely

darkening their trunks, so small the arc of shadow

thrown by its rays. This the region, we find, where

the sun at solstice is almost overhead at midday.

The shadows of whatever people you may be who

are separated from us by these Libyan tropics, fall

southwards, where ours fall northwards. Slowly

the Little Bear ascends for you, and you may

suppose our un-wetted Wain to sink in the sea,

and every star overhead meet the ocean; either

pole equidistant, the Zodiac’s constellations

sweep through the zenith. They do not move

obliquely, Scorpio is as upright as Taurus, on

rising; Aries gives nothing away to Libra; nor

does Virgo cause Pisces to set more gradually.

Sagittarius rises high as Gemini, rain-bringing

Capricorn as burning Cancer, Leo as Aquarius.

Messengers from the east stood before the doors

of the shrine, seeking to learn the future from

the oracle of horned Jupiter; but they gave way

to the Roman general, his officers begging Cato

to try the oracle, famed throughout North Africa,

and to pass judgement on its ancient reputation.

Labienus, in particular, urged him to question

the future by means of the divine voice. ‘Chance,’

he said, ‘ and the fortunes of the way present

the word of the great god and his wisdom to us;

we can enjoy his guidance through the Syrtes,

and discover the outcome appointed for the war.

I cannot believe the heavens would reveal their

mysteries and dictate the truth more to any man

than virtuous Cato. Have you not always ruled

your life according to heavenly law, a follower

of the divine? Now behold you are free to speak

with Jove: ask as to the fate of that abomination

Caesar, and view the future state of our country:

Will the people enjoy their laws and freedoms,

or has the civil war been all in vain? Fill your

breath with the god’s voice; a lover of harsh

virtues should at least seek where virtue lies,

and demand to see the likeness of goodness.’

Then Cato, filled with the god that he bore

concealed in his heart, poured out a speech

worthy of the oracle itself: ‘What question

would you have me ask, Labienus? Whether

I would rather die, a free man, in battle, than

see a tyrant in power? Whether it matters if

a life is long or short? Whether power can

ever harm the good; if fate threatens virtue

in vain; whether the desire for the laudable

is enough, and virtue no greater for success?

The answers to these things I know; Ammon

cannot instil them more deeply in my mind.

We are all close to the divine; let the oracle

be dumb, we do nothing without the gods’

will it. The powers above have no need for

speech; whatever we are permitted to know

our maker told us once and for all at birth.

Did he choose these barren sands, so only

a few might hear his voice, burying all truth

in this desert? Has he any dwelling place

but earth, sea, air, heaven and the virtuous?

Why seek the gods beyond? Whatever you

see, whatever you do, is Jove. Let those

seek oracles who doubt, forever anxious

about what it is to come: no oracle can

grant me certainty, but only the certainty

of death. The coward and the brave man

both die: let that be enough, Jove has said.’

With that, he departed, leaving the oracle’s

reputation still intact, and Ammon, untried,

for the tribes to worship there at their altars.

Book IX:587-618 Cato’s leadership

Cato now led his gasping soldiers on foot,

carrying his javelin in his hand, issuing

no orders, showing them how to endure

hardship, shunning being carried on men’s

shoulders, or riding in a cart; sleeping less

than any; and when a spring was found,

and the thirsty men must queue and gaze,

he waited till the last camp-follower had

drunk. If true merit accrues great honour,

and naked virtue is separate from success,

whatever we praise regarding our ancestors

mere Fortune granted. Who has deserved

greater fame, simply by winning wars, by

shedding the blood of nations? For I would

rather have led that triumph through farthest

Libya and the Syrtes, than climb the Capitol

thrice in Pompey’s chariot, strangle Jugurtha

in his prison. Behold, the true father of his

country, a man worthy to be worshipped,

Rome, at your altars; by whom none need

blush to swear, and who, if you ever free

your neck from the yoke, shall be made a god.

Now the heat increased, they trod the sands

beyond which the heavens decree no living

thing can endure noon, and water was scarcer.

A lone spring was found deep in the desert,

flowing with water, but guarded by such a host

of serpents the place could scarcely hold them.

Parched asps held the margin, while thirsting

dipsades filled the pool. Seeing the men would

die if they shunned the water, Cato gave speech:

‘Men, do not hesitate to drink, they are harmless,

the threat of death that terrifies you is illusory.

Snake venom is only deadly in the bloodstream;

The fangs threaten death, the poison is in their

bite, but there is no death in the drinking cup.’

So saying, he drank the suspect liquid, and this

was the only spring in all the Libyan desert

where Cato chose to taste the water first.

Book IX:619-699 The tale of Perseus and Medusa

No care or labour of ours will serve to reveal why

the Libyan climate breeds such pest, and teems

with deathly creatures, what secret noxiousness

Nature has mixed with its soil; though a vulgar

fable has concealed the true cause from all men

everywhere. At the far western limits of Africa,

where the burning earth receives an Ocean heated

by the setting sun, lay the wide, untilled land

of Medusa, Phorcys’ daughter, a land without

shade of tree, unworked by the plough, but harsh

with the stone produced by their mistress’ gaze.

Within her body nature first bred those savage

pests, from her throat slid those snakes, hissing

fiercely with strident tongues. They lashed about

the neck of Medusa, delighting her; those vipers

flowing down her back, rearing up at her brow,

in the fashion of woman’s hair; oozing venom

when the tresses were combed. These were all

of unhappy Medusa men viewed with impunity;

for who had time to fear the monstrous face, her

gaping maw, when whoever looked straight into

that face, Medusa caused their death? For she

forestalled all fear, hastening the fatal moment,

the limbs transformed while breath yet lingered,

the shade imprisoned hardening beneath the bones.

The tresses of the Furies merely brought madness;

Cerberus softened his growling when Orpheus

played; and Hercules could watch the Hydra as

he slew it; but even Phorcys, second to Neptune

her own father, in ruling the sea, feared Medusa,

as did her mother, Ceto, and her sister Gorgons;

she had power to threaten sea and sky with rare

paralysis, and clothe the world with stone. Birds

suddenly heavy fell from the sky; wild creatures

froze to the rocks; and whole tribes of Ethiopians

around were turned to statues. Nothing living

could endure her gaze, and even the Gorgon’s

serpents all reared backwards to avoid her face.

She turned Atlas, the Titan, he who supports

the Pillars of the West to a craggy mountain;

and when the gods long ago dreaded the Giants

with serpent legs, she changed them at Phlegra

to lofty summits, the Gorgon ending that fearful

battle, she who adorns the centre of Pallas’ aegis.

To this land Perseus came, he who had sprung

from Danae’s womb, sired by a shower of gold.

He flew with winged feet, as Arcadian Mercury,

the god who gave us the lyre, and wrestler’s oil.

When he suddenly raised the Cyllenian scimitar,

red with another monster’s blood, after he had

slain Argus, guard of Io the heifer, Jupiter’s love,

virgin Pallas brought aid to her winged brother.

She bargained for the Gorgon’s head, ordering

Perseus, on reaching the border of Libya to turn

towards the rising sun and fly backwards through

the Gorgon’s realm: she also set a gleaming shield

of tawny bronze on his left arm, and told him only

to view Medusa, who turned all to stone, therein.

Sleep had overcome Medusa, and yet not wholly,

a sleep that would bring death’s eternal slumber;

many of the serpents, her tresses, were vigilant,

and those hydra locks reared forward to defend

her head; the others shrouded her eyes and face.

Now Pallas herself directed the speeding Perseus;

her right hand guided the quivering Cyllenian

scimitar, which Perseus brandished, face averted,

severing the snaky head where it joined the neck.

What a look the Gorgon’s face must have had,

after her neck was sliced by the curving blade!

What foul venom was expelled from her mouth,

and how death must have flowed from her eyes!

Even Pallas could not view her, and that gaze

would have frozen Perseus’ backward glance,

had not Pallas veiled it with that snaky host.

So, seizing the Gorgon’s head, he leapt towards

the sky. He thought to shorten the route, lessen

his journey, by flying over inhabited Europe,

but Pallas ordered him to avoid fertile lands,

and spare the populace, for who might not gaze

at the sky when such things flew past? And so,

the hero flew east and passed over Libya, free

of cultivation, exposed to sky and sun, whose

path overhead parches the soil; earth’s shadow

at night nowhere higher in the sky, eclipsing

the moon, forgetful of her slanting orbit, when

she follows the zodiac neither north or south

of that shadow. Though those lands are sterile,

fecund with no good seed, they drank venom

from the blood-wet dripping head of Medusa,

soaked with the foul dew of that savage blood,

distilled by heat, and dyeing the putrid sand.

Book IX:700-760 The Libyan serpents

The first of the plagues of snakes that ever raised its

heads above the sand there, was of swollen-necked

sleep-inducing asps. Their throats are fuller with blood

and thick venom; in no snake is it more concentrated.

Loving heat, never travelling to cold regions, they lurk

in the sands stretching to the Nile. Yet we – are we

ever ashamed of chasing profit? – import Africa’s

bane into Italy, and make the asp an article of trade.

There too the huge haemorrhois, which causes its

victims to bleed to death, unfolds its scaly coils;

and the chersydros inhabiting the uncertain Syrtes;

the chelydrus leaving a trail of smoke; the cenchris,

that glides in a straight line, its belly more stained

and chequered than Theban serpentine, in intricate

patterns. Then there is the ammodytes, its colour

indistinguishable from scorched sand; the cerastes,

moving with curving spine; the cytale that sheds

its skin only when the frost still coats the ground;

the parched dipsas; the fell amphisbaena, its two

heads facing each other; the natrix that poisons

wells; and the flying iaculus; the parias content

to plough a furrow with its tail; the greedy prester,

distended with foaming jaws; the wasting seps that

dissolves both flesh and bone; and the basilisk that

threatens all other snakes with the hisses it pours

out, killing before its venom, compelling the host

to keep their distance, and ruling the empty sands.

You dragons too, glittering with golden sheen,

that crawl, divine and harmless, through all other

lands, burning Africa renders deadly; you draw

the air of heaven to you with your wings, then

pursuing whole herds of cattle, coil round mighty

bulls and crush them with blows from your tails;

nor are elephants saved by their bulk: you consign

all things to death, and need no venom to destroy.

Cato and his hardy soldiers marched among these

pests on the waterless way, witnessing the cruel

fate of man after man, strange manners of dying

from the slightest of wounds. Thus Aulus, a lad

of Etruscan blood, and a standard-bearer, trod on

a dipsas that reared back its head and bit him. He

scarcely felt the bite, was free of pain, the wound

not dangerous in appearance, nor threatening any

injurious effect. Behold, the hidden venom rises,

devouring heat seizes the marrow, and scorches

the innards with wasting heat. The poison drank

the humours about the vital organs, and began

to wither the tongue in his parched mouth. No

sweat ran down the weakened limbs, no flow

of tears wet the eyes. Neither a soldier’s pride,

nor Cato’s command halted the burning man,

who dared to hurl away the standard, wildly

seeking water anywhere the scorching venom

at his heart demanded. He would have burned

though plunged in the Don, the Rhone, the Po,

though he drank of the Nile’s flood in the fields.

Libya’s climate empowers death, and given

that scorching soil, the dipsas deserves less

credit for its powers. Men go seeking water

deep in the barren sand, then run to the Syrtes

and swallow brine; the liquid wave brings relief,

but not enough. Thinking it merely thirst, Aulus,

not feeling the nature of his hurt, deadly venom,

ventured to open a swollen vein with his sword,

and then filled his mouth with his own blood.

Book IX:761-788 The death of Sabellus

Cato quickly ordered the standards onward: none

was allowed to see to what thirst could drive a man

to do. Yet a sadder death than that of Aulus occurred

before their eyes, as a tiny seps pierced the unlucky

Sabellus’ leg, and clung there with its barbed fangs;

he tore it free, pinning it to the sand with his spear.

Though small, no other snake deals such cruel death,

for the broken skin near the wound shrank all round,

showing white bone until, as the opening widened,

all was one bare fleshless wound. The limbs swam

with corruption, the calves melted, the knees were

stripped of tissue, the sinews of the thighs melted,

and a black discharge issued from the groin. Then

the membrane holding the guts snapped, the bowels

spilling out. Less than a whole body slid to the sand,

for the cruel venom dissolved the limbs, and death

reduced the total to a little pool of slime. What a

man consists of is shown by the poison’s unholy

nature: the strictures of ligaments, the texture of

the lungs, the hollow of the chest, all the vital

organs conceal is laid bare in death. The mighty

arms and shoulders melt, head and neck liquefy,

faster than snow fades and runs in a warm south

wind, or wax in the sun. Not only, I say, is flesh

consumed, and rendered down by the venom,

which fire can also do, but the bones vanish too,

which no pyre achieves, with the putrid marrow,

leaving not a trace behind of so rapid a death.

Among the snakes of Africa, seps, you win

death’s palm, all take life, you alone the body!

Book IX:789-838 Further deaths by snake-bite

Behold, now, a manner of death in contrast

to liquefaction. Nasidius, earlier a farmer in

Marsian fields, was struck by a red hot prester.

His face burned fiery red, the skin was stretched,

all features lost in the swelling tumour; then as

the powerful venom worked the corruption spread

over all his limbs, inflated far beyond any human

frame, the man himself buried deep within his

bloated body, his breastplate unable to contain

the distension of his swollen chest. The cloud

of hissing steam pours out less fiercely from a

heated cauldron; canvas sails fill less in a gale.

The body no longer contained the swelling, now

a shapeless globule, the trunk a featureless mass.

Left untouched by the carrion birds, no beast

feeding there with impunity, the soldiers dared

not give the corpse to the flames, but took flight,

leaving it still swelling, its growth not yet done.

The Libyan snakes produced still greater marvels.

Tullus, a brave youth who admired Cato, was

bitten by a fierce haemorrhois. As Corycian

saffron-water can be made to spout from every

part of a statue at once, so all his members shed

venomous crimson instead of blood. His tears

ran blood; blood flowed copiously from every

orifice of his body; his mouth and nostrils filled

with it; his sweat was red; all his limbs streamed

with the content of his veins; his whole body was

one wound. Then a Nile serpent froze your blood

luckless Laevus, and stopped your heart. No pang

bore witness to the bite, the darkness of death fell

suddenly, in sleep you joined the friendly shades.

Even the poisonous plants the seers of Sais pluck,

whose deadly stems resemble the Sabaean stalks

steeped in the cup, never brought so swift a death.

Behold too, a fierce snake, the Libyans call iaculus,

reared and launched itself from a barren tree nearby,

pierced Paulus’ head through the temples, and fled.

No venom acted there; death took him too suddenly.

Then they saw how slow a stone from the sling flies,

how sluggish the flight of Parthian arrows in the air.

What matter that wretched Murrus drove his spear

through the basilisk? The venom coursed through

the weapon, seized on his hand; at once he bared

his sword and, at a stroke, sliced hand from arm,

standing there, as it stilled, watching a manner

of death that would have been his own. And who

would dream a scorpion powerful enough to cause

swift death, yet the sky bears witness that Scorpio,

with bulbous tail and menacing sting erect, bears

the glory of defeating Orion! And who would fear

to tread on the salpuga ant’s nest? Yet even to such

the Stygian Fates gave power over the spun thread.

Book IX:839-889 The soldiers’ heroic endurance

Thus neither bright day nor dark night brought sleep

to the wretched men, fearful of the earth they lay on.

Lacking heaped-up leaves or piles of straw for beds,

they lay on the ground, exposed to the risk of death,

their warmth attracting snakes chilled by night cold,

their limbs heating the mouthing creatures, harmless

while their venom was frozen. They lacked all idea

of how far they had come, or the distance yet to go,

with only the stars as guides, and often complained:

‘You gods, bring back Pharsalia; return us the field

from which we fled. Sworn to wield the sword, why

do we suffer a coward’s death? The dipsas fights for

Caesar, the cerastes wins the civil war. Let us travel

the torrid zone instead, where the sun’s steeds scorch

the sky; happy to perish by fiery air, slain by heaven.

We do not complain of you Nature, or you, Africa;

you took a region bearing monstrosities and granted

it to the serpents, and condemned a soil, unsuitable

for crops, to lie untilled, devoid of men to be bitten.

We came to this land of snakes; receive our penance,

whatever power you are that, loathing our commerce,

bounded this region with a zone of fire to the south,

the shifting Syrtes northwards, and death in between.

Through your solitary reaches civil war marches on,

and we soldiers, now knowing this hidden world, beat

on the gates of the west. Perhaps worse things await

us, once there: the sun and hissing water will meet,

and nature be burdened by heaven; and that way no

land lies other than Juba’s gloomy realm, known to

us by report. Perhaps we shall regret this snaky land:

its climate brings one solace, that life exists here still.

We do not seek our native fields, not Europe, or Asia

under alien suns: yet by what corner of earth and sky

did we leave Africa? But now, winter gripped Cyrene;

can one short march destroy the cycle of the seasons?

We are marching towards the other pole, exiles from

our world, our backs turned for a fresh wind to strike;

perhaps Rome itself is now underneath our feet. We

seek solace in our plight: let our enemies come, let

Caesar follow where we flee!’ So stubborn patience

eases its burden of complaint. They were forced

to suffer such hardship by the virtue of their leader,

who kept watch lying on the bare sand, challenging

fate at every moment. Alone he was present at every

death; whenever they call, he goes, and confers that

mighty benefit, more than life: the courage to die;

so that, with him as witness, any man was ashamed

to die with a groan on his lips. What power did that

plague of creatures have over him? He conquered

death in another’s heart, and taught as he gazed on

the dying, that its pain possessed no great power.

Book IX:890-937 The Psylli combat the snakes

Tardily, Fortune, weary of inflicting such trials,

brought help to the wretched. One African tribe

alone are immune to the bite of those cruel snakes,

namely the Psylli of Marmarica. Their spittle acts

like powerful herbs, their blood is protected, no

poison gaining admittance, even without the use

of charms. The nature of this region has dictated

that they live unharmed in the midst of serpents;

they benefit from being surrounded by venom,

as death grants them a pass. They rely greatly on

selectivity in breeding: when an infant is newly

born, fearful of some admixture of foreign blood,

they test the babe in question with a venomous asp.

As Jupiter’s eagle, when its featherless chicks are

hatched from the warm egg, turns them to the rising

sun; those who can endure the rays, gazing straight

into its light, being saved to serve the god, while

those who cannot being discarded; so the Psylli

take it as a sign of purity if the infant is unafraid

of serpents, treating the given snake as a plaything.

Not content with protecting themselves alone, they

look out for strangers, and help others against those

deadly creatures. Thus they accompanied the Roman

army, and when Cato ordered the tents to be pitched,

they first purified the sand at the designated site,

banishing the snakes with spells and incantations.

Fumigating fires surrounded the camp, dwarf-elder

crackled there, and imported aromatic gum bubbled;

the thinly-leaved tamarisk, Eastern costus (sausurrea),

powerful all-heal, and Thessalian centaury, hog’s fennel

(peucedanum), and Sicilian mullein (thapsus) hissed

in the flames, and larch wood, and bitter southernwood

(artemisia abrotanum) whose smoke the snakes loathe;

with the horns of deer from distant parts. So the soldiers

were protected at night: but if any were bitten near to

death by day, then the magical powers of this wondrous

people were seen, a mighty battle between the Psylli

and the venomous bite ensues. They first mark the flesh

with a touch of saliva that halts the poison, confining

it to the wound, then their foaming lips chant many

a spell, a continuous murmur, for the surge of venom

allows no pause for breath, not one moment’s silence

in the face of death. Often the pestilence is expelled

from the blackened marrow by incantation; but when

the poison is slower to shift, and resists eradication,

then they lean down and lick at the yellowish wound,

draining the flesh and sucking the venom out through

their teeth, until victoriously they extract all the fatal

fluid from the chill flesh, spitting it from their mouths.

The Psylli are quick to know by the poisonous taste

what kind of snake it was whose bite was overcome.

Book IX:938-986 Caesar visits the site of Troy

Saved by their help, the Romans now wandered far

and wide over the barren plains. Rising and setting,

the moon twice went from full to full, while Cato

was lost in the desert, but now he felt the sand grow

ever firmer under his feet, and Africa was once more

solid ground. And now the foliage of scattered trees

appeared in the distance, and rough huts compacted

of straw. How those soldiers rejoiced to reach a safer

region, where only fierce lions now confronted them!

Leptis was nearby, and they spent all winter in those

peaceful quarters, untroubled by the heat or storms.

When Caesar, satiated with slaughter, left Pharsalia,

he ignored all other projects and turned his attention

wholly to Pompey. He followed his scattered traces

on land in vain, until fresh report directed him to sea.

He sailed the Thracian strait, by Hero’s tower, through

the narrows made famous by those lovers, the gloomy

shores where Helle, Nephele’s daughter, gave her name

to the waters. No narrower stretch of water separates

Europe from Asia, though the channel’s slight by which

the Euxine divides Byzantium from Chalcedon’s oyster

beds, and Propontis bears its waters through a little strait.

An admirer of past fame, he sought out Sigeum’s sands

Simois’ stream, Rhoeteum noted for great Ajax’ grave,

and those of the many shades who owe a debt to poetry.

He walked round the ruins of Troy of glorious name,

seeking the mighty remnants of the walls Apollo raised.

Now barren woods and their rotting tree-trunks burdened

Priam’s palace, the desiccated roots clutching the temples

of the gods, Pergama wholly shrouded in thorns: the very

ruins lost. He viewed Hesione’s rock; and then Anchises’

hidden marriage-chamber in the woods; and the cavern

where Paris sat in judgement; and the place from which

the lad, Ganymede, was snatched into the heavens; and

the summit where Oenone, the naiad, lamented: a legend

attached to every stone. The stream, snaking through dry

dust, he crossed unknowingly, was Xanthus. Where he

stepped idly through rank grass, and his Phrygian guide

bade him not to tread, lay Hector’s grave. And where

scattered stones lay, with no appearance of sanctity,

the man cried: ‘Have you no respect for Zeus’ altar?’

O mighty the sacred labour of the poet! He rescues

all from fate, and grants immortality to mortal beings.

Caesar, let not your envy touch the sacred dead; for if

our Latin Muses are permitted to promise anything,

those to come will read my verse, and read of you,

and our Pharsalia shall live on, as long as Homer’s

fame endures, no age condemning us to the shadows.

Book IX:987-1063 Caesar sails to Egypt

When Caesar had sated himself with those views

of the ancient past, he swiftly raised a pile of turf

as an altar, then he prayed, and not in vain, over

the flames smoking with incense: ‘You gods,

of the dead, that inhabit the ruins of Troy; you

household gods of my ancestor Aeneas which

Lavinium and Alba now protect, upon whose

altars Phrygian fire still glows; and you, image

of Pallas, famous pledge of the city’s safety,

that no man may view, in your secret shrine;

here in your ancient dwelling-place, I duly

call on you, I, the most glorious descendant

of Iulus’ race, and, as is right, burn incense.

Grant good fortune to the end of my journey,

and I will restore your nation: in gratitude

Italy will rebuild the Phrygian walls, and

a Roman Troy shall rise.’ So saying, he

re-embarked, and spread billowing sails

to a favourable wind. Driven by the gale,

eager to offset his delay at Troy, he ran

past mighty Asia Minor, leaving Rhodes

behind in the foaming waves. A westerly

never slackening the rigging, the seventh

night revealed Pharos’ flame, and Egypt.

But day had dawned and hid that nocturnal

beacon before he entered harbour, where

the port was in uproar, a confused murmur

of anxious voices, and so he kept aboard,

fearing to trust so treacherous a kingdom.

But a servant of the Pharaoh set out over

the waves, bearing a vile gift, Pompey’s

head wrapped in Egyptian linen, and first

spoke infamously commending the crime:

‘Conqueror of the world, and mightiest of

the Roman people, though you knew it not

you are now secure, your son-in-law is dead.

Pharaoh spares you the toil of battle on land

and sea, gifting the one thing lacking from

Pharsalia’s conflict. The civil war has ended

while you sailed, for we slew Pompey as he

sought to recover from the ruins of Thessaly.

We repay you, Caesar, with this great pledge;

with this death we seal our treaty with you.

Receive, without bloodshed, the Pharaonic

kingdom you sought; accept dominion over

the Nile; accept all you would have given

for Pompey’s life; believe us worthy servants

of your cause, whom fate wished to grant

such power over your son-in-law. Nor must

you think our deed worth little, that it was

something that came easily. He was our

friend of old, restoring the throne to our

Pharaoh’s banished father. What more is

there to say? You shall put a name to this

great action: ask what the world says of it.

If it is called a crime, your debt to us is all

the greater, since you did not commit it.’

So saying he uncovered Pompey’s head,

and held it out in his hands. Relaxed in death

the features of that famous countenance had

altered. Caesar did not at first reject the gift,

or avert his face; he gazed at it until he was

certain; then, accepting at last that evidence

of crime, thought it safe to play the loving

father-in-law, shedding false tears, forcing

groans from his breast, delight in his heart.

He avoided showing joy, solely in this way

denigrating his obligation to the vile tyrant,

choosing to grieve at his kinsman’s severed

head rather than own to a debt. He who with

stony face trampled the corpses of senators,

gazing dry-eyed at the aftermath of Pharsalia,

dared not deny you, alone, Magnus, his tears.

Oh, this the harshest blow of fate! Did you,

Caesar, pursue the man in impious warfare

only to weep for him at the last? Does that

bond of kinship move you now? Do your

daughter and your grandchild demand you

to grieve then? Do you think it might serve

your cause among the nations that love his

name? Perhaps, touched by envy of Ptolemy,

resentment that another held power over

the body of captive Pompey, makes you groan;

vengeance in battle lost, and your son-in-law

snatched from the clutches of his arrogant

conqueror? Whatever the motive for your

weeping, it was far removed from true grief.

Is that why you coursed over land and sea

with purpose, to ensure your kinsman was

not killed quietly? Well that death snatched

him from your jurisdiction! How deep was

the shame cruel Fortune saved Rome from;

in that you, a traitor, were prevented from

granting Magnus your pardon, while he lived!

Yet Caesar dared to utter words of deceit,

and gain credit for the sorrow in his face:

Book IX:1064-1108 Caesar feigns grief at Pompey’s death

‘You servants of the Pharaoh, remove his foul gift

from my sight; your crime does greater disservice

to Caesar than to Pompey; I am robbed of the sole

privilege of civil war, that of granting life to a man

defeated. If your Pharaoh did not hate his sister so,

I might have sent him Cleopatra’s head, returning

the kind of gift he deserves for such a one as this.

Why did his sword-blade move secretly, why thrust

his weapon into our business? Did Pharsalia’s field

grant rights to Macedonian steel? Was that my aim,

that your king should do as he wished? Shall I, who

would not allow Pompey to rule Rome with me, let

Ptolemy do so? If there is any power on earth save

Caesar’s, if any land owns to more than one master,

I will have troubled the world with civil war in vain.

I might have steered the Roman fleet from your shore;

care for my reputation prevented me, lest I were seen

to fear blood-stained Egypt rather than condemn her.

Do not think to deceive the victor: you would have

welcomed me in that manner too, and only victory

at Pharsalia ensures that my head’s not treated thus.

The risk that we ran in warfare was surely greater

than I feared: I dreaded only exile, my kinsman’s

threats, and Rome; yet the punishment for defeat

was Ptolemy’s! Nevertheless, I spare his youth,

and pardon his crime. Let the tyrant understand

that there can be no greater gift than pardon for

this killing. You must inter this great general’s

head, and not so that earth merely hides the crime:

grant incense for a fitting burial, placate his spirit,

collect his ashes strewn on the shore, and allow

his scattered remains to be re-united in the urn.

Let the dead know a kinsman is here; let his shade

hear my voice of piety and sorrow. Because he

preferred power above all to me, choosing to owe

his death to his Egyptian puppet, the world is

robbed of a joyful day, the nations have missed

our moment of reconciliation. My prayer, Pompey,

that I might lay down my weapons in success;

embrace you, asking for your former affection

and life; and, as sufficient reward for my labours,

rest content to be yours; that prayer lacked favour

with heaven. O then, in shared peace and trust,

I might have enabled you to forgive the gods

my victory, while you enabled Rome to forgive

me.’ So he said, but found none to share his

tears, nor did the onlookers believe his grief;

they left off groaning, hiding their misgivings

behind a joyful expression, and happily gazing

at the blood-stained relic; daring to do so –

O rare privilege – while Caesar mourned!


End of Book IX