The Civil War (Pharsalia)

Book IV

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

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Book IV:1-47 Caesar attacks Ilerda (Lleida) in Spain

But far off at the edge of Europe, fierce Caesar was waging war,

not with great loss of life but with warfare destined to influence

the fates of the two rivals decisively. Afranius and Petreius

were the joint leaders of Pompey’s army in Spain; of one mind,

they ruled alternately, equal in authority, sharing responsibility,

the diligent sentries guarding the ramparts honouring their

successive passwords. As well as the Roman troops they

commanded ready Asturians, nimble Vettones, and Celts,

settlers from an ancient Gallic tribe, merging their own name

to that of the Iberians, the Celtiberians. Where fertile land rises

in gentle slopes to a hill of modest height, Ilerda (Lleida) stands,

an ancient settlement. The quiet waters of the Sicoris (Segre)

flow by, not the least of European rivers, and the solid stone

arch of a bridge able to withstand winter floods spans them.

Pompey’s army occupied a steep hill nearby, while Caesar

had pitched camp on another equal height, the river flowing

between them and separating the two camps. Beyond stretch

level plains as far as the eye can see, while the fast-flowing

Cinga (Cinca) bounds the plains whose waters reach the sea

under another name, since it merges with the Hiberus (Ebro)

which gives its name to the whole country. The first days

of the war were free of bloodshed: serving only to reveal

the extent of each leaders’ forces, and their might. War

seemed loathsome; shame restrained the frenzy of battle,

a day’s respite was granted the land and the rule of law.

But as the sun sank towards night, Caesar fortified

a new site with a swiftly dug trench, while the front ranks

kept their ground, screening the place, behind the lines

of troops, and deceiving the enemy. At dawn he ordered

the men forward at speed, climbing the slopes which lay

between the site and Ilerda, those protecting the town.

Fear and shame drove the enemy to advance rapidly,

reach the slopes and occupy them. The courage

and fighting strength of Caesar’s men promised him

attainment of the ground, but the enemy relied on

actual possession. The heavily-burdened soldiers

struggled to climb the heights, the front ranks gazing

upwards, supported by the shields of those behind.

None was free to fling a weapon; each planted his

javelin again and again to secure a perilous foothold,

clutching at rocks and trees, hacking a path with his

sword, oblivious of the enemy. Seeing how risky

the position was, Caesar ordered the cavalry to advance

and wheel to the left, to shield the troops. The infantry

were quickly rescued, without pursuit; the enemy

held the slopes as their foe retreated, gaining little.

Book IV:48-120 Caesar’s camp is flooded

Such was the passage of arms; the rest of the campaign

was determined by various spells of adverse weather.

Winter constrained it with numbing cold and dry northerlies,

gripping the upper atmosphere and restricting the rainfall.

Only the mountains saw snow, while hoar frost covered

the low-lying plains, vanishing at the first glimpse of sun;

all the land towards the west hard and dry in the cloudless

winter weather. But when spring came, and Aries, the ram

from whom Helle fell, received the burning sun, and rose

before the other signs; and then, weighed once again

in unerring Libra’s balance, day gained the victory;

so the moon, retreating from the sun, and barely visible

at the new crescent, shut out the north wind, brightening

while an easterly blew, which drove the clouds westward

in blasts from Arabia, all those gathered in its own region,

all the mists the Arabs know, or Ganges exhales, all

the moisture the orient’s sun allows, all that the gale

that darkens the east impels, and all that screens India

from the sun. Day, there, was heated by a lack of clouds,

unable to release their burden of rain on the land below,

and instead carrying the moisture with them as they fled.

To north and south it was dry, while all the rainclouds

streamed towards Calpe. There where the west winds

rise, and the furthest bounds of the sky contain the sea,

the clouds, prevented from progressing, gathered into

dense masses; and the sky between earth and space

could scarcely hold the dark accumulations of mist.

Compressed beneath the heavens they flowed thickly,

the moisture condensing as rain; the lightning flashed

endlessly but was drowned in the constant downpour.

A rainbow’s broken arch spanned the sky, its spectrum

of colours dim; it seemed to drink the ocean, returning

water swiftly to the clouds, restoring that which poured

from the sky. Then the Pyrenean snows, which no sun

ever thawed, melted, the ice dissolved and the rocks

were drenched. Such a flood of water poured into every

channel, that the streams issuing from their usual founts

no longer held their banks. Now Caesar’s army afloat

on land foundered, his camp dissolved with the force

of the inundation, and the streams formed pools inside

his high ramparts. There was no way to locate cattle;

the furrows submerged the crops were ruined; the men

who sought plunder struggled over waterlogged fields,

deceived by the vanishing of tracks beneath the flood.

Now came the famine, cruel famine that follows first

in the aftermath of great disasters, the soldiers starving

with no enemy at hand, giving their little wealth, though

no spendthrifts, for a handful of grain. A plague on pale

avarice! For gold, even the starving will sell their grain.

Now even hills submerged; the rivers beneath the flood

were swallowed by the vast reaches of a single lake,

which drowned the rocks in its depths, filling the lairs

engulfing the wild creatures, its loud waters churning

with sudden eddies, and even repelling the ocean tide.

Night veiling the sky was unaware of sunrise, all

natural distinctions were lost in the endless darkness,

the dread complexion of the sky. Such are the farthest

regions of the world, in the icy zone of perpetual winter,

where no stars are visible, and the barren cold bearing

nothing only tempers the fire of the equatorial signs.

O supreme Father of the universe, and you, O Neptune,

to whom fate granted a lesser power over the ocean,

(such was the prayer) may it be your will, that one god

fills the sky with endless rain, while the other stops

the tide from ever ebbing again! Let the rivers find

no passage to the sea, but be held back by the waves!

Let the earth quake and extend the river courses, let

Rhine and Rhone flood Spanish fields! Bring down

the melted snows of the Riphaean mountains, bring

the waters of every pond and lake and stagnant marsh

throughout the world, and keep the land from civil war.

Book IV:121-156 The campaign is renewed

But Fortune, content with having troubled her favourite

a little, returned in full flow, and the gods earned pardon

with a mighty show of support, for the skies cleared,

the sun more than a match for the rain broke the dense

cloud into fleecy vapours, and the dark sky grew red

at dawn. The elements occupied their proper regions,

the heavens were free of moisture and the water that

had fallen settled to the lowest levels. Trees raised

their heads, hills rose above the flood, and valleys

grew firm again in the warmth of sunlight. As soon

as Sicoris retreating from the plains showed its banks,

osiers from hoary willows were steeped and plaited

to make coracles, covered with ox-skin, that could

carry passengers, and safely ride the swollen rivers.

So the Venetians do, to sail the flooded River Po,

and the Britons their wide estuaries; and when Nile

inundates the land, so Memphis uses parched papyrus.

Caesar’s soldiers were ferried across in such craft,

then trees were felled and quickly spanned the river,

carrying the arches far into the fields, the bridge set

distant from the river banks, for fear of its power

when in full spate. Also to prevent the Sicoris boldly

repeating its flooding, it was canalised, punished for

overflowing by having its course divided in channels.

When Petreius saw how Caesar’s destiny was carrying

all before it, he abandoned Ilerda on its heights; wary

of using existing resources, he sought dauntless tribes

in unknown regions, whom contempt for death renders

ever eager for battle, and headed for central Spain.

Caesar, seeing the hills empty and the enemy camp

deserted, told his men to arm and swim the river,

without waiting to reach the bridge or fords. They

obeyed, rushing into battle and therefore eager

for a crossing they would have feared if retreating.

Soon they dried themselves and, re-arming, marched

quickly to warm their chilled bodies, until the time

approached noon and the shadows grew shorter.

Meanwhile the cavalry harassed the enemy rear, as

the foe hesitated, uncertain whether to fight or flee.

Book IV:157-207 A temporary peace

Where a hollow valley lay between two rugged ridges

that crossed the plain, the land rose in an unbroken

range of high hills, among which a shadowy winding

trail offered a safe and hidden passage. Caesar, seeing

that the initiative would slip from his hands, if the foe

reached that gorge, and be occupied by wild tribes from

savage regions, cried: ‘Break ranks and advance, regain

the victory their flight has robbed you of; give battle

with menace, fearful though they are, let them not die

a coward’s death, but meet your swords as they retreat.’

As ordered, they overtook their enemies as they sought

to win the mountain pass. There, both sides made camp,

near each other, behind low ramparts. As gaze met gaze,

uncloaked by distance, seeing each other’s faces clearly,

the horrors of civil war were brought home. For a time,

discipline dictated silence, and they greeted friends there

with a nod of the head or a lifted sword; but as soon as

the stronger motivation of close affection weakened their

sense of duty, the men climbed their respective palisades,

and stretched out their arms in embrace. One calls a friend

by name, another greets his kinsman; shared memories

of boyhood games prompt recognition of a face, and he

who found no acquaintance opposite was no true Roman.

Their weapons were wet with tears; sighs accompanied

their embraces; and even when unstained by previous

bloodshed, they shuddered at the thought of evil actions

which if they had occurred might have involved them.

‘Fools’, conscience cried, ‘why beat your chests, groan,

and shed useless tears? Confess, you obey monstrous

orders, of your own free will! Do you so fear a leader

whom you alone make fearsome? When he sounds

the battle trumpet, close your ears to its cruel note;

refuse to advance beneath his standards, behold

the fury of civil war will end in an instant, Caesar,

a private citizen, will again befriend his son-in-law.

Harmony, embrace us now in your eternal bond,

be near us, you saviour of the world and all things,

you bearer of sacred universal love! At this moment,

our time can influence the future mightily, the cloak

of evil is removed, the guilty nation has no excuse

for these enemies recognise themselves as kinsmen.

Cursed Fortune, whose malignant power employs

this brief respite to render great evil even greater!

There was peace, and enemies mingled together,

wandering through either camp; they ate together

in harmony, seated on the hard ground, and shared

the flowing wine; fire burned on beds of turf, where

lying side by side unsleeping they told tales of war

all night, where they first fought, and how fiercely

they had flung the javelin. But in boasting of their

bravery, or in challenging the truth of others’ tales,

their friendship was strengthened, as fate designed,

such that the coming evil seemed worse by contrast.

For Petreius, learning of the fraternisation, seeing

his camp infiltrated, infamously armed his slaves.

Book IV:208-253 Petreius recalls his men to duty

Surrounded by this force he drove the unarmed enemy

soldiers from the camp, separating friends with swords,

and shattering the peace with a fierce letting of blood,

his ferocious anger prompting a speech to arouse war:

‘Soldiers, neglectful of your country, oblivious to your

standards, if you, in the Senate’s cause, will not return

as liberators, you should at least fight and be conquered.

With swords in your hands, the outcome still uncertain,

and blood in your veins to shed, will you serve a leader

and carry standards you once opposed? Must Caesar

be implored not to treat you as he does his other foes?

Have you begged quarter for us generals too? Our lives

will never be the prize, the payment for foul treason!

It is not our lives we fight for in this civil war. Shall we

be dragged to captivity in the name of a false peace?

Men do not burrow deep to mine our iron ore, cities

are not fortified with walls, spirited chargers are not

bred for battle, nor are fleets launched and turreted

vessels sent out on the seas, so that we can barter

freedom for peace. My enemies hold true to oaths

they swore, binding them to commit evil crimes;

yet your allegiance is less firm, no doubt because,

soldiers in a just cause, you might hope for pardon!

Alas that honour should meet so vile an end! Our

leader, Pompey, ignorant of his fate as yet, raises

armies through the world, rouses kings who rule

at the earth’s end, yet this peace of ours perhaps

may already have thrown away his life.’ His words

stunned them and re-awakened their sinful ardour.

Likewise wild beasts that have lost their woodland

habits, growing tame in close captivity, relinquish

their cruel aspect and learn to submit to man; yet

if their thirst is quenched with blood their furious

rage returns, the taste reminding them of their past

life, their throats swelling, and their anger boiling,

their frightened keeper scarcely winning free. So

those soldiers set their hands to every guilty action,

and the horrors that Fortune, to the gods’ discredit,

might have enacted in the blind obscurity of battle,

loyalty perpetrated here. Among the couches, amid

the tables, they pierced the breasts they had but now

embraced, and though at first they groaned to bare

their blades, yet once the sword, that counsellor

of evil, was in their hand, they felt hatred for their

friends, striking blows that confirmed their wavering

purpose. The camp now seethed in uproar, and as if

a crime hidden was valueless, they revealed every

horror to the eyes of their officers, glorying in guilt.

Book IV:254-318 Caesar lays siege to the enemy camp

Though many of his troops were lost, Caesar recognised

the hand of heaven; he was never more fortunate, neither

in the Emathian Plain at Pharsalia, nor the sea-battle off

Phocian Marseilles, nor was Pompey’s death on Egypt’s

shores a greater triumph, for by this one act of civil war

he was seen thereafter as the leader of the nobler cause.

The enemy generals dared not allow their men, polluted

by foul bloodshed, to camp nearby, but directed their

retreat towards the walls of lofty Ilerda. Caesar’s cavalry

met them and drove them from the plain, trapping them

amongst parched hills. Caesar then sought to surround

them swiftly with a deep trench, so as to prevent the men

from reaching the river banks, or their outworks from

embracing flowing founts. When the enemy saw death

before them, their fear was changed to impetuous ardour.

Slaughtering their horses, useless to men besieged, they

were forced to abandon hopes of flight, and rushed at

the foe determined to win or die. Caesar seeing them

committed to the advance, rushing towards their deaths

at headlong speed, called to his men: ‘Stand firm a while,

restrain from meeting with the sword all those who run

towards it; let no man here lose his life; he who provokes

his foe into giving up his life, gains victory at little cost.

See these men come, despising life, holding theirs cheap,

to burden me now with their deaths; oblivious to their

wounds, they rush upon the sword, happy to shed their

blood. Their wild ardour will abate, their mad eagerness

cease, their will to die vanish.’ By thus refusing battle,

he allowed their waning threats to ebb away with the sun,

night replacing its light with her own. Deprived of that

opportunity to slay and be slain, their fire abated, their

spirits cooled. So a wounded fighter has greater courage

when wounds and pain are recent, while warm blood

lends vigour to the body, before the skin has shrunk

back across the bones; but if his opponent, knowing

his blow sunk home, holds his ground but refrains

from striking, a numbing chill gripping mind and flesh,

as congealing blood tightens the open wound, robs

the loser of his strength. Afterwards, short of water,

the enemy began digging in search of hidden springs,

and subterranean channels, using their swords as well

as iron picks and rakes to pierce the ground, sinking

wells through the earth to the depths of the moist plain.

The pallid miner after Asturian gold does not delve

as deep, leaving the light so far behind. But no sound

of hidden streams met their ears, no fresh springs

gushed from the echoing rock, no damp caves oozed

scant moisture, no gravel stirred and lifted to a thin

flowing thread. The men were hauled to the surface,

exhausted by their intense effort to mine the flint;

rendered by their search for water even less equipped

to abide the heat and drought. Nor could they eat,

and refresh their weak and weary bodies, all meat

unpalatable while hungry they cried out from thirst.

Wherever the soft soil oozed moisture they squeezed

damp clods to their mouths. Wherever stagnant pools

of black mud existed, caked with filth, men eagerly

lapped at the foul water, swallowing what they would

have balked at if assured of staying alive; like wild

beasts they sucked at the swollen udders of cows,

draining blood from the empty teats if the milk failed,

or they crushed grass and leaves to extract their sap,

or the soft pith of trees, or drank dew from twigs, or

brushed the damp from the green shoots of bushes.

Book IV:319-362 Lucius Afranius surrenders

Caesar had been free to lace with blood and bodies

of wild beasts and with deadly aconite that grows

in the rocks of Crete the Spanish streams, so that

Pompey’s soldiers drank unaware of the stratagem.

O they seem fortunate whom a cruel foe, retreating,

killed in the fields by poisoning the watercourses,

for the survivors feel their innards scorched by fire,

their mouths dry and hard, their scaled tongues coarse,

their pulse drops and their lungs starved of moisture

restrict the flow of breath, and what there is pains

their cracked palates, yet still they pant eager for

the air that hurts them. They long for rain, that rain

which lately flooded the land, gazing at idle clouds.

And to increase their torment through thirst, render

them more wretched, their camp was not pitched

above parched Meroe, on the tropic of Cancer,

where the naked Garamentes live, but, besieged

between the brimming Segre and the swift Ibro,

the thirsting army saw both rivers near at hand.

At last Pompey’s generals, defeated, yielded;

and Afranius, despairing of resistance, advised

that terms be sought, led his weakened squadrons

to the enemy camp, and stood a supplicant before

Caesar. Yet he maintained his dignity, unbroken

by disaster, with the bearing of a general though

defeated, lapsed from his former fortune through

recent evil chance, and his conscience at ease he

asked pardon: ‘If I had lost to an unworthy enemy

through fate, my own strong arm would have

guaranteed my suicide; my sole reason for begging

for my life, is that you Caesar are worthy to grant it.

We were not stirred by any partisanship; nor did we

take up arms to oppose your plans. It was civil war

that found us leaders, and we were loyal to our

former duty, while that was possible. We shall not

hinder destiny: we surrender the nations of the west

to you, and open the gateway to the east, and leave

you secure possession of the lands you leave behind.

Your victory has not been gained in blood poured

out on the field, nor by the sword wielded till arms

were weary; forgive your foes this offence alone,

that still you triumph over us. We ask little: only

rest for the exhausted, and freedom from military

service for those you let live. Consider our ranks

as prostrate on the field; your captives should not

share your triumph, warriors condemned by fate

should not join their conquerors: my army has

fulfilled its destiny, and we beg that you will not

compel the conquered to seek victory under you.’

Book IV:363-401 Pompey’s army in Spain disbands

So he spoke, and Caesar with a calm look readily agreed,

excusing them from army service and from punishment.

As soon as an appropriate peace treaty had been settled,

the men rushed down unchecked to the rivers, lay down

along the banks and muddied the streams freely. They

gulped the water steadily, in draughts that prevented

air passing to the lungs, constricting and blocking

many a throat, nor did their parching thirst soon abate,

but their craving sought still more even when the gut

was filled. Soon though, their limbs gaining strength,

the soldiers recovered. O luxury, prodigal of resources,

only satisfied by what is dear; and you, with gourmet

appetites, eager for rare foods sought by land and sea,

you who pride yourselves in feasting on delicacies,

learn how little is needed to sustain life, how little

nature herself demands. It takes no famous vintage,

sealed in the year of some long-forgotten consul,

to restore these to health; revived by pure water,

and not imbibed from gold or agate vessels; pure

flowing water and Ceres’ bread suffice mankind.

Abandoning their arms to the victor, secure now

though stripped of their defensive armour, free

from care and inoffensive, they are set at liberty

among their native townships, regretting, now

that they enjoy the gift of peace, that they ever

hurled the spear with vigorous arm, suffered

thirst, or begged the gods, wrongly, for victory.

Alas for those who still wage war! Such battles

with uncertain outcome lie ahead for the victors!

Even if Fortune, arbitrary in her favours, fails

to desert them, they must yet go on fighting,

shedding their blood everywhere, following

Caesar’s destiny. Happy these others who,

while all the world is tumbling about them,

already know the place where they may rest.

No battles will call them from their sanctuary;

no sounds of trumpets will shatter their sleep.

Their wives and babes, their simple dwellings,

their native soil not some colony, receive them.

Fortune relieves them of another burden too;

their minds are free of all allegiance: if Pompey

was their leader, Caesar grants them their lives.

They alone are the fortunate spectators of this

civil war, free of the wish for either’s success.

Book IV:402-447 Conflict in Dalmatia

The fortunes of war were not all in Caesar’s favour

daring to work against him in one instance. Where

the Adriatic waves beat against the straggling city

of Salona (Solin), where the mild Jadro runs to meet

the soft westerlies, there Gaius Antonius relying on

the warlike islanders of Curicta, who live encircled

by the Adriatic waters, was besieged in his camp

on the island’s shore, safe against attack if he could

keep famine, taker of impregnable fortresses, at bay.

The earth yielded nothing to feed the horses, golden

Ceres gave no crops, and the soldiers had stripped

the fields of grass, cropping the blades close with

their teeth, tearing dried tufts from their ramparts.

When they saw Basilus with an allied force, nearby

on the mainland, they devised a novel way to cross

the strait and join him. Unable to employ their usual

vessels, the long ships with their high sterns, they

lashed stout timbers together to carry their weight,

rafts made out of planks resting on double rows

of empty barrels linked by chains. The oarsmen

were protected against missiles against their sides

by defensive shields of wood, striking the waves

behind these, so that the rafts, carrying no sail

and without signs of flailing oars, seemed to move

mysteriously. Waiting till the tide was in full ebb

and the sands left bare by the receding flow, three

rafts were launched from the exposed shore into

the retreating waters, the leader driving onwards

through the waves, with her consorts behind her.

Each carried wooden battlements and high turrets,

nodding and menacing. Octavius, who held access

to the Adriatic, stooped short of attacking the rafts,

curbing his swift vessels until the enemy ventured

others, tempted by first success. Once they set out

on their rash attempt, he left the sea roads wide open

to encourage a second voyage. So the hunter works,

holding back the net of coloured feathers that scares

the deer with its scent, till he can pen them all, or

quieting the noise of the swift Molossian hounds,

leashing the dogs of Crete and Sparta, till he has set

his stakes and nets, leaving one hound alone to range

the ground, it puzzling out the scent and only barking

when the prey is found, content then to point toward

the creature’s lair while tugging at the leash. Soon

more rafts were manned, and the enemy embarked

eagerly, abandoning the island, at the moment when

twilight lingering holds off night’s deeper darkness.

Book IV:448-528 An incident at sea

Now the Cilicians in Pompey’s pay, relying on their

ancient cunning, prepared to set a trap for the rafts.

They hung cables at mid-depth below the surface,

fastened to the cliffs on the Illyrian side, and allowed

them to drift with the waves. Neither of the first two

rafts were caught, but the third was held and drawn

towards the cliffs as the cable tightened. The rocks

there overhang the waves, in firm masses that seem

ever about to fall, their trees overshadowing the sea.

And there ships wrecked by the northerlies, with their

crews of drowned sailors, were often carried by the tide,

to be swallowed by hidden caves.: and yet whenever

the tide ebbed from those caves, the waters beneath

would cast out their prey, the boiling waves outdoing

the fury of Sicilian Charybdis. Here the raft floated,

weighed down with Caesar’s men from Opitergium,

surrounded by enemy ships loosed from their moorings,

while others of their foes covered the cliffs and shore.

Vulteius the raft’s commander tried in vain to cut free

from the cables visible below the water, until at last

he called on his men to fight without hope of escape,

or even of knowing on which side to await attack.

Yet even so courage did all that courage can do

when at a disadvantage, and a fight began between

the thousands who swarmed around the stalled raft

and those on board, numbering less than six hundred.

As twilight ebbed with the shadows of night, the fight

ended, and the ensuing darkness brought a brief truce.

Vulteius steadied his men, fearful of death’s approach,

with this noble speech: ‘Soldiers, use this brief space

of time, this little interval of darkness, to choose your

path, in extremity. No instant is too short for a man

to kill himself; suicide is no less glorious when death

at another’s hand approaches. Every man’s span of life

being uncertain, it is as well for the mind to forfeit here

the mere moment of time that remains to you as long

years of life you had hoped for, seeking death by your

own actions: for no man wishes for death involuntarily.

Flight is not an option, our countrymen surround us

eager to take our lives: choose death and lose all fear:

let each man make whatever cannot be avoided his aim.

Yet we are not forced to die in the blind mist of battle,

where army’s own missiles cloak chaos with darkness.

When piles of corpses heap the field, each death is lost

in the common disaster, courage obscured and wasted.

But the gods have set us here, visible to friend and foe

alike, the sea our witness, the island, its highest cliffs;

and the two sides on opposing headlands will look on.

Fate intends, by our deaths, a memorable and glorious

example for posterity. Our company might have shown

our loyalty and devotion in battle, and beyond all others.

Yet though we know it is all too little for Caesar’s men

to fall on their swords in his cause, hemmed in as we are

we can grant him no greater pledge of our great devotion.

Fate has greatly limited our glory, in begrudging to hold

us captive with our old men and our sons, but let the foe

learn that we are unconquerable, let them fear the fierce

courage that embraces death; and rejoice that no more

of our rafts are held. They will tempt us now with offers

of a truce, try dishonourably to bribe us with our lives.

Let them promise pardons, let them foster such hopes,

so that our peerless deaths might gain greater glory,

and they not think us desperate when hot steel pierces.

It takes a great deed of courage for Caesar, who loses

thousands, to call a mere handful of lives a vast loss.

If Fate now allowed our retreat and loosed me from

her grasp, I should refuse to turn my back on this.

Life is behind me, comrades, and I am driven by

thoughts of death’s approach as by deep passion.

Only those who touch it’s threshold know death

is a blessing; the gods hide it from those destined

to survive, that they might go on living.’ His words

filled the soldiers’ swelling hearts with noble ardour.

Before his speech they had gazed weeping at the stars

trembling as the pole of the Wain circled above them,

but now their thoughts firm, filled with his exhortation,

they longed for dawn. Nor did the stars overhead take

long to vanish, for the sun was leaving Gemini, his track

near its highest inclination, entering the sign of Cancer;

while Sagittarius the Archer ruled brief brooding night.

Book IV:529-581 Vulteius and his men commit suicide

Dawn revealed Pompey’s Histrians stationed on the cliffs,

and his fierce Liburnians with the Greek fleet on the sea.

They delayed attack, trying to obtain their foe’s surrender,

thinking a death postponed might make life seem sweeter

to those on the trapped raft. But the loyal troops resisted:

disdain for survival granting courage, committed to suicide,

they were indifferent to the outcome of the fight: no noise

of battle could dissuade them from their resolution: their

small band, prepared for the worst, withstood the countless

enemies who attacked them together from land and sea,

so great is a resolve inspired by the prospect of death.

When they thought enough blood had been shed in battle,

they turned their force against themselves. First Vulteius

their captain, bared his throat and summoned death: ‘Where

is the soldier worthy to take my blood, who shall truly prove

his wish for death by killing me?’ Before he could speak

again, his body was pierced by a host of swords, but while

thanking all, in his gratitude he slew in dying him to whom

he owed the first wound. The others then met together, there

the horror of civil war was enacted in full by a single party.

So Theban warriors rose from the seed that Cadmus sowed,

and were likewise slain by their kin, a dismal presage of

the royal Theban brothers. So, by the Phasis, the offspring

of Earth, who sprang from the teeth of the unsleeping dragon,

drenched the long furrows in each other’s blood, magic spells

filling them with fury, Medea herself appalled by that crime

the first wrought by her untried herbs. So these soldiers died,

on oath to destroy each other; their own death being the least

their courage asked: as they dealt the fatal wound so they

incurred it, at the same moment, and no right arm failed them

though it struck in death. Nor were their wounds all owing

to a sword-blow; they drove their own chests against the steel,

throats meeting the approach of the blade. Though bloody fate

set brother against brother, son against father, their arms never

hesitated, driving home the swords with all their power. Only

the failure to strike a second blow gave proof of the slayer’s

affection. Half-dead, men dragged themselves along the planks

and drenched the sea with blood. They gloried in disdain for

the light of life, eyeing the victors with scornful gaze, as death

approached. When the raft was piled high with their corpses,

the victors set fire to that funeral pyre, the generals amazed

at their readiness to die for their leader they so clearly prized.

Fame, that travels the wide earth, never voiced more loudly

the glory of any death at sea. Yet even after the example set

by such heroes, nations of cowards still do not comprehend

how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide; so the tyrant’s

power is feared, freedom is constrained by savage weapons,

while all remain ignorant that the sword is there to deliver

every man from slavery. O, that death were only granted

to the brave, the coward denied a swift release from life!

Book IV:582-660 The myth of Hercules and Antaeus

The flames of war burned no less fiercely in Libya, then,

for bold Curio’s fleet had set sail from the coast of Sicily,

and a gentle northerly filled the sails, till he approached

a noted anchorage on the Libyan coast between Cape Bon

and the ruins of Carthage. He pitched his first camp some

distance from the breaking waves, where the Bagrada river

(the Medjerda) carves its slow channel through thirsty sands.

From there he marched to the rocky prominence, hollowed

out on every side, that tradition rightly calls Antaeus’ realm.

When Curio sought to learn the source of the ancient name,

a rough countryman told him the tale generations had told:

even after the Giants were born of her, Earth was capable

of childbearing, producing a dread offspring in a cave

in Libya, with more cause to boast of him than of Typhon,

Tityos or fierce Briareus, and to the gods above it seemed

a mercy she had not born him before that revolt at Phlegra.

She added to her child’s vast strength, granting him the gift

that when his limbs touched his mother earth, all weariness

would vanish and their strength would be renewed. The cave

there was his home; and men said he hid beneath the cliffs

above, and ate the flesh of the lions he hunted. When he slept,

his bed was not branches and the pelts of wild beasts, rather

he lay there on the bare ground and so refreshed his strength.

He killed the farmers in the Libyan fields, and slew strangers

the sea brought ashore; and had long found his mother’s aid

unnecessary, not needing the aid that touching the earth gave,

since he proved so strong no one could lift him from his feet.

The hero Hercules was clearing the land and sea of monsters

when reports of this bloody ogre drew him to Libya’s shores.

Challenging Antaeus, Hercules threw the Nemean lion’s skin

to the ground, while Antaeus matched it with a Libyan lion’s.

The hero, in the manner of Olympian wrestlers drenched his

limbs with oil; Antaeus, not content with feet alone touching

his mother earth, poured warm sand over his limbs to aid him.

They locked hands and twined their arms in a close embrace;

in vain, exerting powerful force, each tried to bow the other’s

neck, but both remained unbent with steady gaze, marvelling

to find their equal. Hercules slowly wore down his opponent,

not wishing to exert his full strength so early in the contest;

and soon Antaeus was left gasping, cold sweat pouring from

his tiring body. The neck bowed, the frame was dragged down,

the legs staggered, as Hercules struck his flanks with his fists.

Then the stronger grasped his foe’s bending back, gripped

the loins and squeezed the waist tight, his own legs thrusting

the other’s apart, till he laid him full length on the ground.

Yet as the dry soil swiftly drank his sweat, fresh blood filled

Antaeus’ veins, his muscles swelled, his body strengthened,

and he loosened Hercules’ grip by exerting renewed powers.

The latter was astonished by such resilience: he himself had

felt, all unknowing, less fear of the Hydra by Inachus’ flow,

when her snake-heads renewed after being severed. These

opponents were well-matched, though Antaeus fought with

the power of mother earth, Hercules his own strength alone.

Never was his cruel stepmother, Hera, more hopeful of his

defeat, seeing his body weary with the toil, shoulders bowed,

those shoulders that once supported the sky without effort.

Hercules grappled once more with his foe till he wearied;

but Antaeus willingly fell to earth without waiting for his

opponent’s clasp, and rose again filled with added strength.

All the vital powers of the earth refreshed his tired limbs;

Earth herself labouring to aid in her son’s wrestling match.

Seeing at last how his enemy was helped by contact with

his mother earth, Hercules cried: ‘I must keep you upright,

I’ll not allow you to lie down, or entrust you to the soil;

here you will stay locked in my embrace; and if you fall,

Antaeus, you’ll fall on me!’ So saying, Hercules lifted

the giant high as he tried to touch the ground, so Earth

could not strengthen her dying son’s frame with her own.

Hercules, between the two, clasped the constricted chest

already growing cold, long denying his foe the ground.

Hence that region took its name, preserved by tradition

which values the proud past. But Scipio brought greater

fame to those heights, when he drove Hannibal there

from the cities of Latium; camping there on reaching

the Libyan shore. There are the ruins of his ancient

ramparts; the fields that victorious Roman occupied.

Book IV:661-714 Pompey’s African army under Varus

Those parts of Africa which had yielded to Roman arms

were commanded at that time by Varus; and though he

relied on troops from Latium, he summoned the forces

of King Juba from every place, from the Libyan tribes,

and those from the furthest parts who followed the king.

There was no more extensive realm on earth; its width

bounded to the west by Atlas near Gades, on the east

by Ammon, bordering Syrtes; and lengthwise the fiery

regions of his huge kingdom separated the torrid zones

from the northern sea. The men reflected that vast space;

a host of tribes following the king; Autololes, wandering

Numidians, and alert Gaetulians, who ride bare-backed;

then Moors dark as Indians, ragged Nasamonians, swift

Marmaridae, and sun-burned Garamantes; the Mazaces

hurling quivering javelins to match a Parthian’s arrows,

and Massylians who also ride bare-backed and employ

a light whip to guide their horses, unbroken to the bit;

African hunters too, who stray through deserted villages,

and placing little faith in the spear, strangle fierce lions

with lengths of their robes. Juba was not roused to war

simply by his allegiance, but yielded to personal anger

too, since Curio, in the year when he was tribune, when

he offended heaven and earth, had tried to use the law

to rob Juba of his ancestral throne, wishing to seize Africa

from its ruler and at the same time set up a king in Rome.

Juba, remembering this grievance, considered civil war

was his opportunity for revenge on rescuing his crown,

and Curio was now alarmed by the rumour of the king’s

involvement, knowing his troops had not at first rallied

to Caesar’s side. No veterans, so, untested on the Rhine,

they had surrendered the citadel of Corfinium; disloyal

to Pompey’s cause then, they were distrusted by Curio

now, as men who thought it fine to fight for either side.

So when Curio saw the enervation produced by fear,

the dereliction that left the ramparts unwatched at night,

troubled in mind, he spoke these thoughts to himself:

‘Daring conceals the greatest fear; I will take the field

first. Let my soldiers, while they are still mine, descend

to the plain; inactivity always lead to wavering. Let me

by action rob of them the power to foment a plan; once

the sword is grasped, fatal passions rise, and the helm

hiding all blushes who thinks to compare their leaders

and weigh their causes? Each favours the side where

he stands. So those presented at the gladiatorial shows

in the arena, are not fed by some deep-seated anger,

they merely hate whoever is set against them.’ Then

Curio deployed his troops on the open plain, while

the gods of war seemed to welcome him, although

intending only to betray him to future ruin; for now

he drove Varus from the field, decimating his army

who fled shamefully, halting only on reaching camp.

Book IV:715-787 Juba’s army defeats Curio

Now when Juba heard of Varus’ poor showing in battle,

He rejoiced that the glory of the campaign was reserved

for him. He marched swiftly and secretly, avoiding his

movement being known by enforcing silence, his only

fear lest his incautious enemy might be fearful of him.

Sabbura, second to the king in command of the army,

was dispatched with a small force to challenge the foe

and tempt them to fight. He was to pretend to lead out

the whole army, and simulate the main attack, while

the king held back a larger force, in a deep ravine.

So the more cunning Egyptian mongoose uses his tail

to deceive the snake, rousing the reptile to anger with

its flickering shadow, the snake striking vainly at the air,

till the creature, holding his head aslant, grips the throat,

and safely bites there, far enough from the deadly venom;

until a stream of poison flows from the thwarted fangs.

Fortune favoured Juba’s deceit, and bold Curio let his

cavalry roam the plain at night, ranging far and wide

through unfamiliar country, without being able to gauge

the enemy’s hidden strength. At the first breath of dawn

he sent out his infantry, though warned again and again

to beware of Libyan cunning, and how Punic warfare

was ever filled with guile. The doom of approaching

death had given the general over to destruction; now

civil war was claiming one who’d aided its inception.

He had led his men by a perilous path over the steep

rocks and cliffs, till the enemy could be seen far off,

from the heights. The foe with native cunning, held

off a while, till Curio should leave the hills and trust

his army to defile over the open plain. He, unaware

of their hidden plans, and thinking them in retreat,

marched his men down to the fields, as if victorious.

Soon the stratagem was revealed, as the Numidian

light cavalry gained the slopes and then surrounded

the Romans on every side, stunning the soldiers and

their leader alike: the coward did not seek to flee nor

the brave man to fight. For there the horses, un-roused

by the trumpet’s blare, did not champ the bit or scatter

stones with their stamping hooves, mane floating, ears

erect, or chafe at the restraint and shift their ground

with a clatter, till the bowed head sinks, the limbs reek

with sweat, the tongue protrudes, the mouth coarse

and dry, the lungs panting roughly breath labouring

as the spent flanks work, and froth cakes and dries

on the blood-stained bit. They refused to move a step,

though urged on by whips and blows, and the force

of continual spurring to drive them on; though no man

could profit there by conquering his mount’s resistance,

for no attack was possible, any charge would only carry

the rider nearer the foe, to offer a clear mark for a spear.

But as soon as the African skirmishers launched their

steeds at them, the plain shook with that trampling,

the soil was ploughed, and a pillar of dust rose, huge

as that whirled by a Thracian storm, veiling the sky

with its cloud and bringing darkness. Now the sad

doom of war bore down on the Roman infantrymen.

the issue never in doubt, this not even war’s lottery,

for every moment of conflict was filled with death:

with no possibility of attack or closing with the foe.

So the soldiers, surrounded on every side, fell to

sideways thrusts from close quarters, as well as to

spears flung from a distance, doomed by the bloody

wounds inflicted by a hail of missiles and the sheer

weight of steel. The vast army was driven into a tiny

space, and any man crawling in fear among that host

could barely move without hurt from his comrades’

swords, the crush growing greater as the front ranks

retreated, diminishing the circle. Without space even

to deploy their weapons, the crowd of soldiers were

squeezed ever tighter, armour dented by the pressure.

The conquering Moors could scarcely enjoy a clear

view of the victory fate granted them, unable to see

collapsing limbs, bodies striking the ground, streams

of blood, as the dead were held upright by the throng.

Book IV:788-824 The spectre of corruption

Destiny should have recalled to life the hated ghost

of dread Carthage to joy in such sacrificial slaughter;

so that blood-drenched Hannibal and the Punic dead

might welcome so terrible an expiation. What outrage,

you gods, that Pompey’s cause and the Senates’ wish

should be furthered by Roman dead on Libya’s soil.

Let Africa at least conquer us for her own foul ends!

Curio, seeing the ranks destroyed, the dust laid by

the blood revealing that dreadful slaughter, did not

stoop to thoughts of flight or surviving such defeat

but eager to face death, brave with the courage of

despair, himself died among the corpses of his men.

What good was it now to him to have raised that stir

on the Rostrum, in the tribunes’ stronghold the Forum,

where he raised the standard of the people, and from

which he roused the nations to arms? What good now

that he usurped the Senate’s rights and called on

Pompey and Caesar, Pompey’s father-in-law, to meet

in war? There he lay, as the two generals approached

the fatal field of Pharsalia, that spectacle of civil war

denied him. Such is the penalty of blood and steel,

you great ones exact on your wretched country; so

death atones for conflict. How fortunate were Rome,

how happy her citizens, if the gods were as careful

to preserve her freedom as they are to avenge its loss.

Behold, the unburied corpse of Curio, noble carrion,

feeds the Libyan vultures. And yet it would be wrong

to deny those deeds of his preserved from time’s

decay by their own worth: we should grant praise

to what in his life deserved it, for Rome never bore

a man of such great promise, nor one to whom while

he trod the true path, the constitution itself owed more.

But the corruption of our age proved fatal to the State,

ambition, luxury, the vast power of wealth, sweeping

away in their adverse currents, the frail foundations

on which Curio’s principles rested. When he yielded

to Caesar’s gold, to the proceeds of Gaul, his change

of stance swayed the scales of history. Though mighty

Sulla, bold Marius, bloodstained Cinna, all Caesar’s

line won the power to use the blade to cut our throats,

to which of them was granted privilege so great as to

enact it? They only bought their country Curio sold it!

End of Book IV